Wellington is still blessed with some very good secondhand bookstores and I’ve never read any Henry James.
I’ve got to the bottom of the first page. So far it’s very Jane Austen-ish.
Wellington is still blessed with some very good secondhand bookstores and I’ve never read any Henry James.
I’ve got to the bottom of the first page. So far it’s very Jane Austen-ish.
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.
August 9 is Book Day in the United States. Scanning the news 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