ofthewedge

rooting around for grubs in diverse soils

Great Northern

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‘Good morrow, Benedick:

Why, what’s the matter,

That you have such a February face,

So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?’

Much Ado about Nothing, Act V. Scene IV

A few days ago I watched Alan Bennett’s Diaries, a film about Alan Bennett writing and reading his diaries. In the final scene we see the Great Northern Sage reviewing the proofs of his latest volume of diaries 2005-2015, with his voiceover of the postscript to those diaries, the postscript which recounts reviewing the proofs of the diaries on the day of the Brexit referendum.  A sort of autobiographical infinity mirror after the fashion of Krapp’s Last Tape.

Alan Bennett, let it be said, has a February face. A face weathered with pessimism, erudition and God-knows how many cups of tea. February is The time of greyness above, below and inbetween, like the ashes the priest presses against the forehead at the beginning of Lent.  The muffled, doleful, heavy chords of the Cowboy Junkies’ 1992 Winter’s Song offers an appropriate soundtrack.

Hand in hand we’ve watched

The autumn fires burn

Summer’s dreams collapsing

Chestnuts in need of gathering,

The whole world lies rotting in the street.

The crocus is not here yet, the snowdrops were late arriving, but the robins are hopping gamely, there is a tribe of chaffinches bossing the edge of the forest and the blackbirds have started to sing a frugal song.

‘I imagine,’ goes Bennett’s entry for 26 June 2016, ‘this must have been what Munich was like in 1938 – half the nation rejoicing at a supposed deliverance, the other stunned by the country’s self-serving cowardice.’

The final line of the documentary, author’s sunken, unimpressed eyes are turned directly to the camera:

‘Well, we shall see.’

Post Brexit EU Diplomacy Redux 

Council meeting 

Member states: We have a problem.

Commission: Let’s do something. We will propose a solution in the European interest.

France: I agree we must do something in the European interest but national governments should be in the lead. [i.e. France.]

Germany: I welcome the Commission proposal but we will need to study details of the proposal.  [i.e. We have to manage Koalition politics and all the Länder]

In the margins 

France: I understand you have prepared a draft alternative to the proposal. 

Germany: Yes we have, but it is not fully mature. 

France: Perhaps you can share this with us informally in a spirit of solidarity.

Germany: Ok here you are,but we expect you to share your draft with us also. 

Council meeting 

France: This is the alternative proposal from France.

Belgium, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg: We would like to congratulate France on its proposal. 

Germany: ?!&@!?

Es riß! (Notes on everything)

rope

When Trump was sworn in as President yesterday it started to rain on Capitol Hill, raining on the modest throng of snowflakes and deplorables clustered on the first five segments of white tarpaulin along the National Mall, barely reaching the Smithsonian Information Centre, so far as I could tell. The rain was a sign of God’s blessing, according Franklin Graham, Trump’s evangelical gimp.  (I wrote last about how American evangelicals with their obeisance before Trump have now squandered what little hope remained that they might still deep down, after all, be Christians.)

I remember Trump Day in November. The morning in Brussels was replete with objective correlatives, spitty rain, mist, dark greyness. Soon after it was Armistice Day, with its soggy leaves and desperate branches. Leonard Cohen died around the same time, and I played some of his latter songs which with his gravel voice went up like a dirge for 2016. Tough guys are in the ascendant. Death and decay was everywhere.

I was on my own that week, my family with the inlaws, nothing left but work and beer, may be a game of football.  On the plane heading over to bring them home, I wrote some notes trying to untangle these strange happenings, and I have added to them this week.

Why politics?

People want to be able to live, have a family, have prospect of social advancement, be generally left alone and generally free from fear. Some people by their actions harm other people.  There is the butterfly effect or the law of Cleopatra’s nose (which, said Pascal, had it been shorter, would have changed the course of human history). All actions have effects, impossible to predict. That is why we have invented government and politics, law and judiciary, the separation of powers, rule of law, human rights. All life is evolutionary and selfish. It wants to survive and prosper. It is difficult, may be impossible to prosper, except at the expense of other people, other sentient creatures and the environment. We step on insects unintentionally or trivially, we breath in microorganisms, we farm and slaughter animals. Most humans have lifestyles which systematically harm the environment and it is now in big trouble. So some things need to be provided or prohibited by the collective. Though there is nothing unique about human cruelty in the Universe.

It’s hard to conceive of a human life outside society. If you are outside society then you might expect to live with your family beyond the laws, no taxes. Trump channelled this instinct with his schoolyard tubthump of America First at the Inauguration. But even if you isolate yourself then you cannot be allowed to visit cruelty on animals and the rest of the environment.

Humans have invented rules, laws and conventions to legitimise and prohibit certain behaviours. These laws, to have effect, require enforcement.  So you cajole, punish or dissuade – Obama and Cameron wanted to believe you could just ‘nudge’.  A given society is made up of so many people that not all laws will be what you want, not all people to your taste will be in positions of power, not all referenda and elections will go the way you voted.  But in peaceable democratic society, you accept these outcomes, that is the Social Contract.

On welfare versus looking after one’s own

Life is swings and roundabouts, ups and downs, you win some you lose some. But certain excesses are considered to be unjust, so must be contested, restrained, outlawed. Over the long term a person can lose so much, take so many knocks that they end up in a nasty situation.  If such a person has reached that position through wilfulness, then they are considered reckless and you have little sympathy for them. Otherwise they may be compulsive, a gambler, and you think they need clinical assistance.

To varying degrees, depending on where they position themselves on the left-right political spectrum, politicians will say you need to support such people. To be your brother’s keeper is assumed best practice if you are in church or family but for the abstract political state it’s more controversial.  What should you do if an entire neighbourhood, region or country becomes an impoverished and unhappy place?

As animals, our instinct is to survive. Protect yourself, live as long and happily as possible, procreate yourself for your legacy. You know that you need a support group to protect you – that is your partner and your family and best friends.

Christ subverted this.  He told his disciples to give up everything and follow him.

And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.

And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.

And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren?

And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!

For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

Virtually none of us, least of all modern Christians, is capable of or willing to conform to these strictures. I could not and would not do this, partly because I don’t know what it implies.

Beyond family, you have an affinity with a wider network, your town, your school, your work colleagues, political party, nation, co-religionists. It is arrogant to assert that people are wrong in their beliefs and value systems, and require enlightening.  There is no objectively right or wrong value system.  But surely the human race has learned to seek to minimise harm to others in how we live our lives. So when you see someone strong hurting someone weak, you step in, or you at the very least feel as though you should step in. You disarm the strong man committing harm. You move him away, may be even put him in a prison. Sometimes the only way to stop the strong man behaving cruelly is to kill him, but since St Augustine we have developed theories on when such drastic action can be justified.  The classic radical left which now have their champion in Corbyn, says that states should not wage war.  What do you do if you are in England and you know that people are being abused tortured and killed somewhere else in the world?

Taxation

Taxation is taking things away from the people to enable the state to exist on behalf of the people.  What is a fair tax? If you have you should give. If you don’t have, you give less.  You should ideally tax things which are costly. For instance, unhealthy foodstuffs which make it more likely you will need state health care, pollutants which will damage the environment.  We ought to start taxing meat production and consumption. By any reckoning, we eat too much meat. It is intrinsically cruel and unnecessary, and the state should provide disincentives.

Inequality and unfairness

Hapless Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stuck his neck out last week about European freedom of movement and then put it halfway back in again. Like me he cannot address immigration without talking about inequality.

When you sell something, you want to get as much from the buyer as possible, if you get a lot for nothing then you are a good businessman. If you get something for nothing you are an astute customer.

Everything always comes at someone’s expense.

You cannot escape the Selfish Gene. If you work for a non-profit organisation, the government, a civil society organisation, a church, you still want to be better than others, to advance. Not all can advance so you must advance at the expense of others.

Moreover, every job in every workplace is an attempt to be better at something than others. When you employ someone, you want to get more value from him than you pay him in salary. And when you are employed, you want to get away with minimum effort for what you are paid for. Or you put the extra effort in because you are using the job as a stepping stone. People who just work diligently for years in a single job are considered to be mugs, suckers and pigeons.

Inequality is usually the result of generations. Things are the way they are. When you are born, you get whatever your parents are able or willing to give or bequeath you. If my father gives me money, I take it. It’s for me. It’s not for anyone else.  Trump took millions from his dad.  It is a lottery.  It is not fair, but attempts by the state to interfere with this seem more unfair, and communist regime attempts to regiment family life have been barbaric and cruel – and have failed.

The laissez-faire politics espoused by politicians on the right means accepting the cruelties and harm of an unequal society from which they have benefited. They basically say that the way things are should be accepted. They use as leverage the predicament of poorer voters to pile blame on immigrants, and then cream off their votes. It is an extraordinary hoodwink, and it works every time.

This is exactly what Theresa May did in her Brexit speech last week:

In the last decade or so, we have seen record levels of net migration in Britain, and that sheer volume has put pressure on public services, like schools, stretched our infrastructure, especially housing, and put a downward pressure on wages for working class people. As Home Secretary for six years, I know that you cannot control immigration overall when there is free movement to Britain from Europe

There is pressure on public services because the government has not put enough money into them.Wages are low because of the market economy. Wealth in Britain is even more unequally divided than income. The richest 10% of households hold 45% of all wealth in the UK, the poorest 50% own 8.7%. May cannot talk about this. In her schizophrenic week of keynote speeches, her subsequent Davos speech implied that it that inequality was a problem of perception, not reality.

More May:

But just as we need to act to address the deeply felt sense of economic inequality that has emerged in recent years, so we also need to recognise the way in which a more global and individualistic world can sometimes loosen the ties that bind our society together, leaving some people feeling locked out and left behind.

Those ‘ties that bind our society together’ in her mind probably include the erstwhile sense of deference to social superiors which has always been relied on by Conservatives to hold the poor in check.

According to Thomas Piketty, American and European societies have become much more unequal as a result of the absence of full scale war for the past half century. To a degree, inequality is inevitable.  Everything is different. The fittest, the canniest, the best connected survive and thrive. It is not ‘fair’, it does not feel fair. Merit is also a fiction. But stark inequality destabilises society, so all suffer in a way.  Sixty-two people are as wealthy as half of the world.

Piketty and his former tutor, the recently-mourned Antony Atkinson (he was another to escape the world just in time), have proposed a global tax on wealth.  Global, because the French attempt at such a tax at national level has not worked.  You could instead have an upper and lower of wealth and income, set by Parliament and reviewed every year. The canny rich would move to another country. The canny poor will move to that country to enjoy the generous state.

What is the big deal with immigration?

Identity is important to us. We are generally wary of someone unlike you moving into space near to you.  People take possession of areas of the planet and become landowners. Their ‘right’ to such areas is a fiction, invented by humans.

People who want to improve their lives, may be even to save their lives, move around the world. Animals generally don’t want others moving into or close to your space. That’s why stags rut, and why blackbirds sing from the highest branch in the month of June. The social effects and grief felt as a result of immigration are exacerbated when new people move into densely populated areas with low wealth and income, and where the existing population have not experience inflows for some time. Immigration, from this localised perspective, threatens identity (intangible) and access to services that you want (tangible).

Objectively, peaceful movements of people enrich humanity. It makes lives more interesting and generates economic wealth. But most people do not have the luxury of enjoying objective, abstract truths.

How can you tell if a country is ‘full’? Let Parliament decide each year how many people are needed in the country.  Count the number of births and deaths and net migration. Then figure how many should be able to apply for residency and citizenship accordingly.

Responsible government wishing to improve the economy by mixing up the pool of labour with immigrants without exacerbating social tensions, could cause least damage by requiring immigrants to settle in wealthy, more sparsely populated areas. Germany has been trying to do this with refugees, though it is hard to square with EU law. The problem is that you cannot talk about immigration without talking about social inequality. So when you allow immigration to areas where people are already pissed off with life and politicians, you stoke the flames of social unrest and you play into the hands of right wing cynics.

People are also worried that immigrants do not share the ‘values’ of the host society. The Pavlovian first response whenever a lunatic goes on the rampage is to inquire of their ethnic origin and citizenship status.  So what can you do? Require them as a condition for crossing the border to take a solemn oath to respect women, renounce all violence, care for the natural environment etc.  Make it so if they are found to breach these undertakings they will be penalised and may be expelled from the country. But where do you expel them to?

Security

You cannot have 100% public security unless you instigate ‘1984’. Everyone is different and unpredictable. You cannot control them. They must be free as long as the harm they cause is not excessive: violence towards another person is clearly not acceptable.

In any case, the state should not control individuals. It should be local structures that keep nutjobs in check. But how can you force a man’s mother and father and wider family to take responsibility? How can the state assume responsibility for the deranged Tunisian who drove a lorry into a crowd in Nice on Bastille Day?

In the first half of the Prelude to Götterdämmerung, the three Norns, daughter of the Earth Goddess Erda, are weaving the rope of destiny. The women unwind and fasten singing of the past and present. The rope begins to fray; they struggle to grasp its strands. Then at last they try to stretch it and it breaks. Events are no longer following their expected course. The Norns disappear in terror.

No more speaketh our wisdom!

The world now shall hear us no more.

This is a really really great blog post. I mean really. I mean there are a lot of blogs out there, and some of them are good. But this one is just, you know, so great.

There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

A while ago when it became clear that Donald Trump was going to secure the Rublican nomination for president, a friend of mine from Croydon offered a striking parable of what was going on. Trump, he said, was like an extremely drunk stranger in a pub that everyone finds hugely entertaining, as he lolls around spraying insults and obscenities with unrestrained abandon. The smiles on people’s faces suddenly fade to alarm as the stranger produces from his pocket a key and staggers out onto the street and gets into his car.

I followed @realdonaldtrump for several years while his rage against Obama reached the crescendo of his unlikely candidacy.  When he is not hectoring, I quite like listening to him. His circular rhetoric – I am so great, our people are really great. Our people are just the greatest, greatest people in the world. Ever. etc. – has a poetic vacuousness, a sort of preternatural elegance which I am sure harks back to earliest stirrings of human speech.  (‘Me Tarzan’: the history of language is one of ‘unfolding’ – Guy Deutscher.) I especially like it when he does that sort of soft almost non-speaking, usually when he is sidestepping an allegation – ‘Putin? I don’t know the man’ etc.  If only there was someone with integrity and benevolence able to harness modern anglo-saxon with the same unglossy directness.

But today Trump and his fascist entourage are reaching for the car keys. This shit suddenly got real.

It’s hard to fathom how, according to the polls, at least 40% of the voting population of the United States, that’s around 90 million adults, are so pissed off that they would put Trump in charge of the most powerful state on the planet. This includes the swathe of ‘evangelical’ Zionist Christians who have concluded that a female Democrat president would be worse than a sexually-depraved, anti-Semitic megalomaniac with a evident sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan.  They had already reduced the total of Christian theology to an obsession with sexual mores and abortion.  In fact one fascinating sub-plot to this election is the unmasking of the ‘Christian right’ as being just the ‘right’ and not Christian at all. The hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness is so stark that Tony Campolo, one of the American preachers who strident voices were always issuing from the in-car cassette player when I was a child, has now disavowed the term ‘evangelical’, which is supposed to mean ‘good news’, because it has become so contaminated with hatred and violence.  It was similarly masks-off in the UK too last week where, by the temerity and biliousness of their reactions to the High Court ruling on the Royal Prerogative and Brexit, the Right have revealed their true target to be not really the European Union but the general tenets of, deeply English, traditions of liberal democracy and social progressivism.

The United States is basically unfathomable.  It is seething with people and stuff made by people, mostly inhabiting the most artificially-contrived habitat in the history of the humanity. Bloated, unforgiving capitalism and the subjugation of nature. Recently I was in a cab in Washington DC and heard a short series of commercials on the radio which ran more or less as follows:

INVISIBLE INVADERS WANT TO DESTROY YOUR HOME! CALL TERMINIX AND DEFEND YOUR HOME FROM TERMITE INVADERS. IT’S YOUR HOME, NOT THEIRS!

OWE MORE THAN $10,000 IN FEDERAL TAXES? DON’T FIGHT THE IRS ON YOUR OWN. CALL THE TAX DEBT DOCTOR NOW!

COMPARE.COM! SAVING SAVE HUMANITY FROM HIGH INSURANCE RATES, ONE HUMAN AT A TIME!

To paraphrase and summarise the standard advertising message of America in 2016:

EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING OUT THERE WANTS TO FUCK YOU, AND ONLY WE CAN PROTECT YOU.

The next ad was for the Burger King ‘Supreme Breakfast Sandwich’ featuring two eggs, two sausages, bacon and, of course, ‘two slices of melted American cheese’. So this is a nation in the grip of paranoia, gorged on meat and slathered in oozing processed cheese.

Politicians seek advancement by giving electors what they want, or by just being seen to give people what they want. Good politicians try to do this without harming anyone or anything else in the process. But there are so few good politicians out there right now. Memories of 20th century cataclysms are moving towards abstractions.  ‘A quarter of Americans born since 1980 believe that democracy is a bad form of government, many more than did so 20 years ago.’ Americans and Europeans are more susceptible to fascism than at any time since the Second World War. Cynicism with politics, social inertia and interminably growing inequality and the impotence of the Left is the breeding ground for fascism.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in the Dialectics of Enlightenment describe how the failures in civilisation  – evident in the 1930s and 40s and more and more apparent today – induces in people what they call ‘repressed mimesis’. Something must be repressed and suffer in order to make the alien famililar: in ancient times, humans and animals were sacrificed, in Europe since the Middle Ages ‘the object of the illness’ became the Jews. The Jews, as we see from Trump’s and other right wing movements, are still in their sights, but globalisation now presents many other ready targets.

If Hillary is, as predicted, mercifully, elected tonight, she will have merely injured the beast and she should not strike any note of triumphalism. Tomorrow morning there will be almost 100 million very pissed-off white Americans, most of them probably with guns. There are difficult days ahead.  Let us pray.

A radical Labour keynote speech on the UK and the EU

[This is what Her Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition should be saying. Yes I know I’m biased but it helps to get it off my chest. The blame for the 23 June debacle lies primarily with Cameron, but secondarily with the ineptitude of the current Labour Party.]

Brexit means Brexit.

Except that no one knows what Brexit means. You can keep repeating this motto as long as you like. It remains locked in a verbal merry-go-round. If you don’t know that the words mean, then the sentence, however potent, is meaningless.

Brexit means Brexit? Well, tautology means tautology.

During the referendum the British people were sold lies – from both sides – and were incited against each other and against foreigners. Some of you bought these lies.

There was no manifesto for the Leave campaign, so the peddlers of the lies cannot now be held to account. Although Prime Minister May seems to be trying to do so by putting the Brexit boys in charge of finding a dignified way out of the morass.  And if that is indeed what she is trying to do then I commend her for this, if for nothing else.

But don’t let the Tories fool you. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is another Tory attempt to hoodwink the people, just like they did with the referendum and with Cameron’s hyped-up renegotiation of UK membership, which no-one really believed.

Brexit means Brexit is a ploy to detract attention from the government’s own incompetence in getting us into this mess, through a swift changing of the guard, swapping a complacent Etonian with a busy Oxonian.

You see, the referendum was never about the interests of the country.

The Tories needed open-heart surgery to get over their Europe fixation. Except with the referendum, they were allowed to inflict the ordeal on the nation as a whole, with uncertain consequences far beyond Britain’s shores.

A thin majority of voters voted for Brexit.

There were, according to the Electoral Commission, 46,499,537 registered voters in June 2016. 17,410,742 voted to leave the EU – that is, 37% of the registered voters voted to leave. 35% of the electorate voted to stay.

Most of the remaining 28% of the electorate were presumably not bothered either way.

Is it responsible democratic government to rush to action against the economic, environmental and strategic interests of our nation, purely on the basis that 37% of the electorate voted to leave the EU and 35% to stay?

Let’s compare this with the vote to join the Common Market in 1975. In that referendum, 43% of registered voters voted to join the EEC against 21% to stay out. That looked like a fair mandate.

The trouble is that referendums have no constitutional place in the UK, so they can be used by political chancers like Cameron to fix party political problems which, until this year, were never a problems for the country.

We must never allow a party – of whatever colour – to hold the country to ransom in that way again.

People have drawn comparisons with the lower voter numbers who delivered landslide victories to Blair and Thatcher.

But that is simply an indictment of the winner-takes-all electoral system. (Which we must fix too.)

At least in a General Election the outcome is only valid for a maximum five years, there is an opposition to the elected government, and there is representation at a local level to reflect the wishes of the majority of the constituency.

We had a vague, dumbed-down referendum on 23 June. No one know what we were voting for, so it acted as a waste bucket for all our problems. And with the referendum, if we allow the Tories to get away with it, there is no going back.

I recognise that people voted against the EU because they believed that the EU was responsible for too much immigration, for pressure on public services and underspending on the NHS, for the watering down of our national identity, for lack of accountability of the elites, for inefficient bureaucracy.

But I do not recognise the vote as a mandate to leave the EU in a way that harms the UK economy, its environment and its strategic interests, that weakens protection of human rights, that causes division within the country, that is used to legitimise hate crimes against people considered to be different.

So until then, with Labour in opposition, we will demand remaining in the EU until the Tories can tell us what they mean by Brexit:

What Brexit will mean for poor communities across Britain.

What Brexit will mean for ever growing inequalities in our country, and for the long term stagnation in median wages which hits ordinary working women and men.

What Brexit will mean for race relations.

What Brexit will mean for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

We will then demand a clear mandate from the people for taking us out of the EU on those terms.

But with a Labour Government, we will stay in the EU, and yes we will try to reform it.

And we will get on with fixing the real problems, which the people have told us need fixing.

So let the Tory Party mop up its own vomit.

We have real work to do for Britain.

Let’s remain. Remain to complain

 

blame canada

Your prophets are like jackals among ruins. Ezekiel 13:4

I wrote three years ago that a plebiscite might lance the boil of the EU’s perceived undemocratic illegitimacy. But the choice needed to be on a clear prospectus: what are we actually voting for or against? What is going on in the UK at the moment is not what I had in mind.

First of all, this referendum is about the Tory party’s failure to exorcise their inner demons since immolating Thatcher 26 years ago. Our current overlords cut their political teeth in the 1990s and have needed to purge their collective guilt for the decision in November 1990 to slay their messiah on the altar of the European project. A few years ago people grumbled about the EU like they grumbled about politics in general, but it was never among the top concerns according to the opinion polls. But the Conservative Party has long considered itself the incarnation of Britain (the ‘natural party of government’ etc.) so it is only natural for Cameron, their most patrician leader since Alec Douglas-Home, once restored to government, to make his party’s internal problem into the whole country’s problem: except of course that now it is not just a problem for the United Kingdom but a problem for the whole of the shuddering edifice of the EU and probably beyond. This insular referendum cannot be isolated from globalised politics and capitalism.

The tenor of the referendum debate has become so jaundiced, polarised and bilious that the murder of Jo Cox last week by an extreme right wing loon has led to petitions for the whole business to be aborted. But we cannot go back now. David Allen Green’s elegant unpicking of the whole premise of the referendum as unnecessary and non-binding is legally sound but politically implausible. But he is spot on that, because there is no concrete proposal to focus on, the debate is about everything and nothing.

Second thing: the Leave campaign have struck a chord with a lot of people, mainly in non-metropolitan England, because politicians are not giving them what they want. The chord Leavers strike is a dissonant one, transferring the blame for domestic frustrations onto to foreign shoulders. So, in the minds of large sector of society which is frustrated and irritated, foreigners, immigrants, migrants, terrorists,  bureaucrats and the EU all meld into one. And as the global establishment, freaked-out at the prospect of yet more political and economic uncertainty, have rallied to cause of Remain, Leavers add ‘experts’ and the ‘elite’ into this demotic cauldron of the damned. It is a mild British equivalent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. (The same thing explains Trumpmania in the US, though it’s more dangerous because they all have guns.)

David Cameron’s team have today drafted for him a splendid, optimistic plea for sanity, the sort of positive endorsement of the UK in the EU which was needed but which he shunned for years while he acted as tribune of the grumpy eurosceptics. (Mario Monti said this in an interview with the Economist last week.) Now he is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, desperate to contain the mayhem which he has unleashed in a bid to keep his party together.

The referendum campaign has exposed and aggravated fault lines right down the middle of the electorate. England versus Scotland, city versus countryside, graduates versus school leavers, pensioners versus young adults (though not very old pensioners: surveys indicate that people who experienced the last World War are more likely to appreciate than to disdain the EU project), and even Hindu versus Muslim. It has exposed the castrated condition of the post-Brown/Blair centre-left of British politics.  Most of all, it has exposed the unscrupulous hypocrisy and imperiousness of the Tory ruling class, prepared to stoke tensions between the indigenous poor and first generation immigrants.

Brexit cheerleaders such as Daniel Hannan, Isabel Oakeshott, Tim Montgomerie, Toby Young, Julia Hartley-Brewer and – the toadiest of all – Louise Mensch have aimed an endless stream of blinkered, reductionist rancour against the EU, perpetuating the myth that membership of the EU is what holds Britain (they mean England, they are always from blessed shires of England) back from utopia. As if our own shit doesn’t stink. These educated, privileged individuals seem to have no moral compunction. I was perplexed at why, in the wake of the horrific murder of Jo Cox, they were desperately urging everyone not to ‘politicise’ the outrage or to ‘jump to conclusions’ that the assassin had far-right politics, that he was just a quiet gardener with mental health problems. Yesterday before the Beaks Thomas Mair gave his name as ‘Death to Traitors Freedom for Britain’ – what might easily pass as a drunken paraphrase of one of the familiar Leaver slogans. It is as if these people consider any criticism of the far-right as effective criticism of themselves.

(There are similar quirks across the political spectrum: speaking ill of Israel’s government is tantamount to antisemitism, while you cannot condemn violence by Palestinians at the same time as supporting their fight for human rights and statehood.)

Bizarrely in contemporary Britain it has become worse to insinuate that someone is racist than actually to be racist. Timothy Garton Ash has just published a book decrying the threat to free speech of today’s squeamish generation demanding a right not to be offended.

So senior Tories, former Eton and Oxbridge chums, take their high japes and repartee out of the quad and onto the high street, chucking around hyperbole and inventing big numbers to frighten the plebs into voting for them. ‘Take back control’ is the mantra.  Who is taking control from whom? Well, Johnson and Gove are trying to take control of the government from Cameron and Osborne, that’s the only certainty. They incite baser instincts, telling people that their lives, identity and self-esteem which have been undermined by globalisation can be restored simply by leaving the EU. Such is the brazen hypocrisy – since time immemorial – of one faction of the elite telling people  not to trust the other faction of the elite. No more room? There is room enough on the country estates of the prominent Leavers for refugees and people who want to make a better life for themselves and their families. If you object to all things foreign, then you should evict McDonalds and Starbucks from the high street, turf out oligarchs and oil sheikhs laundering their money in London’s property market, stop buying cheap stuff produced by the underpaid and overworked in Asian sweatshops. That would be taking back control.

Blaming the EU and immigrants is the equivalent of the expulsion of the Jews from England under Edward I: a sop to prejudice from a bankrupt state.

All the while they are trying to harness and to indulge their court jester Nigel Farage, who is basically one of their own but slightly off the rails, the man who at Dulwich College had a Hitler fixation and decided not to bother with university and instead to make a packet trading in the city. (That Farage and Cameron are fellow travellers is betrayed by their shared idiom and speaking style – a fluent duck-and-jab, sprinkling their pronouncements with ‘and franklies’ as if being ‘frank’ somehow equates to telling the truth.)

A few hours before Cox’s murder Farage unveiled his ‘Breaking Point’ poster, an image directly lifted from Nazi propaganda insinuating that hordes of darkies were about to overwhelm England: because of the EU. It was a calculated intensification of toxicity, a ramping up of the populist rhetoric which was scheduled to continue in the last week of the campaign until the slaughter on the streets of Birstall rudely intervened and occasioned a brief moment of national reflection. There were signals, logically enough, that Farage would be given a post in a post-Brexit Johnson administration.

In effect this is a right-wing putsch masquerading as a public policy plebiscite.

Once Britain has flounced out of the EU, the same Leavers will move on to their next scapegoat.

I am an EU official, part therefore of that privileged class, so I have a personal and direct interest in the EU’s success. When I arrived in Brussels in 2008 it was three weeks after the Irish had voted down the Lisbon Treaty. I remember the high dudgeon of Commissioners and other EU politicians at this petulant act of ingratitude by a small nation which been one of the biggest recipients of the EU’s largesse. The prevailing attitude was – How dare they! Well, they will have to vote again until they give the correct answer. Here you had the much vaunted EU democratic deficit writ large. At this time the strongest advocates of ever closer federal union were in their pomp: the technocratic will to harmonise everything, it was peak ‘more Europe’. This was also the moment when the inner core of EU decision-makers decided to leave Turkey’s application indefinitely out in the cold, on the grounds that they were not really European (i.e. they were Muslim). (Sarkozy is still at it.) Since then, Turkey has become an increasingly authoritarian and intolerant bastardised Ottoman Empire, which the EU now has to bribe to stop people from bloodied Middle East and central Asia crossing the EU’s borders.

Arrogance and strategic errors are inherent to human politics.  But the European Union represents the most ambitious of all post-cataclysmic endeavours in the 20th century to stop countries fighting each other. The armies which for centuries looted and slashed their way around the continent have been largely disbanded, and only partly replaced by a host of suited bureaucrats. Thanks to the EU. The EU’s bureaucracy is in my view badly structured, but with 55 000 officials in a continent of 508 million it is no more ‘bloated’ than other tiers of national administration. Almost all of them work in a second language with a sense of ideals which is almost quaint in these cynical times. Its internal procedures like its buildings are impersonal and prone to abstraction. Its Byzantine snake-like policy-making process lacks transparency. The members of the European Parliament are generally there because they have been selected for their party lists by party apparatchiks. The monthly decamping to Strasbourg is a comic travesty. But these are the results of compromise agreements between democratically elected governments and the democratically elected parliament. The underlying ethos of the whole extraordinary project is inclusive social democracy and care for the environment grounded in human rights.

I can guarantee that, if you codified everything about the governance of Great Britain and Northern Ireland into a single document and put it to the electorate in a referendum, in the current climate more than ever, the majority of British voters would reject it. The problem is politicians lacking vision and growing inequality and economic uncertainty. That is why I argued a couple of years ago for referenda in every country that is or that aspires to be a member of the EU, with a simple statement of values and objectives that all citizens in their busy or torpid lives can understand. Let them vote yes or no, and for those that vote yes there would be a democratic mandate to talk and draw up complicated constitutions. I also worried that without such a recourse to the popular will the far right will rise up from the debris of economic decline and stagnation and the victimisations would begin.

This is happening now. A Brexit vote will accelerate this trend. The world will continue to spin on its axis.  Humans will continue to consume, defecate and multiply as before. But as the last people to remember World War II pass away in the next few years, the post-cataclysm efforts to work together will have gone into reverse, and all because of the vaulting parochial ambitions of Boris and his chums. At best, Britain will remain but it will have been such a close run thing that a rocket will have been fired up the arse of complacent Europhiles. We clearly cannot go on like this.

It’s time to save England, this beautiful mongrel nation, from itself. Remain, complain and do something to make it better.

Daily bread

krusty
I feel for all of you still reeling from the threatened vaporisation of the BBC online recipe collection. So to tap into the Zeitgeist here’s one that I guarantee will endure through all of cyber eternity:
1. Take one baguette ‘a l’ancienne or other crusty* loaf.
2. Stuff it with as much  rocket, water cress, young spinach and other bitter or peppery herbs as you can cram into it.
3. Pick it up.
4. Eat it.
*Americans don’t have time for crusty loaves. Around a decade ago I was hosting a couple of chums from over the water. It was a hot day so we thought we’d take them for some picnicking and tomfoolery on Hampstead Heath.  One of these guests (to protect his anonymity, let’s call him ‘Greg’), ran through our shopping list.
‘Wait a minute’, he said (in an American accent). ‘Crusty bread?’
‘Yeh, So?’
‘Dude, you describe something as crusty… you don’t eat it!’
Ah what a laugh we had that day.  Ha, ha…er… a-hem.

Notes on Middlemarch

That Whitsun, I was late getting away…

Philip Larkin

Middlemarch ... New edition

I have written before about May’s skip-in-the-step. Over two or three weeks from mid-April the world turns green, a callow lime, then in another two or three weeks in mid-May the earth gets very warm, retaining that moist dawn chill.  Time was I would feel an urge to load up my panniers and cycle to a wooded area well away from London to make it with enough sunlight to pitch a tent, to make it to last orders in a village inn and be woken up under canvas by the dawn chorus. May in England was a happy interlude for the people between the hard work of sowing and seeding and harvesting. The pastoral exuberance became tied in with the church calendar, Ascension Day and Whitsun following on from the unwaveringly pagan May Day. The days off are still in the calendar making it a prelude to summer, when working for the man briefly becomes a sideshow.

Around this time of year a long time ago in student days I spent a weekend at the cathedral city home of my then girlfriend. That was the first time I met her father, an erudite, witty and world-weary history teacher at a boys school. He was enclosed by a scruffy armchair and engrossed in a thick, compact leather-bound volume. The book was Middlemarch, and he remained defiantly in the same position for most of that weekend, interrupting his absorption only for occasional barbed commentaries on the family activity around him and for a few hours on the Sunday when he drove us to hear Evensong. It added to my intrigue in the novel first stoked by my English teacher telling me that this was the best in the language, though it was never on our syllabus.

I finally read George Eliot’s ‘Study of Provincial Life’ (as she subtitled the novel) over several months of last year, largely while crouching for my early morning evacuations or belly down on my bed, head and elbows embracing my pillow, during the eyes’ and brain’s final efforts of the day. Occasionally I would sit in our own armchair in the silence of living room, may be on Sunday morning, before upstairs stirred. But I read the book in snatches of time, the short intervals between duties and distractions. Words imprinted in fast delible ink on my consciousness, before skittering off who knows where, like the surrendered leaves during last year’s stunning and mild autumn, the backdrop to my sojourn in the county of Loamshire.

What can I say which has not already been said and re-said about Middlemarch? We can expunge first all the superlative clichés.  Tour de force, masterpiece, being in the presence of greatness, inspiring awe and plumbing the depths of humanity.

Her prelude, which like most of the content of this long read, quickly forgotten, used the trope of Saint Teresa of Avila to forerun Dorothea Brooke. I was at first completely unsympathetic to Dorothea, with her puritan maid foibles seeming to cloak a hermetic monomania. Dorothea is the object of patronizing, hagiography, ‘the voice of a soul that had once lived in an Aeolian harp’ speaking with the musician Ladislaw in sad ‘recitatives’. After several chapters of Dorothea’s stultifying interiority, it was a relief to meet Mrs Cadwalader, introduced as the ‘high-coloured, dark-eyed lady with the clearest chiselled utterance’, and later described as having a ‘mind, bracing injection of acerbic vim and humour.’ This early heroine sprays about bile and sarcasm, some about her own life choices, having been ‘obliged to get my coals by stratagem, and pray to heaven for my salad oil’.

Dorothea had been steeped in Rome, the post-nuptial sojourn imposed by Casaubon, and suffered the disorientation that the city induces in all of us who live non-epic lives, with its ‘oppressive masquerade of ages’, ‘everywhere like a disease of the retina’. But through her intense though brief psychological incarceration with Casaubon she is renewed as the redeemer of souls, a craved-for bolt of pure kindness.

The author’s muse is an intricate galaxy, aware of the universe. She describes her undertaking: ‘I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevance’s called the universe.’

Eliot never allows sentimentality to obtrude unchallenged by perspective: like when she deploys with exquisite irony the ease with which Sir James Cheetam’s overcomes the disappointment of being spurned by Dorothea, knowing that Celia would be a worthy back-up; like when she perceives how in courting you flinch from strutting to impress when you realise you may have given offence, with Will Ladislaw ‘taking the usual course from detraction to insincere eulogy’; like on the snobbery of Mr Vincy’s middle class, equating any former female teacher as a ‘woman who had had to work for her bread’; like on the tedium inflicted on the childless who are expected to admire ‘rapturously’ in the presence of someone enjoy someone’s (Celia’s) baby, like a model for Saint Catherine; and like on the clock-ticking intensity of the uncomprehending silences as Lydgate and Rosamond’s marriage degenerated – ‘the total missing of each other’s mental track, which is too evidently possible even between persons who are continually thinking of each other.’

Meanwhile Rosamond’s wish fulfilment is projected onto Will, in whose

presence she felt that agreeable titillation of vanity and sense of romantic drama which Lydgate’s presence had no longer the magic to create. She even fancied — what will not men and women fancy in these matters? — that Will exaggerated his admiration for Mrs. Casaubon in order to pique herself. In this way poor Rosamond’s brain had been busy before Will’s departure. He would have made, she thought, a much more suitable husband for her than she had found in Lydgate. No notion could have been falser than this, for Rosamond’s discontent in her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband; but the easy conception of an unreal Better had a sentimental charm which diverted her ennui. She constructed a little romance which was to vary the flatness of her life: Will Ladislaw was always to be a bachelor and live near her, always to be at her command, and have an understood though never fully expressed passion for her, which would be sending out lambent flames every now and then in interesting scenes.

True likeability is only truly embodied in Mr Farebrother, who ‘without grins of suppressed bitterness or other conversational flavours which make half of us an affliction to our friends’, may be the only character bucking the narrator’s maxim that ‘We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.’

Of course there is irony in every paragraph, but it is trumped by compassion and sympathy. This is especially true when the narrator herself intervenes on behalf of the tragic half-villain Casaubon:

For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

I personally can relate to the delusions of intellectual grandeur which are the object of the narrator’s patronising meditations, as Casaubon vainly clung to hopes that ‘there might still be twenty years of achievement before him, which would justify the third years of preparation’, as he was ‘carrying his taper among the tombs of the past.’

One of the most poignant scenes in literature follows Casaubon receiving his unhappy prognosis from Lydgate. Dorothea, restraining her angry urge to lash back out at his cruelty, sees his frailty, and waits for him at the top of the stairs.

“Dorothea! … Were you waiting for me?”

“Yes. I did not like to disturb you.”

“Come, my dear, come. You are young, and need not to extend your life by watching.”

… She put her hand in to her husband’s hand, and they went along the broad corridor together.

This is akin to Lear and Cordelia in their last moments

We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.

When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down

And ask of thee forgiveness.

The claustrophobia of relationships gone sour is mirrored in proud Lydgate and vain Rosamond, each deluded severally, though even at their lowest ebb there are little gestures of affection, soft touches.

And then there is Bulstrode, ‘his terror of being judged sharpens the memory’, so that ‘a man’s past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present… it is a still quivering part of himself, bring shudders and bitter flavours and the tinglings of a merited shame’. Bulstrode was able to marry his religion with his business of profiting from lost souls so that by arguing that they were compatible, they became compatible. An army of misdeeds ‘like the subtle muscular movements which are not taken account of in the consciousness’ evaporated before the rhetorical question ‘Who could use money and position better than he meant to use them?’ A reasoning which the narrator points out is ‘no more peculiar to evangelical belief than the use of wide praises for narrow motives is peculiar to Englishmen.’ It is the self-justifying refrain of every millionaire in the world.

Dorothea explains her beliefs after the last vestiges of hope in her marriage had vanished:

“That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.

And she stops Will Ladislaw when he attempts to categorise this wisdom:

“Please not to call it by any name… You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life. I have found it out, and cannot part with it. I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl.”

Hearing from her uncle the fall from grace of Bulstrode and Lydgate, Dorothea was ‘full of health and animation, and stood with her head bare under the gleaming April lights’, and at the churchyard gate entreated alliance with Farebrother restore Lydgate’s reputation. She becomes the agent of regeneration as she rides to speak to Rosamond, at one with ‘the clear spring morning, the scent of greenery from out their half-opened sheaths’.

Later, as Will nears the redemption proffered by Dorothea, the narrator distils her formula further, – ‘pain must enter into its glorified life of memory before it can turn into compassion’.  Pain, via memory, into compassion: the equivalent of Wagner’s Parsifal, Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor.

But Dorothea is able to go beyond compassion, after her last trial, a distraught night sleeping on the cold floor of the Manor,

She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.

This is her epiphany, seeing herself from the outside, part of involuntary palpitating life, and this in turn enables Rosamond to perceive and to recognise human kindness, unlocking the door to reconciliation with Lydgate. It is Shakespeare rewritten in prose.

To be reductionist I can say that the novel is a comedy. Like a new Taming of the Shrew, the evasion and courtship of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, in whose weaving dialogue, words are picked up like unwieldy tools, passing them back and forth turning them against each other. It is humanity in its various forms, no black and white caricaturing, weaknesses and secrets, all are deserving of some measure of sympathy, and the story ends with marriages  which both author and reader have been urging on, between Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, and with the resuscitation of the fallen marriage of Lydgate and Rosamond.

Middlemarch eschews Dickensian comeuppances, or the dark dissonant endings of pessimists and cynics. Life just goes on. Reckonings are mild and tempered. It is a pastoral Ulysses.

The growing good of the world depends on unhistoric acts.

St Syrian’s Day

holy-trinity-church-stratford-upon-avon

How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

April 23rd: St George’s Day and the Birthday of the Bard.

We share George, who was a Syrian, with Portugal, Romania, Georgia, Malta and Gozo. It is a day to raise pints of ale in honour of True Englishness in all its mongrel, inclusive, tolerant diversity. This exuberant cocktail of Celtic-Pictish-Roman-Anglo-Jutish-Saxon–Danish-Norman-Jewish-Irish-Huguenot-Jamaican-Indian-Nigerian-Polish-Syrian homo sapiens. That’s what makes up the English. So England for the English.

It is the successive, unpredictable waves of immigration, of thoughts and ideas, of people and things, to this verdant other Eden which inspires hope and holds out the promise of redemption. A thoroughfare of saints and sinners, charity and rotten lucre.

On this youthful day of spring day of blossoms and bird song, let’s not cease to build Jerusalem.

Football in Brussels

Tomorrow my team plays ‘La STIB’, La Société des Transports intercommunaux de Bruxelles, the public transport service, whose first football XI is composed of grizzled Moroccan tram drivers evincing a compelling blend of truculence, modest technical ability and comedy play-acting.

We have had several memorable encounters with la STIB over the years, like when they forced us to play on their second home pitch, a surface so scuffed and holey that after two minutes of play our captain gathered the ball in his hands and announced that conditions were too hazardous to continue, invoking article something or other of regulation something or other. We duly flounced back to the changing rooms sporting neither bead of sweat nor smear of mud.

No, my team, which boasts its own hard core of flamboyant Moroccans, doesn’t get on with la STIB.

In our most controversial set-to to date, tensions had already been running high when suddenly, amid the niggles, theatrical face-offs, flailing elbows and general shithousery, midway through the second half, our athletic and otherwise placid inside right (not of Moroccan descent) lost his shit, planting a firm right hand jab in the face of his latest assailant. As is customary in such circumstances, the other players clustered around the couple, some of them remonstrating, others pretending to mollify and restrain. Threats were bandied to and fro – one issuing from a representative of la STIB who promised the starkest of reckonings ‘après le match’.

Après le match?” retorted our resident pugilist, his ire once more raised. “Mais chaque fois tu dis après le match’. And with that he landed his right fist on a second face belonging to la STIB.

Neither of these blows received answer in kind, because in my limited experience Moroccan men, though often adept at threatening violence, are generally peace-loving servants of God. Meanwhile, almost forgotten amidst this isolated melée in the Brussels suburb of Evere, stood the referee, waiting for the storm to settle. He said nothing, brandished no cards and, when the squall subsided, actually awarded a free kick to my team.

The rest of the game passed without incident; likewise après le match.

In another game, now as a substitute I sat on the bench, watching the action next to our (Moroccan, injured) captain. La STIB had a promising free kick, just outside our penalty area. Their coach prowled hopefully along the touchline, barking, coaxing and cajoling. The ensuing effort scudded harmlessly wide of our goal. ‘Bien essayé! Bien essayé!’ he shouted encouragingly, before turning away and exclaiming irascibly to himself in Arabic how he really felt .

Our captain chuckled as he translated for me this intensely private exclamation: ‘C’est quoi cette merde!