Inner pieces, inner peace

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PETER KING says inconsistency is not incoherency

We live in fragments. There is nothing that is so large to be all encompassing. There is nothing that is dominant, nothing that is the essence. Of course, we humans are common in our biology, psychology and our mortality, but this is not what defines us as individuals. As individuals we are wholes that are also fragments. We are complete and entire while also being part of something that is beyond us.

We do many different things that make us the whole that we are. All of these things can be ends in themselves, worthwhile without any exterior validation. We watch and play sport, and we do so for no other reason than the enjoyment we gain from the activity itself. Some of us may feel that our sporting allegiances define us, but this is never all that we are. We might describe ourselves by our job, our profession or perhaps our employer. But we come home at night and are someone else – a wife or husband, partner or parent, brother, sister, friend or even enemy. We have political views and we may only wish to associate with those who we agree with or have some affinity to. We may ‘never kiss a Tory’, but we probably work with them, sit next to them on the bus or train, wait behind them in a queue and are taught or treated by them when we are pupil, student or patient. We have tastes in art, and we have tastes in music which might be very different from our taste in art. We can have diverse tastes, admiring El Greco and Rubens as well as Rothko and Twombly; we can listen to Bach and Anthony Braxton and follow it up with Laurie Anderson; we can read James Boswell and Edward Lear before moving on to Vladimir Solovyov; we can watch a sci-fi thriller and the next night lose ourselves in Tarkovsky’s Mirror or Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

Is this inconsistent and incoherent? It might be seen to be, but I would say that this inconsistency is actually quite defining of what we are. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The choices of what we listen to, read and watch may be different, but we each have diverse and often contradictory tastes, both at any one time and through time. As a teenager I read lots of war stories and fantasy novels as well as listening to punk music. I actively hated both Wodehouse and Eliot and all they stood for, and I had little time for classical music or jazz. Forty years later, I love both Wodehouse and Eliot and have no interest in going back to the novels of Sven Hassel or Michael Moorcock. But even now, as I have suggested above, I shift from the light to the heavy, the old to the new, the tuneful to the discordant, the easy to the difficult. These are all parts of what I am. They are fragments of my personality. None of them defines who I am; not one of them is me. But each of them says something about me, and each is as real as the any other.

My choices, I am sure, are not confected. I do not listen to certain types of music because I think I should or because it is what ‘people like me’ are supposed to do. I do not watch black and white Russian and Japanese films out of duty, but because I really enjoy them as well as finding them compelling and challenging. I will quite happily read Edward Lear’s nonsense verse while there is Anthony Braxton’s improvised jazz playing in the background.

So I do not see all this variety as incoherent or inconsistent. It is just how I, and, I believe, most others, live. It seems to me to be perverse to believe one should have such a consistency so that if one is a traditionalist in politics one must also be one in art and music. Not only does this forget that these, now traditional artists and composers, be it Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Bach or Mozart, were considered outrageously modern in their own time, but it also ignores that different arts progress at different stages. To do this is to put artificial criteria over our individual choices.

There is a lot of debate and disquiet over the issues of difference and diversity. These terms can be used to impose categories on people otherwise unwilling to accept them. They might also be seen as the means to attack traditional values. I can accept both those points while also insisting that each of us is diverse and full of difference. I would go so far as to say that most, if not all, of us have contradictory tastes. I would further state that this is natural and to be relished. If we have different moods, why not diverse tastes that can accommodate those moods? I would suggest we accept difference and diversity for no other reason that this is just how we are. This does not mean that we have to accept these terms beyond categories that apply to an individual. We do not have to accept them in political terms and nor does one have to buy into a postmodern worldview. We can have diverse views, and remain traditionalists.

What I want to suggest is that we are made of fragments. Each of these demonstrate a particular feeling, attitude, mode of behaviour, even view of the world. Each fragment is, at it were, complete. It is entire and we can express it fully, whether it be a particular allegiance or an attitude towards a painting or poem. We can, of course, express negative attitudes and feelings regarding things we do not like or which we feel in some way oppress us or stop our enjoyment.

These are entire unto themselves: we enjoy Bach’s cello suites and that is it. We do not have to qualify our love for this music or justify it to anyone else. We do not love Bach because of his contemporaries or because of the period in which he lived. We can sit and listen and lose ourselves in its sublime qualities. Yet the following day we may be watching a game of football and lose ourselves in the tribe of fellow supporters shouting on our team. Later that day we may read Eliot or watch Saturday night television. We do not have to explain ourselves, and we would resent being made to. We do not question what we are doing either during or after, and the issue of consistency doesn’t enter our heads.

However, these fragments do come together into a whole. This whole is an entire person. We have a complete life that we take to be continuous and coherent and which we know consists of a multiplicity of parts, each of which can satisfy some aim, need or desire. We are seen by others as a whole and are expected to act as such. But this whole is, in turn fragments of a greater whole. We are entire as ourselves, but we can come together in a larger whole we call ‘community’.

What I particularly object to in politics is principle. I tense up when someone says that they act according to principle and I automatically wish to support someone accused of lacking principles. This is not because I have no principles of my own – I like to think I am reasonably principled in the manner I behave. But I make a distinction between the personal and the political. I want to be moral and, despite failing often, I work at being so. And, of course, I want others to be moral as well. What I do not want is for anyone, myself included, to feel enabled to impose their principles on society through control over political institutions. What I object to is not that a politician has principles but that they wish to impose them on everyone else, regardless of what these others may think. In other words, I do not want my principles to be swamped by those of someone else.

Any society is made of diverse and different individuals who believe in many different things. These views may well be irreconcilable. A society may consist of traditional Roman Catholics and radical feminists, and progressive liberals and reactionary conservatives. All of these views are legitimate and we must assume they are sincerely held. People naturally disagree on a whole range of issues such as abortion, immigration, gender, the proper roles of governments and markets, the environment and globalisation. While we hope that we can talk with those with disagree with, it will often be the case that we cannot agree. Some views are simply irreconcilable and all we can agree on is that we differ.

What we need then is some means to ensure we can be left to differ in peace. We might take the view that we accept the majority view, and there is some sense in this. But this does not end the issue of principles. Even if there is a majority in support of an issue, why should we assume that an argument is determined solely by the number of its supporters? A Roman Catholic will still believe they are right to oppose abortion, even if they know they are in a minority. A traditional conservative will not agree with radical views on the fluidity of gender merely because there appears to be a majority of parliamentarians who will vote for it. A majority does not negate or diminish the principles of the minority.

Politics, then, is essentially antagonistic. It is made up a diverse collection of views, deeply held and based on clear principles, but which cannot be reconciled. The proper response of government here is not to impose one view at the expense of the others, but to find a means of balancing these irreconcilable views in such a way that society remains peaceful and stable. This means developing and maintaining institutions that protect different views and maximise the ability of individuals to express them freely and safely.

This suggests that the only purpose to governing is governance itself. Governing is indeed an end in itself. There is no end to governing in either sense of the word ‘end’. Governing does not stop and there is no presumption that we will reach a higher or better state, whether we express that as human perfection, utopia or the end of history. Governing is necessary to hold a balance between antagonistic ends sincerely held by free and competent citizens. It is about protecting those institutions that allow for those views to be expressed in a manner that does not coerce others.

Government then does not believe in anything other than its own maintenance. The reason this is necessary is not because a society believes in nothing, but precisely because it believes in many diverse things. Just as there are irreconcilable ends in a society, so there are within each of us. We act inconsistently because we hold diverse views and act according to the context in which we find ourselves. We try to hold them in balance, but they are not necessarily reconcilable. We can only hold them serially and not concurrently (without making ourselves unwell).

However, it is this serial nature, that at any one time we are committed to a particular end, that allows us to lead untroubled lives. Each fragment of ourselves is complete unto itself and we can live with it. To be consistent is to lack imagination. It is where we do not feel or think. People who are oppressed or coerced appear consistent because they have views imposed upon them. They are told what to believe, what to think and how to act.

We are made up of regrets as well as triumphs, of things half done, things we wished we had done or not done, paths not taken or only part taken, things left unbuilt. These are all fragments, which we did not complete. Yet they stand there as memories or regrets. These too are now complete, in that they cannot be completed or added to. They can only be lost further or retained as they were left.

Think of a valuable pot that has been smashed into a thousand pieces. It is irreplaceable, and we feel we should try to save it, so we painstakingly put back the pieces back together again. From a distance, the pot may look as good as new. But when we get closer we can see the multiple fractures and how the pieces have been joined together. It is skilful work, but we can see that it is not the same. And there may be weak points or even bits missing. But it is still a whole, it is a pot – and it may well now have a different form of beauty that comes from being in this reconstructed state. We can sense its vulnerability and its complexity. We can better sense the love that went into its making and in its preservation. This is how we are, skilfully put together from many, many pieces. We may be scarred and there may be gaps but we are, in our own way, more or less complete.

Travels into several remote Nations of the World by Captain Lemuel Gulliver – A Voyage to Khiliastica

This is the opening extract from a hitherto unknown chapter of Gulliver’s Travels, as discovered by GUY WALKER. The full version is here

I continued at home with my Wife and Children about Five Months in a very happy condition, if I could have learned the Lesson of knowing when I was well. I left my poor Wife big with Child, and accepted an advantagious Offer made me to be Captain of the Adventure, a stout Merchant-man of 350 Tuns: For I understood Navigation well, and being grown weary of a Surgeon’s Employment at Sea, which however I could exercise upon occasion, I took a skilful young Man of that Calling, one Robert Purefoy, into my Ship. We set sail from Portsmouth upon the second day of August, 1710; On the Fourteenth we met with Captain Pocock of Bristol at Tenariff, who was going to the Bay of Campechy, to cut Logwood. On the Sixteenth, he was parted from us by a Storm; I heard since my Return, that his Ship foundered, and none escaped, but one Cabbin-Boy. He was an honest Man, and a good Sailor, but a little too positive in his own Opinions, which was the Cause of his Destruction, as it hath been of several others. For if he had followed my Advice, he might have been safe at home with his Family at this Time, as well as myself.

Four days from quitting Captain Pocock at Tenariff and 100 Leagues South of the Azores my Ship’s Company discovered that several of our fresh Water Barrels were holed and that an urgent Need for new Provision in this Respect pressed on us. Amongst my Men was a Scotsman by the Name of McCrory. He made it known to me that he had once been taken Prisoner near to Antigua and obliged to serve for two Years on Board a Man of War from the Island Nation of Khiliastica which he believed nearest our Position.

On the Sixth day a Boy on the Top-mast discovered Land and Signs of Humanity. A large and a much smaller Island were descryed together with a third Island to the East composed entirely of a Volcanoe. The Wind being northerly, and approaching from the North East we ran South-West Half a League off the long North-West shoar of the Island. McCrory agreed that this was indeed Khiliastica.

By use of a Perspective-glass I had purchased in Woolwich I could see that the main Island rose high out of the Sea and was well-cultivated. Beeves and Sheep grazed in well-ordered Pastures inclosed with good Fencing and Windmills were plentiful. Smoke rose from many Habitations. On the opposed side of the Island to ourselves I was able to distinguish the small Volcanic Island with a little Smoak issuing from it. My Curiosity was rouzed by the long wide Strand that ran on our side from the northern Tip of the larger Island diagonally to its Western Extream. Beginning at the Tip were considerable Piles of darken’d Wood in Heaps. After each Heap another, every one in a Gradation of lesser states of Dilapidation than the last which signified, as we progressed South-West along the shoar it was as though the true original Form of the Heaps disclosed itself to us. It soon became clear that they were once finely crafted Vessels set on towering Trestles which had collapsed with Age. The south-westerly Examples were intact and made of new Wood. Planked, Ship-carpentered and caulked with Competence, they were very broad of Beam and stoutly built with a deep Draught. The Super-structure consisted of a wide, long House with a low Roof and a Dove-Cote in the Prow giving the Vessels the appearance of nothing so much as Noah’s Ark. I espyed a new set of Trestles with no Ship resting on it which completed the Procession at its South Western end.

Ahead of us began to rise the small Island situated just North of the larger Island’s western Tip and divided from it by a Streight, by my Computation, of one Third of a League in Width. On the main Island the procession of Arks was succeeded by the Opening of a large Harbour. The first Half of this was devoted to a Miscellany of Basons and Dry-docks, taken together forming a Dock-yard as impressive as that of Venice or of Chatham or Portsmouth. Derricks and Cranes were in abundance as were many-masted Merchantmen and Men of War tyed up on the Dock-sides. This Array was again succeeded by the Habitations of a Town. McCrory confirmed to me that this Metropolis was the capital Town of Khiliastica. By means of my Perspective-glass I was able to discern that these Habitations gave Evidence of Prosperity in the Quality of their Decoration and Maintenance. The Roofs were in excellent Repair, the Windows were plentiful and filled with Glass and the stone Lintels richly carved. Publick Statues, Fountains and Flowers abounded. I was under Perplexity of Mind occasioned by the seeming absence of any Token of human Presence or Activity. Another Mystery I was at a loss to understand was a Con-stellation of sparkling Lights that danced constantly about the Town even in places where there were no Windows. The Lights, danced as Sun-light does on the Sea in Summer.

It was my Intention to weigh Anchor and lower the Long-Boat in order to enter the Harbour and investigate the Town when The Adventure was overcome by a sudden Flurry from the North-East and driven past the Harbour Mouth towards the lesser Island. The Wind fell as suddenly as it had arisen and, noticing Signs of Habitation and Husbandry equally on the small Island and the Convenience of a sufficient Jetty, we took in our Sails, hove to and moored beneath the Island.

Above us we could see a simple Chapel with a Bell-cot for a single Bell and the thatched Cover of a Well where we hoped we might replenish our Water-barrels. We were greeted hospitably at the Jetty by a bearded Man of middle Years and his Children. McCrory revealed at this Juncture that he could speak the Tongue of Khiliastica having been obliged to learn it on board the Man of War in which he had been pressed into Service. He was content to act as my Interpreter. The Native of the small Island gave his Name as Khelat Per Zhall. He invited myself and my Landing-party to take the Steps up to the Farm-stead wherein he dwelt. He presented his Wife to us and, with great Courtesy, consented to my Men drawing Spring-water from his Well for the replenishment of our Provisions. He also consented to dining on board The Adventure that evening. His Wife was pleased to give us Refreshment in the Form of a small Cyder. Khelat Per Zhall also shewed me his Family’s House and their Chapel from which it was evident that they were properly observant of their Religion. This Chapel contained simple Statues, the Scriptures of that Religion and an Altar-Table.

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That Evening, encouraged by the Presence of McCrory who was able to converse in his language, I asked Khelet how he and his Family came to live in Separation from the Inhabitants of the Metropolis. In Answer he related the Tale of his Determination to remove himself and his Family to the smaller island for Reasons of religious Dissension. He told me that, in their Idleness and much in the manner of the Israelites when they began to worship the Golden Calf in the Absence of Moses, above ten Years before, the Khiliasts had happened on vicious and novel Creeds and Practices of their own Invention which had turned them into a Sect. According to the Chain of Being and in the true Humility to which their Station obliged them their old Religion enjoyned them to show Gratitude to their Creator and to his Minister on earth, their King who, for the Care of them shewed much Diligence. Their new Creed turned upside down such Doctrine. Instead of Gratitude for the Blessings of the Condition of being human and of its Sustenance they practised perverse Scorn and Derision for them. In their Conception the more they were seen to take Pleasure in trampling on and rejecting their Humanity the more they demonstrated the Virtue of Humility. This led them to strive ostentatiously in Rivalry with each other in the Degree of Abasement they could atchieve. They derided the Gift of being sapient Creatures above mere Animals and even took Pleasure in counting themselves as lesser than Crows and Apes. Their newly created Humility was in truth the Opposite of and an inversion of true Humility and signified instead that their Hearts were filled with Pride – a Pride taken in how humble they were. Hearing of such Perversion it was easy to understand Khelet’s Disgust and the Cause of his Desire to remove himself and his family apart from this Sect of Inversion.

Next he explained that the people of the Town were all engaged that day in an annual religious Festival of great Moment to them. This explained to me the Absence of human Activity. I pressed him further as to the Nature of their religious Practices and, being of a hospitable Character, he offered to act as my Guide on a Visit to Khiliastica – for that was the Name he gave the larger Island. I asked Khelat if he feared meeting his former Country-men from whom he had dissented so violently. He told me that he had visited the Festival on several Occasions before out of Curiosity and had succeeded in not being recognised by disguising him self. He told me it was his Custom on such Occasions to wear a leathern Mask covering half of his Face and the principal Lineaments of his Countenance and to give out, if asked, that he was the Victim of burning and Laceration in a Fire which had made his Face unsightly. I accepted his kind Offer and, the next morning, the Wind having settled and the Day set fair, we left The Adventure tyed at the Jetty and embarked in the Long-boat with Khelat Per Zhall and McCrory in the Party. Landing at the Quayside in the Harbour of Khiliastica we found the Town as deserted as it had appeared the day before.

Immediately on disembarking the Mystery of the dancing Lights was resolved for me. In many Places, on Squares, on Streets and on the Quay-side were placed long Fences twelve Foot high. These Fences bore silvered Glasses attached to them like those found on a Lady’s Dressing Table but of a giant Proportion. Everywhere we went we were accompanied, consequently, by our own Reflexions which was a disturbing Sensation for me. Glancing through the Windows of the Habitations I was able to see rich Furnishings and musical Instruments such as Guittars, Spinets and Lutes. Khelat found some fine Horses which had been left with plenty of Water and Oats in a nearby Stable so that we were able to quit the Town towards the Interior of the Island. I was relieved to find that the giant Glasses ceased as we left the outer Precincts of the Town.

I asked him, by Means of McCrory, further in point of the great Appearance of Prosperity and Industry of the Isle, Town and Dock-yard. He told me that this was due to the countenance and encouragement of the King who was a renowned Patron of Learning. He had made it his Business, in his Youth, to make Mercantile Œconomy one of many studies effected in Venice, London and Antwerp. Returning to Khiliastica he had guaranteed the extensive Prosperity of his Subjects by instructing them in the Wisdom he had acquired in the Domains of Iron-smelting, Animal Husbandry, Agri-culture, Glass-blowing and Maritime Commerce. As a result of his good Offices on their Behalf his Subjects lived in considerable Comfort and Security while the King was able to live chiefly upon his Demesnes without troubling the Khiliasts with Subsidies brought upon them. He told me that such was the Opulence the King had brought to their Land through the good Ordering of their Industry that his Subjects, discounting, of course, their Domesticks, had many hours of Leisure at their Disposal and it was this that had led to the Idleness which was a Cause of their Folly.

The Road rose to a Hill which our Party mounted with Ease on our fine Coursers. Reaching the Summit of the Hill a grand Prospect was laid out before us. A wide Valley was shewn with, at its extreme End, a grand Demesne inclosing a Palace and voluminous Royal Parks and Woods of at least twenty Stangs1 [1] within a circular Wall of hewn Stone with iron Gates. The Demesne lay at half a League’s Distance. I concluded that this must be the Residence of the King of Khiliastica which Conclusion Khelat confirmed to me. He told me the Demesne was named the King’s Kapital.

In the Fore-ground, in the Valley’s Bottom was a Ring of Tents and luxurious Pavilions encircling a large Ground in the Semblance of a Country Show in which a Variety of Diversions was taking place. At the Center of the Show-ground a large number of what appeared as Emmets from our Hillock swarmed around a new Ark set on a Stage fashioned in Beams of Wood. Khelat informed me that the grand Festival of the Catastrophe lay before me. I could descry a Multitude of human Figures moving across the Ground and around the Tents. We began to descend. Arriving in the Valley Bottom we dismounted so as the easier to investigate the Festival and the Khiliasts on foot. My first Observations were of the Appearance of the Khiliasts and their Habit. The Ladies bore Gowns of watered Silk resplendent with Figures of Gold and Silver. Their Petticoats were of the finest Lace and they wore Pearls and Diamonds fastned in their Hair and on their Forms. The Gentlemen were dressed finely in the European Manner and wore plumed silver Helmets and Swords sheathed in golden Scabbards enriched with Diamonds. More remarkable than the Extravagance of their Attire was a singular Accoutrement that each wore. Framed around their Necks and placed over their Shoulders was a small Harness in the form of a metal Bracket which held a small Glass of the size of a Lady’s Hand-glass beneath their Visage at the top of their Chest. The Glass was so tilted that, at all times, these Persons of Quality could observe their every Expression. It was evident that they did or said few things without verifying the Attitudes that they struck in the silvered Glass about their Necks. Much of their Attention was given to this Activity. I saw many of them making Grimaces and complaisant Smiles at their Glass. It seem’d, in truth, that they had brought portable Versions of the Mirrors of giant Proportions that adorned their Town by the Harbour-side. Only the Domesticks and the Children were not furnished in this way.

In point of Domesticks these Persons were attended by an Army of Valets, Ladies-in-waiting, Cooks, Waiters, Servants, Handicrafts2, Postilions, Coachmen, Grooms and Ostlers for their Horses and Carriages. The Servicing of their Needs was largely conducted outside the Circle behind the Tents. It was here that the Victuals, Dainties and Delicacies that they consumed were dressed.

The Festival-ground was broad of a Diameter of a Quarter of an English Mile and arranged into a Variety of Tryals and Contests, in which the Khiliastic Nobility and Gentry particularly encouraged their children, with Prizes awarded to the best Attempts. At one Point on the Circumference of the Show-ground was a Table of great Length at which sate a row of venerable Professors, Virtuosi, Projectors3, Universal Artists4 and Doctors in the Manner of Jurymen and in the greatest Solemnity with all of the outward Tokens of their Learning on Display. It was they who judged the Outcome of the Tryals and Contests making Judgements and Pronouncements from whence there could be no Appeal. These grave Personages were known as The Panel.

To aid my understanding of the Spectacles before me Khelat thought it fit to describe to me somewhat the Khiliastic Religion and its Import. He told me that a great Virtuoso, the most venerable, indeed, at The Panel, sitting in his Hours of Idleness, had suffered a Series of Visions or Revelations concerning the End of Days. These he had committed to Parchment and given the name of The Apocalyptick Prognostickations. Thereafter these served as the Scriptures of the new Khiliastic Religion.

A Procession of Flagellants, By Goya

The Import of these Scriptures was that the Prosperity and Contentedness of the King’s Island was a Chimaera given Creedence only by Fools and Blockheads. Those things that bore the Semblance of great Benefit were, truly, the Occasions of great Disaster. It had been revealed to the Professor that a Cataclysm of terrible Proportions was imminent. This was to be engendered by the Heat from the Island’s Smithys, the Furnaces of the Glass-blowers and the Dock-yard, the Establishment of all of which the King had so encouraged, and from the Multitude of domestick Fires. All, taken together, would burn a Hole in the Sky. Through this Hole would enter Comets with blazing Tails and Fire-balls from the Sun which must end in a Conflagration of the Island. The Sky and the Clouds would fall to Earth with great Combustion and the Habitations of the Khiliasts, the Kapital, the Metropolis and the Dock-yard would be devoured in an infernal Blaze.

In addition to the disastrous Effect of the Smithys and Furnaces it was revealed to the Virtuoso that the Flatus and Ructations issuing from Cattell and Horses and even from the Islanders themselves, taken together with Emanations of a Natural Gas generated from Leaves turning to faetid purulent Matter after their Fall from the Trees were adding to the Erosion of the Clouds. Because it increased the Volume of Flatus from Live-stock kept for eating the Consumption of Shoulders, Legs, Loins and other Joynts of Animal Flesh was deemed a Sin. In the same Manner the Use of Wool and Leather for the making of Cloaths was despized.

Many Trees were felled each Year in the Forests of the Island for Timber to make the Ships in the Khiliast Navy and for the Merchant-men and other Barques. The Virtuoso condemned this Practice for the Reason that the Trees removed the Natural Gas from the Air that burned a Hole in the Sky.

The first Signs that the general Conflagration was to be visited on the Island would be Fires in the Forests and a Rising of the Ocean’s Waters to overwhelm the Metropolis and the Dock-yard. A young Prophetess would arise in the last Days tearing her Weeds in the Manner of Job ((Job 1:20)).She would be known by her braided Hair and her Denunciation of earthly Kings as Satans. This Maid would un-Mask these Evil-doers in their true Nature – as dysmal Architects of the Extinction of the Earth rather than great Benefactors of their People. If there were Apostates from this Creed in some Quarters such Schismatics of Religion would be taken as infallible Proof of its Veracity. In this Way the Sheep would be divided from the Goats.

This Account aided me in my Understanding of how, in Addition to the moral Causes described before by Khelat, the Khiliasts rejoyced in the Occasions the vain Prognostickations afforded them for Play-acting, Dramatick Conceits and other Distractions. In the Opinion of Khelat the Khiliasts took Pleasure and found Entertainment in the constant Condition of Disquietude and Disturbance of Mind these Apprehensions and Alarms engendered and in the Opportunities for Zeal and Evangelism they afforded to them as a Remedy to their Idleness.

Khelat further related that it was chiefly the Eminences of the Panel who sustained the Apprehensions of Calamity in the Minds of the remaining Mortals of the Island. It was they who confirmed the Visions of the Virtuoso who wrote the Apocalyptick Prognostickations by means of regular Observations of the Effluvia of the Sun, Changes in the Celestial Bodies and in the Progress of certain Comets and of the Levels of the Sea and the Temperature of the Air. For these Purposes they used a large Selection of mathematickal measuring Instruments, Globes, Rules, Compasses, Quadrants and Astrolabes. These Paraphernalia conferred an Authority, and Reverence as great as that attendant on Priests on them.

As a Consequence the Khiliasts had little Time for the common Pleasures or Amusements of Life and all their Conversation was taken up in Questions about the Health of the Sun and the latest Reports of the Panel. Their chief Discovery was of a guiding Purpose in their complaisant Idleness. It also gave them Contentment to know that they were virtuous in their constant Condition of Disturbance.

[1] A rood or one fourth of an acre

  1. a rood or one fourth of an acre []
  2. Manual workers []
  3. Improvers, believers in panaceas []
  4. Polymaths []

The Outsider and The Enemy: Colin Wilson on Wyndham Lewis

The Good and Evil Angels, by William Blake
LUKE GILFEDDER examines the differences – and parallels – between two original thinkers

In 1956 Colin Wilson published The Outsider, an overnight literary sensation which saw the 24-year-old autodidact hailed as a prodigy and the first home-grown British existentialist. He sent a copy to T.S. Eliot, who, in a prompt and kind reply, said it was a pity to have missed Wyndham Lewis out of the book, for Lewis was surely an ‘archetypal outsider’1. Wilson would make up for this omission – albeit 33 years later – with the excellent but sadly neglected essay ‘Wyndham Lewis: A Refracted Talent?’. Published in a long out-of-print collection 1989 Existentially Speaking, it is to the good fortune of Wilson and Lewis scholars alike that the title still survives in the British Library archives.

Colin Wilson

Wyndham Lewis was born in circumstances quite distinct from Wilson’s Leicesterian upbringing, on his father’s yacht off Amherst, Nova Scotia, in 1882. Yet by the time he died, in 1957, Lewis was based just a few streets away from the then-rising star Wilson in a Notting Hill Gate flat. The young Wilson had made several attempts to appreciate Lewis, but each time to no avail. He likened late career works such as The Human Age to “mediaeval castles”, impossible to get into, or quite possibly “not worth the effort”.2 Yet Wilson soon found himself in Lewis’s position of critical neglect – once a boy genius, twice a “pretentious fraud” – the critics who launched The Outsider savaging 1957’s Religion And The Rebel. Both were to remain best regarded for their earliest works: Wilson, for The Outsider, andLewis as pioneer of the avant-garde art movement, Vorticism (England’s double-edged critique of the franticness of Marinetti’s Futurism and the passivity of Cubism).

Wilson soon left London for Cornwall, fulfilling Lewis’s reflection in Rude Assignment that “the writer does not ‘escape’ or flee from the world of men in general: he is more likely driven from it”.3 When Wilson next encountered Lewis’s work, via Tomlin’s 1969 anthology, he found he had acquired a fairly strong feeling of identification with Lewis. Here was, as Eliot had suggested, a true outsider, out of key with his time, equally unsympathetic to the assumptions which his contemporaries took for granted, turning out book after book in defence of his unpopular and idiosyncratic views. Lewis saw modern science, art and politics as conspiring to create an unreal state of mind in which the sentimental, illusory and mechanically Progressive flourished, and to this, he opposed a vison that fused radical modernism with an external, static and classical approach to art. Still curious as to whether Lewis was an important writer, Wilson decided to settle the matter by writing an essay purely for fun, delivering his opinions “en pantoufles”, as if “sitting over a glass of wine with friends”.4

As a result, ‘Wyndham Lewis: A Refracted Talent?’ is a lively example of Existential Criticism, an original conception of Wilson’s which advocates that a writer’s work be judged by what he has to say rather than how he says it. William James wrote “a man’s vision is the great fact about him”, and Existential Criticism seeks to examine that vision, to see how much of reality it incorporates, or, conversely, to determine how far a writer’s attitude towards the world is parochial or based upon some temperamental defect of vision5. Wilson begins by criticising Lewis’s first novel, 1918’s Tarr (a satire of the bourgeois-bohemia of post-war Montparnasse) as a “savage, humourless Shaw”. The book, he says, is obsessed with the trivial and personal, much in the manner of a D. H. Lawrence novel or Ulysses, yet without the redeeming flights into impersonality these works take. If Joyce is a “thin-skinned Irishman who disciplined himself into greatness” and Lawrence a “thin-skinned Englishman who occasionally forgot himself enough to be great”6, then Wyndham Lewis, Wilson argues, never forgets himself for a moment. Not that Lewis, who held that “art is the expression of a colossal preference” – and posited “what is genius but an excess of individuality?”7 – would necessarily contend this. But Wilson differentiates between a strong self-image – an instrument writers use to convey higher truths about reality – and self-preoccupation, which is, by contrast, inward-looking and pessimistic. Wilson posits that artists find release from such solipsistic nihilism through their symbols of meaning, be it Religion for Eliot, Courage for Hemingway or the mystery of sex for D. H. Lawrence. But Lewis was said to find sex as boring and irritating as he found everything else. Wilson speculates that lacking the capacity for such abandonment of the self was Lewis’s main reason for his fateful turn to politics as his form of objectivity (Lewis’s reputation never recovered from his ill-judged and hastily recanted 1931 essay, Hitler).

Having foregrounded solipsism and artistic pessimism as potential defects in the Lewisian vision, Wilson attempts to trace throughout his essay how they might have developed and their effect upon Lewis’s value as a writer. He understands Lewis to be striving to achieve a post-impressionist revolution in prose, seeking to transmute into text the Cubist craving of beauty through abstraction. Wilson describes this as a romantic urge, a turning away from the real world to a misty ideal one, as is made clear in the 1927 story ‘Inferior Religions’:

Beauty is an icy douche of ease and happiness at something suggesting perfect conditions for an organism… Beauty is an immense predilection, a perfect conviction of the desirability of a certain thing…8

Wilson says this formulation could have come from Yeats or even Walter Pater – a far cry from T. E. Hulme’s classicism with which Lewis was associated. But Wilson makes an interesting distinction here: the new Classicism never fully materialised, at least not as we like to think of it. All that happened was the emotional romanticism of the 18th century gave way to the intellectual romanticism of Proust, Ulysses, The Waste Land or Musil’s Man Without Qualities. Only the likes of H.G. Wells and Chesterton truly dispensed with romantic idealism by turning back to human reality, immersing themselves in socialism or Religion. Wilson says Lewis glimpsed another vision, namely that the ideal beauty of the Romantics could be achieved not by “flying up into the eternal gases”9 but instead through a cold, precise, intellectual art, gleaming like the snows of the Himalayas. This does not sound like much of an existential defect; in fact, it is rather close to the worldview of Bernard Shaw – a Wilsonian hero – who rejected romantic idealism in favour of a discriminating idealism. Discriminating idealism is just what Wilson perceives in Lewis’s paintings; their determined clarity, their quality of precision and “coolness” is said to remind one of Blake or indeed Shaw’s plays.

Wyndham Lewis

Wilson’s central contention is that Lewis’s effortless mastery as an artist failed to translate into his prose, where one needs the “patience of Job” to cut through the “blanket of fog” and figure out what it is all about10 He reasons that while painting can survive a lack of purpose – it deals in visual effects and can still be great if the worldview of its creator is ambiguous – writing deals in ideas and cannot survive the same ambiguity. Prose must have a positive impetus; satire alone is not enough. Lewis may paint like Blake, but he is said to write with the technique of a Daumier. Wilson judges this satirical bent as a negative trait, for Lewis is placing himself above his characters for the sake of lacerating them – only in The Revenge for Love does one sense any sympathy between writer and protagonist. So where War and Peace feels bigger than Tolstoy personally, in The Apes Of God (a satire of the Bloomsbury group), for example, we never forget for one second that it is Lewis holding the brush, pulling the strings of his puppets. And whereas Joyce’s precise technique of photographing his characters through words makes the reader blend with his descriptions, Lewis constantly interjects himself as though trying to dazzle the reader with verbal brilliance, never allowing the object to appear in its own right. This, Wilson says, creates a contradiction between Lewis’s impressive, even “monumental”, technique and his “rather vague, boring characters”. Resultantly, Lewis’s novels tend to “run down like an old hand-gramophone someone has forgotten to wind”11.

Wilson proposes that such “miscalculations of effect” in Lewis’s prose stem from his solipsistic vision of art, as announced in Blast 2:

There is Yourself: and there is the Exterior World, that fat mass you browse on. / You knead it into an amorphous imitation of yourself inside yourself”12

Wilson insists that Tolstoy or Shakespeare’s greatness depended on them not kneading the world in their image, but instead trying to get rid of “themselves” from their work, becoming more like a mirror or a magnifying glass, able to capture that “odd whiff of reality, like a spring breeze blowing through an open window”((Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, p. 100)). He speculates whether the character of Victor Stamp (the protagonist of The Revenge for Love) is a partial admission by Lewis of this “parochial” defect when, in desperation, Victor decides to forego his usual mannerisms and paint something which would “remind him least of Victor Stamp”((Wyndham Lewis, The Revenge for Love, 1937)). It still does not sell, because it is old-fashioned. But old or new-fashioned, Victor never attempts to say anything, he – like Lewis – fails to recognise art is not self-expression but a reaching out towards reality.This overpowering sense of self-expression in Lewis was also critiqued by Anthony Burgess, who described the wartime autobiography Blasting and Bombardiering as reading like a “gor-blimied police report” with the strange yoking of the “Allo-allo-allo-what’s-all-this-‘ere to the intellectual and the exquisite painter” making for such exasperating reading13.

We must pause briefly to deal with the objection that has doubtless sprung to mind, at least to readers familiar with Lewis, namely that Lewis does know that the root of great art is the impersonal and the objective; moreover, he was a paragon of the ‘lone external viewpoint’14. It is not for nothing that Lewis’s critical writings develop from a defence of the self in 1927’s The Art Of Being Ruled – a treatise in how to remain a “sovereign of oneself” in a world where this is “nothing so difficult as not belonging to a party”15 – to a defence of objective reality itself against Sartrean existentialism in 1952’s The Writer and the Absolute. Lewis directly attacks solipsism in the former work, writing that “ideas of beauty, of a god, or of love, depend severally on separation and differentiation”, and compares the foolishness of “the savage who ate his god to procure divinity” to Freudian inwardness16. Yet we may argue the clearest contradiction to Wilson’s interpretation is in The Letters Of Wyndham Lewis, where Lewis opposes the “crushing of the notion of the subject” and states a belief in a sense of objective value which sees “the answer is there all the time; we ‘discover’ it”.17

Wilson is, however, too perceptive a critic not to have anticipated this response; he explains the above as merely demonstrating Lewis’s “Platonic sense of reality”18. This interpretation is the string with which he binds together his varying conclusions as to Lewis’s merits and defects. On the one hand, Lewis’s belief in a world of timeless ideals makes him an excellent critic, especially of the philosophies of time in Spengler and Marx, and in his merciless dismantling of imperfect idealisms – Lawrence, Hemingway, Orwell, Sartre, Malraux – any kind of romanticism that is the opposite of the real. But, on the other hand, Lewis’s Platonic nature is said to lead him into an artistic pessimism, a sense that the real world is corrupt and disjointed, and the artist must remain true to his ideal world. As a painter, Lewis may have stumbled on Shaw’s trick of uniting the irreconcilable opposites of romanticism and anti-romanticism (this is especially evident in Lewis’s late-career paintings, such as 1942’s Homage to Etty, a Lewisian heaven of exterior forms). But as a writer, his Platonism led him into a “life-denying pessimism”, and he spent more energy denouncing the world than expressing with discriminating idealism that “perfect conviction of the desirability of a certain thing”19. As if unfavourably comparing Lewis to Shaw wasn’t enough, Wilson concludes by noting how much he has in common with George Orwell. Both are said to be tough-minded and honest cultural critics, but who wrote “hysterical” and “bad” novels because of this same artistic pessimism, a pessimism out of which “no vital creation can spring”18. Alas, Wilson’s final judgement is that Lewis was less the “enemy of the stars” than of himself.

Such an atypical interpretation of Lewis may appear highly contentious upon first reading, but even if one disagrees with the answers Wilson provides, his essay leaves the reader with better questions than they arrived with – surely the true mark of fine criticism. He intended for the piece to be “the kind of thing I would want to read if I was curious about Lewis” and on this count, he has succeeded. The only minor gripe is that there is scant discussion of the sympathy between Lewisian and Wilsonian themes. Lewis’s critique of existentialism as merely placing a token emphasis upon freedom – “Sartre’s novels are jokes about Freedom”20 is the perfect foil for Wilson’s ‘New Existentialism’, a corrective against Absurdism. Lewis’s writings also dovetail with Wilson’s criminology studies, each observing the “evil fog” of pessimism and nihilism present at the start of the 20th century plunged people into acts of violence as a means of escape21. Both have an intuitive approach to literary criticism, finding similar flaws, for example, in Hemingway’s characters. Wilson says they know who they are, not what they want to become22, just as Lewis writes “they are invariably the kind of people to whom things are done, who are the passive (and rather puzzled) guinea-pig type – as remote as it is possible to be, for instance, from Nietzsche’s ‘super’ type”23. Lewis, however, believes this is not a shortcoming in a work of art, it “defines it merely”, meaning “the work in question is classifiable as lyrical”21. Lewis allows a novel to be superior from a literary standpoint, even if it is existentially lacking. In the final analysis, Wilson does not afford Lewis the same generosity.

The new avenues of thought opened by this essay make it a double pity that Outsider and Enemy never met, especially given that they once lived just a few hundred yards from each other, in Notting Hill. One senses that they had more in common than this essay suggests, and they could have found common ground over their similar mistreatment by the establishment. When F. R. Leavis derided the Sitwells as belonging to the history of publicity, not the history of literature, we may conclude that no two writers embodied the reverse equation more than Colin Wilson and Wyndham Lewis.24

NOTE This article first appeared in Lewisletter, the journal of the Wyndham Lewis Society, and is republished with permission

  1. Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, p. 83 []
  2. Ibid, p. 89 []
  3. Wyndham Lewis, Rude Assignment: An Intellectual Autobiography, 1984, p.29 []
  4. Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, p. 10 []
  5. William James. A Pluralistic Universe (1977), p. 14 []
  6. Ibid, p.83 []
  7. Wyndham Lewis, Doom of Youth, 1932 []
  8. Wyndham Lewis, The Wild Body, 1927, p. 241 []
  9. T. E. Hulme, Romanticism and classicism, Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, 1924, p. 120 []
  10. Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, p. 97 []
  11. Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, pp. 99-103 []
  12. Wyndham Lewis, Blast 2, 1915, p.91 []
  13. Anthony Burgess, ‘Gun and Pen’, 1967 []
  14. Wyndham Lewis and E.W.F. Tomin, Wyndham Lewis, An Anthology of his Prose 1969, p. 18 []
  15. Wyndham Lewis, The Writer and the Absolute, 1952, p.67 []
  16. Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, 1927, p.227 []
  17. Wyndham Lewis and W.K. Rose, The Letters of Wyndham Lewis, pp. 155, 378 []
  18. Colin Wilson. Existentially Speaking: Essays on the Philosophy and Literature, 1989, p. 103 [] []
  19. Wyndham Lewis, The Wild Body, 1927, p. 242 []
  20. Wyndham Lewis, The Writer and the Absolute, 1952, p.26 []
  21. Ibid, p.86 [] []
  22. Colin Wilson, The Craft of the Novel, 1975 []
  23. Wyndham Lewis, The Writer and the Absolute, 1952, p.86 []
  24. F.R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry, 1932 []

Brownshirts under the bed

Credit: Shutterstock

How to Stop Fascism

Paul Mason, Allen Lane, 256 Pages, £20

KEN BELL finds a noted Labour intellectual fighting an imaginary enemy

Paul Mason is one of those interesting characters who now seem to pop up everywhere, telling the rest of us what to believe. In his student days he was a member of Workers’ Power, a Trotskyite grouplet that never had any actual workers in it. After a period as a teacher he moved into the media, first as economics editor of BBC Newsnight, then switching to Channel 4 in a similar role. He is now a freelance writer who pops up often in the Guardian, and his work seems to influence today’s left, which is probably why Labour keeps losing elections.

His latest offering, How to Stop Fascism, is a case in point. It argues that there is a new, fascist menace in Britain which must be rooted out. However, he presents no evidence to back up that claim, but then it is quite likely that he doesn’t need any. Mason’s works are clearly aimed at a particular middle-class readership – people who are convinced that working people are a racist tribe to be overcome.

That does not stop him from looking around to find evidence of this threat, and funnily enough his working class enemies always turn up to illustrate and confirm everything he is saying to his readership. So, in the 2019 general election, he went back to his home town of Leigh to campaign for the Labour candidate in that division, and on the doorsteps he heard “men my own age openly fantasizing about the ethnic cleansing of Romanian migrants.” Of course you did, Paul. My experience of canvassing is that if you can get people away from the TV long enough to open the door they tell you just what you want to hear to get rid of you, before going back to Coronation Street. The last thing you get is anything approaching a political debate.

Fast forward to June 2020 and our hero is in London, “an obviously multicultural city.” On the day that he was there, the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square had recently been defaced by the Black Lives Matter rabble, so understandably, groups of British working people had turned up to protest at that outrage to one of the nation’s heroes. Mason was just outside the square and found that he had

…entered a zone of white monoculture. Suddenly there were no students, no people of colour, no tourists, no out-gay people. I was back in the world I grew up in. White men, working class… shouting profanities and swilling lager.

It really is amazing how this author manages to keep bumping into working class men who confirm his colourful thesis. He even managed to see a postman in the crowd, and you can’t get prolier than that.

He ropes in Donald Trump to help bolster his case, even though he admits that “Trump is not a fascist”. However, he then goes on to say that “there is a plebeian mass base for American fascism, and Trump has chosen to lead it”. It is hard to know what to make of that concept, which reads as if Trump is a sort of Schrödinger’s Politician, simultaneously in two states of being at the same time. I was also taken with his “plebeian mass base” line: presumably he feels that the problem with today’s world is that patricians (like him) do not rule it. Mason goes on to say:

Trump’s victory in 2016 was a turning point. It confirmed that there is a massive constituency in the United States for economic nationalism and isolationism, and forced all other countries to accept deglobalisation as a strategic reality.

Now, given that for most of its history up to the advent of the Progressive Era in the 1890s the USA had been firmly isolationist and had protected its nascent industries behind a massive tariff wall, a very good case can be made for arguing that all Trump wanted to do was to restore the status quo ante, which is hardly the mark of a fascist. More importantly, Mason claims to be a socialist, and since when have socialists been in favour of globalisation? It should be remembered that globalisation is not the same as internationalism. I can remember when Communist shop stewards in British factories collected money to buy bicycles that were shipped to Vietnam. There they were used on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to carry war supplies to the South, as part of Vietnam’s war of national liberation. The aim was not the globalist one of opening Vietnam’s borders to all and sundry, or seeing Vietnamese people flooding over here to provide cheap labour in nail bars. It was the internationalist one of providing help to a people who wanted to govern themselves without interference from outside. (A bit like us with Brexit, perhaps?)

Mason is clearly a great fan of globalisation, since the politicians he hates, specifically Trump and Johnson, are “authoritarian nationalists” who “broke with the globalist consensus in the 2010s”. It is difficult to imagine either man as being authoritarian, with Boris in particular anguishing over the lockdown to try and control the coronavirus and Trump leaving all that up to the states. However, both men did break with the “globalist consensus” and since Mason is all in favour of that consensus it must mean that they are authoritarians. Or something; you can never tell with this author.

He never gets close to actually pointing his finger at any real fascists, or explain what fascism is, so that we can recognise its followers if we ever see them. To get around that problem he tells us,

Once we move beyond sterile definitions and understand fascism as a process of social breakdown…we can see the nit-picking formalism among some historians and the left as an obstacle to comprehension

I hope that is clear to you, because it reads like gibberish to me. The best I can come up with from a reading of the text is that fascists are the socially conservative, perhaps economically radical, “plebeian mass” who refuse to listen to Paul Mason.

Do I recommend this book to my readers? Surprisingly, I do. If you are a Tory worried by the shenanigans of Boris and his surreal cabinet, then you may be worried that your party will lose the next election, so read Mason’s book and put your mind at ease. On the other hand, if you are a Labour supporter who hopes your party will win the next election, you should probably have your hopes dashed now, so you will be emotionally prepared for defeat at the next election. People like Mason obviously detest traditional British values and the people who uphold them, and they now control the Labour Party, especially at local level. They are the ones who read works like this and believe the arguments in them because they tie in with views that the readers already hold. Come the next election, all Boris has to do is point out the contempt and disdain so many Labour intellectuals have for ordinary people – the plebeian mass – and then ask if they want people like Paul Mason ruling over them? I think that the answer to that question is obvious.

The closing down of History

Credit: Shutterstock
GUY WALKER calls for a realistic view of humanity’s record

Earlier this year a Palace coup at the National Trust saw the Chairman, Tim Parker, helpfully defenestrate himself before the pursuing Imperial Guard did it for him. The revolting soldiery were later in hot pursuit, through the gilded corridors, of the Director-General, Hilary McGrady, overseer of an absurd National Trust slavery report. They had been entrusted with the fascinating educational resource of our concrete national history. Instead of preserving its precious stones like true custodians, in an access of intellectual vandalism, they had traitorously tried to recut them into conforming with the ephemeral taste for wokery.

This is an example of the tidy rationalistic minds behind modern technocracies regretting the fact that history did not arrange itself according to their orderly notions of perfect justice, resembling much more what W.H. Auden, in his 1969 poem, Moon Landing, called “the usual squalid mess called History”. Why should this be a truer description of what history is

The Tower of Babel probably never existed in reality but, the invention of a storyteller or a myth-maker whose genius should not be under-estimated, it is a wonderful symbolic encapsulation of the nature of the human realm. That realm consists of the undeniable fact of a variety of races, languages and cultures living alongside each other, often in competition.

As humans, in spite of the fact that many of our greatest pleasures such as eating, drinking and sex derive from the animal part of our nature, we like, as modern technocrats, to flatter ourselves that we are somehow ‘above’ or transcend that animality. Of course we don’t. The anally retentive, retrospective rationalists demand perfect manners and reassuring orderliness in the relations between human races and cultures. However, it is hard to deny that this fallen, sublunary human sphere contains more than an element of the Darwinian evolutionary that we are familiar with observing in animals.

Because of this, sooner or later in the squalid mess called History cultures inevitably emerged with greater vigour, confidence, and technical and military capacity. Little caring for prissy rules about good manners and seldom consulting handbooks of rights etiquette, these cultures found it almost impossible to prevent their vigour spilling over into neighbouring territories. This happened countless times with, to name but a few in the full catalogue, the Assyrians, various Chinese dynasties, the Mongols, the Romans, the Huns, the Aztecs, the Incas, the Ottomans, the Benin, the Zulu, and, more recently, the British, Belgian, French, German and Italian. To have expected such incursions not to have happened in the thousands of years of human history is to be ludicrously fastidious and legalistic. It would be like asking the weather to be well-behaved. Indeed, if you subtract the imperial there is practically no human history left.  

In addition, one could easily argue that, in spite of the infringements of perfect ‘after you’ politeness, ‘compassion’ and thoughtfulness such over-flowings represent, the Darwinian effect also showed the good side of evolution – the propagation of vigour, refinement and civilisation. At the risk of sounding like a Monty Python sketch, it is true that Europe was left with excellent road and irrigation systems by the Romans, and India inherited useful technology and rail, communication, administrative and legal systems from the British. We should, perhaps, then, not rail at the fact of empire but look at the nature of particular empires. It might have been more pleasant to be subjugated by the British than by Darius’s Persians or Attila’s Huns, for example. 

Why is it that the modern “Justice Warriors”, who bully the likes of the management of the National Trust into assuming such ridiculous attitudes, have such unreasonable expectations of human history? Perhaps it is because, ironically lacking in historical self-awareness, they are unaware that, curiously, they were born into a distinctive modern technocracy whose self-flattering and comforting idea – that it can control and order the nature of reality – they share. They do this in spite of the fact that we have seen such ideas tested to revealing destruction in recent years in the failure of Big Data to predict economic and political outcomes and in the inability of ‘The Science’ to achieve cognitive harmony on subjects like climate change and COVID. Such visions, born out of control freakery, usually prove inadequate.  

Justice Warriors, consciously or not, take for granted that human conduct can be arranged according to platonic ideal of perfect kindergarten thoughtfulness that exists nowhere on earth except in the imagination of a tiny remnant of virtual aunts or in the legal libraries of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. There is a difference between noticing that things are not platonically ideal, and expecting such perfection to be easily accessed or imposed on earth. One wonders also whether, were such a finicky, paternalistic vision to be achieved, we would all be grateful for it. 

We can only conclude, then, that the modern rationalistic justice warrior has absurd expectations of humanity. He or she, taking for granted that he or she adheres scrupulously to it, thinks everyone should live up to a notional, managerial standard. The past too has somehow to be dragooned into inoffensive moral antisepsis in order to make it presentable in polite company. To understand how unrealistic this is we have only to look at the subject so close to the hearts of Justice Warriors: justice. In the real world, justice systems are imposed in order to fight a rearguard action against the excesses of human nature, to provisionally hold a line and put markers down – not to impose a perfect reign of justice of a kind that we might envisage as existing only in heaven itself or on a hopeful “protocol” somewhere. We are making the best of a bad job just as we do by resorting to democracy, “the worst form of government except for all the others” as Churchill put it. 

Auden, who enjoyed sex and cooking, was notorious for his slovenliness and poor personal grooming, so was well qualified to speak of squalid messes. Perhaps the mentality of the modern justice warrior is that of someone with a version of OCD whereby they compulsively attempt to wash both the present and history clean in order to make it perfect according to a neurotic vision they have. They haven’t learned to accommodate the truly human, or to realize where it is that they find themselves. Fortunately, our squalid human history contains many redeeming visions of heaven and perfect justice; it is only sane to believe that they just aren’t here.

Another portion of Chips

Chips and Honor Channon

Henry “Chips” Channon, Diaries Vol. 2, 1938-1943

Edited by Simon Heffer, Hutchinson, 1,120 Pages, £35

KEN BELL renews his acquaintance with the famous Tory diarist

The Conservative MP and socialite, Henry “Chips” Channon, was a brilliant writer with an acid wit who also had an amazing capacity to misunderstand the people and events of the days he lived through and chronicled.

His wife, Honor, an heiress to the Guinness fortune, had been having affairs since at least 1937 with various muscular European skiing instructors, and this volume begins with Chips devoting many words to his fears that the marriage was breaking up. He could not understand why, and tied himself in knots trying to make sense of Honor’s attitude. In 1940 when the Luftwaffe bombed a farm belonging to Honor, Chips was disgusted by the attitude of Frank Woodman, Honor’s land bailiff, towards her:

He is insolent, swaggers about, and treats her with scant respect. She allows herself to be so familiar with that sort of people.

To anyone reading Chips’ diary entry it is so blindingly obvious that Honor had become Frank Woodman’s lover. When eventually Honor told Chips that she wanted a divorce, he went into an engaging meltdown and then on almost the next page he listed the money that he would make after a divorce, starting with the £5,000 a year that will be paid to him by her for agreeing to it. (That is about £250,000 in today’s money, by the way.)

By that time Chips had met Peter Coates, the upper-class rent boy who was known by those in the know as ‘Petticoats’, and by the more waspish amongst them as ‘Mrs Chips’. The two stayed together until Chips’ death in 1958, but as Simon Heffer points out in his editor’s introduction, Chips spent about £1,000 on Coates between their first meeting in mid-1939 and the end of that year. This would be around £55,000 today, so Chips was clearly much taken with Petticoats.

Channon was no better at understanding the political events that also swirled around him. He had supported Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938, and was devastated at the decision by Germany in March of 1939 to recognize the breakaway state of Slovakia, and then to grab the Czech-speaking rump of Czechoslovakia. However, in Chips’ mind this seemed more like Hitler betraying Neville Chamberlain personally, and less like the mark of a reckless gambler who was always playing double or quits, which is what it was.

The Norway debate in 1940 which led to the downfall of Neville Chamberlain is a masterpiece of reportage, mixed with a complete failure to understand just what was actually going on. Chamberlain won the division by 80 votes, and for Chips that was more than enough. However, it obviously wasn’t when such large numbers of Tories had either voted against their own government or abstained. To Chips’ disgust, the man he hero-worshipped resigned and Steepledick (the mocking nickname that the anti-Churchill faction had for Winston Churchill) took office as Prime Minister. Simon Heffer, who is no bad hand at dry wit, explains that the steeple part of the jibe was a play on the first syllable of Churchill’s name before going on to remind us that the nickname never really took off.

Channon kept his junior government post until mid-1941, and his war entries have a lot of good information. For instance, on 20th June 1941, Channon mentioned to friends that the Germans were going to attack Russia on the 22nd, which they duly did. That information about the attack had reached down to such low levels in the government, and that Channon could mention it over dinner, suggests that knowledge of the attack was pretty widespread in London. Once the attack did commence, instead of looking at ways to aid Russia, Channon slipped into his old habit of not understanding what needed to be done; instead, he dedicated much wordage to what would happen if Germany succeeded in her war-aim. He was convinced that she would win, and that would be the end of the British Empire, and the likes of Chips and his circle.

These caveats aside, Chips wrote incredibly well in a gossiping, housewifely style. He met Lord Alfred Douglas, the infamous ‘Bosie’ who had done so much to destroy Oscar Wilde’s life and reports without comment that Bosie had denied ever being “Wilde’s catamite”. Then, his advice was sought by a constituent who was also the mother of an 18-year-old daughter who was being courted by an over-60s baronet. Chips advised the mother to encourage the match, presumably so that in a few short years the girl could become a merry widow. Finally, he got into the habit of giving lifts to people during the bombing raids and one working man gave him a shilling tip when he alighted from Chips’ car. For once, Chips was rendered speechless. Normally, Chips had an answer for everything, usually very cutting, as at Chamberlain’s funeral in 1940 when he asked a fellow mourner who had not supported Chamberlain if the man had sent a wreath. When told that he hadn’t, Chips remarked that of course, “Decent Judas Blossoms are out of season,” before strolling away to leave his victim seething.

As a war diary this volume is sadly lacking in many ways, but as an account of life during the war for Channon and people of his circle it is a valuable source of information and gossip. Sadly, once Chips was out of office, the social scene takes over almost completely, along with tedious yearnings for Peter Coates who was away with the army.

Regretfully, Simon Heffer made the editorial decision to censor one entry which refers to a still living person. There are only two people this could be – the first being Clarissa Eden, who is 101 and an unlikely candidate. The other is the present Queen, and in spite of Heffer’s protest that the entry “adds nothing to historical knowledge”, that really is for us to decide in a volume that is sold as unexpurgated. That objection aside, enough remains to make this work a worthy successor to the first volume and leaves the reader eagerly anticipating the third and final part, which is due in 2022.

The year of Dr. No – and rural poverty

On the Cusp: Days of ’62

David Kynaston, Bloomsbury, 239 P, £18.99

KEN BELL admires a study of 1962, but wonders why that year was singled out for attention

David Kynaston must be the premier social historian of post-war Britain writing today, and his latest book is a fine, standalone work which really captures the air of a country that was about to change beyond all recognition.

The first three volumes of his putative series that will take the British national story from 1945 to 1979, Austerity Britain, Family Britain and Modernity Britain are house-brick sized volumes that really capture the themes embodied in their titles, and take the reader from 1945 to the early months of 1962. The next volume, which we have been waiting for since 2013, is to be called Opportunity Britain and will take the story from late 1962 to a point in 1967. However, that has not been written so what we have to keep us going is this short volume which argues that the starting point for the 1960s was October 1962 when the first James Bond film (Dr. No) and the first single by the Beatles (‘Love Me Do’) were released on the same day.

The Beatles clearly embody much of the 1960s, as do the Rolling Stones who also played one of their first gigs before a paying audience of two in a North Cheam pub “while four people stood outside listening for free”. However, it was far from certain in 1962 that either of those two groups would amount to anything at all, but the same cannot be said of what must surely be the real start to the 1960s which came about the year earlier in 1961.The contraceptive pill was only prescribed by the NHS to married women until 1967, but it was available on a private prescription from its 1961 introduction. That, along with the five-point geometric haircut invented by Vidal Sassoon in 1965, and the miniskirt of 1966, must embody the hedonistic spirit of the decade that only ended with the oil crisis in 1974. The music was background noise to the glorious New Britain that actually began with the Pill.None of those factors are mentioned by Kynaston, who instead chose to concentrate on three themes not discussed in his earlier works – rural life, industrial Wales, and immigration.

Life in the agricultural regions began to change in 1947 with the Agriculture Act:

On the one hand, cheap food for urban consumers without a heavy reliance upon imports; on the other hand, price-support manipulation, capital grants, subsidies and so on for the farmers. 

It was a system that worked very well, especially for the large-scale farmers, in what we think of today as agri-business. But the lot of the rural poor remained drab and miserable. Kynaston illustrates this with the tale of two spinster sisters, both in their 50s, who had pooled their limited resources to buy the farmhouse where they had both been born. They kept a few cows and other livestock. Water was brought in from a well, the cows were milked by hand and the resulting milk was churned by them into butter which was sold to their neighbours. The sisters’ way of life died with them as the young left the countryside to seek better wages in the towns and the urban middle class began to move into the vacated villages.

The old squirearchy became irrelevant, with only a few from the old order hanging on in greatly reduced circumstances. At the same time, as farm-sizes increased, the number of actual farmers and farm workers fell. Although farmers were involved in local politics and many of them served on district councils where they sat as the replacements for the old manor house caste, many stopped doubling up as local politicians because running their farms as businesses took up far too much time. Thus the professional, middle-class incomers began to run life in the rural areas, for better and for worse.

Over in Wales, coal was still king, but the throne looked decidedly wobbly. Oil was taking over as a means of heating and steam engines were giving way to diesel ones. Luckily for the Welsh, steel making boomed, as did the ancillary industries that relied on steel, so a redundant miner had few problems finding work that was a lot cleaner, a lot safer and often a lot better paid than mining. Few in Wales objected to pit closures; that would come decades later when mining had become the only game in many Welsh towns. Politics was dominated by Labour who had run Wales as a fiefdom for most of the century. By the 1960s that had led to the usual story of civic corruption and local cronyism, but demands for change were muted at best. The desire for Home Rule was a minority interest, mainly amongst the declining numbers who spoke Welsh. It is true that the Welsh Language Society was formed in 1962 to fight for the language, but Wales in that year still looked like the country that had been formed by the valleys, the mines, the chapels, the temperance societies, the unions and above all the Labour Party. Given that Wales is still dominated by Labour, one might ask what was really so special about 1962 in the country’s long history?

Opposition to non-white immigration was fairly widespread, with some managers at some factories letting the immigrant workers go first if there was a retrenchment. As one manager pointed out, “there would be a riot” if he hadn’t done that. The unionised workers were often opposed to the new influx as they saw the incomers as a tool that would be used by management to cut the wages. Peter Rachman was still alive and still letting out properties to West Indians most landlords would not rent to. Kynaston suggests that much of the opprobrium that settled on Rachman later came about not by his actions, but by those of his underlings who found him his tenants and collected the rents. Rachman set a rent, and the underlings increased it substantially, so that they could rip off both Rachman and the tenants. Opposition to New Commonwealth immigration was widespread but inchoate, as both main parties supported the government’s policy. Sometimes a hard line was attempted, as when a Jamaican shoplifter was deported back to her home country – something today’s government cannot seem to manage – but by and large a lid was kept on popular discontent via a quiet agreement between the two parties. It is hard to tell what has changed since then, to be honest.

One error that has crept into the text is a reference to my old tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford, Raph Samuel. Kynaston refers to him as “Ralph (later Raphael) Samuel,” but he was never called by that name and was known to everyone who knew him as Raph. That minor caveat aside, On the Cusp is a worthy addition to anyone’s shelf, and reminds us of just how close and yet so far away we are from the early 1960s.

From The Cruel Sea to St. Trinian’s…

Still from ‘The Cruel Sea’ (1953)
STUART MILLSON revels in British film music at the Proms

It seems unthinkable that a Proms season in peacetime would have to be abandoned, but this is almost what happened last year at the height of the Covid pandemic. With much-reduced orchestras – their players spread widely across an extended Royal Albert Hall platform in order to preserve social distancing – the BBC resolutely produced a Proms 2020, but with the stalls, arena, gallery and boxes of the great Hall empty. The Prommers had to content themselves with listening to the skeleton season on Radio 3, or watching the proceedings on BBC Four television. But it was better than nothing.

This year, audiences returned, but on the basis that concertgoers showed evidence of a double Covid vaccination, or a negative test for the virus. And even then, the famous Proms queues, the pre-concert drinks, atmosphere and general buzz of the season – little of what we understand by this remarkable and long-established music festival existed.

Doreen Carwithen (Mary Alwyn)

On the 2nd September your reviewer ventured into London to enjoy a Prom given by the 60-strong BBC Concert Orchestra, possibly the most versatile orchestra to be employed by the BBC – covering the classical repertoire (often lighter or more recondite works); show music and the songs of theatreland; and even touching upon jazz and pop. For my evening, the BBC CO conveyed its audience through the Odeon doors and into the world of British film music, beginning with Doreen Carwithen (real name, Mary Alwyn) and her overture to the 1954 film, The Men of Sherwood. What a good choice: asplendid curtain-raiser which immediately lifted the spirits of the 2,000 people present; the music immediately taking everyone away from their Covid concerns and back into a world of Lincoln green and derring-do. Carwithen’s overture was reminiscent of her better-known Suffolk Suite, an effective piece of scene painting – with rhapsodic evocations of the English landscape mixed with trumpets and brass, as men of valour meet in combat on battlements.

The programme notes for the evening tended to be a little sniffy about the quality of the film – underlining the point by reproducing the original theatrical poster from the time, and referring to “scrappily-drawn faux mediaeval title cards” and “an illuminated manuscript of the lowest wattage”. A trifle harsh, perhaps – given the general good intentions of the film-makers, who in those days at least tried to celebrate our English past. In fact, there is much reassurance in the mythical country evoked by the props and artwork on the 1950s. In our age of political correctness, it is encouraging that such images should have been dusted down and brought out before an audience.

Similar notions of the countryside and olde England were also found in one of the major items on the bill: Vaughan Williams’s Three Portraits from the England of Elizabeth, the result of the composer’s collaboration with nationalised British Railways. Just as the travel poster was used in the 1930s to inspire holidaymakers to head for the ‘Cornish Riviera’ or the breathtaking Lakeland, the 1950s embraced the technology of the in-house film unit – the perfect opportunity for composers to earn money quickly (instead of waiting for an orchestra to include their new work in a Festival Hall programme). And so, Vaughan Williams’s style – a gracious blend of Tudor-infused tone-painting, with the echo of the village green never far away – proved to be the ideal accompaniment to British Transport’s public information films. Yet played on their own in the concert hall (with the listener, perhaps not even aware of how they were commissioned or written), the ‘Three Portraits’ could very easily have been a short, long-lost folk symphony by Vaughan Williams.

Alan Rawsthorne, William Alwyn and Malcolm Arnold were also dominant figures in the film industry and it was fascinating to hear – live – Rawsthorne’s dark score to The Cruel Sea (1953) which starred Jack Hawkins and told the story of the Battle of the Atlantic. Rawsthorne is hardly ever played these days in his own native Britain, the Second Piano Concerto surfacing, perhaps, every 30 years at the Proms. It is high time for a re-evaluation of this masterful composer, capable of bringing a psychological sense of sea warfare and the limitless ocean into a conventional British war film.

Is there a tendency for film music to be bitty? Not so, in the case of William Alwyn’s truly large-scale symphonic contribution to the 1947 Carol Reed production, Odd Man Out – the tense, anguished story of an Irish nationalist (named Johnny McQueen) injured, and on the run through the mean streets of Belfast. Again, here is an example of music that could easily have been the first movement of a symphony: Alwyn conceiving large, heavily-woven expanses of ideas – with much complicated development, instead of simply relying on a simple, repetitive theme for the film-goer. A satisfying span of gripping, tragic proportions.

Peter Cushing in ‘The Skull’

The most avant garde work of the evening was the Elisabeth Lutyens score for the 1965 Peter Cushing film, The Skull, made in 1965. Not afraid to produce haunting sounds, by using modernist techniques, Lutyens could almost be described as an English (female) Bela Bartok. A strange, disjointed, disharmony at the edge of tonality brings to life the occult world of Peter Cushing’s obsessive character, Dr. Christopher Maitland – the Proms programme editor finding a marvellous still from the film: Cushing staring into the eye sockets of the Marquis de Sade’s skull.

Finally, a complete change in mood – the BBC Concert Orchestra bringing the house down with the skittish score by Malcolm Arnold for The Belles of St. Trinian’s: a dazzling, tongue-in-cheek, belly-laugh of an extravanganza, complete with shifty ‘Flash Harry’s’ furtive schemes (played to perfection by the great George Cole); and all the unleashed anarchy of the worst girls’ school in cinematic Britain (headed by the ever-so-slightly alarming Alistair Sim as ‘Miss Fritton’). Arnold had the rare ability to match the mood of so many productions, from war stories to comedies, but succeeding in everything he did because of his limitless, lyrical self-confidence, mastery of the orchestra, and refusal to see anything in conventional terms. It is possible to say that without Arnold’s dizzying, barrier-breaking sound-world – music that is the equivalent of a downing a treble gin and tonic in the company of the best British comedy actors of the ’50s – The Belles of St. Trinian’s might not have been the classic that it became.

The BBC Concert Orchestra marched us out of the Royal Albert Hall with a rousing film encore – again by Malcolm Arnold, the unforgettable Bridge on the River Kwai, with conductor, Bramwell Tovey, making sure that everyone clapped and whistled along to that famous evocation of parade-ground swagger and cheerful British heroism, ‘Colonel Bogey’.

The God that failed – Fanny Trollope’s America

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
R. J. STOVE remembers a classic work of anti-travel literature

So far as Anglo-American relations are concerned I have always felt that they would probably have been better had the two nations spoken different languages. In the latter years of the eighteenth century there was a school of thought which held that German, rather than English, should be the official tongue of the new state, and on many grounds it is to be regretted that their views did not prevail. Because the Englishman and the American speak the same language they are inclined to take it for granted that they mean the same thing, with the result that misunderstandings arise. (Sir Charles Petrie, 1895–1977, Anglo-Irish historian)

Now that COVID has made us all empathise with Macbeth’s complaint ‘I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears’ – unless of course we have the privilege of political office enabling us to swan around G7 meetings – maybe we can take special pleasure in that healthy, much underrated sub-genre of travel literature: anti-travel literature. Any halfway competent Public Relations Officer for a tourist bureau can make foreign lands seem attractive; it requires much more exalted authorial aptitude to make foreign lands seem repulsive. The foundational masterwork of English-language anti-travel literature must be Frances ‘Fanny’ Trollope’s 1832 Domestic Manners of the Americans. One hundred and eighty-nine years after it exploded upon the consciousness of British and American readers alike, it can still be hailed with the aphorism once coined about a truly great library: it ‘contains something to offend everyone.’

Imagine a quaint little period piece, endurable only by vigilant exercise of the historical imagination, and you will acquire a near-perfect idea of what Mrs Trollope’s chronicle is not. It remains one of those books which makes the centuries roll back. Goodness knows what a present-day reader of it who had never visited the USA would make of it. But for those of us who have repeatedly spent time in the States, usually in unglamorous capacities – who have performed work for American enterprises, had American clients, seen America itself at its awe-inspiring best and at something like its hellish worst; whose own experiences range from Detroit at its slummiest to Los Angeles at its sleekest and Washington DC at its most patrician – the overwhelming sensation derived from the book is that of plus ça change. To reach Mrs Trollope’s final pages is to ask: can there be any country in the world, except perhaps for Russia, where the national character’s fundamentals have changed less than America?

Mrs Trollope really knew how, as youngsters now say, ‘to push people’s buttons.’ The chief reaction among Americans themselves to her exposé consisted of disgust mingled with fear. As she herself archly mused:

 Other nations have been called thin-skinned, but the citizens of the Union have, apparently, no skins at all; they wince if a breeze blows over them, unless it be tempered with adulation.

A new verb, to trollopize (meaning ‘to revile others’ etiquette’) briefly entered American English. American cartoonists ransacked their armoury of visual invective to portray her as a goblin and a harridan. One ambitious versifier, coyly hiding under the pseudonym ‘Nil Admirari, Esq.’, made her the target of an epic poem entitled The Trollopiad. Within seven years Domestic Manners of the Americans had already achieved a fifth edition, guaranteeing protracted affluence for its hitherto impoverished author, who had embarked on the project mainly because of financial need. American readers railed against the book but, for whatever obscure psychological reason, could not bring themselves to ignore it. (Which would have been the sensible response for those existentially affronted by it.)

Not all American readers joined the choruses of vituperation. Washington Irving found much merit in the travelogue. So did Mark Twain, who clearly recognised in Mrs Trollope a fellow scourge, and who knew better than anyone how much scourging depends for its lasting effectiveness on a strict (albeit usually implied rather than stated) moral code. The author of The Innocents Abroad paid fitting tribute to the English non-innocent abroad:

She lived three years in this civilization of ours; in the body of it – not on the surface of it, as was the case with most of the foreign tourists of her day. She knew her subject well, and she set it forth fairly and squarely, without any weak ifs ands and buts. She deserved gratitude … Nearly all the tourists were honest and fair; nearly all felt a sincere kindness for us; nearly all of them glossed us over a little too anxiously … but Mrs Trollope, alone of them all, dealt what the gamblers call a strictly ‘square game’. She did not gild us; and neither did she whitewash us.   

Without naming any obvious names, let this be said in 2021: the political phenomena which have dominated America over recent years, the last five years especially, were unimaginable to our Eisenhower-revering, Reagan-liking, and Nixon-tolerating parents. Were these parents still alive to witness post-2016 America, they would have concluded that the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ – in which they themselves had invested so much allegiance, and so much deserved allegiance, during the Cold War – increasingly resembled one vast insane asylum.

Mrs Trollope’s chief literary assets include her unconscious ability to make us perceive how much a departure the (mostly) fortunate happenstance of Cold War decorum represented from the national default mode. She had the historiographical benefit of seeing America at something like its pre-Civil-War societal nadir: during the 1829–1837 presidency of Andrew Jackson, whose iconoclastic wrath against what are now called ‘elites’ (pronounced, Stateside, ‘eeleets’) has in 2021 a familiar ring. Through another far-sighted strategy, Jackson revealed exceptional enthusiasm for making local non-Caucasians wish that they had never been born. The ethnic cleansing of Native Americans which Jackson did so much to carry out, and to which history has accorded the name ‘the Trail of Tears,’ inspired some of Mrs Trollope’s most caustic paragraphs.

Young America, by Thomas Le Clear

Nothing in Mrs Trollope’s pre-American life led her to expect an overwhelming allergy to the USA. In her world-view, there lurked the acrimony of a cultural love-affair gone hopelessly wrong. The truest parallels to her experience can be found in those subsequent authors – George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Arthur Koestler, André Gide – who at first welcomed communism in theory at home, recoiling from it with justified terror when they saw it in practice abroad: Gide through his direct experience of Stalin’s USSR, the others through their direct experience of notionally independent but actually communist-ruled Spain.

Neither Moscow nor Barcelona seemed more exotic to 1930s foreign travellers than America did to foreign travellers a hundred years earlier. To cross the Atlantic at all in 1827, let alone to live for three years on the other side of the ocean, presupposed steady nerves coupled with an almost deranged optimism about one’s prospects. These advantages the forty-eight-year-old Mrs Trollope abundantly possessed. She had planned to join the Neshoba Commune in rural Tennessee, which a friend of hers, Frances Wright, had established with the aim of educating former slaves. Her own husband, Thomas Trollope, had already shown much greater talent at running up debts than at contributing usefully to his household. When, seeking relief from his disabling headaches, he became habituated to a mercury-based drug, his already few credentials for the paterfamilias’s role became still fewer. Much asperity can be forgiven a woman with children to feed, when she has been yoked to such an unreliable spouse.

After a fashion, the marriage (which produced not just the great Anthony Trollope but another novelist, Thomas Trollope Junior) survived. The friendship with Frances Wright – one hitherto much deeper than Mrs Trollope’s cryptic published allusions to it would imply – did not. No prizes are offered for guessing what Miss Wright thought when she read Mrs Trollope’s printed observations at her expense:

 … it was my purpose to have passed some months with her [Miss Wright] and her sister at the estate she had purchased in Tennessee. This lady, since become so celebrated as the advocate of opinions that make millions shudder, and some half-score admire, was, at the time of my leaving England with her, dedicated to a pursuit widely different from her subsequent occupations. Instead of becoming a public orator in every town throughout America, she was about, as she said, to seclude herself for life in the deepest forests of the western world, that her fortune, her time, and her talents might be exclusively devoted to aid the cause of the suffering Africans. Her first object was to show that nature had made no difference between blacks and whites, excepting in complexion; and this she expected to prove by giving an education perfectly equal to a class of black and white children. Could this fact be once fully established, she conceived that the Negro cause would stand on firmer ground than it had yet done, and the degraded rank which they have ever held amongst civilized nations would be proved to be a gross injustice.

Already we can discern how Miss Wright has become a trial run for Mrs Jellyby. It should be stressed that Dickens himself grew to cherish Mrs Trollope’s account (having initially deplored it), and underwent a similar metamorphosis in his attitude to America.

At home when young, Dickens had raved about the country for the same reasons which many of his most voluble compatriots ever since George III’s time – from Charles James Fox and William Cobbett, to Kenneth Tynan and Christopher Hitchens well within living memory – have raved about it. They have rhapsodised over its democratic institutions, its freedom from chip-on-shoulder class warfare, its fundamental egalitarianism, its self-confessed global obligation as ‘the city upon a hill.’ (This phrase originated, not with Woodrow Wilson in 1917 or with George W. Bush in 2001, but with Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop as long ago as 1630.) All these American characteristics are most readily detected from that distance which proverbially lends enchantment; all, when sought in America itself, are less immediately conspicuous, and, when conspicuous, less charming. Such starry-eyed pro-Americanism among Englishmen – it almost never afflicts Englishwomen – moved Mrs Trollope to the following acidulous verdict:

 … the theory of equality may be very daintily discussed by English gentlemen in a London dining-room, when the servant, having placed a fresh bottle of cool wine on the table, respectfully shuts the door, and leaves them to their walnuts and their wisdom; but it will be found less palatable when it presents itself in the shape of a hard, greasy paw, and is claimed in accents that breathe less of freedom than of onions and whiskey. Strong, indeed, must be the love of equality in an English breast if it can survive a tour through the Union.

Dickens’s own love of equality failed to last the distance. Once on American soil, he wailed to his actor friend William Macready: “I am disappointed. This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination”. When he wrote Martin Chuzzlewit, he took his revenge. Yet somehow the American reading public found Dickens’s wild anger forgivable, in a way that it never found forgivable Mrs Trollope, with her profound belief in revenge as a dish best eaten cold. To this day, mentioning Mrs Trollope to all Americans outside the ranks of one’s closest friends can be a risky gesture; sometimes one almost feels as if one is recommending them to enthuse over pornography or Mein Kampf.

Frances Trollope, by Auguste Hervieu

Perhaps she amounted to collateral damage in the sex war. Rightly or wrongly, her portraits make her look both aristocratic and somewhat cunning, in a very English fashion that even now many Americans could well dislike. Certainly her rather small eyes and mouth accord with no American criterion, past or present, of physical pulchritude. She can easily be envisaged administering rat-poison amid an episode of Midsomer Murders, while murmuring banalities about the weather in a refined BBC voice.

Routinely Mrs Trollope laments what she views as the inferior social position of American women, ‘guarded by a sevenfold shield of habitual insignificance.’ This finding will seem odd to most non-American readers nowadays, who all too reasonably dread the surrender of our media, administrative, and academic institutions to America’s forever unhinged viragos, among whom the moaning maenads of #MeToo are simply the latest example. Still, Mrs Trollope knew better than to ignore the emotional depths below the American female surface. Not for nothing was she a novelist, and in her own day a much appreciated one. She devotes to American womanhood one of the book’s most penetrating and clairvoyant sentences:

 There is a great quietness about the women of America (I speak of the exterior manner of persons casually met), but somehow or other, I should never call it gentleness.

Any suggestion that Mrs Trollope’s anti-American sentiment precluded pro-American sentiment needs to be halted forthwith. Repeatedly in her book, she praises individual Americans. She marvels at the natural beauty that so often surrounds her (however much she insists that she lacks a descriptive pen, she manages to describe this beauty with great effectiveness). New York City and, to a lesser extent, the national capital prompt her to open delight. In her age’s American literature she takes a serious, and periodically an admiring, interest. She congratulates American painters and sculptors for their diligence and craftsmanship in economic circumstances more burdensome than anything which their European counterparts usually faced.

What she always refused to do was to pretend that black was white – an apt metaphor in the American racial context – concerning America’s amour-propre. She would have been much readier to grant America’s contributions to liberty and human progress if the locals themselves had not thrust these contributions down her throat, in season and out of season. We can witness from her account the cheap demagogic trick which any number of Third World Marxists have exemplified since, and to which any number of Americans resorted in Mrs Trollope’s day: the trick of adopting the first principle ‘I must be judged by my intentions, which are glorious; my enemies must be judged by their results, which are atrocious.’

Naturally this comprises the perfect method of making oneself look good and one’s foes look bad. It turned Mrs Trollope’s stomach. Her entire volume may be legitimately viewed as a full-length sequel to the unanswerable question with which the great Dr Johnson, in 1775, taunted American revolutionists: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

Or, for that matter, among the drivers of Amerindians. Here is Mrs Trollope on the latter theme:

Had I, during my residence in the United States, observed any single feature in their national character that could justify their eternal boast of liberality and the love of freedom, I might have respected them, however much my taste might have been offended by what was peculiar in their manners and customs. But it is impossible for any mind of common honesty not to be revolted by the contradictions in their principles and practice. They inveigh against the governments of Europe, because, as they say, they favour the powerful and oppress the weak. You may hear this declaimed upon in Congress, roared out in taverns, discussed in every drawing-room, satirized upon the stage, nay, even anathematized from the pulpit: listen to it, and then look at them at home; you will see them with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves. You will see them one hour lecturing their mob on the indefeasible rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the children of the soil, whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties.

Sometimes she changed her mind. When she could be shown to have committed an honest mistake, she conceded the mistake and, in later editions, regretted it. On no issue did she more clearly avow an alteration of her assessments than on the issue of chattel slavery.

Never did she openly defend that ‘peculiar institution.’ But at first, not least when exploring Louisiana and Virginia, she extenuated it as the lesser of two evils. Initially she shared the belief – articulated by Cobbett, although she nowhere mentions him – that chattel slavery in domestic environs had its merits compared with the conscienceless sweatshops and dark satanic mills of Industrial Revolution England, inimical as those were to any save the most utilitarian and transactional family ties. (Brazil retained chattel slavery long after Jefferson Davis’s downfall, without thereby inspiring hysterical rage generations thence, least of all among Brazilians.) Over the passing years, her limited forbearance towards slavery deserted her. By 1839 we find her writing:

I have had the pleasure of receiving acknowledgements from many who at first raised their voices to contradict me, that my statements were essentially correct, and that in many cases they have been useful; nor have American voices been wanting to confirm this judgement … I should have no fear of meeting anything but a friendly reception from the educated classes were I to revisit America. But this must not be till slavery be abolished, OR, till that part of the Union which has a right to call itself free, shall separate for that whose fame and whose history rests, and will forever rest, more on its reputation for slavery, than on its claim to freedom. Till then, indeed, the Union must be a negative one; it is life and death bound up together.

There was Mrs Trollope, a Cassandra predicting the Civil War two decades before it broke out. Few Americans shared her prescience; fewer still imagined that by the time an exhausted peace could reign (peace which Mrs Trollope, dying in 1863, never saw), 600,000 of their fellow Americans would have forfeited their lives, and that a further century and a half would not avail to eliminate the bitterness of the vanquished or the evangelistic hubris of the victors. In one of her deadliest passages, she holds up to the most thorough derision Thomas Jefferson’s mixture of tireless libertarian ranting with the most shameless sexual predation upon his slave-girls.

Illustration from the first edition of Domestic Manners of the Americans

This is but one area where Mrs Trollope’s analysis seems to have been ripped from today’s newspaper headlines. Another is her treatment of American religion. Do you find yourself, gentle reader of 2021, contemplating with mingled disbelief and nausea the shrieking, bellowing, gibbering brainlessness which distinguishes several hundred thousand of the USA’s church services each Sunday? Does these services’ unexamined equation of Christianity with American world conquest instil in you a passionate desire to vomit? Fear not: Mrs Trollope was there before you, marvelling and blanching. And whilst she would later attain considerable popularity by writing not one but two explicitly anti-Catholic novels (to write one is a misfortune, to write two seems like carelessness), she found American Catholicism something of a relief after the local brands of Protestantism:

It is impossible, in witnessing all these unseemly vagaries, not to recognise the advantages of an established church as a sort of headquarters for quiet unpresuming Christians, who are contented to serve faithfully, without insisting upon having each a little separate banner, embroidered with a device of their own imagining. The Catholics alone appear exempt from the fury of division and subdivision that has seized every other persuasion. Having the Pope for their common head, regulates, I presume, their movements, and prevents the outrageous display of individual whim which every other sect is permitted.

She supplied a glowing commendation of Edward Dominic Fenwick, Cincinnati’s Catholic archbishop from 1822 to 1833. ‘I … have never known in any country,’ she insisted, ‘a priest of a character and bearing more truly apostolic.’

Yet an entire episcopal conference’s worth of Fenwicks could not have made her amenable to her American hosts’ curious ideas of what constituted adequate schooling. Now that almost every month newspapers and current-affairs websites notify us of yet another American school massacre – invariably perpetrated by males on government-run premises, and usually perpetrated by white males – we can consult Mrs Trollope for proof that already, in her epoch, such evils lay in the womb of time. They required for their eventual parturition nothing more than changed external circumstances, four in particular: mindless affluence; the likewise mindless ascription to Freud, John Dewey, and suchlike grotesques of a moral wisdom which threescore Father Damiens would be hard-pressed to reach; a mass-media and social-media culture without the slightest residue of a conscience; and the quaint belief in the salvific operation of antidepressant-dependence upon the adolescent brain.

Mrs Trollope’s painter friend, the Frenchman Auguste Hervieu, voiced with fascinated dismay a finding which has echoed down the ages: ‘American parents never reprimand their children.’ For her own part, Mrs Trollope comments on whatever occurrences of sensibly conceived tuition she can find in the USA, if only because of their rarity value. She is likelier to issue such grim warnings as this:

I have conversed with many American ladies on the total want of discipline and subjection which I observed universally among children of all ages, and I never found any who did not both acknowledge and deplore the truth of the remark. In the state of Ohio they have a law (I know not if it exists elsewhere), that if a father strike his son, he shall pay a fine of ten dollars for every such offence. I was told by a gentleman of Cincinnati, that he had seen this fine inflicted there, at the requisition of a boy of twelve years of age, whose father, he proved, had struck him for lying. Such a law, they say, generates a spirit of freedom. What else may it generate?

What indeed? Try the following varieties of pseudo-intellectual garbage, Mrs Trollope. An American campus gulag archipelago purporting to offer something called ‘higher education,’ where grown men hourly tremble in dread of the latest outrage by hormonal yahoos against insufficiently sycophantic visiting speakers and even against insufficiently woke statuary. Police forces so terrified of having another George Floyd on their watch that they must stoically indulge every form of Oregonian rioting, and every type of obscene abuse from every ululating pubescent with a Twitter account. A milieu where each American adult with two functioning brain-cells will admit in private that only the most comprehensive program of enforced military service can possibly stave off – at least in the interim – endless, still bloodier repeats of last January’s insurrection; but where no such adult will dare hint at the need for this program in public, because the usual suspects will Get Offended. The elementary political will needed to impose such military service on American youth (modern America being an unmistakable embodiment of Chairman Mao’s notorious epigram ‘Political power comes from the barrel of a gun’) is as non-existent after four years of presidential rule by an alleged conservative, as it was in the heyday of Herbert Marcuse and Ho Chi Minh.

One could continue citing Mrs Trollope’s gifts as a seer. She exhibited remarkable insight into the hideous isolation that had already come to differentiate America’s backwoodsmen – about whose supernal virtue Jefferson loved to fantasise – from even the most ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ lives of communitarian rural England:

These people were indeed independent, Robinson Crusoe was hardly more so, and they eat and drink abundantly; but yet it seemed to me that there was something awful and almost unnatural in their loneliness. No village bell ever summoned them to prayer, where they might meet the friendly greeting of their fellow men. When they die, no spot sacred by ancient reverence will receive their bones – Religion will not breathe her sweet and solemn farewell upon their grave; the husband or the father will dig the pit that is to hold them, beneath the nearest tree; he will himself deposit them within it, and the wind that whispers through the boughs will be their only requiem. But then they pay neither taxes nor tithes, are never expected to pull off a hat or to make a curtsy, and will live and die without hearing or uttering the dreadful words, God Save the King.

J.D. Vance, for taking several hundred pages to say less than Mrs Trollope here says inside four sentences, is regularly hailed as a genius. Might not Mrs Trollope’s own ‘hillbilly elegy’ receive its due meed of praise?

But enough. One day the pandemic will abate; America will regain some kind of tourism industry; and we might discover for ourselves the relevance or otherwise of Mrs Trollope’s reportage to a post-COVID polis. The chances are that this reportage will require little revision, and that what little revision is needful will concern outward and visible signs alone (just as improved public health has already rendered socially unacceptable a particular aversion of Mrs Trollope’s: the constant spitting and tobacco-chewing to which most American males of 1827 were addicted). Meanwhile – for however many years the only two political movements maintaining traction in the USA can be summed up as, respectively, the 1619 Project and the 1776 Project – the cool sardonic voice of Mrs Trollope the European Tory realist can continue to work its magic.

Social ranking redux

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The New Snobbery

David Skelton, Biteback Publishing, 253 pp, £16.99

KEN BELL says many members of the middle classes have found ingenious new ways of disliking people

Britain is notoriously obsessed with class, but now there is a new, ideological way of looking down on people. David Skelton, a native northeasterner who is director of the Conservative-supporting think-tank Renewal, argues that we have replaced old forms of snobbery with new ones, based on beliefs rather than birth. Contemporary British politics shows no sign of Nancy Mitford’s famous ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ distinctions (napkin or serviette, long A or short), or inherited privilege, or Captain Mainwaring-like painful insecurity, but has developed new prejudices instead. The new breed of snob is not interested in how a man speaks or what his background is, but in his outlook.

The new political arbiters are the products of the post-1992 expansion of the education system, and for over a generation they have felt that they set the tone of public debate, a debate which often seemed to involve attacking the people they regarded as being beneath them:

Comedians, who are first to loudly claim to be offended in most circumstances, are the first to savage the so-called ‘crap town’ within the UK and ridicule narrow-minded, proletarian values. The likes of the BBC’s The Mash Report and Radio 4’s The News Quiz had a regular habit of punching down.

When, in 2016, a coalition of traditional middle class voters and even more traditional working class ones voted to take the UK out of the European Union, their sense of entitlement exploded in a righteous outrage that continues to this day as the reaction to the Conservative victory in the 2021 Hartlepool by-election shows. One writer argued that “a huge number of the general public are racists and bigots,” before going on to ask: “How do you begin to tackle entrenched idiocy like that?” This is not the old middle-class directing its angst at blue-collar ‘inferiors’; today’s snobs are the products of those former polytechnics that now degrade the name university, who almost invariably have well-paid roles as members of the local government nomenklatura.

What Skelton overlooks in his attack on today’s left is that Labour has never been an entirely plebeian party so the problem is not new. George Orwell made that point in The Road to Wigan Pier when he described the average Labour activist as being a rather shabby clerk, with “a background in Nonconformity”, possibly also a vegetarian, and the possessor of a position that he would not give up under any circumstances. Orwell could have been writing about the ancestors of today’s social work industry, teaching trade, NHS managerial caste and ancillary workers, but what saved Labour in those days were the industrial trades unions. Whenever some insane policy was thought up by the activists, the union block vote could be relied upon to knock it firmly on the head and keep Labour electorally sound.The destruction of industrial Britain, which led to the end of industrial unionism, has left the field wide open to Labour’s middle-class activists. The people they select for electoral office are as socially liberal as they are, and that factor pulls the party further away from its socially conservative voting base.

The snobbery and open contempt that Labour’s members have for their electorate is covered in great, depressing detail in Skelton’s work. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, far too many of them “hoped the Nissan plant in Sunderland would close” as the people there were “stupid” and deserved everything that was coming to them. “Others said they would be ‘pleased’ if the fishing industry was harmed by Brexit” as that was what people had voted for. At root, as Skelton says, this attitude is based on the belief that low-income workers are the authors of their own misfortune. The new snobs are meritocrats, who managed to wangle themselves a berth in a post-1992 “university” and believe that people who haven’t followed that road are too thick to bother about. This attitude now seems to encompass a sizeable chunk of the middle-class as a whole.

The problem is that the working-class is not stupid. They may have rejected Labour, but that is because whenever a Labour MP sneers at a house that flies an English flag, or the party opposes the opening of a new coal mine, as it did this year in Cumbria, the message that goes down the wires is that Labour is not the party of their values or economic interests. This is important because The New Snobbery is also a plea for a politics that treats the working class vote as something to be fought for. Skelton may be a Conservative, but he realises that unless Labour takes on board policies that appeal to its old, core voters, his party is not likely to do it entirely on their own. The Tories need always to be moderated, and pushed, by a Labour Party that has regained its sanity. Skelton’s analysis is shrewd and worthy of attention. The only problem is that having put his finger on the problem, he does not come up with any solutions. On the other hand, perhaps there isn’t one.