September 1 1939

I read something somewhere recently that, historically, August was the month where things – bad things usually – kicked off.

As a theory, if you only looked at the 20th Century, you’d certainly want to check it out.

I listened to a politics podcast last week – a summer edition, with snappy soundbites from the last tumultuous twelve months – that lent weight to the Dangerous August Theory – by closing with a reading of these verses from the end of Auden’s poem, September 1 1939. It was hard to think it nearly 78 years old, so prescient it seemed. Or is it that all human crises feel the same when they are about to break over you?

This was what was read:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

This is the whole poem, read by Dylan Thomas:

By the way, the podcast, Talking Politics, really is worth a listen.

September 1 1939

Choosing Logres

Jeremy Corbyn has been stuck like a fishbone in the craw of the Labour Party almost since he was first elected back in the eighties.

Irritating but immovable, the party learned to overlook him – along with the smaller band of refuseniks who sat with him on the backbenches resolute in their – deeply unfashionable – principles.

Fashion, though, has a way of coming full circle. Just as we can be certain that mullets and bell bottoms will one day return to triumph – so Corbyn triumphs now. It’s biblical: remember Psalm 118 v22:

The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.

So, with socialism back on the table, we have a choice on Thursday. It is political of course, but I wonder if it isn’t deeper than that too. Here’s something I read years ago in CS Lewis’ strange novel, That Hideous Strength. One of his characters, Dimble, asks if we had noticed:

“How something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell: a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers; the home of Sidney–and of Cecil Rhodes. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain.”

It crops up in Howards End too as the contrast between the life of the mind – and heart – and the world of ‘telegrams and anger.’ Margaret Schlegel, here:

The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched–a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There, love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one–there’s grit in it. It does breed character.”

Margaret’s wisdom is to see that you have to have the grit of the outer world as well as the world of ‘personal relations’ – but it shouldn’t be all about those ‘telegrams and anger’. In Lewis’ terms Logres and Britain will always need each other.

The problem today is that, for the last forty years ‘Britain’ has been in the ascendant. The voice of the practical woman and man has been supreme in the land. Some things have improved, but a great deal of what we most value – children and families, health, the environment, has been – is being – threatened. We need to redress the balance, bring back some of those other qualities – where people matter, where the heart has value, and where what counts is not merely money.

Corbyn – for all his many faults (he’s no King Arthur) does represent something different. Maybe Thursday is the time to give Logres its chance.

Choosing Logres

Paul Ryan Keeps It All in the Family – The New Yorker

I came across a lovely piece about the relationship between the leaders of the GOP and – at the time – candidate Trump.

It begins with this report of a conversation amongst some old New York mobsters:

In the late nineties, federal agents insinuated an informer into the ranks of the DeCavalcante crime family, of New Jersey, and the resulting wiretaps and transcriptions revealed a dying language of secrecy, petty schemes, and blood oaths gone wrong. Sad old veterans of the Punic Wars of Essex County talked about selling old comic books and Viagra to make money, and yet they knew they were losing touch with the new world.

“They make money with the computer,” a gangster named Joseph (Tin Ear) Sclafani said incredulously about the young. To which another associate replied, “These [expletive] kids—twenty-five, twenty-six years old—will teach you things you could not ever believe.”

 “You know, I’m computer-phobia,” a DeCavalcante soldier named Lenny replies.

“That’s the whole thing,” another says. “In this [expletive] life that we live, every day if you ain’t like a chameleon, if you can’t change, you’re finished.”

I thought of this exquisite sampling of the DeCavalcante tapesafter reading the riveting serio-comic report in the Washington Post by Adam Entous describing a meeting in June, 2016, on Capitol Hill, at which Republican Party leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, gathered to talk business. Let’s not be unfair, much less libelous. It’s not that the members of Congress present were involved in crimes or illegal activity of any kind; no, it’s that they seem so craven, cynical, and, ultimately small-time. They have sunk so low that they are willing to get behind a candidate for whom they clearly have no regard. Because, well, that’s “this [expletive] life that we live.”

The two reported dialogues are well worth comparing.

Source: Paul Ryan Keeps It All in the Family – The New Yorker

Paul Ryan Keeps It All in the Family – The New Yorker

Election Windows

We were talking about the election we are facing here in the UK and shaking our heads at the lack of credible contenders for Prime Minister.

May is hopeless, Corbyn principled but hopeless. The rest so far off having a chance of election that they hardly register. But Tim Farron….really?

Then C had a brilliant notion. If you look at football there’s a similar situation – a dearth of talent at every level. Football’s solution is the same as every other business and industry in Britain – it buys in foreign talent.

Why apply the principle to politics as well? Instead of choosing from a ruck of losers why not go for foreign talent. Buy the best!not appoint MPs and our Prime Minister on the same basis?

The Queen I guess would have to stand in for the FA in this situation and instead of an election campaign we’d have a ‘window’ like the Transfer Window and then it would be a race to get the best.

But who of the premier league leaders would you choose.

I fancy Duterte. Now there’s a man who’d give those Europeans a fight…

Election Windows

I am a person…The story of Gertrude Bell

If you think of those early years of Arab nationalism and middle-east peace settlements, you might think of Sykes/Piquot, possibly of Lawrence and his disillusion when wartime promises to Arab leaders were disavowed after the war.

Before tonight though, I wouldn’t have thought of Gertrude Bell.

I knew she was around the Middle East at the time, but in my mind I had her down as one of that tribe of English gentlewomen, dressed improbably in full Edwardian splendour, who spent their lives in foreign parts, writing the occasional travel book.

Yet Bell was a much more significant figure than that. She was a true adventurer, exploring parts of the Arab world where almost no European had been before. She became expert in language, customs and tribal relations before the first world war and was then able to offer insights and strategic advice to soldiers and statesmen both while the fighting was going on and through the post war settlements.

She was Al-Khatun – the woman who advises the ruler. She was pretty much the architect of the new country of Iraq, fighting for the right of Arabs to govern the new state.

Her story is told vividly in a recent documentary C and I watched last night, called Letters From Baghdad. Based on letters and reports, some of them secret, it revealed a clever, warm and passionate woman who was able to face down so much official (and male) resistance to the very idea of a woman playing any sort of role in politics. The mix of modern and archive footage managed to give a real immediacy to the story. Here’s the trailer:

 

 

 

The credits are fascinating too – the film has clearly been funded and made on a very different model to most. Lists of supporters – almost all of them women – scroll past and, if you go to the film’s website, you can see that it is the first fruit of a project to make different a sort of film. Worth exploring in its own right. 

The website is here.

I am a person…The story of Gertrude Bell

Wealth mountains and what they are worth

There was a headline in the Guardian last week that read:

Old People due to pass on property ‘wealth mountain’ worth 400bn

When you read the article you realise at once that it could – more accurately but less sensationally – have read:

‘Old people hope to leave their homes to their children or grandchildren.’

You could have added as a strapline ‘If care costs don’t mean everything is spent before they die’.

It’s horrible the way that the language of economics and accountancy sets the agenda for us now.

Horrible too the way that headlines like this seem designed (even in otherwise thoughtful newspapers) to emphasise the division between old and young as the new ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

All that will happen is that both groups are made more miserable about themselves and more distrustful of each other.

What these pieces never do is ask why the difference is there. If, as a nation, we are  so much wealthier that we were 50 years ago, why most people are poorer? Why bull markets and successful companies mean unaffordable pensions? Why decent wages are hard to come by? Why public services are so diminished?

Far easier – as always – to set people against each other and let them squabble over crumbs, while the real wealth remains unremarked and untouched.

 

Wealth mountains and what they are worth

On being laconic

The Spartans of course were masters of the laconic – the area they lived in gave us the word. Wikipedia quotes this example of antique pithiness:

Philip II of Macedon, after invading southern Greece and receiving the submission of other key city-states, sent a message to Sparta:

You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.[3]

The Spartan ephors replied with a single word: ‘If’

Philip didn’t proceed with the invasion.

Haikus are laconic. This one – posted in the Quartz Daily briefing today – describing Trump’s tax plans appealed to me strongly:

Something
For everyone. And a lot
For the very rich.

I thought it could just as easily form the strapline for the Tory party manifesto here in the UK.

On being laconic