Gerard Manley Hopkins: sadness and wonder

GerardManleyHopkinsGerard Manley Hopkins has been heavily psychoanalysed since his death. Much of this seems to lie on a biographical reading of his poems, in particular the so-called Sonnets of Desolation written in the mid-1880s.They are certainly bleak:

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace/my parting, sword and strife.

England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I weár-
Y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word

Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.
To seem the stranger

There are occasions in his life that present a clear basis for melancholy – his repression of his own homosexuality at university; his alienation from his parents after his conversion to Catholicism and his entering the priesthood; his religious alienation from the material world; and his possible unrequited love for his classmate Digby Mackworth Dolben, with whom he later corresponded and wrote The Beginning of the End for, a poem designated ‘must never be printed’ by his posthumous editor. Whether or not he was rendered a depressive by these events, or as he has been labelled in modern times, a sufferer of bi-polar disorder, is an endless debate. Personally, I find ascribing subjective notions of recently defined illnesses to dead artists fairly boring, especially when they rely on biographical readings of their work.

Clearly, Hopkins certainly had any number of reasons to be depressed – whether he was or not is another matter – but by far the most interesting aspect of his ‘inner being’ is the apparently intense struggle he waged throughout his life to reconcile his conception of himself as a poet with that of a serious religious man.

The fight began with his conversion to Catholicism in 1866. Upon entering the Jesuits, he began to feel that his interest in poetry was antithetical to a serious religious life. He eventually changed his mind after reading Duns Scotus, one of the ‘Big Three’ Medieval religious philosophers along with Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. He accepted Scotus’ argument that God exists only as an unknowable infinity, whereas the being of everything else is finite and that only the being of these ‘other things’ can be knowable by man. After reading this, Hopkins became convinced of the impossibility of finding a perfect replica of God’s beauty in nature, and began writing again and recording the natural world. However, he didn’t read Duns Scotus until 1872. He hadn’t written a word of poetry since 1866, and had burned everything he ever written up to that date.

Feelings of ambivalence towards and continuous rejection of his own poetry seem to have dogged him throughout his life, reinforced by the fact that he remained mostly unpublished during his lifetime. Later, the acceptance by a Jesuit publication of his The Wreck of the Deutschland, but its later non-publication, particularly hurt him.

In his final years, the old contradiction returned, and he underwent another crisis, coming to believe that the egotism required by an artist in seeking an audience violated his religious vows of humility, and decided not to publish anything. Later, he came to believe that a poet required an audience for criticism and encouragement. This contradiction led him to feel that he had failed both as a poet and as a priest. He died of typhoid fever in 1889, aged 44.

Hopkins produced some of the most experimental poetry of his age, completely contravening established norms. For that, and his experimental use of language – in particular, he taught himself Old English – he is often considered a proto-modernist. It is a shame he is not considered alongside Rimbaud for his revolutionary effect on poetry, who was equally violent in his shaking up of the symbolist movement and French poetry in general. As the inner life of artists can often overshadow their poetry, so can their private lives. The sexy, tragic libertinism of Rimbaud is far more attractive to a modern audience than that of Hopkins’ quiet priest.

But whatever remains, the graceful wonder for the natural world displayed in his poems is amazing:

I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaical fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain;

A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled him, not quite utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, eyelid and eyelid of slumber.

His last words were “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.”


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Emanuel Litvinoff and the nature of TS Eliot’s antisemitism

Emanuel LitvinoffIt completely passed me by that Emanuel Litvinoff had died in 2011.

Unfortunately for a writer who wrote many plays, novels and poems, he seems to be mostly remembered for his incredible poem To T.S. Eliot, an attack on Eliot’s antisemitism, which he amazingly read out in front of Eliot himself at the ICA in 1951. Previously an admirer, he was horrified when poems such as Gerontion and Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar were reprinted in 1948 in his Selected Poems. There is little doubt of the antisemitic content of these poems; they are downright nasty:

“And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner [of my building] / Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp.”
– Gerontion

“The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs.”
Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar

It’s always a shame when a writer is remembered primarily for something he probably wishes he had never had to write in the first place. Especially so since most of his novels seem to be now out of print. His memoir of Jewish East End life, Journeys Through a Small Planet has a Penguin Modern Classics edition that I’ll be making sure to get my hands on.

Looking at the history of Eliot’s antisemitism and political/religious trajectory is interesting in itself. There is no doubt that Eliot was a reactionary in the Tory tradition. You could call him a ‘very English’ reactionary, but I generally hate the self-mythologising ‘very English’ label the English like to apply to anything that paints us in a good light. A Very English Civil war, a Very English General Strike, blah.

Of course, Eliot was not English, but he was desperate to firmly root himself in English society, especially upper-class society. The most obvious expression of this is certainly his conversion from the Unitarianism of his childhood to Anglicanism, identifying not only as a member of the Church of England but as an Anglo-Catholic. Then in its heyday, Anglo-Catholicism is a branch of the Anglican church that retained the most Catholic aspects of worship from the Elizabethan Settlement; sacraments, incense, veneration of Mary, confession, and even Latin Mass in some instances. Traditionally, it disdains the Protestant, or ‘low church’, aspects of the Church of England, and sees itself as part of the continuous church founded by the early Christians. Unsurprisingly, many of the original adherents to Anglo-Catholicism in the mid-19th century, known as the Oxford Movement, converted to Catholicism itself, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, who continued to write poetry as a Jesuit priest. Many High Church Anglicans in recent years have also converted, unhappy with the modest attempts at liberalisation in the CofE.

Devotional image of Charles I, from the Eikon BasilikeHigh Church Anglicanism has always been the embodiment of the traditional English establishment, and none more so than in Eliot’s time, when the aristocracy still existed as a viable economic class. Toryism, the political wing of Anglo-Catholicism and the precursor to modern conservatism, growing out of the Royalist faction of the Civil War, was clearly where Eliot found himself most at home. He stated that he was a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion”. As if to amplify his reactionary politico-religious credentials, he was a life member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, an Anglo-Catholic devotional society that venerates Charles I.

The essence of the modernism that Eliot portrayed in The Waste Land, that general unease associated with complete collapse of absolutes and the assumed survival of the political and social order, led him to embrace a totally pre-modern form of conservatism. The royalism of the Cavalier and Jacobite tradition, the religious conservatism, and in the vein of all European reactionaries since the French Revolution, the suspicion of materialism, capitalism, liberalism, and democracy. Eliot’s radicalism was one of traditional, authoritarian, paternalistic hierarchies.

In this embrace of the political and religious tastes of the inter-war aristocratic classes, it would almost be surprising if somebody like Emanuel Litvinoff had not had to write a poem denouncing Eliot for his antisemitism, which was hardly a rarity among the pre-war aristocracy.

The British Union of Fascists had many prominent aristocratic patrons, and was flocked to by the sons of Earls and Barons, although many eventually were turned off by the ‘unseemly’ violence endemic at their meetings. David Redesdale, father of the Mitfords, was notorious for his antisemitic views. While sections of the aristocracy were actively sympathetic to fascism, in particular Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the anti-democratic, traditionalist, religious absolutes of High Toryism often expressed themselves in casual, or not so casual, antisemitism during the inter-war years.*

TS EliotThere have been defences of Eliot, which are as predictable as nightfall when any great artist turns out to have held unfavorable opinions, or to have done something that might make them a flawed human being. Terry Eagleton counters this very well:

“Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot’s well-earned reputation [as a poet] is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours.”

Despite having felt ‘nervous’ when he saw Eliot enter, Litvinoff finished reading his poem at the ICA in 1951.

So shall I say it is not eminence chills
but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
the sly words and the cold heart
and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
Let your words
tread lightly on this earth of Europe
lest my people’s bones protest.
To T.S. Eliot

Eliot reportedly said afterwards, “It’s a good poem. It’s a very good poem.”

Having dispatched Eliot, Litvinoff later led high-profile campaigns against official antisemitism in Soviet Russia and, expressing the universality of his belief in human dignity, his last novel, Falls the Shadow, written during the 1982 Lebanon War, was set in contemporary Israel and is critical of Israeli policy towards Palestinians.

Like many obituaries and short biographies of Litvinoff, this post has ended up saying more about Eliot than him. When I’ve got a hold of Journeys From a Small Planet I’ll write something for the man himself.

*check out European Aristocracies and the Radical Right, 1918-1939, by Karina Urbach.


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UKIP are not exceptional – the radical right is in flux across Europe

As the tide against austerity politics seems to be turning, I’ve seen a fair amount of comment recently trying to pin down the main beneficiaries of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and austerity in Europe.

Much of this has come from the left, and much of it claims that left-wing parties in continental Europe are the main beneficiaries. In the UK, some of this has come from people involved in the Left Unity project, which hopes to form itself into a new party later in the year.

Left Unity are clearly trying to model themselves (rightly, in my view) on the more accessible, non-sectarian left parties that have sprung up in Europe in the last few years, the most obviously successful of these being Syriza in Greece (currently the official opposition and neck-and-neck in polls with the conservative New Democracy party)*.

This seems like a welcome break from the terminally sectarian, constantly splintering, and undemocratic parties of the past, led by ‘charismatic’ leaders of the Galloway/Sheridan/Scargill variety, and a break from the politics of the Cold War. These old parties are, as Slavoj Zizek bluntly said when talking about the old Stalinist Greek Communist Party (currently suffering huge losses to Syriza), the people who ‘forgot to die’.

With the excitement around Syriza, and the air of triumphalism around the fact that austerity seems to be on the ideological back foot – with even the IMF urging a focus on growth – it is worth examining who is benefitting from mass anger against austerity in Europe.

UKIP scored big in the recent local council elections in the UK – 23% – and many leftists here seem to see this, wrongly, as an expression of an innate British conservatism not reflected in the rest of Europe, where they see protests, strikes, and rising left-wing parties as an expression of anger against austerity politics. Even a brief look at the current state of Europe reveals that this is simply not true. Rather than being an exception to any imagined European fightback against austerity from the left, UKIP are mirroring the rise of the radical right as the dominant opposition to mainstream politics in Europe , even in countries with a traditionally strong left.

France is the most obvious starting point, and the 2012 elections an almost perfect example of Europe’s problem. Despite heavy media attention, and lots of hype from even the mainstream press that he would perform exceptionally due to the backlash against austerity, Jean-Luc Melenchon disappointed, with his share of the vote was totally eclipsed by Marine Le Pen’s  de-nazified Front National. Le Pen is one of the few European political leaders to take a party that was once explicitly racist and anti-semitic in the old neofascist tradition, and successfully transform it into a ‘reformed’ nationalist party. It is interesting that Le Pen once said she saw the Front National as more like UKIP than the BNP.

In Germany, the Die Linke party – another European left-wing success story – seem likely to suffer heavy losses in the upcoming federal elections – currently polling around 7%, down from nearly 12% at the last election. Given the German nationalist right’s inability to ‘detoxify’ as other European parties have – something Italian neofascists equally struggle with – most votes that would otherwise go to a reformed nationalist party of the northern European variety are channeled to the centre-right.

In Spain, Izquierda Unida, the main left party, finished millions of votes behind the two neo-liberal parties, and barely increased their vote share from the previous election. Regional nationalism has seen a surge of support, especially in Catalonia – manifested in last year’s gigantic march in Barcelona for independence, and often plays on rhetoric that has focused on a claimed disparity between productive and unproductive regions. Catalan leaders have attempted to paint their region as economically productive as opposed to the rest of Spain, especially the ‘lazy south’. This mirrors the xenophobic language of current European politics in general, with the austere northern countries contrasted favourably with lazy, indebted, unproductive periphery countries. A clear fabrication, especially since the revelation that Greek workers work on average 48% more hours than Germans. While many, if not most, Spanish regionalist parties are generally liberal, if not social democratic, they nevertheless express a rise of nationalism over a universal leftism.

bssThis rhetoric has fed the rise of the radical right parties in northern Europe, arguably where nationalists have been most successful. The Danish People’s Party, Swedish Democrats, True Finns, and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands have all performed well (extremely well in some cases) in recent elections, and have dominated opposition to their respective centre-left/centre-right parties. While some of these parties differ in their embrace of liberal economics – the True Finns, for instance, are supportive of the welfare state – all share a focus on halting immigration, strong law and order policies, protectionism, Euroscepticism, ‘national culture’, and an opposition to social liberalism and multiculturalism. They have all broken from the neofascist, and explicitly racist tradition that has until now characterised the postwar radical right – in the way that Nick Griffin failed to do with the BNP – and present themselves as professional, capable politicians. In their rhetoric and policies, they are generally undistinguishable from UKIP.

The current riots in Sweden are highlighting this similarity. The Swedish Democrats have been getting a fair amount of coverage in the mainstream press in the last few days, and have succeeded, without really having to try too hard, in blaming the unrest on immigration, multiculturalism, welfare, and liberal social policies (see: ), as well as the welfare state. They are behaving almost identically as the right and their press did during the riots in the UK.

The idea that the left is ascendant in Europe, and that UKIP is an exception to this rule, is a dangerous fallacy that needs to be confronted where it appears. Despite high-profile protests, and the rise and subsequent defeat of the Occupy and Indignado movements, the left has somewhat disappeared from the stage. At the moment, opposition to the political and economic consensus is being captured by the nationalist right and its emphasis on the EU, liberalism, public spending, law and order, and immigration. Social democrats who prescribe unending stimulus, ‘growth measures’ and ‘investment’ as a way of keeping the neoliberal patient alive, are not benefitting from disaffection, except in the pages of the liberal and centre-left media, and are not convincing their own populations. The Labour Party are not polling spectacularly, the German social democrats are set for a hammering in the upcoming elections, and the Hollande government is immensely unpopular. The radical right is filling a vacuum where the non-neoliberal left should be.

*Not forgetting that Greece, perennially contrarian as it is, also has an explicitly racist, unreformed neofascist party in third place in the polls.

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Post-crisis Olympic blues, and the militarisation of the Olympic spirit

A couple of weeks ago I was standing five-deep on the platform at Stockwell tube station, staring up at an empty departure board. A train had broken down somewhere up the line. People were late for work, it was very hot. It was the worst week of tube delays so far this year, with, according to TfL, 33 incidents of severe delays and line closures. Eventually a train arrived, and after cramming on board with hundreds of others, we sped away leaving the platform as busy as it was before. As soon as we were in the tunnel, the stern delivery of the Victoria line announcer filled the carriage, with the warning now familiar to any user of railways in Britain to not leave your bag unattended, or run the risk of it being ‘destroyed by the security services’.

I’ve never liked the Victoria line announcer. She has a sternness in her voice you would never find infecting the chirpy breeze of the Bakerloo line announcer, or the spritely and professional candour of the Northern line. The Victoria line announcer addresses the worms squeezed on her trains with a contemptuous pity. She is busy and modern, as evidenced by her shiny new carriages, compared to the tan and taupe, ’70s hangover trains on the Bakerloo line. When she has to tell you where to alight for a palace or an eye hospital, you are inconveniencing her.

She issued her threats to mind your baggage several times during my short journey to Green Park, laced with a couple of chirpy warnings not to give money to beggars. It might have been the fact that I knew I was going to be late, or just suffering the all too familiar sensation of boiling in a scrum of strangers in a dusty underground tunnel. Or it might have been a combination of the tube-fatigue and the repeated announcements from what, at the end, sounded like a deranged Tory backbencher at the announcer’s helm. In between being warned not to feed the beggars, and with the hot breath of the omnipotent security services on the back of my neck, its sweaty palm clutching my bag, I had a premonition of the future. The near future, that is, and a dystopian one. Yes, the Olympics.

Hourly, Londoners are reminded of this hell on the horizon, looming ever closer like a metropolis-bound meteor in a shit film. The heady days of 2005, when the entire country was in Olympics rapture, seem a long time ago. We were like the party animals on the roof of the skyscraper in Independence Day, with the alien spaceship hovering overhead, holding aloft signs welcoming this strange visitor, gleeful smiles on our faces and dancing madly at the prospect of alien contact. I bet the Bakerloo line lady would have been up there, her carefree moves inspiring even the most demented apocalypse day looter to stop and twist. But, of course, the party skyscraper was the first to get zapped by the spaceship. We’re now six years on from those halcyon days of Labour boom, the pungent smell of big profit and finely pressed suits lining the shining boulevards of the square mile, all the jobs, all the credit, the family home that could function as a never-ending cash machine, always ratcheting up its price with each sweet passing minute. But then, one day in 2008, when an American investment bank called Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, we were all zapped, as if without warning.

A couple of days ago the EU decided (again) to formulate a last-minute plan to contain the eurozone debt crisis, in part continuing the austerity drive in Greece that is in the process of turning the country into a client state of the IMF. Italy has promised to implement its own austerity programme. The Bank of England is now warning that Britain faces a ‘significant chance’ of going back into recession. But there is light on the horizon. In the face of this apocalypse we’ll have the Olympics. We are still being sold the Olympics as, at best, an event to rescue the British economy, and at worst, something that will at least cheer the hearts of those suffering. We will still have the Olympic Spirit. A desperate cry if there ever was one, and one that rests on an interesting interpretation of exactly what this ‘Olympic Spirit’ might entail.

As well as magnificent feats of athletic prowess, the Olympics also has the added bonus of often resembling a military coup. Prior to the Athens Games in 2004, 70,000 police and troops were drafted into the city to clear ‘undesirables’ from the streets, mostly drug addicts, immigrants, and the homeless. It was reported during the preparations for the Beijing Games that around 1.5 million residents were ejected from their homes. 720,000 were displaced during the Seoul Games of 1988, in a fine demonstration of newly re-gained democratic principles (the Sixth Republic of South Korea had been declared only a year earlier after nearly a decade of violent military rule). The Athens crackdown was repeated again in 2010 in Vancouver, where there were widespread reports of police clearing homeless people from poor districts. I’ll expect to hear the Victoria line announcer warning of more ‘undesirables’ in the months to come. For all this, it also looks as if the cost of the London Games is going to quadruple from initial estimates to over £9 billion.

Aside from resembling a very expensive military crackdown with fireworks and a little athletics on the side, the Olympics also beds with some rather odd company. Athletics sponsored by, among others, such health-conscious companies as Heineken, and McDonald’s, who have pledged to build a 1,500 seater, ‘world’s largest’ outlet on the Olympic site. In direct proportion to this, another ‘international sponsor’, Dow Chemical Company of Bhopal gas leak fame, has so far pledged nothing to the families and victims of the disaster that killed 3,787 people and has caused at least 8,000 deaths since.

For the population, the salesmanship of Parliament, City Hall, councils, and their underling agencies of this bonanza of sports has been schizophrenic to say the least. After constantly being told of the economic benefits of  the Games, which will be short-term to say the least, we are confronted with weekly prophesies of doom from Transport for London. Waiting times on several tube lines will be over half an hour, and we are told the network will only ‘cope’ if 60% of workers go absent. Those who can’t work from home, which is probably just about everyone, are being advised to ‘go to the pub’ after work to allow station congestion to clear. A public transport Games indeed, although not quite so when one considers the 109 miles of road that will have a lane sectioned off solely for those travelling to the Olympics, with punitive fines for those who stray into them. If you were planning on taking the bus to avoid the chaos, think again.

London will likely become clogged with armed police and guards, as security companies vie with each other for lucrative contracts. And if that wasn’t enough, another happy addition to the Olympic Spirit fraternity is the constant news stories of the possibility of tenants in rented accommodation across the capital being evicted so that landlords can charge sky-high rents (up to £10,000 a month) to Olympic revellers, a practise that has been confirmed illegal by only six borough councils out of thirty-two. And what will become of the Olympics site after the Games? A few weeks ago the Westfield Stratford shopping centre opened with a fanfare approximating it almost messiah status, a shopping juggernaught-Christ to single-handedly resurrect a leprous economy. A combination of consumer goods outlets encouraging us to spend our way out of recession, and a likely recreation of the now infamously derelict Athens site will most likely appear in the ruins of the cavernous journalists centre.

Simon Jenkins, in the Evening Standard, echoing the concerns of Londoners (a poll in the same newspaper revealed 80% of residents would not be buying Olympics tickets), has called the Games ‘elitist, exclusive and stupefying’ and likened them to a ‘festival for the cosmopolitan rich and their armed guards’. Will Self, in an appearance on Newsnight, described the Games as a ‘creation of capital’, a hangover of the boom years in a dead economy. This analysis looks all too pertinent now. While during the boom years the Olympics might have been the feather in capital’s cap, the icing on the cake that had supposedly brought prosperity to the nation, we now know that that prosperity was a lie, a grim combination of imaginary money, ceaseless credit, and the cooked books of outfits like Lehman Brothers. Six years down the line, the prospect of this Olympic extravaganza is more than faintly depressing, resembling a half-finished temple to the Gods long after Rome has succumbed to the barbarian hordes. And where is everyone? Lining up at the soup kitchen, looking back on the drunken orgies on the last days of empire and feeling more than a little embarrassed.

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Kind Hearts and Coronets, the post-war middle class, and the massacre of the nobility

The English aristocracy have always been a crisis-prone sort. When not nearly rendering themselves extinct in the Wars of the Roses or hand-wringing over a bunch of 18th century peasants rioting across their estates (see my previous post), they were busy envisioning their doom at the hands of the inter-war proletariat. In the end, it wasn’t so much a menacingly Bolshevik working class or any Europe-haunting spectres standing nonchalantly beside a dripping guillotine; it was the war itself and the rise of that ceaselessly aggressive social phenomenon, the middle class.

Having just bankrupted itself by participation in the Second World War, the social winds of Britain changed course irrevocably. A beleagured population, emerging from six years of war and the dawning realisation that Britain was no longer as important, or as rich, as it once was was, was not the same docile beast that faced the aristocratic classes in the inter-war and Edwardian period. For the great mass of the population who had to struggle through the war years, the idea of hereditary wealth no longer fit the national mood, and the long march of decline for the English nobility began at the hands of the middle-classes.

When faced with the grimly determined, Protestant work ethic-fuelled assault of the professional classes, typified by the pre-war, suburban, Orwell character of George Bowling, they stood no chance. George Bowling appears in Orwell’s underrated 1939 book Coming Up For Air, the melancholy story of a middle-class man whose life is defined by mediocrity. He inhabits one of thousands of suburban homes, he thinks little of his family and his job, but merely carries on with his life regardless, escaping for relief into the ecstatic, high jinks memories of his Edwardian youth.  George Bowling, or more dynamic versions of him, were precisely the kind of people who, in the post-war atmosphere of shared sacrifice were storming the (faux-Tudor) ramparts of the stately homes of nobility, their entitled and hereditary wealth now an aberration in the national narrative of hard work and sacrifice.

And while George Bowling himself, given over to fatalism as his character is, lacks the capacity to improve his own life any more than he already has, this new middle class, and their ghettos of strip suburban development, had always in reserve a thousand more George Bowlings to take his place. This is the same middle-class that, two months after VE Day, dispensed with the conservative Churchill government and flocked en masse to Labour, awarding them a landslide victory on the promise of full employment and the welfare state. A general levelling took place, not in favour of any idea of working class emancipation, but on the vaguely general principles of ‘the people’, the middle classes and workers, as opposed to the nobility. The times of the idle gentry quietly surveying their lands, or knocking croquet balls on the lawns of Mandalay were over, and their Late Victorian and Edwardian heyday must have seemed a distant memory.

It is this insurgent middle-class that manifests itself in the character of Louis Mazzini in the Ealing Studios classic, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Although set in the Edwardian era, the film was made in 1949, the highpoint of post-war Labour government, and so displays a contradictory setting of being set during the last hurrahs of the English nobility, while displaying fully the politics and sensibilities of the post-war, post-aristocratic era. The politics of 1949 are being played out in 1910.

The film begins with the protagonist’s mother exiled from her inimitably aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes. Having married beneath her station, she finds herself living in a cramped house in Clapham with her young son, her husband having since died. Demeaned and humiliated by her family, she teaches Louis the injustice of their situation, constantly drumming into him the fact that, no matter where he lives or what job he is doing, and despite his mother’s exile, remains a distant heir to the Dukedom of Chalfont.

Despite his heirdom, Louis’ situation is resoundingly middle-class. Having finished school, he further demeans his true station by taking a job as a draper’s assistant, eventually working his way to one promotion after another, thus proving that enduring piece of middle-class folklore that nobody chooses poverty. He becomes the archetypal professional man, all the while becoming more embittered over the injustice of his situation.

After being publicly humiliated in the shop by a distant relative of his and being sacked for his angry response, Louis resolves to murder all the members of the D’Ascoyne family that stand between him and the dukedom, or his birthright, as he puts it.

After doing away with the young playboy who cost him his job, suitably by drowning him and his mistress at the fashionable weekend resort of Maidenhead, he moves on to the others.

He ingratiates himself with his next victim, and proceeds to blow him up while he is developing photographs in his garden shed. Through the course of the film, he goes on to poison a priest, shoot down a hot air balloon, blow someone else up, lure an elderly man into a bear trap and shoot him in the face, rejoice at the news of a relative dying of a stroke and celebrate a pair of infant twins dying of diphtheria. And still, at every point, the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with Louis and cheers him along his rampage through the aristocracy.

The aristocrats he kills off are painted in an entirely unflattering light. The best of them are shown to be nice-but-dim types, while the worst are dinosaurs; callous, lazy, rude,  uncaring, dishonest, mean-spirited and completely lacking in feelings or tact. Louis, on the other hand, is hardworking, witty, urbane, displays honour and dignity, and expresses himself in ways that only a modern man would. For instance, when invited to go hunting with the clownish elderly gentleman, Ethelred D’Ascoyne, he refuses to take part in any shooting, claiming that it would contravene his principles. We are clearly supposed to be rooting for the protagonist, even as he takes part in what is, to all purposes, an incredibly brutal, comedic killing spree that resembles something like a comedy of manners version of Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes.

Needless to say, Louis avoids any inconvenient investigations into his spree and becomes the 10th Duke of Chalfont, bagging the charming wife of one of his victims along the way. Displaying his modern (read, post-war, 1949) levelling sensibilities, he tells the servants at the D’Ascoyne family home that his first priority will be to ensure them a good life. He is then promptly arrested for a murder he did not commit, and finds his hard-won dukedom, and his life, hanging in the balance.

Louis aspires to become a member of the aristocracy, but once he is there he behaves nothing like them; he is enlightened, and cares for his servants. He perfectly embodies the post-war, ceaseless aspiration of the professional middle-classes, importantly, through hard work and not entitlement, to occupy the position of power previously held by the dying nobility. Many merely yearned for power and wealth, but for every George Bowling, there was always a hundred of his neighbours willing to take his place. But instead of occupying the now unaffordable landed estates of this beaten nobility, now resentfully left open to the public as museums of another age, they moved up the professional ladder, bought homes, and built conservatories. Kind Hearts and Coronets, like the bankrupted post-war nation, is the literal massacre of the nobility.

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The Making of the English Working Class, and Lord Byron hugs a Luddite

I’ve recently been re-reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. For this book, ‘magesterial’, ‘dazzling’, ‘sheds lights on an overlooked period of our history’ and all the other dull clichés are for once apt. If these terms didn’t make me cringe so much I would employ all of them to describe what was Thompson’s ‘magnum opus’.

If anything, ‘often overlooked’ would be a startling understatement in this instance. The book covers the years 1780 to 1832, and examines the political agitation of those victims of history; the artisans and craftsmen who would soon find themselves made obsolete by the factory system, consumed by the black cloud of the industrial revolution, thrown to the urban slums and joining the mass of the newly emerging industrial proletariat. In the preface, Thompson describes his wish to:

‘rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity’

These years truly were the ‘making’ of the new working class; the decline of a predominantly rural economy of artisan trade to one of mass industrialisation, urbanisation, slums and wage labour. The gates of Merrie England had been broken down by Adam Smith and the enemies of this outdated mercantilism of craftsmen, and the masses were being led towards the sooty heights of Cottonopolis and the workhouse.

There is little overlooked about the Industrial Revolution itself, it was covered heavily when I was at school, and seems to feature to a significant(ish) degree in the collective memory of the nation. We think of child labour, we see the slums, the words of Dickens, Brunel’s bridges, the counterbalance of the Romantics, Turner’s ominously blurred steam trains drifting through as yet unspoiled pastures.

Thompson’s focus, the ‘overlooked history’, is purely on those on the front line of these great changes, their political consciousness, aspirations and responses to what he calls, ‘these times of acute social disturbance’. He describes the activities of the followers of Jacobinism in England, reformers and revolutionaries who saw hope for salvation in the radicalism of the French Revolution, many of whom later prayed for a French invasion of Britain that would topple their own ancien regime. He describes the struggle for the vote, the growth of trade unionism among artisans, highly secretive and illegal, a mysterious picture conjured of masked craftsmen meeting nightly in wooded clearings, taking part in oaths and initiation rituals, drilling with pikes for the coming “‘levelution.”

The London Corresponding Society, the radical weavers of Spitalfields, Nottinghamshire, and Lancashire, the revolutionary journalists of Republican, Cap of Liberty, and Medusa are all brought back to the life. Radicals and demagogues, certainly popular men or devils, depending on who you spoke to, in their own time, are all but forgotten now. From speakers and campaigners like William Cobbett and Henry Hunt, to doomed conspirators like Arthur Thistlewood, leader of the Cato Street Conspiracy, and Jeremiah Brandreth, the unemployed stocking maker and ‘Nottingham Captain’, who led an ill-fated attempt to occupy the city in 1817. Compared with later popular history that was preserved at length by the socialist movement, the world Thompson describes is a labyrinth of riots, uprisings, conspiracy, insurrection, hanging and treason.

The Making of the English Working Class is a wealth of forgotten history, and the history of English radicalism is almost certainly forgotten, not being one that sits well with the still adored myth of the passive, stiff upper lipped, ‘free-born Englishman’. Two incidents described and analysed at length in the book exemplify this national amnesia, and both have current relevance.

The first is the obvious example of the Luddites, the radical handloom weavers of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire. Threatened by the introduction of the automated looms of factory production that would render their trade somewhat obsolete, they rioted, smashed factory looms, and torched mills from 1811-1813. Many were executed, and hundreds were transported to the colonies. In our current understanding of the word ‘Luddite’, the radical political factor has been completely removed. Thompson is at pains to differentiate between our meaning of Luddite; a derogatory term for someone who is anti-technology, and this leading to a false idea of the weavers’ motivations; and what a Luddite was, an artisan making a futile attempt to protect his livelihood. Luddism also contributed to the agrarian riots of 1830, discarded in the popular imagination, known as the Swing Riots, which occurred in the southern counties and were one of the largest popular uprisings in the history of England.

The true meaning of Luddism is all the more surprising considering the appearance of a national celebrity in its midst. In 1812, after several years swanning and inseminating his way across the continent, Lord Byron took his seat in the House of Lords and made three speeches in defense of the rioters, and against the introduction of the Malicious Damage Act of 1812, that made frame-breaking a capital offense. Byron was one of the few parliamentary defenders of the Luddites, if not the only, and the law was passed. He never entered the House again, but instead devoted his pen to the cause of Radicalism for years to come, penning his Song For The Luddites, The Landlords’ Interest, and Wellington: The Best of the Cut-Throats. This was an episode where politics and literature truly crossed paths; as this monster of Romanticism, that enemy of the Industrial Revolution and mechanisation, found common cause with the riotous victim of the age, the unemployed weaver.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron both namechecked the 1832 Reform Act when they took power last year, pledging their tinkering with civil liberties law would resemble such a momentous event. Thompson does a wonderful job of exposing the fallacy of the idea of a historical ‘British democracy’ in describing the often violent and widespread campaign for male suffrage that led to the election of radical MPs and the passage of the Reform Act. Far from being a benevolent gift from the Commons to the people, the Reform Act was prefigured by decades of relentless agitation by reformers, the bloody highlight of which was the Peterloo Massacre, a massive meeting of radicals in Manchester that ended at the hands of charging cavalry. For all the habits of the modern politician to describe our democracy as ‘historical’, ‘great’ or ‘longstanding’, it takes only a cursory glance at Thompson’s work to remember that full suffrage was not granted to women and most men until 1918. In the true manner of reform granted by the state after popular agitation, the final legislated product promised little, the Reform Act still leaving the vast majority of men (six out of seven, it is believed), without the vote.

While lucidly describing these forgotten episodes of our history, Thompson also reveals the fallacy of many modern myths about the docile nature of England and its people. The book ends at the point of 1832, a watershed where artisan radicalism gave way to mass factory trade unionism and the beginnings of the socialist movement. In describing this transition of radical politics from one phase to another, Thompson mirrors the world of radicalism he found himself in as a leading light of the New Left, that crossroads between the Communist Party and its subservience to the Soviet Union, and anti-Soviet socialism.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when the people of Budapest rose against their Communist rulers, proved the breaking point for many socialist intellectuals. Like the Dreyfus case, which proved a litmus test for a person’s politics for decades afterwards, the subsequent Soviet suppression of the uprising, and a person’s reaction to it, would reveal whether or not they were of a pro-Soviet persuasion. Thousands around the world abandoned their respective Communist parties in the face of the bloodbath in Budapest.

Many left the Communist Party of Great Britain, and EP Thompson was one of the first out the door, unlike our other ‘great’ socialist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who has experienced a recent renaissance of sorts, who issued some fairly unflattering articles in support of the Soviet authorities, albeit, ‘with a heavy heart’. Thompson remained a socialist and criticised the Labour governments of the post-war period from a left-wing perspective, and was a major figure in CND, becoming partly famous for speaking passionately about nuclear weapons to Glastonbury crowds in the 1980s. His speeches in favour of nuclear disarmament, and against all too easily embarked upon wars must have resembled Byron’s impassioned speeches supporting the Luddites in the House of Lords. Through the jeers and shouting, he condemned the lawmakers who sat beside him;

‘When a proposal is made to emancipate or relieve, you deliberate for years, you temporize and tamper with the minds of men; but a death-bill must be passed off-hand, without a thought of the consequences’

It was the last time Byron would sit in Parliament, and like those frame-breakers and radicals who could find no redress through the laws of the land, Byron would contain his political activity to his poetry, mirroring Thompson’s overall argument, that the most radical reform can never be bestowed by parliaments.


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Riots 2011: Against the riots, and against a ‘return to normality’

Croydon_Riots_2011Last night was relatively quiet in London, although the same cannot be said for the rest of the country, but here at least it looks as though things may be calming down. Boris Johnson is back in town, being heckled by some and (bizarrely) cheered by others. Between the interruptions and heckling from residents and shop owners in Clapham Junction, he said that he didn’t want to hear ‘socio-economic reasons for the violence’.

This is a dangerous game to play, and already indicates a dangerous trend that seems to be gaining ground; namely, an unwillingness to talk about the reasons for what has happened. And I will take this opportunity to repeat what I said in my last post, that debate over the reasons of the rioting is not the same as ‘sympathy’ for, or ‘understanding’ those who are taking part.

There has been a lot of talk of ‘returning to normal’, and on the BBC news feed this morning there were several comments from people deploring the media for focusing on the ‘negative headlines’ and ‘bad news’ of the riot itself, and urging them to focus instead on the positive response to them, such as the Twitter organised clean-up operation. This is a dangerous game to play, and one that could backfire if taken seriously.

Yes, it’s unpleasant to see the constant images of violence, the burning buildings and the mugging of bystanders. But ignoring the violence is a dangerous distraction, and solely focusing on events such as the volunteer clean-ups, which, while laudable and heart-warming, are something of safe distraction from the real forces at play here.

It should be clear to everyone now that thousands of people around the country did not wake up the last couple of mornings and spontaneously decide they wanted a new pair of trainers. Again, debating this is not the same as sympathy for the rioters. But this does not change the fact that thousands of people, in one way or another, have become completely alienated from the society in which they live, and the reasons for this need to be discussed.

This violence did not magic itself out of nowhere, and the conditions for it clearly existed before Saturday evening, but to most people they were invisible, simmering below the surface and hidden on housing estates. They were present in the ‘normality’ that commentators are calling for a return to. To return to ‘normality’ would leave these conditions unchanged, and keep them merely hidden again. If we return to ‘normality’, quietly disdaining debate over the reasons of what has happened, nothing will have changed and we risk a re-run of this in the years to come. Pondering when Egypt would return to ‘normality’ was a fairly big feature in the British press when Cairo was rioting during the first stage of the revolution. Egypt did not want to return to normality, normality was what caused the riots in the first place.

Something else that should be avoided would be for the country to be enveloped in some kind of moral panic, indications to which are already becoming clear. There is a lot of ‘what happened to my country’, and, ‘ashamed to be British’ talk going around. These comments indicate the personal level on which people are feeling the force of the riots, but, although difficult, we should try to view them as dispassionately as possible. We should be cold and objective, and not be scared to discuss the implications of this for a long time afterwards.

Perhaps it is because events such as these are a rare occurence in Britain that they elicit such a personal response. The headline of Le Monde’s coverage of events yesterday was ‘the British press dramatises and tries to understand’. We should not be dramatising, and it is to the credit of the French that, due to the fairly recurrent nature of rioting in their own country, they have the ability to analyse them without the moral panic the British press are prone to.

After the nationwide riots of banlieue youth in 2005, a widespread national debate ensued concerning the riots that made no attempt to de-politicise them as David Cameron, and Boris Johnson, with his ‘no socio-economic reasons’ remark, have been attempting to do. Being shy of asking questions of social and political significance is akin to sticking your head in the sand. The French debates covered everything from politics to unemployment, government policy, housing, gang culture, immigration and national identity. We cannot afford to have a right-wing press inspired period of moral outrage followed by silence and a ‘return to normality’. We need a reasoned debate, not panic and outrage.

George Orwell’s famous indictment at the end of Homage to Catalonia of Britain’s impasse to events happening in Europe that would lead to World War II should be remembered here,

‘The huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen—all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.’

The bombs have roared for the past four nights, and the worst thing we could do is to go back to sleep. Something is wrong here, and it needs to be discussed openly. The violence has to end, but we should ignore the calls to return to ‘normality’.

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