Britannia in peril – an extract from an epic

Brazen Head Poetry Editor LIAM GUILAR is writing a Legendary history of Britain. Chapter One will appear in Long Poem Magazine in June 2021. This is Chapter Two from the story of Vortigern; Chapter Three will appear in the Summer issue. Further details about the Legendary history can be found at

The story so far

In the fifth century, the Roman province of Britannia is now isolated from Europe. A combination of external threats, internal squabbling and two botched coups has left the Province on the verge of ruin.

But it was not only fornication that characterised this time,

but all the vices to which human nature abandons itself:

The people were abandoned by the Romans,

then led astray by vanity and error into a trackless place.

After Gildas, De Excidio, etc. para 20-21

Chapter Two – A Man of Heart?

A Royal Funeral 

…and the rain began to fall

on the polished armour of the honour guard

ornate, ceremonial and useless.

The wind mangling the bishop’s words

threatened to drag the flame from the torches

before they were touched to the pyre.

Vortigern in the place of honour.

You’re looking at the wrong man.

That shining burnished dazzle

is Adolf, Earl of Gloucester.

Breastplate’s modelled on a statue of Augustus

though which campaigns he’s fought in is a mystery.

He’s Magister Militum material.

Just ask him when you’ve got an hour or two.

Thinks his red cloak should be purple

and doesn’t care who knows.

He’d climb a dung heap

to crow above the competition

and call his stinking pile a kingdom

so he could call himself a king.

Vortigern the thin, the grey fox,

stands beside him. Primes inter pares.

Official speak to smooth the ragged fact

that nobody’s in charge.

They say that once this party’s over

the Vicarius will appoint his successor.

Look at the corpse of the King on the piled wood.

The senators in their windblown finest,

the priests and bishops, the civilian crowd

waiting expectantly for the spectacle.

Brigantes, Atrebates, Cats,

still scratching at old tribal sores.

You’d think four centuries of Pax Romana

would have softened the edges.

So you know we’re in for it my friend

the depth and spread and stink of it

when they’re so scared

they put aside their cherished

self-defining hatreds

and try to work together.

Vortigern framed the elegy he’d deliver,

had anyone asked, and honesty were possible.

Let us now praise Constance the King

Ruler of Britain, Father to us all.

Before we light his funeral pyre

before the flames consume the corpse

let us rehearse his virtues:

Son of a murdered usurper,

dim-witted in council, lacking in wisdom

useless in battle, cowering behind a shield

he could barely lift.

When his father was assassinated

the council ripped him from the monastery

because he was a Descendant of Brutus,

last of the Trojans, ‘legitimate rulers of Britannia’.

Not caring that he was indifferent to the law,

despising the church, a drunkard at the feast,

a sly despoiler of other men’s women:

Incompetent, untrustworthy, dead.

His much younger brothers

bundled to Gaul

where their mother will school them

in the arts of resentment.

Now those old men facing the pyre,

will preside over the death throes of Britannia.

These are the Good Old Days

(Name your drug of choice,

power, land, office, sex,

before the evening’s out

someone will make an offer.)

After the incense and the ritual incantations,

after the prayers and the sermonising,

after the God of Love has been

importuned for military victory,

a party to celebrate these coming men:

friends to drink to their success

who’d known them all their lives

although they’d never met, 

hoping to be remembered, hinting at

a son or protégé who might serve

in a minor capacity on their staff.

Then daughters, decorous and decorative,

well-briefed and drilled for the engagement.

Gloucester, good looking, single,

with the gift of the gab,

a tall figure circled by adoring females

pressing him with their attractions

while Vortigern is steered towards a corner

where members of the council

discoursed upon Britannia’s future. 

These old men, hungering for clues,

competing for his gratitude,

or the revelation of a weakness.

(Name your poison, power, titles, office, sex,

if it’s too embarrassing, just hint at it,

someone, with a mainline to the source,

will make an offer before the evening’s out.)

They want to be his friend

despite their previous contempt. 

Confident enough for hints, innuendo.

He’s not looking well, our aging leader.

The times do need a younger man.

Has a successor been appointed? No?

Walk around inside the pauses

and see the possibilities.

Implications dangling bait

for conspiracy or betrayal.

That’s not what I meant at all…

The council, the council must expand.

Of course, become inclusive, reach out

beyond the city walls, reflect the tribal

distribution, equality of representation?

We’ll need a leader everyone can trust

That rules out the Brigantes. And the Cats.

And the army? An imbalance in the leadership

to be addressed…Taken aside by senators,

passed around in a game of confidential whispers.

I’ve been watching your career with interest

please don’t misunderstand of course we

The Brigantes, after all I was only joking.

Men who would have lost their lunch

at the thought of living in a hut

now sought security, identity, community,

in a rediscovered tribal heritage

they were busily creating for themselves

made attractive by ignorance and nostalgia.

As though ‘culture’ was a buried hoard

that could be excavated, reused untarnished

not made irrelevant by time.

Their bad jokes advance scouts of a civil war.

What do you call fifty drowned Brigantes?

A good start? One hundred Saxons? Not enough.

Soon they’d rediscover druid lore.

invoking hailstorms against their enemies.

There’d be rumours of strange rituals

in forest clearings, and murders for the right

to put on silly clothes and be ‘Archdruid’.

Men protective of their privileges

their rank, their wealth, their family histories,

so proud of their rhetorical skills,

how they were Romans first and Britons second.

Soon they’d be daubing themselves

and trading their sophistication for survival.

Lamps were lit, slaves ghosting between the diners.

Forced female laughter, twining around Gloucester’s voice,

erupted arrhythmically from the other corner of the room.

Vortigern was wondering how long he had to stay

until an older woman at his elbow said:

‘As if any of them cared.

Did they not see the empty streets?

The ruined houses?

We’ll all be dead within the year

and still they play the same old games,

betting long odds on a future

that ceased to exist before most of us were born.

I’ve heard you read?  Do you study Caesar’s wars?

take notes on Onasander? Who’s your favourite author?’


The most accomplished actress

can be startled into honesty.

The Art of Love? She’s too surprised

to hide her disbelief.

Freed of obligations by the insult,

he laughs at her reaction.

‘’The Metamorphosis. A poem for our times.’

‘Everything changes, nothing stays the same’

‘So much changes; so little stays the same.

More accurate; less memorable.’

Next morning there would be a slave

outside his lodgings with a scroll:

or a rare copy of his favourite text

left discreetly on a table.

Name your poison?

He had nothing she could want.

They chatted about literature,

two educated diners waiting for Ovid 

to come posturing through the doors

and scandalise the rich and bored

four hundred years too late.

‘At least’, she said, before she left,

‘one can choose how and when to die.’

After the ladies and the elderly retired

someone produced ‘the girls’:

courtesans who had been paid

or lesser daughters and more desperate wives.

These two men were poised

before the ladder’s upper rung.

When Survival’s on the auction block

you’ll bid with what you’ve got

even if your daughter’s splendid tits

might be your only asset,

hoping they’d be remembered

if one of these two men succeed.

The evening blurring into heaving flesh

scenes for a fresco on a wall in hell:

two prelates spit-roasting a German slave

the girl’s blonde hair incongruous

against the bishop’s bony knees.

A pretty face, well-practised,

In the amatory arts,

her manoeuvres mindlessly

but expertly performed. 

The Matron’s words:

‘I will not watch my daughters

whore themselves to the barbarians.’

She’d call it family politics

and therefore no lost dignity

if she pimped them to a Latin speaker on the rise?

‘One can at least choose how and when to die.’ 

All evening she had sought for an analogy, 

as though precision would validate her suicide.

The lights had faded, the room

a roiling sludge of limbs.

In the foul smoke of oil lamps

a different thinner face,

dark curls plastered to her forehead.

Shut eyed, languid, sinuous,

movements stuttering to her own satisfaction.

Her final version: ‘We’re players

who turn up to find the theatre

has burnt down, and no one’s left

to watch our well-rehearsed performance.’

He gathered up his clothes

stepped his way towards the door.

The bodies on the floor moved fitfully,

scum on the edges of a stagnant pool

shrugging as the ripples died.

Stepped out into the clarity of early morning.

He would not remember them.

There were far too many dead

already begging his attention.

Vortigern in London

The past’s a broken mirror

making the present looked deformed;

the crook backed limping child

of disappointed parents.

The age of iron rusted out,

our age of stone is almost gone.

Now comes an age of wood

where everything can splinter, rot or burn.

The horizon’s clear of smoke,

nor dotted by wheeling carrion.

But the city is dying into itself.

Here there was noisy spectacle.

Stone humanised by speech

now stone without story

is simply broken stone.

Your ancestors’ most sacred site,

or random spillage of disjointed rock.

This coin he’d rescued from the mud,

portrait erased; inscription illegible.

Behind him reeking tidal mud.

The wall he stands on killed the port.

Where his grandmother played

burnt timbers, blackened roofs.

The cart tracks overgrown.

This is what time will achieve

when no one bends a back against it.

Late in this afternoon. A merchant ship

backlit by the golden river,

the slow drift of it at odds

with the frantic scurry of the crew.

The bridge has been maintained

but there are few ships on the Thames.

Few traders skirting down the coast,

fewer coming from the continent.

The evening is turning cold,

the city shrunken, huddled

against its inevitable night.

To his left on the hill,

the amphitheatre’s a piece of wall,

water glinting in the ponds

filling the robbed-out pits

between the piles of weed grown rubble.

There have been bad times before.

But the danger was no longer out there, beyond the walls.

It was in the civil men and women pretending

to be outraged by the new graffiti:

‘Romani non Germani!  Britanni non Barbari!’

As though the idiots who daubed those words

didn’t have at least one grandparent

born somewhere in the empire’s furthest reaches.

Aurelius and Uther, fled to Brittany

after their father then their eldest brother

botched their coup, now proclaiming

they could trace their bloodline back to Brutus.

A standard move to add legitimacy and lustre

to a power addicted family on the make.

Ironic given Brutus was a Trojan immigrant

who slaughtered the indigenous inhabitants.

But when did logic play a winning hand in an election?

When a man like Constantine, caught in his lies,

shrugged and claimed the words he’d used

meant only what he wanted them to mean,

then law became impossible, and titles empty.

The steady rumble that replaced the traffic noise was fear.

Not just fear of incomers and raiders

fear of people who had once been neighbours

and were now ‘others’ to be hated.

Any other, anyone who was not a friend

and trust in friend and family was rotting

because when incompetence and talent

are equally dangerous, look to yourself.

One day he wouldn’t hear the assassin

or see the bowmen hiding on a roof

but he has heard Adolf of Gloucester,

coming along the wall.

Count of the Saxon shore.

Man Most Likely to Succeed.

Gloucester coughs, speaks.

‘He’ll see us now.’

It’s meant to be affable,

drinking buddy confidante.

‘What do you think he wants?’

Vortigern shrugs.

Rude or reticent, it’s hard to tell.

He’s wondering why here?

The roads still spin out across the country

but it’s a long way from the danger zones.

An uncharacteristic nostalgia?

Or a final gesture of farewell?

No one alive remembered the Vicarius

in the days of his youth

His parties were notorious

for excessive decadence.

Perhaps that was nostalgia

for another fabricated past,

the court of Caligula and Nero

when any vice was possible

‘Why not’ sufficient reason

and ‘no’ was not an option.

He is dying without an heir.

He has outlasted Constantine and Constance

and sent the Boys to brood upon their rocky headland.

Word is, he’s going to choose.

Why else call the two contenders

for a private meeting?

Cain and Abel taking their offerings to God.

And we know how badly that turned out.

If you define your progress

by the titles you accumulate;

you measure your success

by your graded movement

along a string of words.

What makes them more

than complicated echolalias,

meaningless as infant babble?

Count of the Saxon Shore,

Magister Militium, Consul,

Heir-Apparent, King?

Vortigern, if pushed, defines success

as battles won, problems solved, lessons learnt,

might have asked ‘Heir to what?’

40 emperors in a hundred years

God for a month, then erased

like the portrait on the coin.

Council members shoaling from the building

form self-important, self-regarding groups

who nod to both the soldiers as they pass.

Overseers of the death of meaning,

Peddlers of cancerous euphemisms,

revelling in the endless crisis of definition

that passes for meaningful debate.

Still busy fighting over granddad’s privileges.

Pay attention now and watch how they react,

trying to pick the winner before the dice are rolled.

Some greet Gloucester. He’s done terrible things

to earn their gratitude. But he speaks when spoken to,

can be counted on to say the right things at the right time

and pay his dues when his debts are called.  

Some acknowledge Vortigern.

See how wary they become?

He’s in no-one’s pocket.

But they all know he’s the silent go to man

when the shit’s on the fan.

In this tired world, titles and positions

are still the gifts of slack old men:

ancient relics twinkling in the wreckage

like stagnant ponds in the ruined amphitheatre

catching a fading sun.

But not this man, not Ambrosius.

He is the ghost of whatever made the Empire great:

devious, unpredictable and dangerous.

Authority regardless of his titles or his clothes.

Neither clumsy copy nor conscious fake,

the steady pilot who would face whatever storm

to bring the Ark to safety, with Noah’s indifference

to the millions drowning who were not on board.

They bend over a map of Britain.

Gloucester finding this foreplay tedious

wanting to hear the job is his

or know the details of their final test.

Ambrosius, between coughing fits.

‘We asked the Western Emperor for troops.

His Master of Horse tells us to look to ourselves.’


‘There’s rumours that the Huns are on the move.

A half a million men. Attila claims the empire

his by right of promised marriage to Honoria.

If even half that number enters Gaul

the Western Empire’s gone for good.’


‘In Britannia Secunda our writ no longer runs.

We summon them and they refuse.

North of the Humber the cities are abandoned,

two bad harvests and constant raiding have brought famine.

They have begun to squabble for the scraps.

A few armed men, a bit of wall, a tribal hill,

a man’s reach might stretch to the tribal boundary.

There’s no tax collection, so no distribution.

So many starve.’ (More coughing)


‘Picts from the north, overland 

through the ruined gates of the wall.’

Vortigern Interrupts.

‘Some of those Picts are Britons painted blue.

They think it best to hide themselves.

Soon they will forgo pretence.’

Why this might be significant

is lost on Gloucester who continues:

‘Irish slavers down the western coast.

Germanic pirates in the east and south.

If we go east, the west is burnt

If we go north they sack the coastal towns.

Strike and run and be long gone

before a rider brings the news

We need three legions, at the most.’

But no one laughs. 

They remember their grandfather’s stories.

How the forts stapled law and order onto the wilderness.

The map still shows the roads

linking fort to town, town to port,

port to other towns and other forts

on and back across immensity to Rome.

Well-kept roads loud

with merchants and soldiers

messengers, supplicants, embassies

crunching the heartbeat of empire. 


‘We are like a goodwife swatting spot fires,

growing weaker with each victory.

Either we train a national army

or recruit more mercenaries.

One will take time we do not have.

The other, when the pack’s too big

the dogs turn on their master.’

The awkward map confirms their lack of options.

Adolf: conversational, exploratory.

‘You’ve heard the rumour of the legion

that was left behind?’ Vortigern waits,

wondering what revelation is at hand.

‘If they retained their discipline

they will have instructors.’

No revelation, no solution

just the gambler’s dream of the winning card.

‘Limitanei gone native?

Somewhere along which wall?

There were so many forts and marching camps.

and even if we had the time,

we’d never find them all.’

Did the old man change his mind

or had he planned what happened next?

He turns to


‘If you think it’s worth the risk

after our envoy has delivered his messages

take whatever men you need.

Take Eagles too, and trumpets,

search out your fathers’ uniforms.

Appear to them as Roman as they were.’

Gloucester thinks he is the organised man.

A lover of maps, a maker of lists.

Now caught by this unexpected switch,

trying to impress with plans he’s making on the fly.

‘I’ll head to Lincoln, there to meet my scouts.

…we’ll take the inland road.

From York’….and Vortigern, unimpressed, lost interest. 

Three thousand men? How could they be hidden?

Garrisons along the wall had gone native,

and whether you called the garrison commander

Tribune or King made little difference.

Everyone who’d been that way

had met such useless bastardised communities.

When Gloucester left

the old man, staring at the map

keeps Vortigern waiting.

It’s easy for a map to lie.

These forts have long since ceased to function.

The roads are overgrown or braided to confusion.

This is a tidy memory of a dead world.

Not even accurate when it was made.


‘Your father-in-law was my good friend.

He and your father were both honest men:

hard working, loyal, at a time

when all those qualities were out of fashion.’

‘My father-in-law lead an army against the Empire

and left this island undefended.’

‘Your father-in-law led an army

against corruption, greed and inefficiency.

He planned to hold the Rhine and make Britannia safe.’

‘He thought he would look good in purple.’

‘Resentment is an easy hand to play for very little profit. 

Three Saxon ships have landed on Thanet.

They’re asking to be taken into service.

Go there, you’ve dealt with them before.

Use your judgement. Offer the usual conditions.

They might be more useful than a phantom legion.’

The decadence and darkness of Symbolism

Caresses, by Fernand Khnopff

Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism

Ralph Geis (ed.), Hirmer, 2020, hardback, 336pp, fully illus., €45/£42/$50

ALEXANDER ADAMS immerses himself in disquiet and dreamscapes

Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie exhibition of Belgian Symbolists, Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism, closed last month. As few were able to attend, for obvious reasons, this article will review the exhibition from the catalogue1.

Symbolism – like its precursor, Romanticism – is a school that thrived, and had its premier exponents reside, in Northern Europe. Belgium produced some of the best Symbolist art in the era 1860-1914. Artists of the new nation of Belgium in search of an identity reached back to the Flemish Primitives as a strong regional model and nation achievement.

Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland

Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland. In the same way the Arts & Crafts movement was a reaction against industrialisation, Symbolism was a reaction against rationalism.

Symbolism had two leading mediums: art and literature. The best Symbolism includes Maeterlinck, Mallarmé, Rodenbach and Verlaine, all of which followed the example of the pre-eminent spirit of Symbolist literature: Baudelaire. For artists, there was a resistance to the domination of portraiture and the preoccupations of the picture-buying middle class, as evidenced in the Salon.

What are the themes of Symbolism? Eros and Thanatos: sex/love and death. These are frequently mingled in art which plays on the fear of venereal disease (the prostitute as Death) and death and the maiden. One also finds an attraction-repulsion complex regarding death, wherein artists fear death but seek the endless slumber of oblivion. Others? Vanitas and memento mori, the supernatural, primal fear of night, dreams, the grotesque, the outcast, criminal, flanêur. Deviant social, political and sexual behaviour – often in a context heroizing or celebrating it – becomes a key feature of the Decadent Movement, a sub-group of Symbolism. States of narcolepsy, hypnosis, hysteria and ecstasy, all beyond conscious control and revealing the darker urges and hitherto hidden truths. Unorthodox approaches to religion meant that Symbolists were involved (on levels superficial and profound) with occultism, Theosophy, Satanism and Paganism and fringe sects of Catholicism. Non-Western and non-Abrahamic religions are subjects of interest.

In other words, it was a hugely diffuse movement. One can spot it easily enough, even if one has trouble pinning down all its qualities, and finds it impossible to identify a unifying principle. 

Featured artists include Félicien Rops, Jean Delville, James Ensor, George Minne, Fernand Khnopff, Xavier Mellery, Léon Spilliaert and Léon Frédéric. Prints were important (especially those of Ensor and Khnopff). Sculpture – especially polychrome stone carving and stone-metal busts – by Minne, Khnopff and Charles van der Stappen confirmed the breadth of Symbolism’s versatility. Symbolism found channels to intellectuals and public through exhibiting associations Les XX (1884-93) and La Libre Esthétique (1894-1914). Symbolist art frequently appeared in art journals and had wide currency through book illustrations, not least for Baudelaire’s books. Many public commissions required symbolism, even though the art that derived from such public schemes is a touch generic and has little to distinguish itself from standard academic and civic art.

Nocturnal interior by Xavier Mellery

William Degouve de Nuncques’s moonlit views of Venice and Bruges are atmospheric and less familiar than Spilliaert’s nocturnal street views of Ostend. Mellery’s dim nocturnal interiors of churches and house stairwells are masterful scenes of crepuscular tension. They have a dreamlike quality and beautiful finish – detailed enough to be immersive, but not so polished as to lose their liveliness of facture. The low-key disquiet of these scenes is very effective. Mellery’s public commissions include images featuring rather lumpen angels against gilded grounds, which are illustrated but excluded from the exhibition, happily.

Ensor is represented by works from his youthful and mature periods. His painterly approach marks him out from his compatriots. Ensor’s skeleton and mask pictures are very appropriate for this exhibition, even though Ensor as an artist is very mixed and individualistic. 

Khnopff is the dominant presence in this selection. His paintings and drawings are well known. Caresses (1896) is the classic oddity of Belgian Symbolism. A cheetah with a woman’s head nuzzles a male warrior, who has a female face. It is absolutely ridiculous, yet iconic. Two scenes of satanic manifestations by Rops, featuring female nudes, are complemented by prints from the suite Les Sataniques (1882). Rops’s imagination attains the perversity of a true libertine in the latter. Von Stuck’s women are generally types – with the exception of a portrait of actress Tilla Durieux in character – and perform the role of dangerous seducers. In Berlin, his work is usefully paired with that of Böcklin. Here we see him near Khnopff’s eternal woman, based on his sister. Art by peripheral artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites shows how Belgium (a geographical and intellectual hub) was connected to other countries’ art scenes. Spilliaert’s nocturnes, marines and figure pictures (as seen recently in London) are excellent and ambitious, as a whole.

Supplemented by classic Symbolist paintings by non-Belgian artists, including Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead (1883), Edvard Munch’s Jealousy (1913), Gustave Moreau’s Oedipus the Traveller (c. 1888), von Stuck’s Tilla Durieux as Circe (c. 1900), as well as paintings by Klimt and others. There are mistakes. Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Interior Strandgade 30 (1901) is a nice painting but it does not carry the charge of Mellery’s interiors, which was clearly the comparison the curators were making. A mysterious atmosphere is not enough to make a piece of art Symbolist. Belgian Antoine Wiertz’s La Belle Rosine (1847) is a foundational work and perhaps the best proto-Symbolist paintings, as haunting as anything made later.

The art selected is excellent and a tour de force of Symbolism’s highlights, as well as including lesser known artists. The sculptures – principally busts of young women as enigmatic allegorical personages – remind us of the importance of that medium in 1900. The catalogue includes short essays and many comparative illustrations, as well as full-page illustrations. The biographies of more obscure artists are welcome; there is no bibliography.

  1. This article first appeared in The Jackdaw, and is reproduced with permission. []

Of course a man can imagine what it’s like to be a woman!

GUY WALKER says we must be allowed to imagine opposites

Fitzwilliam Darcy, Mr. Knightley, Dr. Lydgate, Edward Casaubon, Will Ladislaw, and Daniel Deronda are excellent examples of well-rounded and believable male literary inventions, with a variety of qualities of character.

Portia, Beatrice, Miranda, and Viola are excellent examples of brave, intelligent, and virtuous women, while Lady Macbeth, Regan, and Goneril are equally good examples of wicked women with the added factor, in the case of Lady Macbeth, that she is even regarded with a degree of human sympathy in her wickedness. Shakespeare also wrote a poem treating the story of the rape of Lucretia, the wife of a Roman aristocrat, by the King’s son. Rembrandt, an artist famous for his paintings of marital intimacy, especially with his own wives, produced two paintings of the victim. Seldom (especially in the second version, painted in 1666) have the anguish and shame of a rape victim been more tenderly evoked or better understood.

The remarkable thing about these very well-known creations is that they were all created by writers, a playwright, and an artist of the opposite sex. To take it further, Deronda and Shylock are created by writers who were not Jewish, and Othello is created by a writer who was neither black nor a convert to Christianity from Islam.

Modern orthodoxies might, however, insist that they shouldn’t exist. In Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race, the thesis is that it is futile to speak to white people about what it is like to be black in Western democracies because the simple fact of not being black disqualifies one from the possibility of understanding black experience and, therefore, from having a worthwhile opinion. A similar logic is often applied to the proposition of men being able to understand or hold opinions about female experience.

This being the case, how did Rembrandt, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and William Shakespeare, along with a host of other successful writers, manage to pull off the trick of evoking or inventing such believable characters, thus giving the lie to such thinking? Surely it is a combination of two things.

The first thing is the intense familiarity with the opposite sex that being social and sexual animals affords us. For example, most women have one or many of the following – a father, a brother, a male sexual partner, a son, a male friend. Secondly, we have the human aptitude for imagination afforded by the unique quality of self-awareness. This means that, although not all humans do it, it is relatively easy for us to think ourselves into the skins of those with a different skin colour, religion, status, or sex. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but space travel is hugely advanced and regular shuttles have been running for a long time. It is impossible to conceive (pun intended) us without our being constantly in each other’s orbit and being the very opposite to estranged aliens or alienated strangers.

I’m all in favour of the celebratory French dictum “Vive la différence!” For the heterosexual majority, the ever-renewed joy of sexual relation resides in the mystery of the otherness of their partners and mates and the fact that the two sexes complement each other to make the complete human wholeness.

However, this can be taken too far. Men and women are from the same sexually reproducing species, and therefore, in sexual relations with each other biological imperatives often encourage lifelong pair-bonds. As a result, sexual relation is the extant bedrock of most of our society. All of this, in fact, leads to an astonishing intimacy. Our other-gendered partners could not be less alien to us as, in a sense, they are us, being part of our wholeness. One can play here with the various meanings of the verb to know. If a couple know each other in the supremely intimate biblical sense, it is pretty likely that they will also know what makes each other tick. That being the case, how could we not have a very close acquaintance with each other? By definition of what sex is, what in the world do we study, whether we like it or not, more than our sexual partners? We may say different things but, for the most part, we speak the same human languages.

Given such intense and inevitable familiarity, a small effort of imaginative sympathy is bound to give intelligent and sensitive people a very good understanding of what motivates the opposite sex. To return to race or religion, that same imaginative sympathy can be applied in exactly the same way. Before we are black or white we are human – hopefully a statement that is the very opposite of racist. When Shakespeare created Othello or wrote Shylock’s “If you prick us do we not bleed” speech, he accessed a black man’s and a Jew’s consciousness by means of a humanity he held in common with them and perfectly understood their plight. Imagination triumphed and our human sameness, rather than demographic characteristics and differences, was insisted and focused on.

You could argue that such imaginative versatility is one of the very sophisticated qualities that distinguish our civilization, one of the jewels in its crown that lead to our ability to embrace considerable diversity within its aegis. So why is it that that very excellent quality is so under attack? What is to be gained from insisting so vehemently and so angrily that there are impassable obstacles in the way at the borders leading to the foreign lands of the other sex or of other races and religions, or that common humanity is trumped by demographic differences?

Who profits and what is driving those who prefer to propagate the myths of antagonism and alienation over the obvious truths of familiarity and commonality? The attempt to drive a wedge between the sexes, on whose happy relations we literally depend for our lives, might seem like an assassination attempt on the human race.

There is a clue in the very particular way chosen to describe human history here:

The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs 

That, of course, is from the Communist Manifesto. Some people, then and now, profit from sowing discord and division (then it was class; now it is class, gender, race, and religion) because such false accounts of reality, configured entirely in terms of antagonism, exploitation, grievance, and alienation, afford opportunities and excuses to live out angry dramas and gain power based on the unjustified assumption that they are true. So habituated are we now to preferring to see things in terms of such antagonisms that we are almost dependent on the hits of outrage endorphins they give us and find it difficult to imagine weaning ourselves off them and seeing things in any other way. To see if this is true you have only to watch news programmes where virtually every item is routinely and unthinkingly configured in terms of who has been aggrieved by whom and who owes apology and compensation to whom. Division triumphs, and this is why we are no longer allowed to know each other and be friends.

A road by any other name…

DEREK TURNER takes a Brum road-trip

What’s in a name? A great deal – so Birmingham City Council hopes. In December, as part of a £500m redevelopment of the city’s blighted Perry Barr district, it revealed the names of six new roads to “reflect community and Commonwealth sport values”. Diversity Grove, Equality Road, Destiny Road, Inspire Avenue, Respect Way and Humanity Close will shortly be adorning the Birmingham A-Z, and by 2023 residents will be giving their addresses embarrassedly to Deliveroo drivers.

Potential names were submitted by “the public”, and selected by a panel led by local politicians. According to one member of the panel, there was

…an impressive submission of entries that epitomised not just the core values and culture of Perry Barr but encompassed what the area is all about.

Puzzled Brummies immediately took to social media to wonder why none of these had been chosen.

According to the competition criteria,

Street names should ideally have a local connection, which is historically, geographically or culturally relevant.

Yet these names do not obviously have a particular Birmingham connection, and arguably not much “relevance” anywhere. These are not place-names for posterity, but sermons by street-furniture. Another Birmingham thoroughfare comes irresistibly to mind – Needless Alley – and a Lincolnshire road I noticed recently, Labour-in-Vain Drove.

Insofar as Diversity, Equality, Destiny, Inspire, Respect or Humanity do have real-world application, it may not be one all Brummies can embrace unreservedly. Elevated language frequently has less elevated applications; as Tacitus, quoting a subjugated Briton, noted of his own people, “they make a desert and call it peace”.

But then the Handsworth heroine who ‘thought’ of these names is a forward-thinking missionary, and above such earthly considerations. Social media sleuthing unearths wholly expected attitudes, a humdrum hashtaggery – BLM, Corbyn, DecoloniseBrum (and Yorkshire, while she’s on the subject, which is probably quite often), Israeli “apartheid”, race quotas, Tories hating the poor. She nurses an impressive dislike of James Watts’ business partner Matthew Boulton, judging from the many photos of Boulton-related Birmingham place-names onto which some monomaniac has Blu-Tacked typed ‘recontextualisations’. This is a lady who trends. The comical bathos of her toponymy exposes a hole in the heart of 21st century Brum, and Britain. In the land of the bland, the cliché is king. David Brent’s song Equality Street was a cynical ploy, and a good joke; Equality Road is less desirable.

Names have always been surrounded with superstition. As it says in 1 Samuel, “As his name is, so is he”.  Puritans aimed for Elect-ion by giving children hortatory names – Charity, Faith, Goody, Hope, Praise-God. Their Godless heirs try to be ‘Goodies’ in their turn by naming places after equally insubstantial ideals, chasing contemporary chimeræ with the same guilty enjoyment Ranters devoted to Revelations.

The coiner and adopters of these names clearly hope that, in the words of the 1791 ballad, Song on Obtaining the Birmingham and Worcester Canal Bill, “Twill prejudice stifle, and malice strike dumb”. A Conservative councillor who chortled at the new names as “Woke Way” was chided by the panel’s chair –

It is disappointing that Cllr Morrall does not appear to share these values or respect the views of the selection panel.

Behind these primly freezing words stretches a bleakly unwelcoming England, where human nature is to remade every morning, long-standing landmarks are to be levelled, and taken-for-granted things are to be taken. It is the same world, but a different planet – an alien environment with an atmosphere of noxious gases, and governed by platitudinous correctness. This may not be The Road to Serfdom, but it does resemble a Road to Nowhere. To turn around that property market cliche, “No location, no location, no location”.

Street-naming has historically been a form of culture-cleansing, warfare by other means, as incoming regimes impose their moral and social preferences on the losers. Names like Revolution Road, or 5th October Avenue, have frequently been inflicted on harmless highways, although sometimes only temporarily. Russia has reverted to many pre-1917 names – but the Cold War’s ‘winner’ has been convulsing its cultural cartography in response to radical social shifts, frenziedly naming roads after Martin Luther King, and recently even George Floyd. Is this ‘respect’, as is claimed – or is some less edifying emotion? Perhaps even fear? Renamers often seem not quite to know what they are doing, or why.

Romans Latinised England’s infra dig Iron Age trackways, and Normans Frenchified Saxon nomenclature. Socially-uncertain Georgian and Victorian town councillors sanitised suddenly shocking streets, exemplified by the “Grape Lanes” still seen in British cities – a gloss on “Gropecuntlane”, alluding to the ancient presence of prostitutes. They also sought to sweep away what they saw as irrelevant remembrances of the past – thus the 19th century rash of Gas Streets and Station Road (plus some more pious thoroughfares, often echoing religious revivals, like Fortitude Street or Temperance Road). They delivered a shiny new modernity, lavishly bestowing the names of engineers, explorers, generals, industrialists, missionaries, monarchs and planters on newly set-out streets, valorising the villas of the newly-rich and crowning even workmen’s terraces with classical and imperial motifs. Today’s craze for naming streets after Nelson Mandela, Windrush passengers, or Guru Nanak is a case of the Empire striking back.

Birmingham has always been busily Promethean, and has attracted the worst as well as the best kinds of change. Emma’s Mrs Elton expressed a common prejudice – “One has no great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound”. Two centuries or so on, the pleasant local accent ranks at the bottom of those unofficial but oddly powerful ‘trustworthiness’ surveys that appear spasmodically in the media, which are subliminally influential on those deciding where to site call centres and other industries. This is to ignore utterly the city’s shining other side – geniuses like Joseph Priestley, the kindness of the Cadburys, the civic pride of Joseph Chamberlain, the excellence of the CBSO, the many thousands of hardworking and respectable people.

The municipality has at times been badly served by its agenda-setters and political leaders, and modern Birmingham still bears the scars of the overlong incumbency (1935-1963) of Herbert Manzoni as City Engineer and Surveyor. Manzoni bequeathed Brummies a brutalist, traffic-blasted landscape at colossal cost, and his Bull Ring and Inner Ring Road are now being superseded at even greater expense. Manzoni’s views on Brum’s old buildings betray an absolute absence of imagination –

I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past… As for future generations, I think they will be better occupied in applying their thoughts and energies to forging ahead, rather than looking backward.

His epic incomprehension is echoed in the ostentatiously ‘socially concerned’ but secretly ruthless language of ‘decolonisation’ and ‘diversification’. These six roads in question may be new roads, but they are built on the thrown-down past. They are really different kinds of demolition, and their impossibly tangled rationales are the ideological equivalents of Perry Barr’s unsavoury neighbour, Spaghetti Junction. The Brave New Birmingham Manzoni and others brought was obsolete even before it was finished – and their “forging ahead” is now our inconvenient and shameful past, for which we must all undergo a painful and undignified procedure of deconstruction, and decolonic irrigation.

As Perry Barr booms and clangs with the din of earth-movers and pile-drivers, so the British imagination is being constantly razed and rebuilt, our inner and outer landscapes a permanent building site. Perhaps one day even the proud Handsworth heroine’s streets will become embarrassments, banal vestiges of a patronising political tradition and a worn-out West no longer ‘relevant’ to the Brum of 50 years hence.  

Cornysh, Campion, Dowland: England’s sweet songsmiths

STUART MILLSON dives into old English ‘ayrs’

There is a persistent idea that English music only really got going with Parry and Elgar, but four centuries earlier William Cornysh, Thomas Campion and John Dowland had possessed national and European reputations.

William Cornysh was one of England’s leading Tudor composers, gaining the attention and then patronage of that most difficult-to-please of monarchs, King Henry VIII. There is disagreement about the date of his birth, especially as he was christened with the same name as that of his father, also a musician, who, during the late 15th century was Master of Choristers at Westminster.

Cornysh (senior) was also a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, to which institution his son gravitated and remained connected for nearly 15 years, from 1496. Choral scholars through the ages have marvelled at the treasures contained within the ancient manuscripts of sacred choral music, the Eton and Caius choirbooks, both containing important works by Cornysh; yet this is a composer who could also turn his hand to occasional and secular pieces.

Then, as now, music was considered an essential background to great events of state, and in 1520 Cornysh achieved a high-point of his career – embarking with his monarch upon a state mission across the English Channel, the famous meeting between Henry VIII and the King of France (François l) at the “Field of the Cloth of Gold”. Here, amid the ornate (but temporary) pavilions and awnings, Cornysh and his musicians of the Chapel Royal serenaded the monarchs and their entourages, whilst the latter engaged in their schemes, diplomacy, power-struggles and court gossip.

It is always remarked upon how that later 16th century composer, John Dowland, was the master of melancholia, yet in Cornysh’s Adieu, my Heartes Lust (a piece for four voices, typical of his style) we can find the essence of the yearning poet (in the English of the time), consumed for all his fretful, wintry waking hours in a state of emotional purgatory:

Adew, adew my hartis lust. / Adew, my joy and solace. / With dubyl sorrow, complain I must, / until I dye, I must, I must.

Campion’s England

Thomas Campion (1567-1620) achieved a great deal in his 53 years, despite an unpromising start: leaving Cambridge without taking a degree, and leaving Gray’s Inn without being called to the bar. However, in 1605, academic distinction eventually came, in the form of a medical degree from the University of Caen. He spent the rest of his professional life practising as a physician in London, and remaining a bachelor until his dying day.

Yet Campion remained drawn to the beating heart of his other passions, poetry and music. Writing in the shadow of the most famous poet of the time, Sir Philip Sidney, in 1602 Campion effectively produced a manifesto against “vulgarity” in poetry (Observations in the Art of English Poesie), decrying the act of “riming”. He also went on to publish a book of great interest to musicologists, a thesis on counterpoint – as well as many musical “ayrs”, masques and songs, and in 1613, to mark young Prince Henry’s death (King James I’s heir-apparent), the plangent Songs of Mourning. Campion’s work touched the spirit of the moment, in a country that was said to be distraught with tears and regret.

The beautiful part-song, Never WeatherBeaten Sail , with words by the composer, dates from the same year, and forms part of Campion’s First Book of Ayrs. For the man who decried “riming”, the piece has a beauty, simplicity – and rhyme – that makes it almost like (to our ears, today) a traditional hymn:

“Never Weather-Beaten-Sail, more willing bent to shore / Never tired pilgrim’s limbs affected slumber more…”

The two-and-a-half minutes of the song, as all good songs do, seems to reach out, in simple terms, to a lifetime’s experience and the need to grasp that last anchorage on our voyage: a vision of “Heaven’s high paradise…”, of the weary human being “with troubled breast” coming to that eternal shore, where the Lord will “take my soul to rest.” With music that never soars to too high a degree of emotion, Campion’s music nevertheless has much pathos, great beauty for its vocalists, and forms a benediction in miniature. It is a perfect moment for reflection on mortality, for all those who have set sail upon the mysterious voyage to one English composer’s safe harbour.

Dowland in Denmark

The Danish royal family of the late 16th century was a generous employer – John Dowland achieving the material gains which often eluded him in his native land. Yet despite his chagrin at later being excluded from England’s official high circles, due to his Roman Catholic beliefs, the composer’s life had been a full and productive one, with some time even spent in the service of Sir Henry Cobham, Ambassador to France.

With books of songs, psalms and lachrimae galore – some 20 pieces to each collection – Dowland can be viewed as one of the most prolific composers of his era. Perhaps, he can be een as one of the true founding-fathers, or presiding spirits of our music – an echo of which reached to the 20th century, when Benjamin Britten incorporated a theme by the composer in his Lachrymae for viola and orchestra.

To pick but one piece, Come again, sweet love doth now invite comes from his First Booke of Songs or Ayres, and can be performed either as a conventional lute-song, or expanded slightly into a piece for a small group of vocalists. Whether a melancholy discourse for one singer, the lute conjuring that sense of lonely winter twilight, or lifted into the realms of a madrigal (but still resonating regret and longing, sighing and soft tears), this short work is one of extreme delicacy. Yet as the work comes toward to its conclusion, Dowland repeats and re-emphasises the important lines from each of the (three) verses: “To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die”. These are words that embody the soul of the composer, the essence of his age, and the character of the times to come in English music.

Brexit blindness

Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain

Fintan O’Toole, Head of Zeus, 2019

Three Years in Hell: The Brexit Chronicles

Fintan O’Toole, Head of Zeus, 2020

KEN BELL says a prominent Remainer still doesn’t comprehend Brexit

I have just finished reading Heroic Failure and Three Years In Hell, both by Fintan O’Toole, which is good for you as it means you don’t have to. I was attracted to these volumes by the fact that O’Toole as an Irishman might bring something new to the pro-EU debate, but unfortunately all he does is regurgitate lines British writers have already done to death.

Three Years In Hell is the lesser volume, and the easiest to dismiss, since it is essentially a diary covering dates in the years 2016 to 2019. Most of the entries became moot once Boris Johnson took over, so the entries that deal with Theresa May are little more than space fillers. Much is made in both books of the supposed fact that Brexit was an ‘English revolution’ – an engagingly off-the-wall line the Guardian emits regularly.

In the first place, the Brexit plebiscite was specifically set up as an all-UK vote. That is why Nicola Sturgeon could scamper off to campaign for ‘Remain’ in southern England. Now, you cannot have an all-UK vote and then dismiss its results because you come from an area that ended up on the losing side. Well, you can, if you are Nicola Sturgeon, but that does not mean that the rest of us have to take your whining seriously. That applies to writers as well as politicians, by the way.

Secondly, and this is where the much longer Heroic Failure takes over, to dismiss the Brexit vote as being a purely English victory when proportionally as many Welsh voters supported Brexit is to dismiss the people of Wales with an airy wave of the hand, which is what O’Toole does repeatedly. Not just Wales, either – pretty much anyone who is not part of the Guardian-reading metropolitan bubble is only referred to in passing. Thus, when discussing the makeup of the Brexit vote, he makes great play of the English middle class component and tries to slight the much larger working class element by saying that a majority of them were working class Conservative voters already! That may be the case, but it only leads us to a question of why did people who had historically voted Labour decide to switch parties, something which started to happen in 1997? It may be that Labour has changed and they haven’t. O’Toole does not even raise that theme in his books, being content to dismiss working class Brexiteers as people engaged in an act of self-harm.

A whole chapter of Heroic Failure is devoted to Boris Johnson’s journalistic pieces devoted to mocking the EU, with O’Toole then pointing out the errors and, by implication, the stupidity of the plebs who believed those tales.  This theme is not original to O’Toole, but it is what his readers believe, just as Boris’s believed his lines about prawn-flavoured crisps. Actually, Boris was on fairly solid ground with his EU reports, because even if he got some details wrong, there was a greater truth that he got right. When we joined the European Economic Community we were told that it was a big trading bloc and nothing that it did would ever affect us in any way. It was all about trade, nothing more.

Then we noticed that local council jobsworths were giving grief to market traders who wanted to sell their produce in pounds and ounces. We noticed that our children were coming home from school and talking about heat in Celsius and distance in metres. We battled to keep beer and milk in pints and road markings in miles, but in our hearts we knew that all we had bought was time, and that the jobsworths were just licking their lips at the thought of earning a tasty butty as they forced us to think the European way.

This brings me close to the end, with O’Toole convinced that the Brexit vote was due in no small measure to a desire to recreate the British Empire. It wasn’t, of course. It was a desire by millions of people, many of whom had never voted before and probably haven’t since, to be allowed to live their lives as they wanted under the jurisdiction of politicians who may be dubious characters – but they are our dubious characters and we can get rid of them every four or five years if we are bored with their faces. The EU may not really have instructed its provincial legislatures to enact laws against prawn-flavoured crisps, but the story illustrated a great truth that Brussels did order Westminster around on many issues, and Westminster did duly enact the legislation as instructed.

One day a pro-Brussels writer will investigate the mindset of the British people who voted freedom’s way, and a light will come on in his mind. He can then pass this information on to his readers, and his side will finally start to come to terms with the reasons for their defeat. Alas, Fintan O’Toole is not that writer.

The rights of the human heart: essays by Camus

via Wikimedia Commons

Personal Writings

Albert Camus, Penguin, 2020, 224 pages, £7.07

Committed Writings

Albert Camus, Penguin, 2020, 160 pages, £7.21

ALEXANDER ADAMS revisits the rich oeuvre of one of 20th century France’s finest thinkers

Albert Camus (1913-1960) confessed that he had one wellspring of inspiration: his Algerian childhood. His silent unlettered mother, his absent father (killed in the Great War) and the ever-present warmth of the sun and the presence of the sea: all these were the foundations for his insights into the world:

A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. This is why, perhaps, after working and producing for twenty years, I still live with the idea that my work has not even begun.

Ironically, Camus would be dead less than two years later, not even 50, killed in a car accident.

This idea of a return to an immutable emotional locus is something Camus reprises in the 1958 introduction to The Wrong Side and the Right Side, some of his earliest writings. This is the first part of Personal Writings, which also includes the 1939 collection Nuptials (Noces) and Summer (L’Été) of 1954. The essays of The Wrong Side and the Right Side (L’Envers et l’Endroit, previously translated as Betwixt and Between) were written 1935-6 and published in 1937 in Algeria. The book was initially little known – partly due to the low edition size – but Camus’s receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1957 turned French acclaim into international demand. The increase in attention led to Camus agreeing to a reissue of the book in 1958. Writing the introduction and re-reading the texts of The Wrong Side and the Right Side also inspired Camus’ last novel The First Man, published posthumously in 1994.

Camus held to his youthful arguments but found their forms “clumsy”. “I can confess that for me this little book has considerable value as testimony.” He also thought that in that roughness, he revealed too much of himself:

Clumsiness and disorder reveal too much of the secrets closest to our hearts; we also betray them through too careful a disguise.

The pieces are partly essay, partly story, partly memoir, each with the air of a parable.

Suddenly he realizes that tomorrow will be the same, and, after tomorrow, all the other days. And he is crushed by this irreparable discovery. It’s ideas like this that kill one, men kill themselves because they them – or, if they are young, they turn them into epigrams.

Thus, the youthful Camus is able to ironise his insight. The author dips into his familiarity with the legends of the Greeks, mentioning stories well known and obscure.  

There are prose sketches of his native Algiers. The biographical element is ever present. He describes his mother’s silence and simplicity, which held talismanic significance for him of the good person who resists the buffets of fortune. He mentions the fate of his father:

Probably he was very ordinary. Besides, he had been very keen to go to war. His head was split open in the battle of the Marne. Blinded, it took him a week to die; his name is listed on the local war memorial.

‘Death in the Soul’ describes a formative experience. Camus toured Prague, speaking only a little German – which many inhabitants did not speak – and felt ill, wandering around the landmark churches and museums. In the room next to his was a dead body. A male guest had died (Camus supposed due to suicide) and Camus saw the body when it was discovered. Banality, suffering and mortality co-exist, lacking inherent meaning. Only in retrospect did their proximity did the experiences mean anything consequential.

Nuptials contains four lyrical essays set in North Africa and Italy. It contains some beautiful description of the landscape and buildings of the coast.

The violent bath of sun and wind drained me of all strength. I scarcely felt the quivering of wings inside me, life’s complaint, the weak rebellion of the mind. Soon, scattered to the four corners of the earth, self-forgetful and self-forgotten, I am the wind and within it, the columns and the archway, the flagstones warm to the touch, the pale mountains around the deserted city. And never have I felt so deeply and at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.

Camus dwells on what he understands of life, ideas that will inform his Existentialist ideas of the 1940s and 1950s:

I tell myself: I am going to die, but this means nothing, since I cannot manage to believe it and can only experience other people’s death. I have seen people die. Above all, I have seen dogs die.

Not a profound thought, but a true one. He takes the insight as a call to live well every day. Sometimes he finds more unexpected truths –

Everyone wants the man who is still searching to have already reached his conclusions.

Camus took his morals from the working-class district of Belcourt, Algiers.

They have their code of morality, which is very well defined. You “don’t let you mother down”. You see to it that your wife is respected in the street. You show consideration to pregnant women. You don’t attack an enemy two to one, because “that’s dirty”. If anyone fails to observe these elementary rules “He’s not a man”, and that’s all there is to it. This seems to me just and strong.

A 1939 travelogue lauds Oran as ready to become a hub of international culture – “Oran, a happy and realistic city, no longer needs writers. It is waiting for tourists.” It is a sad hope that failed. The nightmare of civil war, exodus of the colonists, mismanagement under independence and further civil strife has obliterated Algeria from the world’s consciousness. Oran still awaits its tourists. Camus had odd criteria for a holiday destination. “All the bad taste of Europe and the Orient meets in Oran.” The cafés are dirty but cheap; amenities are crude; the youth follow fashions picked up from American movies.

Camus is not being only satirical – although he is; he is suggesting one gains as much understanding of the world by observing the streets of this ordinary town as the glories of Italy or Greece. As Camus later admits,

Sometimes, in Paris, when people I respect ask me about Algeria, I feel like crying out: “Don’t go there.” Such joking has some truth in it. For I can see what they are expecting and know they will not find it. And, at the same time, I know the attractions and subtle power of this country, its insinuating hold on those who linger, how it immobilizes them first by ridding them of questions and finally by lulling them to sleep with everyday life.

The companion volume, Committed Writings, is very different in tone and content. It is a collection of more polemical pieces: Letters to a German Friend, ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’ and ‘The Nobel Speeches’. The former is four articles published clandestinely in occupied France in the journal Combat. They critique Nazi ideology and the treatment by German occupying forces of the French. Although they address the recipient as “you”, Camus explains,

When the author of these letters says “you”, he means not “you Germans” but “you Nazis”. When he says “we”, this signifies not always “we Frenchmen” but sometimes “we free Europeans”

He analyses how the Nazis might see the French:

I know, you think that heroism is alien to us. You are wrong. It’s just that we profess heroism and we distrust it at the same time. We profess it because ten centuries of history have given us knowledge of all that is noble. We distrust it because ten centuries of intelligence have taught us the art and blessings of being natural.

Camus seems to set up a false dichotomy between the value of heroism and the value of peace. Peace comes from a willingness to defend one’s land and people with adequate controlled savagery and endure suffering.

As these texts are intended as moral arguments, they function quite differently from the lyrical discourses of The Wrong Side and the Right Side. They are argumentative, yet no response from the supposed recipients, the German occupiers, would have been expected. Camus is arguing his points without expectation of counterpoint. His generalisations are rather grand; instances given could be actual, inaccurate or invented. While one sympathises with the position of the author and the occupied French, these arguments are not especially strong as arguments, whatever their merits as utterances of moral superiority and personal resolution. These are the weakest pieces in the two books.   

The experience of national doubt and being detached from the certainties of tradition inculcated a suspicion of the given standards of French society after the Great War. The rapid defeat of the Second World War and the sight of many compatriots collaborating with the occupying army was the immediate spur for Existentialism and Absurdism. For Camus, the absurdity came from man without God, country, king or tradition, forced to find meaning in a universe both inhospitable and without objective morals. Camus’s humanism came – paradoxically – from the barbarity and cowardice of war and occupation. When God and the generals turned their backs upon France, it was the ordinary man (at great risk to himself) who found meaning in sacrificing his life so that his compatriots might go free. Camus’s experience of the war, during which he put his life at risk in the resistance movement, and his reading of Kafka’s The Trial, that shaped his Absurdism. The Trial is a parable of an everyman caught in a system that judges and sentences without transparency. It is, of course, a reflection upon life.

‘Reflections on the Guillotine’ (1957) is an essay on capital punishment, which accompanied a text by Arthur Koestler. Camus’s father apparently witnessed a public guillotining, which he found distressing. The account of his father’s reaction fascinated Camus his whole life. Camus’s argument against capital punishment in France and her colonies is interesting and well-argued. One argument against state killing, which was no longer public in France after a 1939 execution (quite a late date for a public execution), is that the very concealment of the horror of killing sustained support for the act because supporters did not have the opportunity to confront the reality. He adds the remarkable fact that a vast majority of the executed had, before committing their crimes, attended a public execution. (James Boswell had confessed his fascination with attending executions, whilst finding the compulsion degrading.) This tends to undermine the argument that the death penalty – and its spectacle – provides a deterrent against crime.  

‘The Nobel Speeches’ covers Camus thoughts on the role of art during the Cold War and the responsibilities of writers –

All artists must find the solution to this problem according to their sensitivities and abilities. The greater an artist’s revolt against the reality against the reality of the world, the greater the weight of that reality needed to counterbalance it. But that weight can never overpower the unique requirements of the artist.

He was positive about the importance of art.

Tyrants know that great works embody a force for emancipation that is only mysterious to those who do not worship art. Every great work of art makes humanity richer and more admirable, and that is its only secret.

The speeches feature his political outlook –

What characterizes our times, in fact, is the tension between contemporary sensitivities and the rise of the impoverished masses. We know they exist, whereas before, we tended to ignore them. And if we are aware of them, it is not because the elites, artistic elites or others, have become better.

This awareness also leaves artists prey to the desire to display false class solidarity and to mouth expected political pieties, in contradiction from their experience and insight. The explicit social function of art can conflict with honesty and integrity, both of the artwork and the creator.

All considered, on the evidence here, it is baffling that a writer of Camus’s intellect and unvarnished insight could have believed that anarchism and non-centralised socialism to be anything other than unrealistic responses to the truth of human head and human heart. It could be that Camus’s optimism regarding the human spirit outstripped his judicious consideration and one might fault him for not his Absurdism but his overestimation of the power of rationalism, in the face of all the evidence Camus himself marshalled in these essays. Readers of these excellent new editions will be able to assess that point themselves.

American piety: meet the new Boss

MARK GULLICK sees wrinkles on the Free World’s senior stuffed-shirt

“I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress”1          

President Biden is already being granted the status of a deity. Roman Emperors nominated themselves as gods. Biden outsources that troublesome administrative business to the media. The New York Times has claimed the incoming administration is “the return of the adults”. One can only, as Bertie Wooster said, shake one’s head and pass on.

Joe Biden shares one political attribute with Donald Trump; his own party neither like him nor do they want him as president.

Just as many Republicans held their noses when Trump attained the presidency in 2016, so too Biden is not wanted by his own supposed fellow partisans, and he may well be a Trojan horse containing Kamala Harris and her people. Biden looks mentally and, frankly, morally frail, a man both bereft of any real intelligence save that of the rat-like, push-button, food-pellet cunning on which the political class rely, and the possible onset of a condition causing him to stumble through sentences in a way that makes George W. Bush look like Stephen Fry.

After yet another dirty and disputed election (they actually go back to JFK), a question really has to be asked of the USA. In a country acknowledged as the world’s superpower, and containing well over 300 million people, if the best of the best are a pugnacious boor and an old man clearly in the early stages of dementia, what does this say about that country? As the psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men asks of a man he is about to kill: if the rule you followed led you to this, of what use was the rule?

Biden’s appeal, of course, is that he is not Donald Trump, in much the same way that Trump’s USP was that he was not Hillary Clinton. Trump appalled the political and media class with his 2016 victory, coming as he did from outside the ideological training camps of the establishment, or ‘the swamp’ as Trump’s (few genuine) people dubbed it. The legacy of Trump’s presidency will be more or less meaningless on the ground in 2021, as Biden’s people will have the incoming president repeal anything of worth Trump might have done. Trump has, however, distilled a strain of conservatism from a good many Americans, and his next political move will be watched with interest. The formation of the ‘Patriot Party’ is being more than whispered in the corridors of power, although he may end up just throwing rocks over the perimeter wall of Fortress Biden.

This is no mere metaphor. The implication of Biden’s absurd inauguration, which saw more troops in Washington DC than were at that time serving in Iraq and Afghanistan (and who later had to bed down in a car park) was that some redneck army was about to storm Capitol Hill, and this because – to give the media’s supposedly unbiased tone – a gaggle of trailer-trash, tornado-bait, white supremacist wastrels pranced about in the Senate House and sat in Nancy Pelosi’s chair. The Soviet-style optics of Biden’s swearing-in show what the next four years will be like for America. This could well be the power grab, and all under the false flag of healing division and the supposed social unrest ‘caused’ by Trump and his non-existent far-Right Wehrmacht. Watch for the politicisation of the American military. A lot hangs on it. Biden has already ordered that troops serving in Washington DC have their social media backgrounds checked.

As much of a failure as it seems to genuine conservatives, however, The Trump presidency did have its uses. It served to bring the deep state out of the shadows and into the light. The citizenry, the real people, are aware now that there is something going on backstage, and that something is rotten in the state of Washington DC. And, following from this revelation, it finally became obvious that the political divisions in America are genuinely partisan, although not along party lines. These are a mere mummer’s play, to distract and entertain. The significant divide is between the deep state and its operatives – from Nancy Pelosi through CNN Thunderbirds-puppet Anderson Cooper right down to the most raggle-taggle Antifa street-fighter – and ordinary people who want no part in what is taking shape.

One of the marked effects of Trump’s reign was that one part of the USA got to see just how much the other part hates them. It is axiomatic now that while creatures of the political Right may not agree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it, the Left will defend their right to be hurt by it and to do their utmost to see that you go to jail for saying it. Biden will do nothing to discourage this Leninist cultural mood music during his regime.

The hippies were fond of saying that whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. So, meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Hardly. Obama quietly advised Trump to go easy on the executive orders in 2016 but, it goes without saying, no such restriction applies to the incoming President, at least one of whose strings Obama may be pulling, and Biden had his pen out and was signing executive orders on Day 1 (I wonder which of the White House’s many rooms has a few suits of Obama’s in the wardrobe for advisory stopovers).

Obama had set a record for recent presidents – a president precedent, if you will ­– with five executive orders in his first week, trumping Trump’s four, Clinton’s one, and Bush’s zero although, in all fairness, Bush may not have worked out the click function on his biro. Well before the end of Biden’s first week in the Oval Office, he had signed 21 executive orders, with 12 subsidiaries having more or less the same effect. At the time of writing, like a cricketer enjoying his innings, he has passed the half-century mark to 52. America, welcome to Papal governance, by bull and edict, circa the Middle Ages. My apologies for the lapse into Latin, but if you don’t know what a statement ex cathedra is, you had better learn.

This snow-flurry of immediate legislation has seen Biden lead with race and its subsidiary industries, and the course of his term can be seen with clarity right from what Americans call the ‘get-go.’ Like an expert bridge player, Biden (by which I will always mean those who prop him up politically) has led with the only suit guaranteed to win any game just at the moment: immigration.

Immigrants and their corporate and moralistic lobbyists will see many things to please them in the new White House team, such as including illegal immigrants in the census, protecting the same from deportation, whatever they might do, and, notably, the possibility of a much-touted amnesty. This remains to be seen as it is a bigger ask than the usual tinkering with green cards, and the potential for problems for the regime lie in wait in the form of a possible crime wave. Always remember, it is far easier for an MS-13 gang member to move to America than it is for you to move to Japan. On a related subject, Biden will be ending what the Regime Media called the ‘Muslim ban’. It was no such thing, of course, and again this is not the best time for a wave of immigrants whose COVID status it will cost you money you don’t have to ascertain.

Now, it would seem obvious that in a time of a pandemic governments across the world have been accused of over-reacting to, accelerated immigration would not be a priority. But that axiom would assume a guiding logic, with the result being favourable for the host country. Biden – and the Democrat Party as a whole – has made it clear that the opposite is the intention. Crippling and wounding America has been the ulterior motive of every move that party has made since Obama (very much America’s Tony Blair) came to power and proceeded to double the national debt, champion Islam, play more race card aces than a saloon-bar card-cheat, and target his enemies (like the Tea Party) with a weaponised tax-auditing system.

Along with an influx of Muslim immigrants – which cannot reduce a country’s chance of terrorist attacks – there are already new ‘refugee caravans’ forming from Honduras and elsewhere. If they make it to the promised land, they will drain that land of resources by virtue of being negative social capital. Trump was right, for all his boorishness, when he pointed out that Latin American countries do not always dispatch their best and brightest to America, and also that some of the countries they are understandably escaping from are indeed, as Trump so eloquently portrayed them, “shitholes”.

Culturally, one of the most meaningful things Trump did was cut out the rot of critical race theory – a non-subject invented for political and cultural power and control – from America’s public sector. Despite occasional muttering to placate the UK’s few remaining Conservatives, Boris Johnson would never do that in the UK because it would spook the horses at The Guardian which, for reasons unknown, Johnson believes most British people read rather than an ever-dwindling number of snub-nosed readers who eat artisan bread and have children called Pandora and Oberon. If Russia carpet-bombed the London boroughs of Islington, Hampstead and Crouch End, it would halve the readership of The Guardian. I digress.

Biden will, of course, reinstate the chippy, joke-woke curriculum that has become the fad, because it does him no harm to do so. It must always be remembered that the credo of every modern politician is almost the same as the first line of the Hippocratic Oath. First do no harm. To myself.

To his credit, Biden (or rather that of his people; he is a stuffed shirt) has distanced himself from the ‘defund the police’ crazies, and would do well to steer clear of Black Lives Matter, who will demand more and more in terms of reparations, affirmative action, lighter sentencing for blacks and so on. I don’t imagine Biden can pronounce ‘anarcho-tyranny’, but I hope his team know what it is, and are against it rather than for it.

Biden has an immediate problem here, or his optics people do. The list of pressure groups and plain-old fashioned ‘political activists’ (aka ‘community organisers’. Obama was one) who will be queuing at the White House door for their quid pro quo in return for their bloc vote will be a long one. Biden had better hope that the media sides with him and not with the crazies and zanies of the hard American Left.

In terms of infrastructure, some of the Biden moves will be yawn-inducingly obvious. He has already started by pulling the plug on the K1 pipeline, and halting fracking. This will make America’s spurious ally Saudi Arabia happy as they had no desire to see an energy-independent North America. Biden will set about dismantling Trump’s wall immediately, shedding American jobs but pleasing the open borders brigade. America has just announced it will return to the jamboree of the Paris Climate Accord, which is bound to cost the taxpayer money. Trump’s tax cuts for the middle class will, it goes without saying, be annulled.

Money. As The O’Jays memorably sang, you can do bad, do bad, do bad things with it. Inflation will be the next problem for the new administration, although the media will be working with all hands on deck to claim that any financial problems encountered by the Biden White House was because of the scoundrel, Hitler-tribute-act Trump, memory-holing the fact that the pre-COVID economy was buoyant under the 45th President. No matter how confident the technocrats are, economics continues to elude them. I have never found a definitive provenance for this gemlike phrase, although noted Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis has been suggested:

Astrology became astronomy. Alchemy became chemistry. I wonder what economics will become

America is playing a dangerous game. ‘Quantitative easing’ may sound technocratically efficient and soothing, but it just effectively means printing money, which tends to mean inflation blooming into hyperinflation, as with Weimar Germany, Zimbabwe and Venezuela. In three months in 2020, ostensibly to ease the economy through the somewhat exaggerated melodrama of COVID-19, the Federal Reserve ‘created’ $3 trillion. It does not, of course, literally print money (ordinary people might be able to get hold of actual cash, and that would never do) but buys what are essentially junk bonds and creates an artificial financial ecosystem in a fiscal hothouse many believe is unsustainable.

Add to this the fact that Biden has already effectively signed off another household stimulus check, and that he has a pack of rabid socialists – such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an extraordinary fudge-brained bimbo who inexplicably has slunk in to the corridors of power – baying at him to shake the magic money tree even harder and increase the amount – and even make it a regular, monthly payment, sounding very close to the universal basic income which is in the minds of many on the Left – and the full nature of history’s biggest-ever financial gamble begins to become worryingly clear.

And it won’t just be the money supply that is at issue. It is what happens to the money that already ‘exists’. Cronyism certainly won’t be going anywhere. There is already evidence that Biden wants to reintroduce the so-called ‘Settlement Slush Funds’, an Obama monstrosity whereby corporate offenders pay not the victims of their misdemeanours, nor even the government, but a coterie of Left-wing pressure groups, including as just one example La Raza – ‘the race’ (imagine a Caucasian equivalent!) – the openly racist Latin American hybrid pressure-group of lobbyists and thugs currently attempting a reconquista. This reverses the dedicated and specific – and surely morally upstanding – work against this extraordinary funding hack by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of several Trump hires currently pulling a knife out of his back.

A priority of the Biden administration will be control of the media, particularly online. They don’t need to bother with the MSM who, if they acted any more like cheerleaders for Uncle Joe (where have I heard that name before?), would have ra-ra skirts and pom-poms and a college song. One of the most alarming events of 2020 – an alarming year all round – was the way in which government avoided accusations of censorship, de-platforming and banning various conservative voices by effectively outsourcing the dirty work at the crossroads to big tech in the same way a British bank has its call centre in Delhi. Biden won’t touch any of that. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. (With the economy, on the other hand, it will be more a case of, if it ain’t broke, fix it till it is.)

The Biden administration will be a disaster to everyone save the media, who will be campaigning as though they were the captain of the Titanic saying that the ship hadn’t sunk at all, he was just inventing the submarine. To say that America is becoming a banana republic that can’t even run a free and fair election may be to be unfair to banana republics. After all, they at least have cheap bananas, and what happens next to America is anybody’s guess. May you live in interesting times, said the Chinese sage.

  1. Alexander de Tocqueville, Democracy in America []

Colin Wilson redux

Eagles and Earwigs: Essays on Books and Writers

Colin Wilson, Eyewear Publishing, 2018, 412 pages, £16.65

GOMERY KIMBER welcomes a resurgence of interest in one of the cleverest ‘Angry Young Men’

If the novelist, philosopher and critic, Colin Wilson is remembered at all it is as one of the ‘Angry Young Men’, and for his first book, The Outsider, (1956) – “the definitive study of alienation, creativity, and the modern mind”, as it is described on the front cover of the Victor Gollancz paperback that lies on my desk. And if The Outsider made Wilson’s reputation, it was the media circus surrounding the ‘Angries’ which destroyed it. When his second book, Religion and the Rebel, appeared the following year, highbrow critics who had lauded The Outsider were quick to recant and declare Wilson a fraud.

But there is much more to Wilson than half-remembered newspaper publicity from the 1950s, as this republished volume, Eagles and Earwigs, attests. The book originally appeared in 1965, and Todd Swift, PhD of Eyewear Publishing is to be commended for producing such a handsome volume (I thought I’d purchased a paperback copy, and so was delighted to receive this well-designed, well-printed hardback).  It is worth quoting a paragraph from Dr Swift’s Introduction, as it both gives an overview of Wilson the writer and mirrors my own attitude to him:

As I have written elsewhere, I believe Colin Wilson to be a visionary thinker and writer of at least near-genius, whose reputation, like that of a fellow outsider fascinated by extreme states of consciousness, science, and mystery – Poe – has equally been side-lined.  He is a competent stylist, capable of writing exceptionally readable books, a brilliant collector of both facts and anecdotal wonders, but also a master analyst, able to distil and refine what he has read and thought about.

Eagles and Earwigs, a collection of essays of existential criticism, is indeed a showcase of Colin Wilson’s admirable talents. The book is divided into three parts, the first being titled, ‘Literature and Philosophy’, and containing essays on the modern hero, phenomenology and literature, and the existential temper of the modern novel. What, then, is existential criticism?

Gary Lachman, author of a biography of Wilson, explains in the Preface:

It is concerned with how a writer sees the world, his actual perception of it, and with his or her qualifications for making general assessments about that mysterious thing, life. As Wilson writes, for him, it is “…necessary to scrutinize the writer’s qualifications for imposing his vision on his contemporaries”

Existential criticism is an examination of that vision, to decide how much of reality it incorporates. Or conversely,

…it examines how far a writer’s attitude toward the world is parochial, based on some temperamental defect of vision

Existential criticism therefore differs from traditional academic literary criticism which concerns itself primarily with technique, style, and with the influence of writers on each other. When compared to more recent critical approaches, such as those of Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, the difference is even greater. Postmodernism and deconstructionism see no merit in examining the life experiences of the novelist in order to throw light on the novel; the text is to be considered only in and of itself, as a self-contained entity.

Wilson’s brand of literary analysis is based on Edmund Husserl’s insight that perception is intentional, and since Husserl was the founder of the phenomenological school, Lachman suggests that existential criticism might more accurately be called “phenomenological criticism”. For Wilson, intentionality was of fundamental importance. Human beings not only have perceptions, but a “will to perceive”. Intentionality reveals reality. The stronger our intention, the more it reveals. It is the difference between the vision of a poet like William Blake and that of nihilists such as Samuel Beckett, who, like Oblomov, could see no reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The second part of the book is comprised of essays on writers who interested Wilson, and upon whom he employs his existential critical technique. Some, like Hemingway, Bernard Shaw, and Henry Williamson, are familiar names; others, such as L H Myers and David Lindsay, less so.

L H Myers, by William Rothstein

Myers was the author of The Near and the Far, the first novel of a tetralogy. For a while, Myers was regarded as a member of the Bloomsbury group, then became a communist and broke with most of his old friends. He committed suicide in 1944, which may have been due to a fear that he had cancer. According into his friend L P Hartley he was always something of a hypochondriac, a fact the traditional literary critic may disregard but which Wilson, the existential critic, does not:

The contemporary with whom he has most in common is Aldous Huxley, and even more than Huxley he is an intellectual essayist rather than a creative writer

 Wilson finds him a frustrating novelist.

In the early chapters of any of his books one has sense of being in the hands of a true novelist, but as the novels progress, they seem to lose direction, and the characters and their actions become more and more arbitrary; finally they peter out like a stream disappearing into the sand

Why then does Wilson hold Myers in such high esteem, regarding The Near and the Far as probably one of the half dozen great novels of the 20th century?  It is because Myers was tormented by the existential Lebensfrage, and his books are attempts to grapple with it. 

World-rejection is one of the fundamental constituents of [such a writer], even though he may eventually overcome it and become a life affirmer. Myers belongs to this . . . class, and all his work is a drama of world-rejection and the struggle to affirm.

The meaning of the novel’s title is explained on the first page of the novel. Prince Jali, Wilson writes,

…stands on the balcony of a palace and experiences the sense of delight and awe at the sight of the desert and distant mountains. The desert has always fascinated him; evidently it was a symbol for Myers as it was for T E Lawrence – a symbol of freedom from the sticky prison of one’s own humanity.

Jali reflects that

…there were two deserts: one that was a glory for the eye, another that it was weariness to trudge. Deep in his heart he cherished the belief that someday the near and afar would meet . . . one day he would be vigorous enough to capture the promise of the horizon. Then, instead of crawling like an insect on a little patch of brown sand, swift as the deer he would speed across the filmy leagues.

For Wilson, Myers had here

…found a symbol to state the most fundamental problem of human existence. Most human beings have had glimpses of ‘the promise of the horizon’; but when they investigate and discover that the reality is hard and dull, they usually assume that promise was an illusion.

Wilson believed the answer lay in a positive vitality.

If one were strong enough, healthy enough, it might not be necessary to trudge so painfully through the present. This is the answer that Nietzsche suggested in Thus Spoke Zarathustra – the idea of great health. If human beings could jar themselves out of the self-pity that is so fundamentally a part of the human condition, if they could cease to nurse a certain amount of weakness to furnish them with an excuse for opting out should life prove too difficult, there might be some chance of living in a present that is more like the poet’s vision of ‘the promise of the horizon’. The main problem so far has been that the poets have been weak and sensitive men, and have simply lacked the courage to start the work of self-discipline.

And here Wilson returns to Myers the hypochondriac: “one knows in advance that his quest will be a failure”. For all Myer’s independence in rejecting the Bloomsbury set,

…he was never able to rid himself of our modern tendency to identify strength with brutality and stupidity, and weakness with sensitivity and intelligence.

David Lindsay is another Wilson favourite. He believed that Lindsay’s “gnostic” fantasy novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, was nothing less than a masterpiece and its author a writer of genius. The traditional literary critic may well balk at this assessment since Lindsay’s prose is so amateurish. But to the existential critic this is of little concern. What matters is the sweep of the author’s vision. Wilson states,

Literature may be divided into two kinds: one accepts the values and limits of the ‘natural standpoint’; the other is always striving to get beyond them, to probe the question of existence itself.  For the existential critic, the first kind must always be regarded as of a lower order, even though most of the world literary masterpieces belong to it.

For Wilson, A Voyage to Arcturus is literature of the second kind, and David Lindsay is revealed as a master existentialist, seeing through the everyday world we take for granted to the reality beneath, a vital actuality that Lindsay presents to the reader with such skill that what we take for ‘reality’ is brought starkly into question.

Wilson’s initial reaction to Ayn Rand was dismissive, rating her as “a kind of modern Marie Corelli, much given to preaching and grandiose language”. But when he made a concerted effort to read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, he changed his mind:

I had to admit I had done Miss Rand a considerable injustice. Atlas Shrugged, having a great deal in common with A Brave New World, is a tirade against collectivism and government interference with individual freedom, but the heroes of Huxley . . . are little men, modest souls [e.g. Huxley’s Gumbril: “I glory in the name of earwig”]. Ayn Rand’s book has a romantic sweep, and undeniable grandeur.

When Wilson attempted to contact Rand, sending her some of his books, he discovered that the grandeur extended to her person. Try as he might, he could not bypass her gatekeeper, Nathaniel Branden.

This kind of self-importance was foreign to Wilson himself.  The third part of the book relates how, after sickening of the media circus around the ‘Angry Young Men’, he left London for Cornwall. He bought a house there and raised a family, and over the next 50 years produced more than 100 books, including the seven volume Outsider Cycle. In The Age of Defeat (1959; retitled The Stature of Man in the USA) and The Strength to Dream (1962), he further outlined his ideas about existential criticism. Wilson liked nothing more than to be left alone to think and to write; trips to London brought on bouts of “people-poisoning”. But unlike Ayn Rand, he was easy to contact and happy to correspond with his admirers. He was certainly encouraging of this particular tyro.

Colin Wilson died, aged 82, in 2013. Since then, there has been a resurgence of interest in the man and his work. His books are being published in new editions, both at home and in translation. His bibliographer, Colin Stanley, has organised Colin Wilson conferences at Nottingham University, where Wilson’s manuscripts and books have been collected. His novel, Adrift In Soho, has been turned into a feature film by Pablo Behrens, and a documentary film of his life has recently been crowdfunded.

Wilson’s prediction, that in the future there would be more Wilsonian writers, appears to be coming true as well. Gary Lachman, David Moore and myself have all been influenced by him. Lachman and Moore, however, write factual books in the Wilson tradition, whereas I am an author of fiction, deeply indebted to Colin’s attempts to produce existential and evolutionary fiction more worthy of eagles than earwigs.

A realm apart – why Brexit happened


This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe

Robert Tombs, Allen Lane, 224 pages, £11.22

KEN BELL praises an exceptionally historically-informed Brexit explainer

The small numbers who read the Guardian will no doubt disagree, but the argument over Brexit is now as much a part of history as the Free Trade debate that dominated life in the 19th century. As such, Robert Tombs in This Sovereign Isle has written the first of the many volumes that will dominate the reading lists for student historians. Luckily for the public at large, the book is also eminently accessible to the general reader as well, so I predict that this volume will go through many editions in the years to come.

Although Tombs never falls into the trap of arguing that Brexit was inevitable, he does make the point that for the British, membership of the EU was always a transactional issue and not an emotional one. Thus, when the downside of membership began to tell, there was no emotional appeal that could be made by the other side to try and even the balance. The Remainers lacked an Abraham Lincoln who could deliver a Gettysburg Address, because their side of the debate was just as transactional as that of the Brexiteers. Thus they were forced to rely on an increasingly hysterical version of the ‘Project Fear’ that had helped win the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The problem in 2016 was that people just didn’t believe the howls, which allowed Boris Johnson to ask mockingly which catastrophe would come first, the world war or the economic collapse.

For the British, membership of the EU was always a transactional issue and not an emotional one

To be fair, as Tombs argues, Brexit was certainly helped over the line by the fact that the UK had managed to stay out of the Euro. Had we joined that common currency, the UK would have been in a similar position to the Scotland of 2014 and it is quite likely that Remain would have won. As it was, the result was close enough to argue that ‘Project Fear’ had a considerable effect on the final tallies.

On the other side of the English Channel, the Euro certainly helps keep difficult countries in line, as the EU demonstrated against the Greeks when it looked as if they were about to strike out for freedom. The mafia type threat: Nice economy you have here – be a shame if something happened to it, may very well be the one issue that keeps such countries voting the right way. Or to carry on voting until they get to the right way according to Brussels. That threat could not be used against the UK, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Gordon Brown for keeping us out of the Euro’s clutches.

Staying in Europe for a moment, Tombs makes the point that most of those countries were desperate to draw a line under their immediate pasts. The original six had the memories of defeat in the Second World War and political systems that had become illegitimate in the eyes of the populations. Later on, the post-Cold War entrants wanted to forget all about their Soviet experiences and similarly had discredited systems that needed to be put out of their misery. The EU for all those countries was in large part a stab at legitimacy and an exercise in forgetting the recent past.

The UK by way of contrast emerged from the two World Wars on the victorious side, with a legitimate political system intact. Thus roughly half the Brexiteers who were asked to give a single reason for their vote, answered that they wanted Britain to govern itself. They were able to say that because they had confidence in the British parliamentary system. It really was as simple as that.

The Remainers never seemed to understand that desire and so they discounted it as a factor. To them the Brexiteers were a caricature that they had created in their own minds and then decided that it represented the reality of their opponents. We were uneducated, old and we hankered after the British Empire, when actually, as Tombs shows, we just wanted to govern ourselves. Nevertheless, that mistake, which came about because Remainers tended to be concentrated in particular parts of the country where they did not come into day to day contact with Brexiteers, led them to overestimate their own numbers, and underestimate the need to get their vote out. As Sasha, Lady Swire, noted in her Diary of an MP’s Wife ( when her daughter called her as the results came in and complained that “white van man” had stolen her future, the result might have been different had the darling girl got her friends out of bed and chivvied them along to the polling stations.

One area that the author really should have been expanded upon was the 2017-2019 period that I think history will call the Rogue Parliament. If there is any truth to the argument of British exceptionalism, then this period provides a plethora of evidence for it. Many countries would have unpacked the rifles long before the period ended, but the British bided their time, seethed with rage at the antics that went on and waited for an election when they could exact their revenge against the guilty men who were responsible for it all.

The constitutional position, as Tombs makes clear, is that when a government has lost the support of the Commons, it should be voted down by a motion of no-confidence. Once carried, the rascals are thrown out and a new set of rascals elected in their place.

That did not happen during that roguish time, as an alliance of neo-Jacobin MPs, a compliant Speaker who clearly sympathised with them, coupled with a judiciary that seemed willing to flout established precedent all came together to try and force the government to act as they wished. The Fixed Term Parliament Act prevented the government from calling an election, and it looked for many long months as if the situation would continue to resemble the 17th century crisis that led to civil war, only this time as Tombs says, with “tragedy repeated as farce.”

Yet it ended, sooner than many of us expected, when the opposition folded and an election was called. Boris Johnson was given an 80 seat majority on the promise to get Brexit done and the Neo-Jacobins were packed off to a lifetime of obscurity. Readers of the Guardian will continue to whine and the rest of us will just get on with our lives, having rid ourselves on an undemocratic layer of government based in Brussels, which is all we ever wanted to do.