‘He laughed to free his mind from his mind’s bondage.’
– James Joyce
‘He laughed to free his mind from his mind’s bondage.’
– James Joyce
‘ You come to him like Bill Grundy to Siouxsie Sioux and the Sex Pistols: “Say something outrageous”. Meades does his best, though, alas, what once seemed outrageous now sounds merely presidential.’
Ian Samson, reviewing Jonathan Meades’ latest book in the TLS.
Love the way he jabbed both tangental references in there.
The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood Jonathan Cape 2015
“I find that my memory is always yeasting up, turning one-minute moments into loafing, 10 minute reveries.” – James Wood
Which is not a bad thing to do over the summer break, all things, somewhat leisurely, considered.
Especially if the yeast is also the stuff contained in a nice lager. Cheers, everyone.
This review has in fact been sitting in the draft folder for nearly a year* – in a completely unplanned way, I seemed to have a lot of books about books, and they were all damn good, often better than the books they were about.
The main post at the time was this, involving Clive James, amongst others.
Wood is similarly analytical and, like James, in a determinedly non-theoretical style. He might though, in fact, refute the “analytical” tag: a lot of the criticism he most likes is ‘not especially analytical but is really a kind of passionate reader description’.
That rang a ding of appreciative recognition with me: the basic question of ‘what’s it like?‘ can be over analysed, and certainly over-theorisied.
It is, he says, ‘a way of writing through books, not just about them…. One has the great privilege of performing it in the same medium one is describing:
‘When Coleridge writes of Swift that he “had the soul of revelation but dwelling in a dry place”, or when Henry James says that Balzac became so devoted to his work that he became a kind of “Benedictine of the actual”; when Pritchard laments that Ford Maddox Ford never fell into that “determined stupor” out of which great artistic work comes – these writers are producing images that are qualitatively indistinguishable from the metaphors and similes in the so-called “creative” work.
‘They are speaking to literature in its own language.’
He muses that our life stories have no shape or more accurately nothing but its presence until ‘it has its ending; and then suddenly the whole trajectory is visible’.
Julian Barnes has similar thoughts in some of his recent writing, prompted in his case by a funeral, and it takes the old brain down some channels of thought which move away from literature and onto religion, or at least questions of a ‘what’s it all mean??????!!’ nature.
There is, Woods says, a struggle within a novel between present and past, instance and form, free will and determinism, secular expansion and religious contraction.
‘Authorial omniscience has such a fraught history: the anxiety is partly a theological one and has the unresolved nature of the theological argument. The novel seems foreverrunable to decide whether it wants to revel in omniscience or apologise for it, foreground or foreclose it. Should the novelist intervene and interrupt or withdraw into impersonality and frigid indifference?’
The most important part of the book is the middle part entitled Serious Noticing , beginning with comments on the Chekhov story called “The Kiss” which focuses on just that, at length, and the different perspective two parties had on that kiss. Wood expands into writing about noticing: Chekhov, he says, ‘appears to notice everything’.
Details in ‘The Kiss’ represent a point in that story where “form is outlived, cancelled, evaded.
‘I think of details as nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them.’
* A lot of these posts are first drafted at odd hours, when trying to get back to sleep after dealing with various family health things. There’s about 120 odd half/three-quarters written drafts in the folder. I suppose everyone needs a hobby.
It also contains the most subtly double-edged disclaimers I’ve ever read, by reviewer James O’Brien about one of the authors under review:
‘To declare an interest, we once shared desk space on the Daily Express, but he gave little indication then of possessing the powers of diplomacy and affability necessary to enjoy the trust of all the furiously warring factions within both sides of two even more furiously warring armies.’
‘There are people who read too much: the bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.’
H L Mencken.
To which I can only say, ‘Cheers’. Though I’d query the “too much”.
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…
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.
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.
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”.
“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.
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).
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.
‘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.’
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.
It was National Poetry Day today. I don’t have anything to contribute, sadly, not this year anyway.
‘Output Gaps’, my epic, Beowulf-influenced verse covering New Zealand’s post-World War Two economic travails and search for meaning, is still at a very adumbral phase of development.
Stephen Stratford’s always wry, witty and thinky Quote/Unquote reprinted a 1996 piece on Jenny Bornholdt. I don’t think I’ve read any of her stuff but people whose taste I respect rekkin she’s good.
Elsewhere…the New Zild poet going over a storm right now, Hera Lindsay Bird, was asked to summarise the history of poetry and tweeted about it.
Lindsay Bird is welcome for many reasons, one is she uses the word ‘fuck’ a lot and the other being she refuses to be po-faced about poetry.
Given New Zild’s literary scene has been dominated by people bemoaning the country’s dour, puritan culture and being even more dour and puritan about culture, her approach is a gust of fresh irreverence. I hope she maintains it.
I’m probably missing a whole lot of points here. I usually do, about poetry.
Over at Dim-Post, Danyl McLauchlan is marking poetry day by discussing Scottish bard William McGonagall, generally regarded as the worst poet of all time.
There’s a lot of competition for that title: it’s a bit like the Australian Worst Loser Championship.
Spike Milligan did a failed film about him, The Great McGonagall, back in the 1970s. Milligan played McGonagall and Max Miller, as seen here:
The entire film was made in an old Victorian-era theatre Milligan was trying to refurbish and the idea was to raise money for that project. The film spluttered to an end because he had another of his breakdowns, according to one history I’ve read.
It is a shambles, but it’s a weird, compelling shambles. It’s the closest I think Milligan ever got to capturing his bizarre worldview on film: a mix of tatty music hall, Victoriana (Peter Sellers plays Queen Victoria), bad jokes, and a mocking nostalgia, or a nostalgic mocking, of the British Empire.
The bit with Valentine Dyall as Alfred Lord Tennyson is wonderfully bizarre.
Emma Hart, at Public Address, has a post on the joys of swearing, and like Hera Lindsay Bird, I think it’s fair to say she’s broadly in favour of the activity.
The only thing I’d add is a profound and heartfelt defence of the word ‘arse’ which I feel we are at risk of losing to the awful, anaemic ‘ass’.
In all the talk – most of it pernicious nonsense – about the generational divide in recent times (aside: I wrote about it in NBR recently, if you have a sub, its here) there is one very large generational gapopening up and that is the use of the rather wet ‘ass’ vs. the magnificent ‘ARSE’.
New Zealanders under the age of roughly 35 are using ‘ass’ much more where in the past the word ‘arse’ would have been used.
Honestly, what is wrong with you young people?!
‘Ass’ is a prissy Americanism. It’s not a swear word, its what a swear word wants to be when it grows up, and only then if mummy and daddy say it is ok.
‘Arse’ is a word you can roar in exasperation, fury, or exuberance. It needs to be preserved.
A Society for the Preservation of Arse is called for, I think.
And finally, on the subject of words and books: tomorrow is the Downtown Community Ministry Second Hand Book Fair in Wellington.
I expect that, as in previous years, it will involve queuing in the rain. And this is what makes me a Wellingtonian, I think.
A city where people queue in the rain for second-hand books is my kind of city.