‘Shouting out across an empty station…’ Don Walker, Jimmy Barnes, and Cold Chisel

Shots by Don Walker (Penguin) 2010
 Well some of us are driven to ambition
Some of us are trapped behind the wheel
Some of us will break away,
Build a marble yesterday
And live for every moment we can steal
Conversations, 
Conversations
Shouting out across an empty station...

‘Conversations’,   the opening track of Cold Chisel’s second album, Breakfast at Sweethearts, is the sort of song which critics call ‘full tilt’, but it isn’t so much full-tilt as almost overbalancing itself with its own speed. Fast and frantic, it captures the band’s own desperate ambition.

Not so long back, interviewing the man who wrote it and most of Cold Chisel’s songs, keyboard player Don Walker, Kim Hill suggested that people had a lot of fun to his songs, but they’re mostly quite sad songs.

Walker sounded somewhat nonplussed.

“I might have to go and have a look at meself”, was his response.

Difficult to tell if he was being serious. He sounded serious, certainly, but Walker has that dry Aussie humour which can be taking the piss when it is sounding most serious.

It is a brand of humour which often serves as a guard, especially when confronted with that kind of sharp personal insight Hill delivered during the exchange.

I found myself recalling that interview as Hill interviewed Jimmy Barnes, the lead singer of that band, Cold Chisel, last weekend.

Barnes’ memoir has just come out and it’s a lot about surviving what was basically an abusive childhood and adult alcoholism.

Barnes writes in that autobiography that despite their very different backgrounds, that it was as if Walker had read his mail.

Walker wrote most of Chisel’s songs, and I’ve thought for a long time that those songs – certainly his most famous ones, the ones he did with Cold Chisel, are about having a good time while you’re having a lousy time.

Back when they were in their heyday, I can remember having one of those intense conversations about music which you often have at that age, and distinguishing between the two big Aussie bands of the day, Australian Crawl and Cold Chisel.

Aussie Crawl were about pure hedonism, having a good time: Cold Chisel was about having a good time even though you’re having a lousy time, I vaguely remember proclaiming, probably while waving my arms around and just before falling off my chair.

This is kind of a definition of soul music (the having a good time while having a bad time thing, I mean: not so much the waving arms around/falling off chair thing), I think: if you listen to classic soul, by which I mostly mean the Stax-Volt Memphis brand but also the best Motown stuff, it is about dancing while feeling lousy about your life.

There’s a whole lot of socio-economic and political reasons for that aspect of soul music, most of which should be fairly obvious to anyone with who knows a bit about history and retains a bit of empathy.

It applies, perhaps less politically than in the music made by American blacks,  to other rock music: the Who’s Pete Townshend, when his band was trying to pretend to be Mods, suggested the Mod ethos not so much about solving young people’s problems as allowing them to dance all over those problems. (although dancing to the Who’s music, is, I think, a bit problematic).

Walker’s memoir, ‘Shots’ only seldom alludes to influences such as this. His own early influences were jazz and country, while Cold Chisel has been more associated with pub/hard rock.

That said, there are enough jazz and country, as well as blues, influences, on Chisel, especially their earlier work.

This number – which closed their first album – shows singer Jimmy Barnes wasn’t just a shrieker: it is a song of summer regret and has a torch-like, almost jazzy flavour:

Lovers see the world through an old red wine

All the sounds of the blues, well

They just disappear

With a light like yours beside me

It’s been an old, old, red wine year.’

Soul, definitely: Chisel’s second vocalist, guitar player Ian Moss, consciously modelled his singing style on Sam Cooke and although Moss isn’t as good as that (unless your name is Al Green or Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles you’re not even gonna come in the same league) you can hear the influence. (Moss used to sing Charles’ ‘Georgia’ at Chisel concerts and he carries it off respectably).

Walker’s ‘Shots’ is, as he has said himself, not so much a memoir as a highly impressionistic travelogue of his time before and after, as well as during, Cold Chisel’s heyday from 1978-93.

It reaches a climax, and a crisis, at the time Chisel release their breakthrough album, East. The opening track from that, like ‘Conversations’ has a desperate headlong rush to it, especially when played live.

Lyrically,  ‘Standing on the Outside’  is more linear than ‘Conversations’ – it has a similar mood to the earlier track and both were used to open concerts, but it tells a story as well. This live clip is from their final concert, and it shows them going out at their peak.

They’re playing their hearts, and guts, out here:

 

‘I wonder if other lives have a fulcrum, a few days or weeks that gather everything from decades before and fire it though into a trajectory pre-drawn for decades after…’

 

Walker ponders in ‘Shots’, referring to this period.

Just after East was recorded, and just before it was released, two friends of the band were killed in a road accident: one knocked out when it went into a tree and the other, conscious but struggling and insisting they get his mate out first when the vehicle caught fire and they both died.

‘Why that should have been the end of anything I do not know, maybe it just coincided with other things, but the end it was’, Walker wrote, years later, in the notes to the ‘Teenage Love” album. The final couple of years – including that farewell concert, the opening of which is that above clip, was, he wrote, a ‘long slow ugly vicious death… like clubbing a dearly beloved while they cling to your leg.’

It is a strange, jaundiced and in some ways odd read. Walker has a rare gift for a phrase: ‘someone whose dreams have strangled their common sense…’ he describes the funder of a concert in some bush backwater; ‘like trying to fuck through a tennis racquet’ sums up a particularly bad gig; young female concertgoers from the posh Victorian squattocracy, ‘rich girls who want to play out their hatred of any plans at all from anywhere up the ancestral chain’; or, visiting old haunts, ‘It’s like visiting your baby playground after you’ve sold your soul’.

There’s a cynicism, perhaps – a lyrical cynicism, certainly, but cynicism it is. Is Walker trying too hard here, perhaps? There’s what seems to be a deliberate, emotional guardedness, something which comes through in that response to Kim Hill’s question.

There’s a bizarre traveling the Aussie outback fantasy involving escaped Laundromat washing machines going rogue, roaming the badlands,  breeding and ‘sometimes ending a decoy out on the highway in ambush, if you stop they kidnap you off  and just wash the fuck out of you…’

The book is a neat, if offbeat, read. He comes at his subject – that subject being his own life, mostly – obliquely and from a skew-whiff angle. There’s a longer interview with him on ABC Radio here…

 

 

 

 

The individual citizen, the private soul 

IMG_6555

Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop (Belkanp Press, 2014)

This book contains a neat, telling little anecdote from 2001 when a proposed constitution was being devised for the European Union and the issue of the Christian roots of Europe was brought up.

There were vigorous pro and anti arguments- author Larry Siedentop notes the more vehement voices in favour were from Poland and the most vociferous against tended to be France.

The overwhelming feeling, though, he observes,  was more awkwardness than anything else: ‘one of embarrassment, and  an uneasy wish that the question would go away.’

The question did go away, because the proposed constitution was dropped.

It is that embarrassment that I find most interesting.

I think it’s got several sources. One is the largely unexamined assumption by educated Westerners that while Christianity might be part of their heritage it is a heritage which belongs with childhood and should be left in the intellectual kindergarten along with psychological equivalent of fingerpainting and peeing in the sandpit.

But whether or not you’re a Christian believer, Siedentop argues, it is clear that for whatever reason there was a ‘moral earthquake’ shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus.

Christianity, he says,  changed the grounds of human identity because, by combining Jewish monotheism with an abstract universalism derived from later Greek philosophy, it emphasised the moral equality of human beings.

That was new. It meant that the moral equality of human beings  was more important than any social roles they might occupy.

And that presumption of moral equality is at the root of modern secular liberalism.

His argument is endorsed – though Siedentop is not mentioned – in this piece from last week in the New Statesman, which I’m grateful to Philip Matthews for posting on the Twitter.

Historian Tom Holland notes that his own researches into the ancient world showed him the values of Greece and Rome were further from our own than we often realise: he concludes, more or less, that what made the difference, what caused the change, was the ‘moral earthquake’ Siedentop writes about.

Siedentop gives Paul rather than Jesus most of the credit for this, asking rhetorically, at one point, whether Paul was ‘the greatest revolutionary in human history’.

I’m not so sure he gets the balance quite right:  Christ’s instruction, ‘render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s’  has for a  long time seemed to me to be the most subversive religious instruction in history.

It set up the question of what one does, in fact, owe to the secular authority/state, and what one owes to one’s God/conscience.

Setting that boundary was not just the source of the Reformation but also the Enlightenment and beyond.

I suspect we are going to have to fight that battle again: the information revolution, the tools I am writing this article on and you are reading it on, is increasingly blurring the boundary between what belongs to us as individual citizens and individual souls;  and what belongs to the great collective, whether that collective is the government, Facebook or some other global entity, or just the social media chorus crowd demanding we share our private selves.

But Seidentop –  the first ever holder of a university post for intellectual history in the UK –  is less concerned with this and more with highlighting the debt modern secular liberalism owes to Christian thought.

He points out  that so far as is known, the main themes of the Jesus ministry were repentance, the imminent end of the world, and a God who loved all human beings, including and especially ‘the least of these’.

There was no unanimity at all amongst Jesus’s followers about his mission: some seeing him as a political leader while others believed the ‘kingdom’ spoke of was of a more mystical realm.

Paul took this and fashioned it into something more. Paul turned those teachings into the  ‘moral earthquake’ away from patriarchal family and the tribe as the agency of immortality.

With Paul, individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality.

Paul,  whose writings on Jesus are the earliest we have, translated the word ‘Messiah’ or ‘anointed one’ into Greek – and translated the idea of the Messiah in the process.

When he began talking  of ‘the Christ’  – the son of God who died for human sins and directly offers each individual the hope of redemption, Paul shifted the concept from one who would deliver Israel from its enemies to one who would offer salvation to all humanity. The Christ stood for the presence of God in the world, and offered each individual their own salvation – on an equal basis.

Which is pretty radical stuff.  It was morally radical because it overturned the presumptions of our natural inequality based on social categories.

 ‘For Paul, Christian liberty is open to all humans. Free action, a gift of grace through faith in the Christ, is utterly different from ritual behaviour, the unthinking application of rules. For Paul, to think otherwise is to regress rather than progress in the spirit. That is how Paul turns the abstract and potential of Greek philosophy to new uses. He endows it was an almost ferocious moral universalism.’

This meant that, below the surface social roles and divisions of labour, there is a shared reality: ‘the human capacity to think and to choose, to will’.

Siedentop then takes the reader  from Paul through the Gnostics, onto Augustine,  and through to the medievalists such as Abelard,  Aquinas, and Ockham, right  up to the edge of the rise of the Enlightenment and modern liberalism – where he stops.

The epilogue,  ‘Christianity and Secularism’   which summarises his arguments, is worth reading alone.  Christian ‘moral intuitions’ –  his phrase – and way of thinking, thought patterns and habits of mind, (my way of putting it) lead to liberalism and beyond, to the modern, secularism of today.

Indeed there is a delicious irony in the fact that the pattern by which liberalism and secularism developed between the 16th and the 19th centuries follows the pattern developed by canonical law between the 12th and 15th centuries. The sequence of argument, Siedentop says, is extraordinarily similar.

That sequence begins with the insistence on equality of status of all human beings, with this idea based on a range of basic human rights. It concludes, he says, with the case for self-government.

The war between religion and secularism is ‘an intellectual civil war’ because of the shared moral roots of their arguments.

‘Why do Europeans feel happier referring to the role of ancient Greece and Rome than to the role of the church in the formation of their culture?’ he asks, rhetorically.

Secularism, he says, is our belief in an underlying, moral equality of humans, and this belief implies there is a sphere in which ‘each of us are free or should be free …it is a sphere of conscience and free action.’

This ‘central egalitarian moral insight of Christianity’ is its legacy to the world.

Finally  he argues the failure to understand the shared moral root with Christianity means there is a tendency to underestimate the moral content of liberal secularism.

That underestimate leads, he concludes, to modern ‘liberal heresies'”.

The first of these is to reduce liberalism to merely the freedom to make a buck, and, more generally, ‘a crude form of utilitarianism’.

The second is a retreat into a private sphere of family and friends at the expense of civil spirit and political participation, something which ‘weakens the habit of association and eventually endangers the self-reliance which the claims of citizenship require.’

In his final sentence he asks ‘if we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?’

I’m not so sure about that ‘shape’ – it’s a bit too evangelical for my tastes.

But we need, I think, to better understand and appreciate the depth of our own moral tradition – not to convert or ‘shape’ others in any way, but to understand what shaped us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recommendations – Wheen and Birmingham

 

This is the latest post in my self-imposed Recommendation Rule. The Recommendation Rule states that if I recommend a book to someone I then have to do a blog post about it.

The first one was The Strange Death of Liberal England, written up here.

This latest one is going to be a particularly efficient post for two reasons. One is because I’m going to cover more than one recommendation.

The second is that it covers two books I am always recommending to people. 

They don’t have a lot in common otherwise.

So, chances are I won’t have to do another one of these recommendation posts for a while.

(That said, there is a bit of a backlog building up. Memo to self: stop talking to people about books.)

(Yeah, like that will happen.)

 

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World By Francis Wheen (Fourth Estate) 2004.

For all those po-faced and pompous dullards who have been intoning ‘post-truth politics’over the past few months as if they have discovered something new, Wheen was there more than a decade ago. And he was less inclined to assume that this sort of thing belonged only to one side of politics.

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He is also funny and intelligent. This is a truly great book:  most of it hasn’t dated (apart from the cover-photo: today those people would be holding smart phones) and its bracing, excoriating scorn for the delusions of our age is a literary tonic.

Even the index in this book is funny E.g. “Philip, Prince: enjoys flying saucer review, 136; praised by extra-terrestrials, 137 – 8”.

Or,

 “Merton, Robert: says markets are not too volatile, 272, loses fortune because of market volatility, 273.”

“Blair, Tony: … Claims descent from Abraham, 165; explores Third Way, 226; likes chocolate cake recipe, 51…”. 

And so forth.

Wheen has a – mostly – sure eye for the follies of our age, along with the ability to write about them with a caustic if occasionally unfair wit.

But underneath the wit is a moral seriousness.

‘Even intellectuals who respect enlightenment values often seem reluctant to defend them publicly, fearful of being identified as “imperialists” or worse. The sleep of reason brings forth monsters, and the past two decades have produced monsters galore. Some are manifestly sinister, others seem nearly comical… Cumulatively however, the proliferation of obscurantist bunkum and the assault on reason are a menace to civilisation, especially as many of the new irrationalists harkt back to some imaginary pre-industrial or even pre-agrarian Golden age.’

Wheen begins in what he sees as the fateful year of 1979, with the ascension of both the Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher.

I think he’s a little hard on Thatcher, to be honest, even though she was never my kind of conservative (too ideological and too humourless). And most of his policy points skewer phase one of monetarism, which was ditched around 1981 because, ironically enough, the only way to restrict the money supply to the degree required would have involved the kind of fortress economy approach to capital controls more suitable to an extremely socialist economy.

He does also take some well-aimed potshots at Ronald Reagan’s rather fiscally careless enactment of supply-side economics.

And then he moves on to the whole New Age movement, the bizarre blend of all that hippy childishness and pomposity which was carefully and lucratively folded into the self-help and the management guru movement and industry.

The most important chapter I think is ‘The Demolition Merchants of Reality’ – on the rise of post-modernism, post-structuralism and all that.  Derrida, Foucault, and their addled disciples get a thorough and highly deserved going over.

‘Although much post-modernism made no sense, it is nonsense with a purpose: by using quasi scientific terminology the po-mo theologians intended to explode the “objectivity” of science itself. The fact they knew nothing about mathematics, physics or chemistry was no obstacle.’

He has much fun with Luce Irigaray who attacked Einstein’s E=MC2 as being a ‘sexed equation’ as it privileged the speed of light over other less masculine speeds.  and suggested the reason sites are not unable to arrive at a successful model for turbulence was because it viewed the concept of fluid as being feminine.

He also quotes Barbara Ehrenreich as asking, rhetorically, whether it matters if ‘some French guy’ wants to think of his penis as the square root of minus one: she answers her own question by pointing out it doesn’t matter much, really, – except that on US campuses, ‘such utterances were routinely passed off as example of boldly “transgressive” left-wing thought’.

Wheen, as a former editor of Marxism Today and a socialist himself,  identifies this kind of frivolous academic obscurantism as being fatal to the Left.

This is Wheen’s main point, I think, and it is a neat paradox that he uses humour, aggressively and effectively, to make it.

You will find few people so tediously serious as the kind of folk who come up with that type of “boldly transgressive” notion outlined above.

Yet this over-earnest self-righteousness is a carapace over something essentially frivolous, childish and irresponsible.

Wheen does the opposite. He uses humour to make a serious, grown up and responsible case for facing things as they are, rather than taking refuge in mumbo jumbo of various kinds.

This shift by academic humanists and social scientists towards such ways of thinking betray the ‘progressive’ heritage, he argues.

His star witness is Alan Sokal, who pointed out it would be impossible to combat bogus ideas if all notions of truth and falsity are no longer valid.

Sokal came up with one of the great hoaxes of the last 25 years of the 20th century when, in 1996, he contributed to academic journal Social Text a paper entitled “Transgressing The Boundaries: Toward A Transformative Hermeneutics Of Quantum Gravity”

It was entirely comprised of post-modern mumbo-jumbo and meant nothing.

The editors of academic journal Social Text who, as Wheen acidly notes, ‘must have noticed the supposedly imaginary external world from time to time, not least when the sun rises every morning’ read it with some enthusiasm and published it with acclaim.

When he revealed the hoax, he was vilified because it was felt he had betrayed his own side by showing the post-modern emperor was wandering around the nudd.

Social Text’s editors accused him of exposing them to ridicule from conservatives, which, in any point-missing championships, would be through to the finals without dropping a set.

From there, Wheen travels via the Princess Diana cult, the fraudulence of Al Gore, fundamentalist religion of all kinds, and the “Third Way” of Tony Blair and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

You do not have to read any of these academics or politicians or management gurus to read this book: their ideas are, unfortunately, embedded in the lymph nodes of our time.

But Wheen writes better than any of them, and he writes for the intelligent non-academic reader.

It is a great read. No one will read it without disagreeing, probably very strongly, with some of Wheen’s points.

It will make you laugh, it will make you annoyed,  but most of all it will make you think.

And you can’t ask anything more of any book.

The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco by John Birmingham (Duffy and Snelgrove) 1997.

‘Aristotle said if you hold your farts in you die. I’m not sure where he said that but some big university guy told me so it’s probably true. Kind of wished I’d kept it to myself though. Our place wasn’t worth living in after word got around and I had to take a long and eventful road trip t to get away from it.’

That’s the opening paragraph. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Picked this one up at Wellington airport, many years ago, before a flight to London. Got some funny looks on the LA leg of the flight as I kept collapsing in hysterical laugther.

Really. It is that good.

Okay, the humour is Aussie, blokey, and will be highly offensive to a lot of people. It contains sex, drugs, gambling, and Pauline Hanson.

There are jokes at the expense of goths, vegans, lesbians, the Queensland police force, Social Security bureaucrats, real estate agents, and people who voted for Pauline Hanson.

But it is an uproarious tale, one which accumulates in an incendiary finale which reminded me of Spike Milligan’s ‘Puckoon’ novel.

The book is a kind of sequel to Birmingham’s more well-known ‘He Died With a Falafel in His Hand’ and features a number of the same characters and/or contributors to that earlier book.

For the uninitiated, “Falafel” is that book many of us who spent formative years in flatting situations (‘share housing’ to use the Aussie term) have muttered about doing: writing a book about some of the strange people and stranger behaviour of those people.

Birmingham actually did it, in the mid-1990s, and it became a play and a film. It was though a series of episodes and vignettes.

‘Tasmanian Babes’ has a plotline, with heroes, villains, and jeopardy.

And comic relief. Bundles of it. It is very much a book to read if you need to cheer yourself up.

Book reviews: Burke, Disraeli, and thoughts on their lessons for New Zealand 

Disraeli: Or, The Two Lives, by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013

Edmund Burke: the first conservative by Jesse Norman Basic Books, 2013

The Left are natural dreamers, and so they have a ready supply of heroes,” write Douglas Hurd and Edward Young in their biography of Benjamin Disraeli.

I don’t have political heroes: the whole concept seems a bit naff to me.

But of the political heroes I don’t have, these two come top of the list. In my early 20s, in a dusty second-hand book store upstairs in Auckland’s Elliott Street, I found an old 19th Century poster etching of Disraeli. Had it on my bedroom wall for years, when flatmates had Whitney Houston, Morrissey, or Michael Jackson posters.

I’d read essays on the guy, he sounded interesting. And witty.

Burke, I discovered in a first year politics paper – Auckland University’s great ‘Law, Property and Individualism’ course on political philosophy from Plato through to Mill.

Andrew Sharp is still the best university lecturer I ever had, on any subject, I think. Lucid and clear, with an engaging informal approach – he never wasted a word in his lectures, yet he still usually explained things three times, at least for his stage one class.

I’d heard of Burke, but knew nothing about him apart from a few quotes (the one about society being a contract a contract by the living with both the dead and those yet to be born, and the one about a member of Parliament owing electors his judgement not his obedience).

On about the third tutorial, essay topics were being assigned and the tutor – a great teacher who sadly is no longer with us – told me “Do Burke, Rob. You’d love him.”

And she was right.

This was the mid-1980s and politics in New Zealand was awash with ideological debate…actually, that’s not quite correct. The Labour Party, in government, was awash with ideological debate. ideological and factional debate (the two are often hard to distinguish from each other), that is.

By the end of the decade the Labour Party was the only party with clubs on campus – but there were three of them*.

The conservative side of politics was somewhat confused. National had gone down this weird route under Sir Robert Muldoon and was still trying to recover. Roger Douglas had implemented many of the policies National’s more ideologically inclined  – never a very large group – had long wanted to carry out. The rest of National, meanwhile, was spitting with rage and pain, as Rogernomics went through the farming sector and the country’s protected industries like a runaway bulldozer through a Crown Lynn surplus china goods shop.

It was a difficult time. And if you were trying to get a ‘fix’ on your own political outlook, as I was, it was tricky.  I clearly wasn’t a socialist of any kind. There was the emotionally attractive but intellectual  double-blind alley  of simplistic and unrealistic nostalgia offered by Sir Robert Muldoon’s dwindling  followers and the larger and louder New Labour backers of Jim Anderton.

The need for many of the Rogernomic reforms was clear. What was also clear was the collateral damage they were causing.

Burke’s wariness about simplistic, theoretically  driven reforms imposed on a society without due respect and attention to that society’s traditions and values made a lot of sense – intellectually and emotionally. Together with Disraeli’s wit and often wispy rhetoric, they make an appealing package for conservatives, even today.

Disraeli and Burke are conservatives – subtle and profound ones. Both were in fact outsiders of the society in which they found themselves: Burke was Irish, and even though he was Protestant Irish it lent him a certain distance (his mother was catholic).

Disraeli was a novelist, a dandy,  with a suspiciously raffish background and a Jewish heritage,  who somehow got the Conservative Party of the 19th Century, populated with lords and landowners, squires and soldiers, clergymen and churchgoers, to accept him as leader.

It is the sheer, preposterous unlikeliness of Disraeli which makes up a big part of his appeal. He defies almost every stereotype with which we associate the words ‘conservative’ and ‘Victorian’.

 He was, to quote Ian Gilmour, a former Conservative MP and editor of the Spectator, one of  ‘the few Tory leaders who has been able to bring warmth to Conservatives and to add to its basic common sense a degree of romance, generosity and excitement.’

And they were both, of course, writers. Burke was not a particularly successful politician, although he did attain moderate ministerial rank: Disraeli was  a spectacularly successful politician – in the end. He suffered decades of failure, and he was to muse, when he finally got the prime ministership, that he had got it too late.

But he was also, as Hurd and Young show in their biography, ‘always a novelist even when writing no novels at all’.

“Time and again Disraeli uses imagination to make politics interesting. His most powerful strength was the creative energy with which he transformed Victorian politics. The public were fascinated by his speeches in the Commons. As Lord Curzon later put it: ‘the jewelled phrase, the exquisite epigram, the stinging sneer. He was like a conjurer on a platform whose audience with open mouth awaited the next trick.'”

That, rather than winning elections or running governments, is his real legacy and achievement, although he was pretty good at those more prosaic things too. Someone called it ‘the politics of drains’ – Disraeli’s governments, particularly his 1874-80 one, did quite a lot of this. (The other two were short-lived affairs).

Most of all, he was able to make an imaginative, empathetic leap and realise the rising middle classes, and in particularly a sizable chunk of the increasingly unrestful working classes, would happily vote conservative.

No one else seems to have thought so at the time. There was a fear of what ‘the mob’ would do if they were given any sort of power.

But he taught his party, and his lesson for conservatives remains.

There was, for example, a public argument between  with Lord Cranborne, then a newspaper editor but later, when he inherited his family title of Lord Salisbury, to himself lead the Conservatives – about extending the right to vote beyond the aristocracy and landowners to other people. 

Disraeli was prepared to extend the right to vote to more working class men (votes for women was, at the time, only advocated by the real radicals) than was the Liberal Party of the time.  Although supposedly the more ‘progressive’ the Liberals were  worried about whether those voters were quite up to it.

Shouldn’t they just be content to be guided by the wiser and better beings, (of whom the Liberal Party of the day, naturally, considered themselves the prime examples)?

Disraeli cut through all that cant and hypocrisy, all that snobbery masquerading as concern.

As I’ve written in the National Business Review recently , (paywalled) it was something emulated by successful conservative leaders around the world – including in New Zealand.

After having his policy attacked by Cranborne., Disraeli commented that the ‘article was written by a very clever man who has made a very great mistake’ and going on to explain that conservatism did not oppose all change:
‘In a progressive country change is constant and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs the laws and traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.’
That returns us to the comment about the Left being ‘natural dreamers’. This takes many forms, and it is particularly pertinent in New Zealand at the moment, with our Labour Party talking about ‘dreams’ in almost every pronouncement.
One of my own, personal, rules of politics is whenever any politician, of any stripe, starts talking about “dreams” what you are about to hear is usually undiluted bilgewater.
 George Orwell put it differently – in a prosperous country, he once said, radical politics is usually a form of make-believe. I’ll return to this one another day – it opens up a whole area to explore about the nature of ideology and left-wing politics and the type of mindset which is attracted to both.
Disraeli, the authors of this latest biography conclude, ‘did not simply outwit his opponents. He also persuaded the vast majority of his supporters that this was actually a direction in which they wanted to go’.
They  quote Walter Bagehot’s  deliciously apt metaphor that Disraeli guided the Conservative Party as the mahout guides the elephant, light in strength but knowing all the party’s habits and ways.
 In New Zealand?  The lessons are there for conservatives here, but they are not about copying or aping what British counterparts have done. The key part of Disraeli’s approach (and, even more so, Burke’s, and I will come to this below) is about ‘the manners, the customs the laws and traditions of a people’.

 

New Zealanders are not Brits. We have our own manners, customs, laws and traditions. Along with an emerging sense of our own history as something distinct and something our own, and these are  becoming stronger and more confident by the year.

I plan…and here I use the word ‘plan’ somewhat loosely.. to write more on this.

There have been several books on Disraeli – the ‘authoritative’ one is by Robert Blake. It is thorough, reasonably but not excessively  adulatory, and just a little bit dull. Hurd and Young capture Disraeli’s essence – or his importance, anyway –  in a much shorter and more readable book. They are sceptical, occasionally with some astringency, about Disraeli’s more shameless exploits (and there were more than a few of those, one of which – the elevating of imperialism to an explicit, crowd-pleasing political policy, produced a lot of long-term harm).

So I’m not starry-eyed about him. Admirable and fascinating in many ways, there was a streak of frivolity which occasionally tipped into something darker.

As for the second book under review:  Burke’s approach was summarised best in his line that

‘Circumstance  (which with some gentlemen passes for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.’

He follows from Aristotle’s emphasis on human beings as social and political animals, but stresses that the important part of this is the institutions and customs a society evolves for itself   over time. These institutions, customs and norms ‘become a repository of shared knowledge and inherited wisdom.’

His rejection of abstract reasoning can – and often is – reduced to caricature, sometimes by Burke himself. A querulous query to the Sheriffs of Bristol, a bunch of lads who sound like a barrel of laughs, is cited as the essence of anti-intellectualism:

What is the use of discussion a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them…I shall always advise to call in the of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.’

Burke does not, in fact, dismiss philosophy or metaphysics quite as comprehensively and certainly not as unthinkingly as that quote suggests: instead one of his great themes is that ‘universal principles themselves are never sufficient in themselves to guide practical deliberation’.

Burke was not trying to create a philosophical system, but, Norman argues, he has

‘a rich and distinctive world view of his own….Each[social order] is sui generis, a largely incremental and historically continuing human achievement…Any practical or theoretical reflection on such a human artifact – and this applies to any institution, large or small, peoples and nations as much as words or ideas – must therefore begin with history and experience.

‘Far from choking off individual energy and aspiration…it makes social and economic advancement possible. It is a colossal collective achievement which must be treated with respect by all would-be reformers.’

Amongst these institutions is the market, which at the time Burke was writing was becoming more studied, most famously by Adam Smith. Smith once commented that ‘Burke is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.’

Burke did not actually write much on economic matters, or at least did not have much published, but some works assembled after his death and labeled Thoughts and Detail on Scarcity cover the area and Norman points out, rightly I think, that neither Burke nor Smith was really what we would call a full-blown free trader: that Burke ‘sees markets and other institutions as operating  within, drawing from and contributing to a broader moral community.’

Markets need to be respected because they reflect people’s myriad individual choices. They are not the product of some idealogue scribbling out a theoretical construct of society – their strength is they evolved out of humans doing what comes naturally.

They work best when the signals they send about people’s preferences is subject to as little interference as possible.  But they also are just one custom and tradition. They need to work within the customs and mores of that broader community –  – in New Zealand’s case, within our ideas and assumptions about ourselves, about what makes us distinctive as a people. This is, I think, – becoming more important in how our own politics is framed.

That, though, touches on my paid work, and for now it is the weekend. More on that, in another forum.

For now, I’d recommend both these books for anyone of a conservative frame of mind – and anyone who wants to understand some of the more important and subtle, but less understood, currents of the conservative tradition.

* I am going by memory here. No doubt someone will be able to dig out the records or minutes from some tedious and lengthy meetings of trainee 20 year old polticians which show there were only two. Or five. Good luck to you, whoever you are.

‘Something undefined’ – Lydia Davis

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis (Farrar Straus& Giroux) 2014

I mentioned Lydia Davis in a review of a collection of James Wood’s book reviews a couple of years back – I’d never heard of Davis, which is perhaps not surprising because my knowledge of fiction writers these days is pretty scant.

Trying, slowly, to rectify that, because as I put it in that earlier piece, the ‘rich, slow joy’ of reading is something I miss,  and I forget I miss it until I remember to actually do it.

This is a collection of short stories, jottings, dreams and almost-jokes. Of the latter, one,  ‘Negative Emotions’, had me chuckling with delight for ages after reading it.

There is often a tone of self-doubt – a knowing, ironic self-doubt, but it is a knowingness and irony which is not there for a smart-alecky effect. There is always a clear emotion behind such pieces, a sense Davis is taking the reader into her confidence rather than keeping us at bay.

One story, headed, ‘Not Interested’, begins

‘I’m simply not interested in reading this book. I was not interested in reading the last one I tried, either I’m less and less interested in reading any of the books I have, though they are reasonably good, I suppose.’

The way that sentence tails off into ‘I suppose’ is a nice touch.

Or:

‘Life is too serious to me to go on writing… Writing is too often about people who can’t manage. Now I have become one of those people. I am one of those people. What should I do, instead of writing that people who can’t manage, is just quick writing and then to manage. And pay more attention to life itself.’

There is a dream – Davis’s pieces are often fragments of dreams – called “The Party” which is incredibly descriptive: like a fast crane-shot on film which she describes arriving at the party somewhere unknown but vaguely familiar  with ‘a curving driveway  by lanterns among the trees… Under a lofty floodlit stone windmill.’ She described walking across gravel past ‘noisy fountains’ and entering the windmill going down stairwells rather than up,  visiting ‘a vast circular room, it’s raftered ceiling lost in darkness’… the centre of which the room is “a giant carousel motionless and crossed by powerful beams of light: white horses, four abreast, are harnessed to open carriages that rock back and forth on their bases; a ship with two figureheads rises high out of static green waves.’

Davis is very good on writing which really does make you see what she is describing: its a marvellous, rare and difficult art to pull off.

Sounds as well as pictures feature: there is a piece on onomatopoeia of a sort called ‘The Language of Things in the House’ – the washing machine and spin cycle goes ‘Pakistani, Pakistani’;,  the wooden spoon in the plastic bolstering the pancake goes ‘what the hell, what the hell’;  an iron burner rattling on its metal tray goes ‘Bonanza’; a pot in the sink with water running in it goes ‘a profound respect’;  rubber flip-flops (that’s jandals, to we New Zealanders) on the wooden floor goes ‘Echt’.

And there is a central sad story called The Seals which seems part memoir,  part something else:  something undefined.

On the strength of this,  my first reading of Davis’s work, I would say ‘something undefined’ applies to much of it. Fascinating.

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Factories of empire

The Prose Factory by D J Taylor (Random House 2015)

The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook (Penguin 2015)

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‘No one over the age of 40 – no one at any rate old enough to have experienced a literary world made up entirely of books, newspapers and reference libraries – can roam the world of the blogosphere and the online symposium without thinking that there is too much of everything – too many books, too much criticism of them, too many reviews, too many opinions, too many reading groups, too many book clubs, so many literary prizes that any vaguely competent novel comes garlanded with two or three endorsements from the judging committees, that we are drowning in a sea of data where an instant reaction is always liable to crowd out mature reflection, where anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s and the fact that the distinguished man of letters in the Wall Street Journal thinks McCarthy’s The Road is a work of genius is of no interest at all to the Amazon reviewer who awards a single star for a “lack of bite”.’

Well, there is definitely too much of that sentence, but you can see what he’s getting at.

It comes towards the end of D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory, which covers the history of English literary affairs and business from 1918 through to roughly present day.

It is full of ideas about writing, the business of writing,  and by that I mean both the often neglected financial side, and also what writers were really concerned with, as opposed to what they said they were concerned with.

There is a great section on the rise of what was known as “the middle article” – light essays on literature or culture more generally  in newspapers  from roughly the 1920s onwards.

Such articles were still  common in British newspapers when I became a junkie in the mid-1980s – or at least the broadsheets such as the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times.

The ‘middle article’ became the vehicle for maintaining liberal values just as, in the political sphere, the liberal tradition became threatened.  Essayists as diverse as GK Chesterton or AG Gardner or JB Priestley kept this tradition  going –  a tradition which included the attitudes of universality tolerance and diversity of subject matter.

One essayist is described by Taylor, delightfully, as reviewing James Joyce’s Ulysses from ‘the angle of one who suspects that Ulysses has merit but can’t quite see it himself’.

This got me thinking  about the blogosphere because… Well of course it did. Back  when blogs became a thing,  about a dozen years or so ago,  I likened them to the old 18th and 19th-century pamphleteers:  partisan,  often puerile,  and occasionally very personal.

There has, in the past few years, developed a sort of second wave of blogs in New Zealand (and no doubt elsewhere) which is less concerned with politics and more with wider issues.

There is still a highly political element,  but it manages – a fair amount of the time, anyway –  to avoid the juvenile and extremely boring ‘Ya Boo Lefties! ‘Ya Boo Righties!’ face pulling behaviour which became synonymous with blogging for a long time.

I think this “middle article”  style seems not a bad description of the second wave.

Taylor is good  – very good in fact, if very  acerbic –  about the sheer snobbery of many writers,  with  those espousing radical politics being the most snobbish of the lot.

The chapter on the 1930s  – “The Pink Decade”   points out that champions of working class amongst the intelligentsia seldom admitted actual members of the working class to their salons and that when they tried things seldom turned out well.  There is a heartbreaking anecdote of Sid Chaplin,  one of the few working-class writers,who was published being invited to George Orwell’s house and making it as far as the doorway before fleeing in terror.

He also has the occasional go at the more anti-intellectual tradition of English letters,  but points out that even this,  once upon a time,  could draw on a background of shared cultural and intellectual heritage.

The mid-20th Century  battleground between ‘modernists and traditionalists, of highbrows and lowbrows,  of middle-class reactionaries, as Orwell once put it, thanking God they were not born brainy…’ was real enough,  but, as he says, even conservative critics of T S Elliot’s ‘The Wasteland’  could pick up the classical allusions. That isn’t so now.

There is the ongoing problem of funding literature:  ‘put an entity charged with expanding public take-up of literature in the hands of a bureaucrat, and the literature itself is all too easily lost sight of. Put it in the hands of other writers and the first casualty is likely to be a grasp of practical reality.’

There is, perhaps naturally, quite a bit on two writers who have written a lot about writers: the two friends who were often mistaken for each other, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge.

Bradbury I’ve only recently started reading although I’ve certainly been aware of him for some years – Taylor heralds as a kind of chronicler of the strange death, not so much of Liberal England as of the less definable, and much more important, set of broad liberal ideas and attitudes. Bradbury is, he says,

Bradbury is, he says

‘an elegist for an ethical code in severe danger of being swamped, a dazzling intellectual high wire act or even – to lower the bar a bit – is top-notch slapstick comedian in the Kingsley Amis mould. His real achievement, you suspect, rests on his ability to show just how formidable a force the old-style liberal humanists can be – even here in a wind and ground down world, somewhere in that endlessly contested space between the end of the Cartesian project and the beginning of the World Wide Web.’

Bradbury’s compatriot and friend David Lodge has a slightly different approach and has a lovely line about how Lodge

‘clearly isn’t averse to dressing up in the glad rags of literary theory, but on this, and other, evidence he wouldn’t want to wear it next to his skin.’

And that brings us to the issue of literary theory which haunted the study of English when I was at university in the late 80s and which was one of the main reasons I steered clear of an English major.  I figured if I was going to do political theory I would rather have the real thing.

And here we go full circle, back to the snobbery of the Bloomsbury-ites and their fellow modernists. There is a thorough and by no means one-sided discussion of critic John Carey and his attack on modernism, post-modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and literary theory generally, and Taylor does conclude that all too often 20th century literature has acted for minorities and elites to the exclusion of a large potential of readers of ordinary intelligent people who have developed, over the years, thoroughly understandable dislike of ‘culture’ and the ‘cultured’.

‘The “literary novel” … would sell far more copies and attract far more attention beyond newspaper books pages if it didn’t habitually come served with a light sauce of snootiness – if in fact, it didn’t refer to itself as a literary novel in the first place.’

 

 


Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. 

 

So spoke former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the early 1960s. Acheson  was of course discussing foreign policy, and the comments came at the time the British government was edging towards joining what was then called the European Economic Community and which we now know as a European Union.

And of course we also now though British voters opted to leave Europe last month,  even if we –  and they – still don’t quite know what that vote means.

Acheson  almost  definitely did not have in mind the kind of role Dominic Sambrook outlines in The Great British Dream Factory.

That role  is as a kind of middlebrow entertainer to the world.  Books, true,  play a sizeable part  in this role.

 

 

Sandbrook is though  more enamoured of film, television, and music –  a chapter on the country house is more interested in the film and television examples  than the literary ones.

Brideshead Revisited  certainly features,  but Sandbrook is more interested in the 1981  television series than  the original Evelyn Waugh novel (not one of Waugh’s best efforts, in my view, but still).  While P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie get a look in,  it is the global phenomenon of Downton Abbey which really generates Sandbrook’s  enthusiasm.

Spies –  he seemed rather taken with James Bond –  and science fiction such as The Prisoner and Doctor Who  are also  star products of his Dream Factory production line.

While I’m sympathetic to Sandbrook’s  rejection of some of the overrated cultural icons it covers, he tries a little too hard and too self-consciously to  be a kind of middlebrow, plain-man iconoclast (he rates Elton John over David Bowie, to take one example).

 

His book  lacks Taylor’s  elegance and above all Taylor’s penetrating wit.  While Taylor’s study –  admittedly with a slightly narrower focus –  is  surefootedly deft,  deep,  and occasionally droll,  there is a sense of  clumsiness,  over striving for  effect,  in Sandbrook’s work.

Both are worth a read. But Taylor’s is the one I will read again.

Book Recommendations – The Strange Death of Liberal England

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
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‘Along that row of distinguished and original faces there would pass from time to time, as lightly as a shadow upon the waters, an alarming, an alien, spirit. It invaded and effaced the dignified construction of Mr Asquith’s features, it crept about the corners of Mr Lloyd George’s eyes, with imponderable fingers it ruined that noble forehead which was Mr Winston Churchill’s, it reduced the hatchet lines of Mr McKenna’s face to the lesser proportions of a ladylike paper-knife.. a spirit dangerous and indefinite, animula vagula blandula, the Spirit of Whimsy, which only afflicts Englishmen in their weakness.’

 

I have been thinking of this book a lot lately and I’ve recommended it to several people.  It was one of those “formative books” – a book one reads as an impressionable age and has a powerful influence on the outlook.

I’m a firm believer that styles and methods of thought are more important – much more important in fact – than the actual content of those thoughts. Habits of mind are often unconscious, stem from a mix of influences and innate character, and serve to form thoughts and beliefs.

So although, in the case of this book, I didn’t agree with everything in it at the time, and probably do so even less now, Dangerfield’s  attitude to the world of public affairs, and those who conduct it, had, now I re-read it, quite an effect.

I can even remember where and when I bought it – shortly after moving to Auckland in 1985, at the David Thomas second-hand bookshop in Lorne St, which was part of a small oasis of slightly disheveled civilisation in the downtown CBD at the time. There were four along the O’Connell-High-Lorne St zone at the time – Rare Books, Jasons, and Bloomsbury, as well as this one. Five, if you count the library.

Nice and handy, too, to the Dominos and Just Desserts cafes.

Enough nostalgia.

‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ is one of the few books I’d nominate for genuine classic status. It tells a great story – the kind of collective mental breakdown which swept over the British [ok, mostly English, and David Lloyd George] classes in the four years before the outbreak of World War One.

It is superbly written, generally with a dry ironic touch, but underneath this cool carapace some heated moral indignation bubbles and it occasionally bursts through.

It was about the breakup of a consensus, of assumptions about how their country – and, given the size of the British Empire of the time, the world  – ought to be governed. The future of Ireland, Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and the House of Lords’ self-defeating obduracy, votes for women, and the rise of the Labour Party dominate and served to break up that consensus.

As Dangerfield put it,

‘Whatever his political convictions may have been, the  Englishman of the ‘7os and ‘8os was something of a liberal  at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and  the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in Reform. He was strongly in favour of peace – that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance, and, if possible, in the  name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens.’

And he shows how widespread this worldview was, usually with a neat and deftly humorous touch, starting one section with,

‘In 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain, who had proved how insubstantial were party differences by being a Unitarian, a Radical, and a Conservative at one and the same time…’

It is character sketches like this which really make the book dance, because they are not just sketches of individual characters, they are used to show the spirit of the age. Here is Dangerfield on Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Party leader between 1902 and 1911: for Balfour, he writes,

 

‘…politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school :in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead.  …He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at a low ebbb…

‘In his youth he had been known as ” pretty Fanny ” and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull : it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a special property of hollow mockery, its eternal memento mori which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.’

Any writer who can come up with the phrase ‘attenuated gazelle’ is someone I have to tip my hat in homage to.

Here he is on  Liberal prime minister Henry Asquith:

‘..ingenious but not subtle, he could improvise quite brilliantly on somebody else’s theme. He was moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately

humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive. If he can be accused of excess it was in the matter of his personal standards, which were extremely high.’

My own copy of the book fell apart several years ago, I’ve since got ahold of some online excerpts and have ordered a new one from Abebooks.

It is, as those excerpts quoted above show, a joy to read if you have love history and good writing and possess a sense of humour.

It is also – because it was written in the 1930s – great to read a thoughtful book which considers Winston Churchill as just another politician, albeit a particularly colourful one, before the public monument he became post-World War Two.

Local parallels? I frequently found myself pondering this book during Helen Clark’s prime ministership. It seemed to me then quite possible we were looking at an endgame for the New Zealand Labour Party and its world view, mostly because of the inherently defensive approach to almost all policy issues.

Oh, and because Clark and Cullen at times reminded me of the Asquith-Lloyd George combination, albeit without Cullen wanting the top job.

But Clark’s cool rationality had a whiff of Asquith, and Cullen definitely had a touch of the Lloyd George at times, especially in his way with the wittily destructive phrase.

The travails which have befallen Labour since then have confirmed those thoughts from a decade ago.

And we may, now, be seeing a wider, world wide break up, with the rise of Trump-ism in the United States and the sentiment of ressentiment which that appeals to taking other forms elsewhere.

But more on that in my real job.

For now, fellow well-written-history-buffs: this book is a true classic.

That rare combination: a thought-provoking joy to read.

Clive James, Philip Larkin, Anthony Powell, religion, days, and flapping ideologues

James, Dessaix We are often told that the next generation of literati won’t have private libraries: everything will be on the computer. It’s a rational solution, but that’s probably what’s wrong with it. Being book crazy is an aspect of love and therefore scarcely rational at all.’.

My first introduction to Clive James, apart from a snippy reference to a review at the start of one of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs*, was his television shows in the 1980s. Have to confess I wasn’t a fan. That was a mix of cheap laughs and often a slightly sleazy air.

They was also his poem on the Charles and Diana wedding, which quite embarrassing.

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s I came across a piece of his about poet Philip Larkin, who I just had discovered.

It was like finding that Krusty the Clown was, in real life, Montaigne**.  It was perceptive, it showed things I hadn’t noticed, it was wity, humane,intelligent.

James is now dying of leukemia, and it is this death sentence which hangs over much of his latest works – it is there, of course, in the title, which has a dark pun.

And he is not going quietly:  commendably though, rather than rage he is writing, writing, against the dying of the light.

Some people parade their learning. James tended to take his on night manouvres with the Panzerdivision. If he could draw a reference to sesquipedalian continental writer, some obscure Russian, it seemed he would do so at the drop of a quotation mark.

Life, and the wisdom which comes with not only experience but the ability to learn from experience, has seen him tone this down. A bit. The learning is sill very much present: one of the favourite recent additions to my bookshelves is his  magisterial Cultural Amnesia, which is full of obscure byways and is one of those books of learning which are a joy to dip into from time to time.

But he has learned not to overdo it.

“The critic should write to say, not ‘look how much I’ve read,’ but ‘look at this, it’s wonderful'” he comments towards the end of Latest Readings. Theres a rueful, if implicit, acknowledgement of follies of younger years there.

The critic should also, of course, send you off to check out his subjects. On the strength of reading James – not only here, but more recent pieces in the Guardian – I’ve had another bash at Conrad. Apart from “doing” Heart of Darkness at Uni, I have read little of his work. I picked up ‘Nostromo’ at a second hand store in Auckland, back in Uni days in the late ’80s but struggled with it and it was a book which was, amongst others, wiped out in The Great Sandringham Road Leaking Roof Catastrophe of 1992.

But when James writes, as he does here, that he first read it full of admiration for both Conrad and himself: Conrad for his moral scope and himself for his endurance in actually managing to read the thing, it struck a chord with me.

 

“Perhaps to induce self-esteem in the reader had been one of the author’s aims. There are those who believe that Wagner made Siegfried so wearisome because he wanted the audience to admire themselves.”

He has more time for Conrad now – and on James’ recommendation, I’m currently about half way through Under Western Eyes. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, it reminds me of some of William Golding’s later writing. It’s hard work, but its also difficult not to persevere. There is something about it which draws the reader on – well, this reader, anyway.

James quotes Samuel Johnson, approvingly, on the way language changes and notes the man famous, amongst other things, for writing a dictionary wrote as if language is an ever-changing thing. Johnson was not trying to resist this, but make sure that as it changed it did not become corrupted.

“That our languages and perpetual danger of corruption cannot be denied; but what prevention can be found? The present manners of the nation would deride authority and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.”

All he needed to add was that unless you can criticise yourself you’re not a writer, James adds.

James remains impressed with Anthony Powell: and, sorry, but I’ve never managed to get beyond a few dozen pages with A Dance To the Music Of Time, despite having several bashes at it. But I loved James’ characterisation of Powell’s writing which, he says, ‘sometimes piled on the subtlety to the point of flirting with the evanescent’.
This is, I think, the crucial attributes of a great critic: the ability to write enjoyably about something the reader may not like and may even have no interest in. (In the New Zealand context, Diana Wichtel – like James, a television critic – in the Listener falls into this category. I enjoy reading her columns about tv programmes I have never watched and have no intention of doing so).

And on Larkin – who features, as he so often does, in James’ work, – he defends the poet against the backlash which followed the Andrew Motion biography in 1993 and the revelations Larkin was, in his private life, something of a porn-loving creep.

As James writes now,

‘The turmoil of his psyche is the least interesting thing about him. His true profundity is right there on the surface, and the beauty of his line. Every ugly moment of his interior battles was in service to that beauty.’

He is right about the first claim. I am not so sure about that last sentence though. Sometimes the  point of Larkin is where the ugly moments obtruded on the beauty, especially in some of the ‘High Windows’ collection, not to mention some of the works which were left unpublished until after Larkin’s death.

 

Mention of Larkin brings me to Robert Dessaix’s memoir, What Days Are For.

I’ve never heard of Dessaix, but the title is the first line in a Larkin poem and when I saw it on the pile at good ol’ Unity Books, I swooped.

The poem, in full, is here:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

It has been one of my favourite poems since coming across it sometime in my 20s. It’s message seems to me to be you have to live the life you have got: ‘days’ does not refer to a 24 hour period but a much more broad thing, they are simply ‘where we live’.

The last four lines are marvellous. There is something risible about the image of the priest and the doctor. The ‘doctor’ here, I am sure, is not a medical person but an academic, an ideologue.

And like the priest, the ideologue comes running over the fields, all flapping coat and wagging finger, telling us how to solve the question of life with their pat answers.

Dessaix – like James, an intellectual Australian – wrote the book while recovering from a medical mishap and pondering the Meaning Of It All.

His life appears somewhat abstract: he has a (male) partner and their life together, as depicted in the memoir, appears to be very much of the mind. It is in some ways enviable but in other ways there seems something curiously airless and un-grounded about it all.

Which is not to say his book is not a thought provoking and enjoyable read.

He ponders a visit to the sub-continent, wonders about the attractions of India and in particular its religions have for well heeled Westerners.

He writes of “middle-aged women with Alice in Wonderland hair from Melbourne and Milwaukee…in search of the spiritual moment that will last a lifetime (too misquote Casanova)” – a few men and crushed linen pants and no socks, Suede and scarves, but mostly woman.

‘What is the attraction of Indian religions for Westerners? What is it the cast the spell? It’s got something to do with the way they can claim not to be religious as such I suspect. “Oh it’s not a religion it’s a way of life “– how many times have I heard that?’

 

He also points out acidly the gods of the region are a long way from the Judao-Christian God – at least, a long way from the watered down version of God taught in many churches.

He doubts anyone would speak of ‘love’ in a Kali Temple in the way the term would be used in a Christian church. Gods and the Indian imagination are much more ferocious, he writes.

There is not the message that all will be well  (Dessaix puts this in italics) which is familiar to the sort of Protestant churches he recalls from his youth.

One of his companions who has a Tamil background suggest that this sort of thing and what he calls lovingkindness   (again the italics are his) is a bit middle-class and sentimental when applied to any sort of God. Lovingkindness along with disinterested courtesy and altruism is he argues a western luxury born of economic security.

The Greek gods ‘had no time for mercy or compassion either: Zeus and its progeny are as stony heart as earthquakes and thunderstorms.’

But then so is the God of much of the old and new testaments. While Dessaix quotes almost rapturously Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians

 

‘though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not charity I am become sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing’.

he also points out the stony judgementalism of much of the Bible – and not just the Old Testament, either.

 

‘On Judgement Day, if I’m not mistaken, on his right hand will stand those who gave them something to eat and drink when he was hungry and thirsty, gave them close to put on when he was naked, and visited him when he was sick and imprisoned… On his left however will stand those who gave you nothing to eat or drink, did not close, and did not visit him when he was sick and imprisoned. They will be cast into everlasting fire. This now seems a bit over the top. He was about to be betrayed and killed when he made that threat, and he knew it, so he was understandably a little overwrought, but all the same the punishment does not seem to fit the crime.’

He muses this diatribe is not about just being nice to each other anymore than Hinduism is, although it largely was when he was growing up. It is about seeing Truth face-to-face, and the need to be empathetic in doing so.

‘… Go out of the way to put yourself into the shoes of others, unlock your heart as you look into their ears, and do whatever you can to ease their wretchedness. And in blessing you will be blessed.’

There is a whiff  of Hindu Darshan, in this, he notes.

There are other – often highly tangental but nevertheless enjoyable – asides.

Dessaix defines a masterpiece as a book you’ve never quite finished reading, which strikes me as being uncomfortably, if amusingly, accurate.

He suggests romantic love as being ‘often barely sexual at all when it first strikes, except very late at night and very early in the morning’ which doesn’t strike me as being particularly accurate at all, but then, we all have our own different experiences in this area.

He visits Damascus in Syria, sits at a cafe, sipping a banana milkshake in the street  where a blinded St Paul is reputed to have been taken to refuge by his companions.

He meets an English tourist who is pondering doing the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. He cheerfully says he’s not a believer and hasn’t been since nine has done it before wants to again because he likes to feel linked into something.

That striving for some sort of  ‘linking into something’ seems, in fact, to be the book’s main undercurrent.

And he reads  David Lodge’s novel Deaf Sentence , in which the narrator quotes Larkin’s Days.

He doesn’t find the poem disheartening or depressing even though he is aware Larkin’s poems tend to be on the dolorous side.  The scurrying priests at the end he says look like clowns, and could even be a bit on the macabre side – what is he seeing here? Death in a gown?

‘That would be more in keeping with Larkin I suppose. We live in days not in Hobart or Hull or in this year all that year or even lifetimes or eras let alone “in the moment” or even in God’s timeless gaze. We live in” our own succession of days”. Learn to value that’. 

 

Again, the italics are his.

There is much to value in both these books.

 

 

 

* James had reviewed, otherwise favourably, a previous volume and commented the work was not historically accurate and Milligan took grave offence. I will return to the Milligan books another time: for now it is worth noting Milligan did not hold a grudge, as his subsequently published letters shows.

** Ok. Slight exaggeration at both ends of the scale.

The other Anzac Centenary

In this year of anniversaries, mostly blood-soaked ones, there is one this weekend which has been oddly missed.

It is a 100 years since the Anzac evacuation. The troops were taken out of Anzac Cove over the night of the 19th December 1915.

It is seen, of course, as a failed and costly campaign.

Costly it certainly was. But found myself wondering, a few weeks back as I read Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” whether it was totally failed.

The received version is the landings were to provide relief to the Russians, who were on the Allied side and were under pressure following defeats by the Germans at Tannenburg and also from the Ottoman Empire – the Turks – on their southern side.

The idea seems to have been to knock the Turks out – the Ottoman Empire having been called ‘the Sick Man of Europe’ for most of the previous century, obviate the need for the Russians to fight on their southern flank and thus allow the Russians to commit all their troops against Germany.

We’ve tended to be taught it was a “sideshow” to the main event: the war on the Western Front against Germany in France.

Sleep walkersBut it wasn’t as much of a sideshow as all that.

As Clark’s book – perhaps the best short history of the origins of World War One I’ve read [he has a lecture on it here]– shows, the real strategic game of World War One wasn’t the west, it was the future of south east Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

Russia’s long term ambition included access to the Mediterranean for its Navy, via the Straits of Constantinople.

Britain and, to a lesser degree France, were not so keen. They had, a half a century previously, fought the Crimean War precisely to stop this happening.

The conviction amongst western statesmen was the backward Ottoman Empire – backward, inefficient, but sprawling west to east from Jerusalem to Afghanistan  – would crumble at some point.

Who would benefit from this collapse was one of the most important strategic issues of the era – more so, in fact, than who won or lost in Flanders.  It is why British troops were put into Palestine and Iraq and remained there for rather a long time. (Plu ca meme chose, etc etc etc….)

Writes Clark:

 ‘Russian strategic thinking tended iincreasingly in 1912-14 to view the Balkans as the hinterland to the Straits – as the key to securing ultimate control of the Ottoman chokepoint on the Bosphorus.

Underlying this conviction  was the belief, increasingly central to [Russian Foreign Minister] Sazonvo’s thinking during the last years before the outbreak of war, that Russia’s claim to the Straits would only ever be realised in the context of a general European war….’

So, I suspect, the ANZAC landings were less about “providing relief” for the Russians, than making sure that if the Ottomans did collapse, there would be Allied troops in the region to pick up the bits – or at least to make sure the Russians weren’t able to just walk in.

When the failed Gallipoli campaign made it plain the Turkish armies were not going to be quite the pushover everyone assumed, the entire venture became less strategically important.

Clark’s book closes a year before the Gallipoli landings. New Zealand only gets one mention – he quotes a pamphlet by an unnamed clergyman urging an attitude of sacrifice amongst young New Zealand men to protect their womenfolk from unnamed “aliens”.

It is cited as an example of the way in which assumptions about the inevitability of war had seeped into wider public consciousness.

There was, Clark suggests, “a deepening readiness for war across Europe, particularly within educated elites. It did not take the form of bloodthirsty calls for violence against another sate, but rather of a ‘defensive patriotism that encompassed the possibility of war without necessarily welcoming it.’

It is no coincidence the spark which triggered the firestorm – the assassination at Sarajevo – was in the south east of Europe.

Serbia, following the assassination, was portrayed in Allied propaganda as the gallant little nation besieged by bullying neighbours.

Which was, to put it mildly, a charitable view.

The ‘gallant little Serbia’ of wartime propaganda bears some uncomfortable parallels with today’s Pakistan.

The terrorist group which carried out the assassination in Sarajevo, a fluid group which operated under various names such as Black Hand or Unity or Death, was both a threat to the Serbian government and inextricably linked with numerous members of that government.

The group moved of its own accord, across borders, and if the Serbian government had wanted to move against it the result would have been revolution in one form or other. Too many Serbs  – some within the government – backed the terrorist’s goals.

The debate on the origins of World War One might be old, Clark notes, but

 

“..the subject is still fresh – in fact it is fresher and more relevant now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The changes in our own world have layered our perspective on the events of 1914…Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organisation with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge, but this organisation was extra terrestrial, without a clear geographical or political location…”

 

 

 

 

Six Blankets in the shape of a cross – an Everest epic

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis (Vintage Books 2012)

‘We went out into the keen air; it was a night of early moons. Mounting a little rise of stones and faintly crunching under our feet the granular atoms of fresh fallen snow we were already aware of some unusual loveliness in the moment and the scenes. We were not kept waiting for the supreme effects; the curtain was withdrawn. 

Rising from the bright mists Mount Everest above us was imminent, vast, incalculable- no fleeting apparition of elusive dream-form: nothing could have been more set and permanent, steadfast like Keats’s star, ‘in lone splendour hung aloft the night’, a watcher of all the nights, diffusing, it seemed universally, an exalted radiance.’

Everest-wallpaper-cb1267712137
Chomolungma/Sagamatha/Everest. From the North side.

So wrote George Mallory of his first attempt at climbing Mt Everest, three years before he was to make his more famous, and fatal, climb.

By a neat coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Wade Davis’s mighty book on the expeditions undertaken by Mallory, and others, in the wake of World War One just as the fillum ‘Everest’ appeared in the cinemas.

This latest fillum is, of course, about a later and much more famous, at least to contemporary generations, attempt on Everest, even if at least one of the participants in the actual climb has damned it as being less-than-accurate.

The Wade Davis book, though, is one of the most absorbing things I’ve immersed myself in for a long time.

It is only partly about the climb itself: it is very much about the culture and circumstances of the mostly young men who were involved in the first serious bids on the mountain in the years after the First World War.

And, as a semi-aside, they also made the first ever film of the mountain, recently restored and online here. It, too, is compelling, for all its primitive technology and for the fact the film makers couldn’t get beyond a certain point.

The theme of the book is how the climbers – some not so young – were driven by the trauma of World War One, and also by the uneasy feeling the sun which shone on the British Empire was moving past the meridian.

The leader of the first expedition, Charles Bruce, had received  bullets through both legs at Gallipoli and lost one of those legs.

He had been told to retire home on his disability pension and advised to take things easy.

Above all else, doctors told him not to attempt any strenuous uphill walking.

You have to shake your head in admiration at anyone who can so comprehensively ignore medical advice.

But the book is peopled with such dotty, obsessive but often quite gentle eccentrics. The contrast with the more consumer-ist approach of  today’s Everest industry could not be more profound.

These were men who had no need of a ‘bucket list’. They had seen too much of life, and death, for such a thing.

The man who made the first film of Everest,  John Noel, had witnessed the first gas attack on the Western Front in 1915 – one where a fellow officer described men running back with bulging eyes and tearing at their throats as the gas caused a chemical reaction in their lungs which meant they drowned in the poison. ‘I have never seen men so terrified’ he wrote.

Noel himself was wounded in a shell burst the same day and as well as having severe head and other injuries was suffering from neurasthenia by the time he was invalided out.

Another member of the expedition, Howard Somervell, had been a medical officer in the trenches. Working as a surgeon, Davis writes, Somervell,

‘appears to have dealt with the war by maintaining a process and highly disciplined focus on the abstract possibilities of the academic moment. In his free moments he would go sketching, to the most humble objects of nature with his heart yearning to treat every animate being as worthy of respect.’.

There is a nice piece on him here – including the nugget, not mentioned in Davis’s book, that in 1924 mountaineering was an Olympic sport and those on the team which attempted Everest were given medals that year.

Many of the men had been in the Himalayas and wider central Asian region well before they tried to climb the mountain.

Howard-Bury travelled to the region before the war, going through the Karakorams and Kashmir, learning, in the end, 27 languages and closely studying the culture and in particularly the religions of the region. In 1911, aged 31, he inherited his family estate and was able to “retire” – and immediately used his wealth and leisure to trek through the Silk Road and Mongolia, into Russia.

He bought lilies in Omsk and planted them at Belvedere; he bought a baby bear as well who he brought home. The bear grew to seven feet tall: Howard-Bury kept fit by wrestling with it.

‘He spent his time collecting plants, taking notes, and living a life of freedom and whimsy…..He was not a man ready for war, and yet when it came he returned immediately to his regiment.’

He was also at Loos and Ypres. And the Somme. Davis sketches the outline of these battles, and what utter carnage they were.

Ordered at one point to take a group of men and dig a communication trench, he found they were digging not through the earth, but through layers and layers of decaying bodies of men who had fallen in previous battles. “heads, arms and legs crawling with maggots”.

Throughout the war he kept a regular diary – he was, says Davis, a brilliant and observant writer.

Howard-Bury was captured in the final German offensive of the war: his regiment was right in the forefront of the attack and few survived.

The social and cultural aspect of all this has been much written about: Davis also has an eye for the economic scale, with the arresting fact that between 1918 and 1921 the effect of  death duties and other taxes meant a quarter of all English land would change hands – a change in property ownership of a scale only seen once before, when William the Conqueror marched in. Not even Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, or the English Civil War saw anything like it.

After the war, notes Davis, many who had served in the trenches wanted to go “anywhere but home”.

‘The long hallucination of the war induced a universal torpor and melancholy, a sense of isolation, a loss of centre….In the months and years after the war the essence of death became redefined, even as survivors sought new ways to deal with the inexorable separation it implied.’

Davis quotes Vera Brittain, who had lost her fiancé, her brother and two male friends and who wrote she had “no one left to dance with. The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were the dead, and would never return.”

The book is peopled with dotty, strong-minded eccentrics, not all who saw war service. There is Charles – later Sir Charles – Bell, the envoy in Tibet, who loved the locals and who, after one of the early expeditions, forbade any removal of rocks for geological purposes because it was upsetting local religious sensibilities.

In fact, the climbers were not removing rocks – Tibetan lamas had got the wrong impression of what was going on – but Bell was appalled by the climbers’ dismissive reaction when he passed on local concerns.

There is, needless to say, a strong undercurrent of colonialism here – in fact ‘undercurrent’ is an understatement. Bell was another odd mix: he insisted on always wearing uniform when meeting Tibetan leaders, as befitting the dignity of a British official, but he would also avoid going outdoors in summer during daytime, like the lamas, because moving around would kill insects and Buddhists believe taking any life is wrong.

And Mallory?  He seems to have been a star even before Everest: a mix of brilliance, good looks and athleticism left him trailing clouds of still mostly anticipated glory, if such a thing can be imagined. He was singled out early as a vital part of any expedition – in fact, the best hope of getting to the top of Everest – due to his climbing ability.

There is a vignette of his first glimpse of Everest – noted in Howard-Bury’s diary: unable to sleep, he had risen to watch the sunrise and was pottering around on the pass where they had camped, ‘still clad in pyjamas and bedroom slippers, gazing at the mountain’.

The final, disastrous attempt, is covered in depth: Mallory and his climbing partner, Irving, disappeared into the mist on the mountain and fellow climber Noel Odell, thought he had seen them close enough to the summit to have actually made it there, even though they did not make it back.

Mallory was to complain to Noel he had not come to Tibet to be a film star: one of Davis’s points is despite this it is precisely what Mallory became, in life and – especially – in death. The film made by Noel became a hit at the still-silent cinemas.

Noel could only – especially with the heavy film equipment of the time – climb so far up the mountain. He was to wait: geologist Odell climbed further and watched his friends disappear. As relayed in Noel’s film, they waited longer than they knew they should have had to if the climb had been a success: eventually, the signal came.

Six blankets, in the shape of a cross, in the snow.

By the time this happens, on page 549, the reader is so wrapped up in the tale it is difficult not to feel the dismay.

The book goes on to cover future, abortive bids to get an expedition going, which ran afoul of politics. Hilary’s 1953 bid is, of course, mentioned in an epilogue, and there is the more recent discovery of Mallory’s body, where it is, and what it means for claims he and Irvine got to the top but never made it back.

I’ll leave that to you to find out about that. Read it. This is one of the best books, on any subject, I’ve read for a long time. Occasionally I’ve felt the writing could have been given a bit more pep and pace, but that is a minor quibble.

I love this book, and I haven’t said that about any book for a very long time.