Two magnificent sideswipes in one sentence 

‘ 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. 

‘Serious Noticing’ – James Wood on writing (and reading) 

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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.’

Magnificent.

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. 

Thought for the day – Mencken on books 

‘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”.

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The individual citizen, the private soul 

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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.

Books and words

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.

 

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Queuing in the drizzle, Wellington Second hand book fair, 2014.
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.

It made me laugh, genuinely, out loud. Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 4.39.27 PM

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.

Finally, swearing.

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.

 

Companions – for Book Day

August 9 is Book Day in the United States. Scanning the companionnews bulletins beaming out of that strange and excitable outlier*  from the rest of the English-speaking world, it’s difficult not to conclude that a quiet sit down with a long book for a week or two would do American citizenry a power of good.

New Zealand doesn’t have a Book Day. We probably should. We have days for lots of things, including public holidays for provinces which haven’t existed since 1876, and for the birthday of a monarch on a day which isn’t actually her birthday.

We should be able to manage a Stay In Bed & Read Day –  sometime around mid-winter, say.

Or – for Wellingtonians, anyway – whatever day the Downtown Community Ministry Bookfair is held. This is like a festival of second-hand books, and people queue in the rain for it (yes, seriously. In how many other cities in New Zealand do people queue in the rain for second-hand books?? ).

A few months back I stumbled across a bunch of Companion Library books at a second-hand bookstore in Petone. I don’t know the history to the Companion Library series, but I know it was a cheap way to get ahold of some of the great classics.

They were available on some sort of hire purchase plan, I think.  They were via mail order, and you got one every couple of months or something similar.  There was no actual ‘front’ and ‘back’ to each volume – each volume had two books, and you flipped them over and read in from each end.

They were cheap – all the books were well out of copyright, and I bet even for their cheapness someone was making a packet out of them. The first one my folks got for us was Alice in Wonderland, and I can’t for the life of me remember what was on the other side of that volume.

Had a huge effect – I had vivid dreams anyway, and here was a tale about a very vivid dream.

The volumes I read most often was the one which had Grimms Fairy Tales on one side and Hans Christian Anderson’s Tales on the other. Wore that one out. More vivid dream fodder, of course, with more than a touch of menace. And in the case of the Hans Christian Anderson stories, menace with moralism.

Aesop’s Fables was also a fave – and I notice now, looking back, that like the Grimms/Andersons volume, it was short stories. The thing I remember most about the Aesop’s Fables was discovering the origin of a few phrases (‘Oh, so *that’s* where “sour grapes” and “dog in a manger” comes from!’).

I presume the Companion Library has long since been discontinued. You can get all these on Kindles now. Probably for free or as close as makes no difference.

Anyway, Happy Book Day, wherever you are, and Happy Reading, on any day and any device.

 

*included especially for Steve Braunias

 

 

 

 

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.

Reading – and how to do it wrong

IMG_7195Sometimes  you hear – or in this case, read –  something and just want to holler NO NO NO NO NO!

You want to take someone politely but firmly by the elbow,

or maybe their STUPID BLOODY THROAT,

take them gently to one side, sit them down, and talk gently to them about how they may have got things wrong or rather

HAVE MISSED THE ENTIRE BLOODY POINT.

In this case,  two things I have read over the past 48 hours which made me want to either give someone some kind words of advice

OR SLAP THEM AROUND THE BLOODY EARS.

And it is about reading.

The first was yet another one of those awful ‘One Thousand And One Books You Must Read Before They Haul You Off To the Undertakers And Start Making With the Formaldehyde’ lists.

I hate these, mostly because they are so damn bossy, and they have at their  root the notion that there is a class of books which are ‘essential’ to make you better as a person.

To which I politely beg to differ. Oh, and

BOLLOCKS TO THAT.

There needs, I think, to be lists of Books It Is OK To Hurl At The Wall Even If Your Cultured Friends Think This Makes You A Less Worthy Person.

I think I can claim to be a reasonably well-read sort of bloke, but a core part of my world view – in all spheres of life, and certainly those relating to personal taste –  is Each To Their Own.

I don’t, for example, think the fact I’ve never really “got” Jane Austen, despite having a reasonably determined crack at Pride and Prejudice back in my Uni days, makes me any less bloody cultured than those who do.

But if it rings your bell, go for your life.

The second thing which caused a bit of a spurt in the blood pressure department was something I saw on GoodReads yesterday which invited people to list the number of books they would like to read this year, as some sort of challenge.

And, again, NO NO NO.

Both these online missives make a similar mistake – even if this second one compounds that mistake with others.

Reading should never be a box-ticking exercise – in any way, shape or form.

Firstly, it is ok to not like books other many people think are great.

In fact, I think it is essential to not like books many other people think are great. It shows an independent mind, something any intelligent reader should possess and use with vigour, enthusiasm, and the occasional cry of THIS IS A LOAD OF ARSE.

And the books you do like, the ones that you will want to re-read later and will, each time you do, discover and delight in something you missed last time, will reflect – and possibly influence –  a mix of your own personality, your own circumstances, your own experiences of life and your own outlook on that life.

This will be a matter of quality, not quantity.

And above all, relax.

Book reading  – and yesterday, as noted earlier, was World Book Day – is not a syllabus nor an obstacle course.

It is one of life’s joys.

Don’t let anyone take that away.