Reflections on The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

In the third of his mighty trilogy of histories of the long nineteenth century, The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914, as in its two predecessors, Hobsbawm makes no attempt to hide his strongly Marxist point of view. Every page shouts his contempt for the era’s ‘bourgeois’ men of business, its ‘capitalists’ and bankers, the despicable ‘liberal’ thinkers of the period and so on. From time to time his contempt for the bourgeoisie rises to the level of actual abuse.

The most that can be said of American capitalists is that some of them earned money so fast and in such astronomic quantities that they were forcibly brought up against the fact that mere accumulation in itself is not an adequate aim in life for human beings, even bourgeois ones. (p.186)

Replace that final phrase with ‘even Jewish ones’ or ‘even Muslim ones’ or ‘even black ones’ to get the full sense of how deliberately insulting it is intended to be and how unacceptable his invective would be if applied to any other group of people.

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to quote Marx (who died in 1883, saddened by the failure of his communist millennium to arrive) or Lenin’s views on late capitalism and imperialism (Lenin published his first political work in 1893), and he loses absolutely no opportunity to say ‘bourgeoisie bourgeoisie bourgeoisie’ scores of times on every page till the reader is sick of the sight of the word.

Hobsbawm’s highly partisan and politicised approach has strengths and weaknesses.

Hobsbawm’s strengths

On the up side, using very simplistic binary oppositions like ‘the developed world’ and ‘the undeveloped world’, the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’, helps him to make great sweeping generalisations which give you the impression you are gaining secret access to the engine room of history. If you ignore the complexity of the histories and very different cultures of individual nations such as America, Britain, France and Germany, and lump them altogether as ‘the West’, then you can bring out the broad-brush historical and economic developments of the era, grouping together all the developments in science, chemistry, physics, technology, industry and consumer products into great blocks, into titanic trends and developments.

This gives the reader a tremendously powerful sense of bestriding the world, taking part in global trends and huge international developments. Just as in The Age of Capitalism, the first half or so of the book is thrilling. It makes you feel like you understand for the first time the titanic historical forces directing world history, and it’s this combination of factual (there are lots of facts and figures about industrial production) and imaginative excitement which garnered the trilogy so many positive reviews.

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

Hobsbawm makes obeisance to the Marxist convention that ‘bourgeois’ ideology was riddled with ‘contradictions’. The most obvious one was the contradiction between the wish of national politicians to define and delimit their nations and the desire of ‘bourgeois’ businessmen to ignore all boundaries and trade and invest wherever they wanted around the globe (p.40).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the way the spread of ‘Western ideology’ i.e. education and values, to developing countries, or at least to the elites within European colonies, often led to the creation of the very Western-educated elites who then helped to overthrow it (he gives the London-trained lawyer Gandhi as the classic example, p.77, though he could as easily have mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Cambridge, trained at London’s Inner Temple as a barrister).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the between the way the mid-century ‘bourgeois’ industrial and economic triumph rested on a mechanical view of the universe, the mechanical laws of physics and heat and chemistry underpinning the great technological advances of the later nineteenth century. Hobsbawm then delights in the way that, at the end of the century, this entire mechanistic worldview was overturned in a welter of discoveries, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, the problematic nature of the sub-atomic world which gave rise to quantum physics, and deep discoveries about the bewildering non-rational basis of mathematics.

These are just some of the developments Hobsbawm defines as ‘contradictions’ with the aim of proving that Marx’s predictions that capitalism contained within itself deep structural contradictions which would undermine it and lead inevitably to its downfall.

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

Except that Marx was wrong and Hobsbawm is wrong. His continual mentioning Marx, quoting Lenin, harking back to the high hopes of the revolutionaries of 1848, invoking the memory of the Commune (redefined, in good Marxist style, as a heroic rising of the downtrodden working classes, rather than the internecine bloodbath that it actually was), his continual harking forward to the Bolshevik revolution as somehow the climax of all the trends he describes, his insistence that we, he and his readers, all now (in the mid-1980s when he wrote this book) still live in the forbidding shadow of the Russian revolution, still haunted by the spectre of communist revolution — every aspect of his attitude and approach now seems dated and irrelevant.

Now, in 2021, it is 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites revealed:

  1. Their complete failure to build an economic and social system which could be a serious alternative to ‘capitalism’.
  2. The extraordinary extent to which communist regimes had to surveil, monitor and police every aspect of their populations’ behaviour, speech and thoughts, in order to prevent them relapsing into the ways of human nature – the prison camps, the psychiatric wards, the secret police. Look at China today, with its censorship of the internet and its hounding of dissidents, its suppression of Falun Gong and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Seen from our contemporary perspective, Hobsbawm tendentious habit of naming every clash in policies, every development in cultural thinking as some kind of seismic ‘contradiction’ which will bring global capitalism tumbling down, looks like what it is, a biased obeisance to Marxist ideas which have long ago proved to be untrue.

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

To some extent his attitude is based on one particular logical or rhetorical trick which can be proved to be false.

In the later chapters of the book, about the arts, the hard and social sciences, Hobsbawm repeatedly claims that this or that aspect of ‘bourgeois ideology’ of the mid-nineteenth century came under strain, suffered insoluble contradictions, underwent a crisis, and collapsed.

I think this is the crux of the massive mistake he makes. It consists of several steps:

  1. identifying every element of mid-nineteenth century political and cultural theory as some universal thing called ‘bourgeois’
  2. identifying this ‘bourgeoisie’ as the central and necessary figure of the capitalist system
  3. and then claiming that, because in the last few decades of the nineteenth century this ‘bourgeois’ ideology came under strain and in many ways collapsed, that therefore this shows that capitalism itself, as a system, must come under strain caused by its internal contradictions and therefore must collapse

Surely anyone can see the logical error here. All you have to do is stop insistently repeating that mid-nineteenth century ideology was identical with some timeless ‘bourgeois’ ideology which necessarily and uniquely underpins all capitalism, and simply relabel it ‘mid-nineteenth century ideology’, and then all your sentences stop being so apocalyptic.

Instead of saying ‘bourgeois ideology was stricken by crisis’ as if The Great Revolution is at hand, all you need say is ‘mid-nineteenth century political and social beliefs underwent a period of rapid change at the end of the century’ and the portentous sense of impending doom hovering over the entire system vanishes in a puff of smoke – and you are left just describing a fairly banal historical process, namely that society’s ideas and beliefs change over time, sometimes in abrupt reversals resulting from new discoveries, sometimes as slow evolutionary adaptations to changing social circumstances.

Put another way, Hobsbawm identifies mid-nineteenth century liberal ideology as if it is the one and only shape capitalist thinking can possibly take and so excitedly proclaims that, by the end of the century, because mid-nineteenth century ‘bourgeois’ beliefs were quite visibly fraying and collapsing, therefore capitalism would collapse too.

But quite obviously the ‘capitalist system’ has survived all the ‘contradictions’ and ‘crises’ Hobsbawm attributes to it and many more. It is still going strong, very strong, well over a century after the period which Hobsbawm is describing and when, he implies, it was all but on its last knees.

In fact the basic idea of manufacturing products cheap and selling them for as much profit as you can, screwing the workers who make them and keeping the profits to a) enjoy yourself or b) invest in other business ventures, is probably more widespread than ever before in human history, seeing how it’s been taken up so enthusiastically in post-communist Russia but especially across hyper-modernising China.

In other words, Hobsbawm’s use of Marxist terms like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ may have a certain explanatory power for the era he’s describing, but after a certain point they are too simplistic and don’t describe or analyse the actual complexity of even one of the societies he describes, let alone the entire world.

At some point (which you can almost measure in Hobsbawm’s texts) they cease to be explanatory and become obfuscatory, hiding the differences which separate America, Britain and Germany much more than unite them. Use of the terms simply indicate that you have entered a certain worldview.

Imagine a Christian historian identifying mid-nineteenth century ideology as the one and only expression of ‘Christian’ ideology, an ideology which divided the population into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’. Imagine this historian went on to describe how the widespread ‘crisis’ in Christian belief at the end of the century indicated that the entire world was passing out of the phase of Christian belief and into infidel unbelief.

If you read something like that you would immediately know you are inside the particular worldview of an author, something which clearly means a lot to them, might shed light on some aspects of the period – for example trends in religious belief – but which in no way is the interpretation of world history.

a) Plenty of other interpretations are available, and b) despite the widespread laments that Christianity was dying out in the later nineteenth century, contrary to all their pessimism, Christianity now has more adherents worldwide than ever before in human history. And ditto capitalism.

The dominance of the key terms Hobsbawm deploys with such monotonous obsessiveness (capitalism, bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal ideology) don’t prove anything except that you have entered the worldview of a particular author.

The system with the real contradictions, contradictions between a) its utopian claims for equality and the reality of a hierarchical society which privileged party membership, b) between its promises to outproduce the West and the reality of permanent shortages of consumer goods and even food, c) between its rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and the reality of the harsh repression of any kind of political or artistic unorthodoxy – was communism, whose last pitiful remnants lie rusting in a thousand statue parks across Russia and Eastern Europe.

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

Because Hobsbawm identifies the mid-nineteenth century worldview with the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ as the indispensable foundation of ‘capitalism’, he tries to pull off the conjuring trick of claiming that, since the mid-nineteenth century worldview drastically changed in all kinds of ways in the last decade of the century, these change invalidate the ‘bourgeoisie’, and that this, in turn, invalidates ‘capitalism’. Proves it is wrong and doomed to collapse.

You can see how this is just a three-card trick which moves vague and indefinable words around on the table at speed to bamboozle the impressionable. For despite the trials and tribulations of the century of extremes which followed, ‘capitalism’ in various forms appears to have triumphed around almost the entire world, and the materialistic, conventional, liberal ‘bourgeoisie’ which Hobsbawm so despises… appears still to be very much with us, despite all Hobsbawm’s protestations about its terminal crises and death throes and contradictions and collapse.

Victimology tends to tyranny

To anyone familiar with the history of communist Russia, communist China and communist Eastern Europe, there is something unnerving and, eventually, worrying about Hobsbawm’s very broad-brush division of the entire world into victims and oppressors.

The first half of the twentieth century was the era of totalitarian governments seeking to gain total control over every aspect of their populations and mould them into better humans in a better society. The first thing all these regimes did was establish goodies and baddies, and rouse the population to be on perpetual guard against the enemy in whatever guise – ‘the bourgeoisie’, the ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’, ‘reactionary elements’, ‘the Jews’, and so on.

Dividing the entire huge world and eight billion people into simple binaries like ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’, ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘workers’, ‘exploiters’ and ‘exploited’, ‘white’ masters and ‘black’ victims, is worryingly reminiscent of the simplistic, binary thinking which the twentieth century showed leads to genocides and mass killing.

Hobsbawm criticises the nationalist parties of the late-nineteenth century for dividing up populations into citizens and outsiders, members of the Volk or aliens, a process of which the Jews were notable victims. And yet he enacts the very same binary oppositioning, the same outsidering of a (large) group of society, by objectifying and insulting the ‘bourgeoisie’ at every opportunity.

It’s the same old mental slum: if only we could get rid of the gypsies / homos / lefties / commies / bourgeoisie / capitalists / Catholics / Protestants / Armenians / Jews / Croats / Serbs / Tutsis / Hutus / men / whites / blacks / immigrants / refugees, then society would be alright. I call it ‘If-only-ism’.

If capitalism and imperialism were inevitable, how can anyone be guilty?

In Age of Capital Hobsbawm describes how the industrial revolution amounted to a lucky fluke, a coming together of half a dozen circumstances (of which the most important was, in his view, Britain’s command of the waves and extensive trading network between colonies) and this helps you realise that some people were able to seize the opportunity and exploit it and become masters of small firms and then of factories etc. Clever, quick, resourceful or well-placed men leapt to take advantage of new opportunities. Any history of the industrial revolution names them and gives biographies of individuals central to the series of inventions or who then set up successful firms to exploit them.

However, the tendency of Hobsbawm’s very high-level Marxist approach, his sweeping surveys which pull together evidence from Austria, or France, from north Italy or New York, is, paradoxically, to remove all sense of agency from the humans involved. Hobsbawm makes it seem almost inevitable that the first industrial revolution (textiles) would give rise to a second (iron and coal) which in turn would give rise to a third (steel, organic chemistry, electrics, oil).

And he makes it seem inevitable that, once the world was fully mapped and explored, then the other ‘western powers’ which by 1890 had more or less caught up with Britain in terms of industrialisation, would join the competition to seize territories which contained valuable minerals or exotic produce (tea, coffee, bananas). That an acceleration of imperial rivalry was inevitable.

But if it had to pan out this way, how can you blame anyone? If, viewed from this lofty godlike perspective, it was inevitable that industrialisation broke out somewhere, that it would spread to all similar regions and states, that the now numerous industrial nations would find themselves in competition for the basic resources (food) and more arcane resources (rubber, oil, rare metals) required to drive the next stage of industrial development – can you blame them?

You could call it Hobsbawm’s paradox, or Hobsbawm’s Choice. The more inevitable you make the entire process sound, the less reason you have to be so cross at the ‘bourgeoisie’.

The reality is that you can, of course, hold the western nations accountable for their actions, but only if you descend to a lower level of historical discourse than Hobsbawm’s. Only if you begin to look at specific actions of specific governments and specific men in specific times and places an you begin to make assessments and apportion praise or blame.

Responsibility and guilt can’t really exist at the level Hobsbawm is operating on because he goes out of his way to avoid mentioning individuals (with only a few exceptions; Bismarck’s name crops up more than any other politician of the period) and instead emphasises that it all unfolded according to almost unavoidable historical laws, implicit in the logic of industrial development.

If humans couldn’t avoid it, then they can’t very well be blamed for it.

In light of Hobsbawm’s theory, is equality possible?

The same set of facts give rise to a parallel thought, which dogged me throughout reading this book, which is — if what Hobsbawm says is true, if industrial and technological developments tend to be restricted to just a handful of certain nations which have acquired the technology and capital resources to acquire ‘liftoff’ to industrialisation, and if, within those nations, the benefits of industrialisation accrue overwhelming to a small proportion of the population; and if this process is so stereotyped and inevitable and unstoppable — then, well… is it even possible to be fair? Is it possible to achieve anything like ‘equality’? Surely the entire trend of the history Hobsbawm describes with so much verve suggests not.

Putting aside the issue of fairness in one nation aside in order to adopt Hobsbawm’s global perspective, he often repeats the formula that countries in the ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ (whatever you want to call it) were forced by the demands of consumer capitalism or The Market to turn themselves into providers of raw materials or a handful of saleable commodities – after all, this was era which saw the birth of the banana republic. But, I thought as I ploughed through the book… what was the alternative?

Could undeveloped nations have turned their backs on ‘international capitalism’ and continued as agrarian peasant nations, or resisted the western imperative to become ‘nations’ at all and remained general territories ruled by congeries of local sheikhs or tribal elders or whatever?

At what stage would it have been possible to divert the general trend of colonial takeover of the developing world? How would it have happened? Which British leader would have stood up and said, ‘This is wrong; we renounce all our colonies and grant them independence today?’ in the1870s or 1880s or 1890s? What would have happened to the sub-continent or all those bits of Africa which Britain administered if Britain had simply packed up and left them in 1885?

As to all the wealth accumulating in Britain, among its sizeable cohort of ship-owners, traders, factory owners, bankers, stockbrokers and what not. On what basis would you have taken their wealth away, and how much? Half? All of it and shot them, as in Bolshevik Russia?

Having seized the wealth of the entire ‘bourgeoisie’, how would you then have redistributed it to the bedouin in the desert or the native peoples of Australia or the Amazon, to the workers on the rubber plantations, in the tin and gold mines, in the sugar fields, to squabbling tribes in central Africa? How could that have been done without a vast centralised redistribution system? Without, in fact, precisely the centralising, bureaucratic tendencies of the very capitalist system Hobsbawm was criticising?

And who would administer such a thing? Having worked in the civil service for over a decade I can tell you it would take hordes of consultants, program managers, project managers and so on, who would probably be recruited from the host country and make a packet out of the process?

And when was all this meant to happen? When, would you say, the awareness of the wrongs of the empire, or the wrongs done to the ‘undeveloped world’ became widespread enough to allow such policies to be enacted in a democracy where the government has to persuade the majority of the people to go along with its policies? In the 1860s, 70s, 80s?

Live Aid was held in 1985, just as Hobsbawm was writing this book, and which I imagine brought the issue of Third World poverty and famine to the attention of even the dimmest members of the population. But did that global event abolish poverty, did it end inequality and injustice in in the Third World? No, otherwise there would have been no need for the Live 8 concerts and related charity efforts 30 years later, in 2005. Or the ongoing efforts of all the industrialised nations to send hundreds of millions of dollars of support to the Third World every year (hence the furore surrounding the UK government cutting back on its foreign aid budget this year.) Not to mention the continuous work of thousands of charities all across the ‘developing world’.

When you look at the scale of activity and the amounts of money which have been sent to developing countries since the Second World War, it makes you wonder how much would be enough? Should every citizen of every industrialised nation give, say, half their annual earnings to people in the Third World? To which people? In which countries? To India, which has invested tens of billions in a space program? To China, which is carrying out semi-genocidal policy of incarceration and mass sterilisation in its Xinjiang province? Do we need to take money from the British public to give it to Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping? Who would manage that redistribution program, for whatever civil servants and consultants you hired to make it work would earn much, much more than the recipients of the aid.

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

When I was a student, reading this trilogy educated me about the broad industrial, economic and social forces which created and drove forward the industrial revolution in the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, doing so in thrilling style, and for that I am very grateful. Hobsbawm’s books highlighted the way that, through the 1850s and 1860s, capitalism created an ever-richer class of ‘owners’ set against a rapidly growing number of impoverished workers; how the industrial and financial techniques pioneered in Britain spread to other Western nations; how the industrial system evolved in the 1880s and 1890s into a) a booming consumer society in the West and b) the consolidation of a system of colonial exploitation around the world.

I had never had the broad trends of history explained so clearly and powerfully and excitingly. It was a memorable experience.

But rereading the books 40 years later, I am now painfully aware that the simplistic Marxist concepts Hobsbawm uses to analyse his period may certainly help to elucidate it, but at the same time highlight their own ineffectiveness.

The confidence that a mass working class movement which will rise up to overthrow the inequalities of the West and liberate the developing world, that this great liberation is just around the corner – which is implicit in his numerous references to 1848 and Marx and the Commune and Lenin – and that all it needs is a few more books and pamphlets to spark it off….goes beyond boring to become sad. Although the historical facts he describes remain as relevant as ever, the entire ideology the books are drenched in feels terribly out of date.

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

In chapter 4 Hobsbawm discusses the politics of democracy. Throughout he takes it for granted that extending the franchise to all adults would result in the revolutionary change he supports. He starts his discussion by referencing the powerful German Social Democratic Party (founded back in 1863) and the British Labour Party (founded in 1900) and their campaigns for universal suffrage, as if giving the vote to ‘the working class’ would immediately lead to a social revolution, the end of inequality and exploitation.

Only in the chapters that follow does he slowly concede that new mass electorates also helped to create new mass, populist parties and that many of these catered not to the left at all, but to right-wing nationalist ideas of blood and Volk. For example, the notorious Karl Luger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, whose Christian Social Party espoused populist and antisemitic politics which are sometimes viewed as a model for Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.

In fact it had already been shown that universal male suffrage not only didn’t lead to socialist revolution but the exact opposite, when, in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution which overthrew the French monarchy, the French granted universal male suffrage and held a presidential election in which the opera bouffe candidate, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, promptly won with 74% of the entire male adult vote, and then went on to win the plebiscite held after his 1851 anti-leftist coup with 76%.

So any educated person knew in the 1850s that extending the franchise did not, in and of itself, lead to red revolution. Often the opposite. (This is a point picked up in Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 which quotes umpteen later Victorian politicians and commentators arguing against extending the franchise precisely because they’d seen what it led to in France, namely the election of a repressive, right wing autocrat.)

Hobsbawm’s excited description of the way the ‘scary’ working class were ‘threatening’ bourgeois hegemony, were on the brink of ‘seizing power’ and righting the world’s wrongs, underplays the extent to which universal suffrage led:

  1. directly to the rise of populist nationalist anti-left wing governments
  2. and to the fragmentation of the left into ‘reformists’, prepared to compromise their radical principles and ally with liberal parties in order to get into parliament, and the die-hards who held out for radical social change

In other words, extending the franchise led to the exact opposite of what Hobsbawm hopes. Something borne out after the Great War, when the franchise was drastically extended to almost all adults in most European countries and the majority of European governments promptly became either right-wing or out-and-out dictatorships. Mussolini won the 1924 Italian general election; Hitler won the largest share of the vote in the Weimar Republic’s last election. Or Hungary:

In January 1920, Hungarian men and women cast the first secret ballots in the country’s political history and elected a large counterrevolutionary and agrarian majority to a unicameral parliament. (Wikipedia)

Switching from Hobsbawm altogether to the present day, 2021, any reader of the English left-liberal English press must be struck how, since the Brexit vote, it has stopped being a taboo subject to suggest that quite possibly a large proportion of the British electorate is thick and uneducated (terms you frequently meet in the Guardian newspaper). You can nowadays read plenty of ‘progressive’ commentators pointing out that the great British electorate was persuaded, in voting for Brexit (2016) and Boris (2019), to vote for populist right-wing demagoguery and against their own best interests as working people. I have read so many commentators pointing out that it is the very conservative working class communities who voted for Brexit who are most likely going to suffer the prolonged consequences of economic dislocation and decline.

In other words, right now in 2021, you can read representatives of the left openly stating that universal franchise, one person one vote, not only doesn’t lead to the socialist paradise Hobsbawm implies it will, but the opposite – rule by right-wing populists.

As far as I can remember, thoughts like this would have been utterly taboo in the 1980s, or have immediately identified you as a right-wing conservative. But now I read comments like this every day in the Guardian or New Statesman.

So – this is the recent experience and current political discourse I bring to reading Hobsbawm’s chapter about democracy and which makes me think his assumption, his faith, his Marxist belief, that simply expanding the franchise to all adults would of itself bring about social revolution and justice and equality is too simplistic.

  • It doesn’t correlate with the historical fact that, as soon as the franchises of most European nations had been radically expanded (after the Great War), lots of them became very right-wing.
  • It doesn’t speak to our present situation where, it’s true that no-one is openly suggesting restricting the franchise, but many progressives are questioning whether the universal franchise produces the optimum results for a nation and its working class. Trump. Brexit.

The world is not as we would like it to be.

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

I am a Darwinian materialist. I believe there is no God and therefore no purpose or direction to human lives or events. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. Shit happens, people try to cope. Obviously shit happens within a complex web of frameworks and structures which we have inherited, it takes a lot of effort to disentangle and understand what is going on, or what we think is going on, and sometimes it may happen in ways some of which we can broadly predict. But ‘events, dear boy, events’ are the determining feature in human affairs. Take Afghanistan this past week. Who knew? Who expected such a sudden collapse?

This isn’t a very profound analysis but my aim is to contrast my preference for a theory of the unpredictable and chaotic nature of human affairs with Hobsbawm’s profound belief in Marxist teleology, meaning the very nineteenth century, rationalist, scientistic belief that there are laws of history and that human societies obey them and that they can be predicted and harnessed.

Teleology: the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.

Teleology is the belief that if you shave away all the unfortunate details of history, and the peculiarities of culture, and the impact of charismatic individuals, in fact if you pare away enough of what makes people people and societies societies, you can drill down to Fundamental Laws of History. And that Karl Marx discovered them. And that these laws predict the coming collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a wonderful classless society. And that you, too, can be part of this future by joining the communist party today for the very reasonable online registration fee of just £12!

Anyway, the teleology (‘sense of direction, meaning or purpose’) which is a vital component of Marxism, the confidence in an inevitable advent of a future of justice and equality, which underpins every word Hobsbawm wrote, evaporated in 1991 and nothing has taken its place.

There will be no Revolution. The ‘capitalist system’ will not be overthrown. At most there will be pointless local revolts like the Arab Spring, revolts which, more than likely, end up with regimes more repressive or anarchic than the ones they overthrew (Syria, Libya, Egypt).

This sort of thing will occur repeatedly in countries which did not enjoy the early or middle benefits of the technological revolutions Hobsbawm describes, countries of the permanently developing world, which will always have largely peasant populations, which will always depend on the export of raw materials (oil being the obvious one), which will always have unstable political systems, liable to periodic upheavals.

The environmental perspective

If there is One Big Thing we do know about the future, it is something which isn’t mentioned anywhere in Hobsbawm’s book, which is that humanity is destroying the environments which support us.

My son is studying biology at university. He says it amounts to having world-leading experts explain the beauty and intricacy of various eco-systems in beautiful places around the planet – and then describing how we are destroying them.

As a result, my son thinks that human civilisation, in its present form, is doomed. Not because of global warming. But because we are killing the oceans, exterminating all the fish, destroying species diversity, wrecking agricultural land, using up all the fresh water, relying more on more on fragile monocultures, and generally devastating the complex web of ecosystems which make human existence possible.

Viewed from this perspective, human activity is, overall, fantastically destructive. And the massive ideological divide Hobsbawm makes between the tradition of the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’, on the one hand, and the revolutionaries, Communards, Bolsheviks and communists he adulates, on the other, fades into insignificance.

We now know that polluting activity and environmental destruction were as bad or worse under communist regimes as they were under capitalist ones. It was the Soviet system which gave us Chernobyl and its extended cover-up. Capitalist ones are at least capable of reform in a way communist regimes turned out not to be. Green political movements are a feature of advanced ‘capitalist’ countries but were suppressed, along with every other form of deviance, under communist governments.

But then again, it really doesn’t matter from a global perspective. Looked at from the planet’s point of view, all human activity is destructive.

So this is why, looking at them from a really high-level perspective, as of aliens visiting earth and reviewing the last couple of centuries, these books no longer make me angry at the wicked ‘capitalist’ exploitation of its workers and entire colonial nations and the ‘heroic’ resistance of the proletariat and the exploited peoples of the colonial nations.

I just see a swarm of humans ruining their habitat and leading, inevitably, to their own downfall.

Hobsbawm’s style

Hobsbawm is very repetitive. He mentions bicycles and cars and so on representing new technologies at least three times. I swear he points out that imperialism was the result of increasing competition between the industrial nations at least half a dozen times. He tells us that a number of Germany’s most eminent revolutionaries came from Russia, namely Rosa Luxemburg, at least four times. He repeats President Porfirio Diaz’s famous lament, ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States’ twice. He tells us twice that western governments were keen to invest in medical research into tropical fevers solely because the results promised to help their officers and administrators survive longer in colonial outposts several times. He repeatedly tells us that Bismarck was the master of maintaining peace between the powers (pp.312 and 318).

The impression this gives is of rambling, repetitive and circular arguments instead of linear, logical ones.

Hobsbawm’s discussions are often very gaseous in the sense that they go on at length, use lots of highbrow terminology, but at the end it’s hard to make out or remember what he’s said. The discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital was long and serious-sounding but I emerged at the end of it none the wiser. The long discussion of sociology in chapter 11 of this book left me none the wiser about sociology except for Hobsbawm’s weird suggestion that, as a social science, it was founded and encouraged in order to protect society against Marxism and revolution. Really?

In a similar spirit, although he uses the word ‘bourgeoisie’ intensively throughout both books, I emerged with no clearer sense of what ‘bourgeoisie’ really means than I went in with. He himself admits it to be a notoriously difficult word to define and then more or less fails to define it.

On a more serious level I didn’t understand his discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital or his discussion of the increasing democratisation in the 1890s in this volume, because they were vague and waffly. It seemed to me that as soon as he left his home turf of economic development, his ideas become foggy and repetitive.

And sometimes he comes over as a hilariously out of touch old buffer:

By 1914 the more unshackled youth in the western big cities and resorts was already familiar with sexually provocative rhythmic dances of dubious but exotic origin (the Argentinian tango, the syncopated steps of American blacks). (p.204)

‘The syncopated steps of American blacks’. No wonder American capitalism was doomed to collapse.

Overall conclusion

Hobsbawm’s books are thrilling because of their scope and range and the way he pulls together heterogenous material from around the world, presenting pages of awe-inspiring stats and facts, to paint a vivid, thrilling picture of a world moving through successive phases of industrialisation.

But he is eerily bereft of ideas. This comes over in the later chapters of both books in which he feels obligated, like so many historians before him, to write a chapter about The Arts. This is not his natural territory and the reader has to struggle through turgid pages of Hobsbawm dishing up absolutely conventional judgements (Van Gogh was an unrecognised genius; the arts and crafts movement was very influential), which are so lame and anodyne they are embarrassing.

I had noticed his penchant for commenting on everything using numbered points (‘The bourgeois century destabilised its periphery in two main ways…’; ‘Three major forces of resistance existed in China…’, ‘Three developments turned the alliance system into a time bomb…’, and many others). Eventually it dawned on me that he produces these nifty little sets of issues or causes or effects instead of having ideas. Lists beat insights.

Considering how fertile Marxist literary and art criticism has been in the twentieth century (cf György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Frederick Jameson) it is very disappointing how flat and untheoretical and banal Hobsbawm’s comments about the arts in both books are. In these later sections of each book it is amazing how much he can write without really saying anything. He is a good example of someone who knows all the names and terminology and dates and styles and has absolutely nothing interesting to say about them.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

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  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

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Communism in England

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon (1974)

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 was written to be the eighth in the ‘Paladin History of England’ series. I read it at university back in the 1980s as background to the literature of the period.

A month ago I took it off my shelf to remind myself about the run-up to the Edwardian period (1901 to 1914) and insofar as it sheds light on the worldview of the noted Edwardian satirist, Saki, who I’ve been reading and whose stories often refer to social and political events of the 1900s.

This is a slightly odd, rather idiosyncratic book which I found strange but beguiling.

Shannon’s view of history – desperate men grappling with blind forces

Most histories describe the major events which took place during the period they cover, explain their origin and build-up, with pen portraits of the key figures involved in each issue, explaining in more or less detail who did what, what happened, what its after-effects were and why it matters. That’s the approach taken in, say, Crossroads of Freedom by James M. McPherson.

Shannon’s approach is strikingly different. If you know the board game Risk you’ll know it consists of a board representing the entire world, divided up into 40 or so territories. The aim of the game is for the 2, 3 or 4 players to seize all the territories and push the other player(s) off the board. Winner takes all.

Shannon applies a Risk approach to history. Key incidents from this crucial half century (for example, the rise of trade unions at home, the annexation of Egypt abroad, Britain’s response to Bismarck’s wars, the issue of educating the poor which became more pressing everywhere in the second half of the century) are mentioned only fleetingly, often only in passing, often barely explained, because they are not at all where Shannon’s interest lies. Shannon’s interest lies overwhelmingly in the Great Game played by the most senior political leaders throughout the period of winning power and staying in power.

Disraeli’s calculations logically centred on…immediate parliamentary advantage. (p.66)

Shannon doesn’t see politics as a set of logical and understandable events which can be clearly explained, which were clearly understood at the time, and to which rational solutions were offered. Instead he sees human history as the product of blind, inchoate forces – economic, industrial, financial, cultural and demographic – which propel societies forward, willy-nilly, whether planned or understood or not.

The aim of politics, in Shannon’s view, is to harness chaotic human events in order to stay in power.

From time to time Shannon does sound for a few pages like a ‘traditional’ historian. He gives a brisk summary of some of these social changes, with an appropriate blizzard of statistics, particularly in the short opening introduction which is a handy anthology of stats about population increase, migration abroad or into British cities, the rise in agricultural wages and productivity, the doubling of GNP per capita and much more, during his chosen period. It is, for example, striking to learn that during the 1860s, in the UK, agricultural workers and the labouring poor ceased to make up the majority of the population for the first time in any country, ever; for the first time in human history (p.30). All very interesting, but then he gets back to his real, underlying worldview:

These were the blind forces at work, unconscious and undirected. Conscious or directed aspects of the social system – broadly, ‘politics’ – did not relate to these blind forces in a neat one-to-one ratio. Very often indeed the relationship was at best tangential…

And:

The picture as a whole is not that of a society moving surely and confidently in self-possession of its destiny. Rather, it is the story of a society at odds with itself, the blind forces working very often at cross-purposes with the conscious wishes and efforts of those who felt it their task to define the ends, the purposes, to which the ‘movement’ would best be directed…

And:

During the fifty years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the forces of conscious purpose and design in Britain struggled to avert the threats of the blind, largely uncontrollable internal forces and of the dangerously uncontrolled external forces. (Pages 15 to 16)

And:

Domestic debate ceased comparatively to be free as the blind forces moving society imposed irresistible pressures. (p.36)

Why I mention Risk is because, for any one of the five decades his book covers, Shannon’s focus is almost entirely on the highest of high politics and on the handful of men who clawed their way to the top of the main political parties (being the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Liberal Party) only to find themselves caught up in the melée, in the maelstrom of these ‘blind’ forces and thrown into the high stakes game of risk management, opportunity and gamble, which is how Shannon conceptualises all high politics. He sees all of political history as a very complicated game of Risk. All tactics are permitted. Winner takes all.

Shannon’s fundamental idea is that people like Gladstone and Disraeli (the famous antagonists from the early part of his period) came to power with little or no idea what to do with it. They came to power by exploiting the forces at large:

  1. internationally
  2. within British society with its changing and emerging economic and political forces
  3. within British political society i.e. within the complex and often contradictory traditions and ideologies of the nation’s two ruling parties
  4. within the intensely power-hungry, jostling Machiavellian milieu of Parliament itself (made up of the very different institutions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords)

Gladstone, Disraeli and their successors were caught up in a game much more complicated than Risk, more byzantine than three-dimensional chess, a terrifyingly complex game in which the rules are continually changing and all the goalposts move overnight. Shannon makes a number of references to chess, talking about the pieces ‘on the political board’ and how those who had scrabbled into positions of power sought to move them to their best advantage.

For example, the book opens with the death of Lord Palmerston in 1865. Palmerston’s death ‘opened up the board’ after 10 years of his political dominance.

Palmerston acted as checkmate. His position on the political board was such that so long as he remained a force no other forces were either strong enough or sufficiently motivated to free the board for manoeuvres. (p.20)

And:

This situation on the political board is the key to all the complicated manoeuvrings of 1866 and 1867. (p.22)

So what makes this book unusual, distinctive and even a little odd are two things: one, Shannon’s casual disinterest in what actually happened (i.e. the events of the period) in preference for extended descriptions of the Great Game of Westminster politics.

And the second thing is Shannon’s extreme scepticism about the effectiveness of these Westminster politics, his belief that society is moved by blind, inchoate social forces which no-one understands, least of all the men who manipulate their way to the top of the greasy pole.

Shannon goes to great lengths to show that even when they get there, Britain’s politicians often had no idea what is really going on, generally act according to old fashioned ideas, out of date notions, either their own or their party’s, in the search for a correct alignment or balance of social forces which repeatedly turns out to be a chimera, a delusion.

Disraeli imagined that there was a ‘normal’ posture of things which could be got back to without too much trouble. The story of Disraeli’s great ministry is how both kinds of normality evaded him… (p.102)

Lowe’s misguided fears of 1866 were the consequences of applying middle-class intellectual calculations to working-class situations. (p.104)

They certainly take advantage of political opportunities to create new coalitions and alliances, to co-opt elements of broader society or of the seething Westminster cauldron to secure power and then try to pass laws or formulate foreign policy. Shannon describes at length the continual manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces, of conjunctions and alignments of different interest groups, he even talks at one point about ‘the Gladstonian matrix’ (p.53).

And then he tries to assess whether their ‘solutions’ are adequate to the challenges and problems thrown up by a society undergoing continual massive social and economic change. And concludes, on the whole, that no, the politicians were heirs to complex political traditions and alliances, moved in a world of sophisticated political theorists and commentators (John Bright, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot) and yet routinely failed to understand what was really going on or to solve the problems they faced. It is a chronicle of bungling and muddling through.

Like dinosaurs at the onset of a new and uncongenial epoch, the generation at its prime in the 1860s, still at the head of affairs in the 1870s and 1880s, groped about in the wreckage of their familiar landscape, already being transformed and imposing new conditions of adaptation and survival. (p.199)

Domestic versus foreign affairs

At several points Shannon distinguishes between the relative limitedness of the chaos in the domestic as opposed to the international sphere. Put simply, there was less scope for choice or disagreement about domestic policy: by 1870 something quite obviously needed to be done about educating the general population, extending the vote, regulating the power of trade unions, about providing sewerage and clean water to the unhygienic cities and so on. In the big picture, the squabbles between parties about these were often trivial.

It was in foreign affairs that there was real scope for differing opinions. As Shannon puts it, Britain was not ‘free’ to begin to lay the foundations of what later became known as the welfare state (all European nations were doing something similar; something similar obviously had to be done here) in the same way that it was ‘free’ to choose whether to go to war in  South Africa in 1899 or with Germany in 1914, in both of which we had the ability to say No right up till the last minute (p.36).

This greater scope in foreign affairs for a variety of choices and actions is one reason why the period from the 1880s to 1914 saw foreign affairs acquire a greater and greater importance and intrude its issues and decisions more and more into domestic political considerations.

A token of this was the rise of the word ‘imperialism’, which only took on its modern meaning during this period, specifically in the 1890s, and whose claims became a major dividing line between the parties, and between different factions within each of the parties (p.77).

Above all, Shannon presents the high politics of the period not as something carried out by powerful men in full command of the facts who had a well-worked-out series of policies to enact; but as the shambling attempts of men under tremendous pressure to keep their parties and supporters onside while responding to events whose significance they often didn’t understand at all.

They were almost always motivated by the quixotic attempt to restore some kind of equilibrium or political stability which they remembered from their youths, but in most instances were laughably out of date and irrelevant. Thus:

An analysis of British foreign policy between 1865 and 1885 reveals essentially the persistence of received traditions and attitudes, attempts to reassert policies based on assumptions inherited from the past… [There was] an inability to understand why policies which had hitherto appeared to answer requirements with complete satisfaction had suddenly ceased to carry conviction and credibility. (p.41)

Documenting the search by politicians of this period for this illusory balance or equilibrium is the key theme of Shannon’s account.

Avoiding teleology

The 1860s, 70s and 80s were not straining to become the 1890s and 1900s. They had no idea what the future held in store. With hindsight many things are obvious to us, now. Nobody knew them, then. Shannon’s attempt is to recreate the mindset of each decade, each year, in order to make clear the context in which the politicians fought for power.

One must above all be careful to avoid teleological assumptions about the nineteenth century… It is obvious, looking back from the twentieth century, that the blind forces at work in the nineteenth century inevitably caused profound changes in political behaviour… But this was not at all the context of consciousness in which the debate of 1866-7 took place… 1867 was not a promise to the future that happened; it was an attempt to settle questions left over from the past, and a promise in another sense to a future that aborted, that never happened. (p.59)

Their concerns are not our concerns. In fact we struggle to make sense of their concerns. The debates around the extension of the franchise in 1867 didn’t see it (as almost all of us today do) as a stepping stone to the nirvana of universal suffrage, but instead were around finding a new equilibrium which would generate the best outcomes for the ‘national interest’ and avoid pandering to narrow class interests. One recurring argument put by people on all sides was that the 1832 settlement had produced a nice balance between the interests of the landed aristocracy, the new business-based bourgeoisie, and the skilled working class. It wasn’t extending the franchise to the lower middle classes and rest of the working class they objected to, it was upsetting this delicate balance by giving too much prominence to one particular part of the population.

Shannon sheds a brilliant bolt of light on our present situation by saying that almost all mid-19th century thinkers would have been appalled at the late 20th and 21st century assumption that democratic politics is about governments bribing particular sections of the electorate with promises of tax cuts or benefit increases and so on. That would have been seen as the ultimate in political immorality.

Their debates were about how best to arrive at the best expression of the ‘national interest’, debates which, of course, clashed over the notion of what the national interest was and who was best qualified to identify it and to implement it. Disraeli knew what it was: the landed aristocracy who he had glamorised in his novels of the 1830s:

Like Palmerson, Disraeli wanted to be able to call on the support of many interests as a means of preserving the one great interest, ‘the national interest’, which he identified centrally with land. (p.68)

I was very interested to learn that the famous social philosopher John Stuart Mill (who himself became an MP) did not want universal suffrage; he wanted a limited suffrage arranged in such a way that the balance of power would shift from (what he regarded as) a limited, unintelligent and reactionary landed aristocracy to a well-educated, modern, business-minded intelligentsia.

Shannon’s warning not to think teleologically makes explicit the notion that we live amongst the countless ruins of the plans and ideas and schemes and manifestos to build a better country and a better political system which have been worked out and proposed with such passion and sincerity by so many of our ancestors, and which came to nothing. So many futures, which never took place.

Disraeli

We can illustrate Shannon’s approach in his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881; leader of the Conservative Party from 1868 till his death in 1881). Shannon paints Disraeli as a man who started his political career facing one central political challenge which was how to repair the catastrophic fragmentation of the Conservative Party caused by the highly divisive campaign to repeal the Corn Laws which reached its climax in 1846 (p.48).

Conditions…since 1847 had made a Conservative majority virtually impossible. (p.73)

The Corn Law campaign had split the Conservative Party down the middle and the chaotic political scene which ensued was exploited by Lord Palmerston who rose to become Prime Minster for the next 9 or so years. Palmerston had combined elements of different political traditions in order to create a very distinctive power base held together by the force of his personality. When he died this particular matrix of forces collapsed leaving a vacuum which presented a complex opportunity for his successors (most notably the two ‘coming men’ of the younger generation, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli) to reorganise and redefine the various political strands and traditions into new combinations.

Disraeli wanted to be a politician, he wanted to be a success, he wanted to be prime Minister, but following Palmerston’s death, he faced the huge challenge of trying to give the Conservative Party a new identity or direction whereby it could once again represent the entire ‘nation’ and represent what Shannon calls the ‘national’ policy.

Disraeli’s task was to manoeuvre the Conservative Party into the posture of natural and legitimate exponent of the ‘national’ policy. (p.52)

In the coming years, Disraeli would scavenge solutions to this challenge from anywhere; he would use any opportunity to try and repair the breaches among the ruling class opened the Corn Law debacle and create a workable majority in the House of Commons and consolidate the in-built Conservative majority in the House of Lords.

For Disraeli, and therefore for Shannon, it doesn’t matter what these issues are, whether it be the administration of India after the great rebellion of 1857, the correct line to take towards the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) or to Bismarck’s series of wars starting with Prussia’s war with Denmark in 1864.

Disraeli’s approach wasn’t about taking a consistent or principled line. It was about analysing each event or crisis and assessing what was the best outcome for the Conservative Party and for himself. What would play best among the (still very limited) electorate? How would a given policy play to the landed aristocrats in the House of Lords? Could it be reconciled with the need to win over support among the factory owners in the House of Commons?

The governing Liberals were traditionally the party of small government and non-intervention abroad. Classical Liberalism, as defined by the Manchester school of Richard Cobden and John Bright, thought that left to itself, universal free trade would connect all nations in fair and equal economic arrangements and thus war would not be required. That is why they had founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838, in order to abolish the restrictive tariffs which kept the price of corn artificially high (in order to benefit the landed aristocracy) thus making the price of food substantially cheaper in order to feed the populations of the new industrial cities.

By contrast with the Liberals’ boring ideas of universal free trade, as the 1860s turned into the 1870s Disraeli realised there was a big opportunity here to position the Conservatives as the party of imperial adventure and derring-do. Thus Disraeli is most remembered for two flashy, publicity-seeking gestures, buying up shares in the Suez Canal when the owner, the Khedive of Egypt went bankrupt in 1875, and awarding Queen Victoria the title Empress of India, much to her satisfaction, in 1876. Both hugely popular, both the swift seizure of opportunities.

But none of this implies that Disraeli had a fully-worked out foreign policy. Far from it. These were mere chance opportunities which he grabbed with the instinct of a true opportunist. Only later would succeeding leaders and theorists of the Conservative Party (Disraeli died in 1881) concoct the convenient idea that Disraeli had formulated some Grand Theory of Imperialism. Disraeli had no such thing. And his heirs only did this because this fiction helped them in their times (the 1880s through the 1900s) try to make sense of the ‘blind forces’ at work in the domestic and international spheres of their era. They were looking backwards for clues and ideas, just as Disraeli had been, in his day.

Similarly, when the Liberals brought forward plans to extend the franchise (the vote) from about 1.4 million men to 2.4 million men in 1866, Disraeli again spotted an opportunity, first of all to defeat the Liberals by assembling coalitions of reactionary forces against them. And then, quite hilariously, once the Liberal government resigned after losing a vote on the  reform bill, and the Queen was forced to appoint Disraeli her Prime Minister, he brought forward more or less the same bill, this time persuading reactionaries in the Commons and Lords that a carefully defined and carefully managed extension of the vote wouldn’t hand it to the illiterate mob but would do the opposite; would win over for the Conservatives the grateful lower-middle-class and skilled working class who would benefit from it. And that is, in fact what happened, once the new Reform Act was passed in 1867.

So Victorian politics wasn’t about ‘principle’, having grand theories and manifestos. It was all about shrewdness and adaptability, and adeptness at climbing to the top of what Disraeli very aptly described as ‘the greasy pole’ – and then using any event, and harnessing whatever social forces, and rethinking whatever traditions and schools of thought necessary, to stay in power.

A propos the 1867 Reform Act I was a little staggered to learn that in the election which followed, in 1868, only about half the seats were contested by both parties. We are talking about in which the interest of the Conservatives in country constituencies and of the Liberals in urban constituencies, was so definitive, that it wasn’t even worth contesting half the seats (p.73). Although it later came to be seen as highly symbolic that the high-minded, if eccentric, Liberal John Stuart Mill, lost his Westminster seat to W.H. Smith, the news agent, a harbinger of the rise of the new suburban middle and lower middle class vote which was to become a mainstay of Conservative elections and flavour much of national culture going into the 1880s and 1890s (p.73).

Power politics

Hopefully this example gives you a flavour of the way Shannon’s book takes you right into the heart of power, assessing how leaders like Gladstone and Disraeli (and later on, Lord Rosebery, Campbell-Bannerman and the rest) struggled to:

  1. understand what was going on
  2. fit events into the framework of their own personal ‘beliefs’
  3. fit events into the framework of the ideologies and traditions of the parties they purported to lead (often at odds with their own personal beliefs)
  4. and then try to manage coalitions and constituencies of voters out there in the country, and their representatives in Parliament, in such a way as to a) take meaningful action b) all the time ensuring they remained in power – in a process of endless risk and gamble

That is what this book is about; it is less about the actual events of the period than how the successive leaders used these events to claw their way to power and then how they manipulated the traditions and ideologies, assembled and broke coalitions, recruited this or that member of the party into their cabinet, kept important players onside by offering them this or that reward, and so on.

Gladstone himself, in a note written at the end of his life, in 1896, tried to analyse what it was that distinguished him from the other politicians of his time. He wrote that what it boiled down to was the way Providence had endowed him with a special gift of being able to see, to analyse, right into the heart of situations.

It is an insight into the facts of particular eras, and their relations to one another, which generates in the mind a conviction that the materials exist for forming a public opinion, and for directing it to a particular end. (Quoted p.71)

This book focuses exclusively on the highest of high politics, which explains why there’s little or no social history, very little about people’s lived experiences, little or no gossip about kings and courtiers, very little about new technologies or food or sport or fashion, very little about the regions, or even Scotland or Wales (although Ireland bulks large for obvious reasons).

Instead, the focus is very narrowly on Westminster and the power politics played out between a tiny handful of men at the top, detailing their schemes and strategies to gain and hold on to power. So if you’re looking for any kind of social history or lots of colourful anecdotes this is emphatically not the book for you. To give a fashionable example, in the Edwardian section of the book, there is almost no mention of the suffragettes or any kind of portraits of their leaders or their cause; the emphasis is entirely on the how they were just one of 3 or 4 social and political issues which Edwardian leaders were trying to assess and juggle in order to pursue the endless quest to stay in power.

Preserving the balance

So little or no social or economic history, then. What the book is good on is political theory. At what you might call the academic end of the spectrum, Shannon gives accounts of the political thought of Liberal ideologues such as John Bright and John Stuart Mill, showing how the latter in particular derived from his Utilitarian mentors and then evolved to reflect the times (not least in Mills’s powerful defences of women’s rights).

Shannon refers to the at-the-time well-known collection Essays on Reform, published in 1867 as ‘part of the propaganda of the “advanced party” for a “more national Parliament”‘. In the Essays leading political commentators made suggestions about how to improve the franchise and the voting system. Shannon dwells on the contribution of John Morley (1838 to 1923), nowadays a forgotten figure, but who was not only an influential journalist and editor but went on to be a reforming politician in his own right from the 1890s through to the 1920s, and who in the 1880s consciously positioned himself as the heir to Mill (who had died in 1873) as chief ideologue of classical Liberalism (p.98).

Some of the writings in Essays on Reform turn out to be disconcertingly relevant today, 150 years later. Shannon quotes Lesley Stephen, in his essay on reform, proposing that England is an essentially conservative country with an instinctive liking for the established order of things which led all the upper classes, a lot of the middle classes and a surprising number of the working classes instinctively deferential and reluctant to change. This leapt right off the page and spoke to me now, in 2021 as I read endless articles about why Labour lost the 2019 election so badly and why so many people continue to support the Conservative Party despite it so obviously being led by corrupt fools and incompetents. Reading Stephen’s words suggest the short answer is because it’s always been like that; because that’s what England is like.

But theorising and essay writing wasn’t only done by intellectuals and the higher journalists. Politicians also made speeches or wrote articles, and thus Shannon liberally quotes from speeches or articles by the likes of Disraeli, Gladstone and their heirs, to indicate what they said they believed and what they thought they were trying to do.

The thing is, though, that Shannon rarely takes them at face value. In line with his basic credo about the ‘blind forces’ driving society, Shannon is not shy of pointing out when these figures got it completely wrong.

In practically every respect Gladstone’s assumptions about the shape of the future were belied by events, just as were Disraeli’s assumptions about the possibilities of perpetuating a traditional Palmerstonian past. (p.70)

It would take nearly twenty years for Gladstone to reconcile himself to the inadequacy of his assumptions of 1868. (p.79)

The politicians of the period were engaged in what Shannon calls:

A contest in misapprehension. (p.70)

Or, more likely, were writing articles and making speeches not to convey eternal political truths, but to play the game and position issues or ideas in such a way as to maximise the author’s appeal, not necessarily to the bulk of the population (who couldn’t vote), but to key stakeholders or constituencies or even to specific individuals whose support they need.

As well as 1. intellectual ideas and 2. the strategic ideas promoted by politicians for political gain, there is a third category, 3. underlying commonplaces and beliefs.

These are the ideas which aren’t necessarily articulated in their own day and yet exist as widely accepted commonplaces and traditional values in all political parties (or social organisations such as the Anglican Church). Shannon is very good at  bringing these underlying Victorian beliefs out into the open and so helping you understand not just what the Liberal and Conservative leaders said they stood for, but what the crusty old supporters of both parties actually believed they stood for, which was often very something completely different.

Put more simply, Shannon is a really interesting guide to the ideologies and values which underpinned not only high politics but also the political culture of the times, and which was often not very well expressed at the time.

For example, I found his summary of Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, very useful. Arnold, Shannon explains, like so many of his contemporaries, didn’t want to leap forward into a radical future, he wanted to preserve the best elements of the past in troublesome times.

Arnold’s fear was that Britain was moving away from reliance on the disinterested morality of the landowning aristocracy and at the same time losing its religious faith, and that this collapse risked the triumph of the Philistines, the name he gave to the rising middle classes, the factory owners and entrepreneurs who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Arnold’s solution was that literature, art and culture should be promoted as the way to defeat the tide of philistinism and preserve the ‘sweetness and light’ of traditional culture, which he defined as ‘the best that has been thought and known’. In effect, ‘culture’ was to replace religion as the great binding glue and underpinning ideology of society (p.33).

This notion was to have a phenomenal impact and arguably to hold sway across the arts until well into the 1960s. I think it affected the way I was taught my literature degree in the 1980s. But reading it in the context of Shannon’s hard-headed exposition of power politics gives it a whole new meaning.

Arnold is just one of many Victorians who were looking backwards, who were trying to preserve what they idealised as a kind of balance or equilibrium between forces in society, which they hoped would solve all social issues and return life to the idyllic days of their youths.

Shannon shows in detail that Gladstone and Disraeli were, in this way, just the same, both men trying to return Britain to an imagined land of peace and plenty of their youths. Both men only promoted supposedly ‘radical’ policies (such as extending the franchise or extending state support for education in the 1870 Education Act) because they thought it would shut down dissent, end the debate, and restore this mythical equilibrium.

The essence of the question of reform [in 1867]…was a problem of striking a settlement that would satisfy the country and provide the point of rest and stability for a reconstituted Victorian equilibrium. (p.62)

The second stage of the Liberal effort to create a new Victorian equilibrium in the Liberal image fulfilled itself in the great programme of reforms between 1869 and 1873. (p.76)

The essence of the conduct of affairs in the decade 1874-85 was the effort of both Conservative and Liberal governments to operate on the basis of a desired and assumed Victorian equilibrium. Conservatives interpreted this equilibrium to mean a return to ‘normal’ procedures as defined in Palmerstonian pre-1867 terms… Liberals of most strains interpreted the equilibrium in terms of a revised dispensation required by the country to fulfil the potential of 1867… (p.101)

Some later Victorian schools of political thought

Maybe ‘theory’ is too grand and French a word to use for British political thinking, which has always been pragmatic, ad hoc and short term. As I read some of Shannon’s summaries of Victorian schools of thought, it crossed my mind that it might be useful to list and briefly summarise them:

Matthew Arnold

Arnold believed religion had been wounded by science, old aristocratic ideals damaged by democracy. He suggested replacing them with a new national ideology based on Culture which he defined as the best which has been thought and written, meaning, essentially, English literature.

John Stuart Mill

Mill helped define the ‘harm principle’ of freedom, namely that citizens should be free to do just about anything so long as it doesn’t harm, or cause harm to, others. He strongly defended complete freedom of speech on the basis that society could only progress if all ideas were freely expressed and openly discussed, confident that good opinions would defeat bad opinions. (p.32) Under the influence of his wife he became a fervent advocate of women’s rights, and spoke in favour of votes for women in the 1860s.

But Shannon takes us beneath the popular image of Mill as champion of modern human rights, to show how odd and of his time much of his thought was. For Liberals in the 1860s the issue wasn’t about steering the country towards universal suffrage: the pressing concern was to wrest power from the landed aristocracy, the estimated 10,000 or so families who essentially ran Britain, not in order to create a mass democracy, but to relocate power to the Most Intelligent people in the nation who Mill, not surprisingly, identified with himself and his friends.

In other words, Mill didn’t want to abolish the mindset of deference as so many Radicals did. He simply wanted to shift the focus of the population’s deference from the (in his opinion) worthless aristocracy, to the forces of liberal industry and economy and intelligence.

Leslie Stephen

Stephen believed that occult and unacknowledged forces kept England a predominantly aristocratic society, the majority of the population liking to keep things as they are and to defer to their betters. (p.28) (If you wanted to think big, you could say this attitude goes back to the Norman Conquest and the establishment of a two-tier society which, in many occult and unacknowledged ways, endures to this day. Being able to speak French or drop French tags into conversation, for example.)

Whig aristocrats

believed that only possession of land could guarantee independence and freedom. A tenant is forced to vote the way his landlord tells him. The owner of vast acres can, by contrast, stand up against almost any authority (including, back at the origin of the Whig Party, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the king himself). English freedom therefore depends on the existence of a well-educated and independent aristocracy, and their existence depends on respect for property. From this perspective, any attempt to tax, confiscate or redistribute someone’s land represents not an attack on them or even the propertied class, but on the entire basis of English freedom and this explains the attitudes and speeches of most MPs and ministers from the landed aristocracy (p.26).

The Manchester School

The Manchester school of economic and political theorists, led by John Bright and William Cobden, believed that free trade between nations would maximise everyone’s wealth and guarantee peace, because eventually every nation would be so tied  together by international trade that war would wreck their own economies. After the death of Palmerston in 1865, the Manchester School thought that Britain’s foreign policy should be one of complete non-intervention, showing the rest of the world by the example of how free trade led to prosperity. The Manchester School passively supported the attempts by peoples across Europe to liberate themselves from foreign (generally reactionary) oppressors, such as the struggle for Italian Unification, completed by 1871, because this would lead them all, in time, to have a constitution and economy as glorious as Britain’s, but we must on no account intervene in those struggles (p.43)

Castlereagh’s foreign policy

The Conservative view looked back to the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when Britain had a vested interest in never letting a continent-wide dictator arise again, and so was active in creating and supporting a supposed ‘balance of power’ in Europe, creating a ‘concert of powers’ between France, Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia, without ever actually joining sides. (pages 43 and 47).

Unfortunately, the illusion of this concert was seriously damaged by the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) in which a lot of Britons were surprised to find themselves fighting with Muslim Turkey against Christian Russia. And then Bismarck definitively wrecked this model by defeating Denmark, Austria and France in order to create a unified Germany in 1871, from which point the old theories became increasingly irrelevant and British leaders, both Conservative and Liberal, had to cast around for a new model and a new role for Britain in Europe (p.45).

Beneath the surface of a general retraction of diplomatic initiative following the Denmark fiasco, the phase from 1865 to 1874 is characterised by a great deal of manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces… (p.53)

The Crimean System

The Crimean War was fought to contain Russian expansionism, to prevent Russia extending its control right through the Balkans to threaten Constantinople and the Straits i.e. the Bosphorus, where the Black Sea joins the Mediterranean.

If Russia attained control of the Straits it would allow her navy to enter the Mediterranean at will and hugely shift the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Therefore Britain found itself fighting alongside Turkey and propping up the Muslim Sultan against a Christian European power. Many people at the time thought it was a mistake in principle and the actual mismanagement of the war confirmed their worst expectations.

The war ended with the 1856 Treaty of Paris and this goal of propping up Turkey in order to contain Russia became known as the Crimean System, which British politicians then tried to maintain for decades, way after it had become irrelevant to the changing realities on the ground.

Shannon’s theory of drag – the way politicians look backward, trying to maintain or recreate the systems and equilibriums they fancy existed in their youths – explains why, 20 years after the war, Disraeli, when Turkey carried out a brutal suppression of Bulgarians seeking independence in 1876, could only conceive of maintaining the ‘Crimea System’ and so continued to prop up a Turkey which had become notably more feeble and maladministered in the interim. Which in turn gave Gladstone the opportunity to score a massive public hit with his speeches giving gruesome details of the Turkish massacres of Bulgarian villagers, the so-called ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’, and decrying Disraeli’s immorality in defending them.

Politics isn’t about principles. It is about attacking your opponent at their weakest point until they collapse. It is about seizing opportunities for political gain.

Liberalism

One of the fundamental ideas of Liberalism, of the classical kind advocated by Cobden and Bright, was that different social groups and forces can, ultimately, be reconciled, not least by the growing science of society – sociology – by the use of reason and good will. It is optimistic about society’s prospects for eventually finding balance and peace (p.31), and the same belief in extends into a foreign policy which believes that free trade between nations is the best way of ensuring peace.

Nonconformism

It is difficult for many moderns to grasp the importance of religion in British politics until relatively recently. Certainly it was of vast importance in the Victorian period. The religious scene still bore the marks of the civil wars and the 1688 revolution which followed it. Basically the Church of England was the settled theological and organisational basis of the Establishment, of most of the landed aristocracy, of Oxford and Cambridge and the elite professions it produced.

After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 an Act of Uniformity and a series of Test Acts were put in place to ensure that nobody could hold any formal office or take a degree unless they swore to uphold the theology of the Anglican church and enforcing episcopal appointment of all ministers of religion.

Now the civil wars of the 1640s and 50s had brought out into the open, and into public life, a large minority of devout Christians who could not swear to the theology of the Anglican Church. They either disagreed about the entire idea of an ‘established’ church, or disagreed with the fact that its leaders, the bishops, were appointed by the civil power i.e. the monarch, or disagreed on a wide range of theological points. Before and during the wars they were known as ‘Puritans’ but the wars’ freedom to debate and define their positions led to a proliferation of sects then and in the decades after 1660, including Presbyterians and Congregationalists, plus Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and (originating in the 18th century) Methodists.

Because they refused to ‘conform’ to the Act of Uniformity and the various Test Acts they became known as the Nonconformists and came to form a distinct element of British society, large in England, probably a majority in Wales. There’s a lot of ongoing debate about whether the Nonconformists caused the industrial revolution, but there’s no doubt that, because they were excluded by law from holding civil posts (in local or national government) or entering any of the professions, Nonconformists were forced into business and into the worlds of science and industry.

The Test Acts were repealed by 1830 in what amounted, in its day, to a social and political upheaval, alongside Catholic Emancipation i.e. the removal of similar restrictions from Roman Catholics.

The point of all this for our period is that the Nonconformists, despite being split into various sects and subsidiary groupings, by and large formed a large part of British society.

A census of religion in 1851 revealed Nonconformists made up about half the number of people who attended church services on Sundays. In the larger manufacturing areas, Nonconformists clearly outnumbered members of the Church of England. (Wikipedia)

And this large body of Nonconformists constituted a bedrock element of the Liberal Party which they hoped would continue to remove obstacles to their full legal rights, many of these hopes focusing on the (utopian) wish for the disestablishment of the Church of England, so that it would become merely one more religious grouping among many.

But their presence in large numbers meant that the Liberal leader who emerged after Palmerston’s death, Gladstone, had to always take the Nonconformist vote into account when devising his policies and strategies.

You might have thought the Nonconformist influence, like religious belief generally, was slowly declining during the nineteenth century, but it was the opposite. The 1868 general election led to an influx of Nonconformist MPs, the largest cohort ever, who from now onwards had to be taken into all political considerations, and added a substantial layer of complexity to a host of policies, especially regarding Ireland, the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Ireland and then all the discussions about Irish Home Rule.

With the result that 40 years later the coming man in the Liberal Party, David Lloyd George, still had to cultivate and maintain Nonconformist support in the 1900s.

I was really surprised to learn about the tremendous complexity of passing the 1870 Education Act which was caused because of the conflict between the Church of England which ran the majority of state schools and the Nonconformists who wanted more state schools to be set up but not run by the Church and certainly not funded from local rates, a very English, very muddled situation which led to an unsatisfactory and patchy solution, the establishment of ‘Board schools’ which ‘became one of the great shaping factors of later nineteenth century society’ (pp.86 to 92).

In summary, it is impossible to understand a lot of political events between 1868 and the Great War unless you have a good feel for the importance of the Nonconformist interest in politics and in Britain’s broader cultural life.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 to 1895)

Although famous as a vigorous defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Huxley was solidly on the side of the angels and made speeches and wrote articles (notably Evolution and Ethics) pointing out that just because nature works through violent competition and extermination, doesn’t mean that humans have to. In fact humans have the capacity to do the exact opposite and use the reason evolution has handed us in order to devise rational and compassionate solutions to social problems which transcend the whole vulgar notion of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’.

Gladstone

Shannon credits Gladstone with realising that politics had to move on from the old notion that it was about balancing categories of ‘interest’ (for example, trying to frame policies which reconciled the landed interest and the industrial interest, and so on) to categories of ‘morality’ (p.55).

In making this shift of the basis of politics the essential task of the Liberal party Gladstone made it into a vehicle of political moralism. (p.55)

Hence the intensely moralising tone Gladstone adopted as he came to political prominence from the 1860s onwards, the increasing emphasis on judging government policies and bills on the grounds of social morality and hence Gladstone’s long, high-minded lectures which many found inspiring, but many (including, famously, Queen Victoria herself) found patronising and infuriating. Maybe Gladstone was the first mansplainer.

Reasons for losing

The Liberal government, convinced of its own virtue and its mission to reform and rebalance society, was flabbergasted when it lost the 1874 general election badly. Lots of commentators and the Liberal leadership itself were deeply puzzled why this had happened. Gladstone took it very personally and resigned the Liberal leadership in 1875. Journalist and soon-to-become politician John Morley wrote a book, On Compromise, giving his explanations for the defeat:

  • the example of French demagogy i.e. populism; appealing to the vulgar mob
  • the intellectual trend of the ‘historical method’ which had undermined the moral authority of the Bible
  • the corruptions of the popular press
  • the influence of the reactionary Church of England

But the deepest cause, Morley thought, was the material prosperity which had mushroomed during these years and had impaired ‘the moral and intellectual nerve of our generation’ (p.98). A generation later, the Liberal commentator Charles Masterman would attribute Tory victory to flag-waving jingoism and imperialism which rallied the uneducated masses to the Conservative cause.

Sound strangely familiar don’t they, these excuses for losing an election, 150 years later. No reflection on your own policies: instead, blame the electorate for being uneducated, venal and easily corrupted.

The Victorian balance unravels

Between 1865 and 1915 a devil of a lot of things happened, but from Shannon’s narrow focus on power politics, he places almost everything within the context of one overriding thesis.

This is that the High Victorian period (1850 to 1870) had been characterised by balance, by a synthesis of opposing forces, by what you could call the Liberal conviction that conflicting beliefs, ideas, ideologies, policies and political movements would, in the end, be reconciled, and the less interference by government, the quicker these solutions would come about.

Thus in the realm of culture, even critics of traditional Christian theology thought that the shocks of the Higher Criticism originating in Germany academia and, in a later generation, the discoveries of Charles Darwin and the geologists, could be absorbed by society, maybe into a new science of society, maybe into the new ideas of positivism articulated by August Comte. Scientific optimism.

In society at large the rise of working class militancy (the Chartists) was largely contained, an extension of the franchise in 1867 drew the sting from anti-establishment protest, a new education act in 1870 looked set to address long-running concerns about the shameful illiteracy of the underclass.

In foreign affairs Britain’s navy had unparalleled control of the seas, underpinning British possession of a huge range of colonies, while affairs on the continent of Europe remained mostly peaceful (apart from the relatively small skirmishes surrounding Bismarck‘s campaign to unify Germany under Prussian control) and the blundering shambles of the Crimean War which didn’t take place in Europe.

The entire worldview was underpinned by the immense pomp and circumstance surrounding Queen Victoria who was made empress of India by a grovelling Disraeli in 1877.

But by the 1880s this optimism was under strain in every direction. Working class militancy increased. Journalism and charitable work exposed the appalling poverty in Britain’s cities.

Abroad, trouble in the Balkans as the power of the Ottoman Empire declined led to flashpoints at the meeting points of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Britain watched and then became involved in various attempts to set up alliances and pacts to ensure security, all of them unstable.

The colonies grew restive. There was a religious uprising against British rule in Egypt led by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah in 1881. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885.

The really big colonial issue was on Britain’s doorstep as the pressure for Irish Home rule grew relentlessly, and this brings us to a really big theme of the period, which is, the splitting up of the major parties by huge political issues.

Even more than the first half, the second half of the book views all the political developments through the lens of attempts to retain or restore this mythical social and political ‘balance’.

Shannon’s view is that social and political events presented a challenge and that the two main political parties, and their successive leaders, struggled to address these challenges. It explains the structure he gives to the last three parts of his book as he first of all enumerates the problems facing later Victorian society and then weighs the responses of, first the Unionist Party, then the Liberals, and finds them both, in the end, inadequate to the task.

Part III: The forming elements of a modern society

  • Social dynamics 1886 to 1895
  • The politics of Unionism and Home Rule 1886 to 1895
  • New directions in external problems 1886 to 1895
  • Victorianism and Modernism: cultural themes and variations in the 1880s and 1890s

Part IV: The search for adequate responses: the Unionist version 1895 to 1905

  • The Unionist domestic bid 1895 to 1902
  • Unionist efforts to save the external situation 1895 to 1905
  • The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905

Part V: The search for adequate responses: the Liberal version 1905 to 1915

  • The Liberal domestic bid 1905 to 1911
  • Liberal responses in foreign affairs 1905 to 1911
  • The Liberal impasse 1912 to 1915

As the Victorian equilibrium and Liberal confidence that social problems would, basically, sort themselves out, both unravelled in the 1880s, two really major themes come to dominate the book, namely the ruinous impact of trying to conceptualise and implement Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards, and the equally divisive attempt led by Joseph Chamberlain to create an Imperialist party and policy, which coalesced around the policy of tariff reform in the early 1900s.

The really striking thing about both issues is the extent to which:

  • they dominated political discussions and calculations from the 1880s through the 1900s
  • they ended up fatally dividing existing political parties, with the Liberals splitting over Home Rule and the Conservative party splitting over tariff reform
  • and that both issues ended in abject failure

The failure of Liberalism

The 1885 general election resulted in a parliament where Home Rule MPs from Ireland held the balance of power. This helped crystallised the great leader of Liberalism, William Gladstone’s, conviction that Ireland deserved home rule, in effect a revision of the terms under which Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom since the merger of the kingdoms in 1800. Gladstone made Irish Home Rule a central policy of the Liberal Party.

But a large number of traditionalist Liberals disagreed and, in 1886, broke away to form the Liberal Unionist Party which soon found a leader in the charismatic figure of Joseph Chamberlain. Eventually, the Liberal Unionists formed a political alliance with the Conservative Party in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties formed the ten-year-long coalition Unionist Government 1895 to 1905 but were swept to defeat by a Liberal landslide in the 1906 general election.

But not only did the precise nature of Home Rule stymie Gladstone in the final years of his political career (he died in 1898) but it returned as a major political crisis at the end of the Edwardian era and it is always striking to be reminded that, as Europe rushed towards war in August 1914, the British cabinet was far more concerned about the possibility of real civil war breaking out in Ireland between the nationalist majority and the Protestant die-hards of Ulster.

In other words, long and very complicated and tortuous as the issue of Irish Home Rule was, the liberal Party failed to solve it.

The failure of Unionism

The Conservatives successfully positioned themselves as the party of the British Empire during Disraeli’s leadership (mostly, as we have suggested, out of sheer opportunism). Imperial ambition reached its peak with the attempt from the turn of the century by Joseph Chamberlain to promote a policy of Tariff Reform designed to bind together the major Anglo-Saxon colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) into a protectionist trading bloc.

The policy had a rhetorical or branding appeal to the imaginations of many, but it hit at least two very big rocks which were:

  1. It would almost certainly lead to higher prices for basic foodstuffs for most Britons; hence its opponents could set up lobbying groups with names like the Free Food organisation.
  2. Chamberlain organised a series of conferences attended by the Prime Ministers of the Anglo colonies, but they never got anywhere near agreeing trading terms – it was a nice idea, but never fleshed out in practice.

A third aspect was the disastrous showing of the British army in the Boer War, 1899 to 1902. This had the effect of discrediting the Unionist government which was in power at the time and, although Britain ultimately defeated the Boers on the battlefield, in the years that followed, the Boers won back all their political rights and more. It was a colossal moral defeat.

Obviously there’s a lot more detail, but overall it was widely felt, by 1906, that the Imperial project of the Unionists had failed. This is what is explained in detail in Shannon’s chapter, ‘The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905’.

High numbers

The naive and simple minded think that democratic politics is about ideals and principles. This is why they are continually disappointed by actual political events, because what politics is really about is numbers.

From 1885 to 1915, Shannon’s history shows how a huge amount of political energy went into detailed political calculations about how to win and maintain power and that these boiled down again and again to the numbers: will you get enough votes in a general election? (GEs were held in 1885, 1886, 1892, 1895, 1900, 1906 and twice in 1910). Will a high enough percentage of voters turn out?

Is it necessary to do deals with other parties, as the young Labour Representation Committee did in the 1906 election when the LRC won 29 seats because of a secret pact between its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, and Liberal Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone, to avoid splitting the anti-Conservative vote between Labour and Liberal candidates?

If you extend the franchise (as the UK did in 1867 and 1884 and 1918), how will it affect your vote? This was one of the elements in the government’s calculations about whether to bow to suffragette pressure and extend the vote to women. If so, which women and how many and what would be the impact on the balance of power? It wasn’t about principle. It was about calculating the numbers.

Would the growth of trade unions affect the working class vote? Would legalisation of trade unions garner support for the party (Liberal or Conservative) which did it, or would it lead to the creation of a new radical party?

And you may be able to form a government, but do you have a big enough majority to pass all the laws you want to? Will you have to make alliances with other parties (as the Liberals did with Irish Nationalists and the small Labour Party in 1910 to get is social policies and radical budget passed)?

If the House of Lords refuses to pass laws which have been approved by the House of Commons, will having a second general election (as there was in 1910) increase or decrease your majority? Will you be able to persuade then king to create so many new Liberal peers that they will swamp the House of Lords and guarantee the passage of your bill (as the Liberal government threatened to do in 1910 to get its contentious Finance Bill past an obstructive House of Lords)?

And within so-called parties, will you be able to win round some groups or elements in an opposition party to your way of thinking, without alienating too many members of your own party?

High finance

Another way in which politics is obviously all about numbers is the finances and the basic, entry-level question: how are you going to pay for your fancy policies?

This is why almost all policies are, in the final analysis, subject to the control of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and why there often end up being such fierce rivalries between the Prime Minister, who is in charge of policy and strategy and creating alliances and support for policies; and his Chancellor who has great power to wreck all these plans if the figures don’t add up.

If you plan mighty new policies who is going to pay? Take the famous naval rivalry between Britain and Germany which took a leap in intensity after Britain launched its first Dreadnought class warship in 1906. The initial dreadnoughts cost £1,783,000, compared to £1,540,000 for the previous largest ships, but eight years later the new Queen Elizabeth class was costing £2,300,000 each. Who was going to pay for them?

In 1909 David Lloyd George wanted to complete the Liberal agenda of tackling poverty in the shape of caring for the elderly and for the unemployed, so he introduced the so-called People’s Budget. Half the attention given to it by historians concerns the way its provisions began to lay the foundations for what, a generation later, would be called the Welfare State. But Shannon is more interested in the numbers, namely who was going to pay for this new state largesse? A central point of the budget was that it introduced unprecedented taxes on the lands and incomes of Britain’s wealthy (it introduced higher rates of income tax, higher death duties and a 20% tax on increases in value when land changed hands).

No wonder the members of the class very obviously targeted by these changes, who populated the House of Lords, rejected it, which led to a great constitutional crisis, which pitted the House of Commons and ‘the will of the people’ against the representatives of the landed elite.

Déjà vu all over again

One of the pleasures of reading history and, in particular, fairly recent history (i.e. not medieval or ancient history) is to read the past through the prism of the present, or read the past with the issues and pressures of the present in mind. In this respect, it never fails to amaze me how some things never change. Thus we read that:

1. Why did we lose?

The high-minded Liberals just couldn’t understand how they could lose the 1874 election to the elitist, land-owning and greedy and reactionary Conservative Party. The best reasons they could come up with was that the voting public had been corrupted by a new, more aggressively populist press and by a new and unprecedentedly high standard of living. They were wallowing in luxury and had forgotten their high-minded responsibility to build a better, fairer society, instead the sustained prosperity of the 1850s and 60s had caused:

‘a general riot of luxury in which nearly all classes had their share…[in which] money and beer flowed freely.’ (p.97).

Which sounds to me very like the excuses the Labour Party made about losing three successive elections to Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s and, again, about their thumping defeat in the 2019 election.

2. The progressive coalition in disarray

As Shannon is at pains to demonstrate, the Liberal Party had only recently been founded – the conventional date for its establishment is 1859 – and was made up of a diverse coalition of forces: the traditional land-owning Whig aristocracy; urban Radicals; Irish nationalists; high-minded Anglicans like Gladstone but also a very large number of Nonconformists who Gladstone conscientiously courted. During its ministry from 1868 to 1874 the Liberal government had achieved much but also alienated many of these key constituents.

3. Cosmopolitans versus patriots

I was fascinated to read that in his landmark speech at Crystal Palace in 1872, Disraeli attempted some political positioning and branding, by accusing the Liberals of being elite and out of touch with the ordinary voter, but in particular of being ‘cosmopolitan‘, meaning too quick to truckle to foreigners, not willing to defend the ‘national’ interest, which, of course, Disraeli strongly identified himself and the Conservatives with (p.53). The Conservatives had lost touch with the people and ‘cosmopolitan’ doctrines had been imported from the continent and foisted on the innocent British public under the guise of ‘Liberalism’. The Liberals had tried to ‘substitute cosmopolitan for national principles’ (p.95).

During this period Disraeli tried to reposition the Conservatives as the party which would defend a) the constitution and the great historic institutions of England, b) our national interests, our place as a Great Power, and combine these with c) a comprehensive programme of social reform.

The combination of flag-waving patriotism with the promise of robust reform and prosperity for all sounds very reminiscent of the 2019 Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, another unprincipled but eerily successful chancer.

4. Working class conservatism

Shannon emphasises that British trade unions didn’t want to overthrow the system, they just wanted a greater say in the fruits of the system and a share in its profits for their members (p.29). The majority of the great unwashed just wanted to be left alone, without a nanny state sticking its nose in their business and insisting they were ‘improved’, whether they wanted to be or not (p.103).

Again, resentment at the tendency of high-minded Liberals to poke their noses into people’s private affairs and educate and inform them and force them to become more progressive sounds eerily similar to the resentment in at least some parts of the 2019 electorate towards the urban, college-educated cadres of the modern Labour Party who want to force everyone to be more aware of racial issues and feminist issues and transgender issues and LGBTQ+ issues and take the knee and defund the police and fight for justice for Palestine. Many people, then as now, just want to be left alone to get on with their lives and not be continually hectored and lectured, thank you very much.

5. The sorry state of English education

In the 1860s education in England lagged far behind standards on the continent, especially by comparison with Germany, especially in the area of technical education. Lots of committees wrote lots of reports. Lots of commentators agonised (including the wordy school inspector, Matthew Arnold) (pages 86 to 95). 160 years later, has much changed or does the UK still languish behind the best in Europe in its maths and literacy and technical education?

6. Ireland

Obviously Irish nationalism evolved throughout the 19th century, taking many forms, and characterised by different leading elements from Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association and Repeal Association of the 1840s to the violent tactics of the Irish Republican Brotherhood led by Michael Davitt.

It is a vast subject with a powerful mythology and huge literature of its own which I don’t have any space to go into. I’m just making the point that I’m reading about Gladstone’s attempts to solve the Irish Question in the 1870s and 1880s in July 2021 at the same time I am hearing on the radio about the issues caused by Brexit, the Northern Irish Protocol and its possible breaches of the Good Friday Agreement. In other words, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘Irish Question’ will be with us (and the Irish) forever.

Credit

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon was published in 1974 by Hart-David, MacGibbon Books. All references are to the 1976 Paladin paperback edition.


Related links

The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956)

‘Pity always was a luxury. It’s all right if the tragedy’s a comfortable distance away – if you can watch it from a seat in the cinema. It’s different when you find it on your doorstep – on every doorstep.’
(John Custance in The Death of Grass, page 145)

This isn’t a particularly well-written novel, the prose style is starchy, the dialogue is as forced as a 1950s movie, and the major outlines of the plot often feel preposterous, BUT… by God, it has grip! Starting slowly, it picks up speed and turns into a hair-raising description of a polite, middle-class England which is utterly destroyed as the entire world falls to a devastating virus which kills all species of grass, thus plunging the entire globe into famine and bloodshed, and swiftly turning the handful of jolly middle-class chaps and chapesses we meet at the start of the book into hard-faced killers.

John Christopher

John Christopher was just one of the pen-names of the prolific English genre novelist Sam Youd (1922 to 2012). Youd left school at 16, worked as a clerk and then was drafted into the army, serving in the Royal Corps of Signals from 1941 to 1946.

He was determined on a career as a professional writer and his first ‘normal’, mainstream novel, The Winter Swan, was published under the name Christopher Youd in 1949. However, he was attracted to science fiction and wrote science fiction short stories under the different byline of John Christopher from 1951, getting them published in various specialist sci-fi magazines.

His first book as John Christopher, the science fiction novel, Year of the Comet, was published in 1955. The Death of Grass, published the following year, was his second sci-fi novel and his first major success as a writer. Youd went on to write a further ten or so sci fi novels as John Christopher – although he also wrote in a variety of other styles (detective stories, light comedy, cricket books) under no less than seven other pseudonyms. In 1966 he started writing novels for teenagers, what we nowadays call young adult fiction, producing about 20 of these, notably the Tripod and Sword of the Spirits trilogies.

The Death of Grass

The book opens by introducing us to a nice middle-class family with two brothers, John and David Custance (‘Don’t say “blimey”, David, it’s common.’)

David inherits his grandfather’s farm in a remote valley in Westmorland, while John pursues a career as a civil engineer in London. He marries Ann and has two children of his own, Davey and Mary. They often socialise with a friend of John’s from the army, Roger Buckley, and his placid wife, Olivia and son Steve. Ann dislikes Roger, who is a PR officer at the Ministry of Production, because he is so cynical and ironic (and given to quoting classic poetry, usually for ironic effect).

But Roger is the one, because of his position inside government comms, who is able to give John and David advance news that the virus affecting rice which has arisen in China, the ‘Chung-Li virus’ which has been in all the newspapers, is now heading for Europe and that even lovely old Blighty might eventually face the same kind of famine and food riots that are happening in the Far East.

And so it turns out. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are reported as dying of starvation as their entire rice harvest fails, spilling over into famine in Indochina and India, but we in the West rely on grasses and grains, not rice and so, for a season, watch with detached pity the mass starvation in the East.

When scientists eventually successfully kill off the original virus using ‘isotope 717’, there is much rejoicing around the world… until it is realised that killing off its competitors leaves the field open to a variant of the original virus which does target grasses and is more virulent than its predecessors.

In the first 4 or 5 chapters we see all this entirely through the dinner party chat and family dinners of John, Ann and their kids, of Roger and Olivia, and on a few occasions when John and his (wifeless, childless) brother David get together. John and Roger go for lunch at the latter’s club (chops and lager). Or the Buckleys and Custances enjoy their annual summer trip to stay in Roger’s caravan on the coast, while the kids play on the beach. They tut about the situation in the East, the womenfolk want the government to send more food supplies to the famine-affected areas and disapprove of Roger when he cynically says we need to keep all the food we can for ourselves.

When The Collapse comes, it comes suddenly and with no warning. Roger shows up at the building site of John’s latest building project, takes him to an empty pub and tells him the shocking news: England has only been fed by shipments from America and the Commonwealth. Now those shipments are ending. Within a week 55 million people will have no more food (p.45).

Not only that but – quite incredibly – the government has decided the only way to ensure the survival of at least half the population is to… liquidate the other half. The government has fallen, been replaced by a new hardline one which is drawing up plans to drop nuclear bombs on all the UK’s major cities! (p.48)

OK. Hard to credit, but within the swim of the narrative, it seems madly plausible. Earlier, we had a scene when John and Ann were visiting his brother Davy at the farm in the remote valley, Blind Gill, and he’d been a little shocked to learn his brother had bought a load of timber and was going to build a stockade, a fence against the one narrow entrance to the valley. Back in London, John had mentioned all this in one of his regular lunches with Roger.

Now Roger tells John to drop everything, go collect his daughter from her private school in Beckenham, and that both families must set off immediately for the North and David’s farm in Blind Gill. We are given a vivid scene of John, in a blur of panic, having to reassure his daughter’s tall, no-nonsense headmistress, Miss Errington, that everything is alright, and John’s distress as he looks round at all his daughters friends and wonders what will become of them (p.50).

But returning to his home in London, John discovers Roger has been delayed by his car having a busted gasket and having to take it to the garage. It’s 4pm before the two cars set off, loaded to the gills with all the belongings they intend to keep.

But the fateful delay means that, by the time they get clear of the North Circular Road, they are met by an army roadblock which has only been set up in the last hour or so. On the radio government announcements that nobody must leave London. The officer manning the roadblock says it’s just a manoeuvre, nothing serious, but won’t let them or anyone else through.

They turn round and Roger suggests a) taking a quiet rural side road as far as they can out of town and that b) he and John head back into the centre to a shop he knows. It is a gun shop. The two men try it on with the owner, a small, hunched, self-possessed and wordy man named Pirrie who refuses to serve them and, when John tries to jump him, pulls a revolver on them and starts to phone the police (p.60). It’s then that John tells him the full story, the imminent end of food, the famine, the collapse of society – and about his brother’s valley, Blind Gill, where they’re heading.

Pirrie phones his wife and tells her to pack their essential belongings into the car. (So that’s three cars – John and Ann and Mary in a Vauxhall; Roger and Olivia and Steve in a Ford; Pirrie and his wife, Millicent in their Citroen). Then helps our guys load up the car they came in with a small arsenal of weapons and ammunition. When a passing bobby asks them what they’re up to Pirrie calmly and confidently lies that he’s been asked to take this all over to the local police station. It is the first occasion he shows John and Roger how resourceful and calm he is under pressure.

They drive to Pirrie’s house where his wife Millicent (20 years younger, very attractive) has packed their car. Pirrie gets into it and they arrange the rendezvous at the quiet country road where they left their wives. They park and reconnoitre and see an army checkpoint a few hundred yards ahead round a corner. They wait till it’s dark and then ambush it. Roger drives forward loud and drunk, while John and Pirrie sneak up from the sides and take aim at the three soldiers as they approach Roger’s car. In the end, it is Pirrie who kills all three with just three shots. He owns a gunshop. He is a marksman. They throw the bodies in a ditch and lift the barricade. The killing has begun.

They get safely beyond the barricaded area then sleep in the cars. Next morning they drive to Davey’s boarding school (Saxon Court). Everything seems normal as they collect the boy, who insists that his friend, nicknamed Spooks, comes to.

They push on north and see bombers flying towards Leeds. The radio has stopped working. Normal authorities have ceased. Can the bombers really have been going to bomb Leeds? Madness. At another army roadblock a Yorkshire soldier advises a roundabout route north.

They come to a level crossing whose gates come down cutting John, Ann and Mary off from the cars ahead. John goes to investigate, sees a woman who’s been raped inside the station house, runs back round the house to see two men struggling with his girls and at that moment someone whacks him with a block of wood, knocking him unconscious.

When John comes round, he is being tended by Olivia. Roger and Pirrie took a while to realise his car was missing and return. In the meantime the bandits have taken John’s car and women. They could be anywhere. It is Spooks who points out a trail of oil on the road from a leaking gasket. They follow it out to the country where they ambush the three men. They have taken it in turns to gang rape John’s wife and daughter. Pirrie shoots them but not to kill. Our guys rush up to Ann and Mary who have both been raped. Ann takes John’s machine gun, stands over her rapist and rips him to pieces with a burst of machine gun fire that empties the magazine. In her biography of John Wyndham, Amy Binns points out that it was this scene which prevented Death of Grass being made into a movie, but in reality the book has this very hard, brutal edge throughout. No-one emerges as a ‘hero’.

Chapter 7 All the way through the narrative has been punctuated by the characters listening to the radio. At one point the plummy BBC voice goes off the air and is replaced by a spokesman for a new Citizens Emergency Committee (p.92) which claims to have taken over London.

Heading north they swerve into another roadblock outside the town of Masham by a self-defence force, multiple guns pointing at them and their guns are in the boots of the cars, They end up being stripped of cars, petrol, most of their food the guns and ammo. When completely finished, the dozen Masham defenders melt away leaving our crew to walk up a hillside and sleep the night atop the defensible hilltop. But Pirrie had insisted on bringing his blanket with him and reveals, now, that he kept a rifle stashed inside (he tells us he used the same tactics when with the Army in Arabia, against thieving Arabs).

Now they are a tired party, heading north and on foot, with at least three days march ahead of them (pages 97 to 105).

Chapter 8 They come across an isolated cottage with smoke coming from the chimney, and shoot dead the burly cottager who opens the door holding a shotgun, and then his wife who is inside, also with a gun. John shoots her in the face with his shotgun but she doesn’t die, instead falls to the floor screaming with pain. Pirrie eventually arrives with the rest of the party and executes her. You can see why it was a non-starter as a film adaptation.

They load up all the goods they need, and the wives cook a full English breakfast from eggs and bacon. It’s only then that they find the murdered couple’s daughter, Jane, cowering in her room upstairs. To John’s surprise, Olivia and then Rodger insist that Jane comes with them. If they leave her there, the next gang of marauders will rape and kill her. Initially Janes just wants to be left alone but Olivia eventually talks her into going along with them.

It was while in this cottage that Roger scans through the airwaves, most of which are silent, and comes across a broadcast from America saying that all Europe has plunged into barbarism. Some atom bombs have gone off. Last flights carrying European leaders or royal families have landed in the States, which still has ample food stocks but is instituting rationing (pages 116 to 117). Well, thinks John, one day the Americans might return from over the seas to the Old Continent, bearing a virus-resistant grass, but God knows what kind of savage society they’ll find if they do.

Nature is wiping the earth clean (p.125)

Pirrie’s young wife, Millicent, is a bit rougher than the others, a bit less pukka. This is indicated by her slightly ‘Cockney’ accent and by the fact that she flirts increasingly with John, as he makes more and more decisions (and becomes more and more hard of heart). She ironically calls him Big Chief.

That night, when John’s on sentry duty guarding the group who are sleeping in a dell, Millicent creeps up and tries to seduce John. She is half succeeding and manages to get him into a clinch when her husband, Pirrie, announces his presence. We learn Pirrie’s first name is Henry (p.127) as he confronts them. Then, in a striking show of brutality and the new immorality, Pirrie shoots and kills MiIlicent and John lets him. When John had begun to raise his shotgun, Pirrie immediately swung his rifle towards him. John was powerless but he doesn’t feel anything. He and Pirrie throw the body over an embankment to hide it from the others.

Chapter 9 Next day, Pirrie is confronted by the others about murdering his wife and says she had cuckolded him many times (is that an expression any living person uses nowadays, ‘cuckolding’?) so he was within his rights. He then surprises everyone by saying he is going to take Jane, the murdered cottagers’ daughter, to wife (p.134). The women object but don’t stop him repeatedly telling Jane to go to him and, eventually, she does, docilely. This is the new order of relationships. Ann confronts John about it all and John says, at that moment, Ann and Mary meant more to him than anyone else.

They cross up onto the tops of moors and it starts to rain. Down in the valley they can see the village of Sedbergh burning. The men confer and agree they need to be a larger group with more men and guns in order to see off the looters and gangs which are probably forming. A while later a group of four women, two children and a couple of weedy men approach in the rain, pushing prams loaded with belongings. Feebly these losers ask to join their group, but there’s too many of them and they have no guns.

The encounter is interesting because it highlights the very class-based aspect of the story. John’s two children were at prep school, and the narrative has taken us to both these schools where we met the head master and head mistress of each. Right at the start of the book, Ann had told her son Davey not to say the word ‘Blimey’ because it is common. Now, when the oldest man in this shabby group opens his mouth John instantly nails him for a manual labourer, knackered after a lifetime of loyal and inefficient service (p.142). Their children’s names are Bessie and Wilf. Compare and contrast the pukka, upper-middle-class Custance children, named Davey and Mary. Two nations.

Then another larger group comes along, the man carrying guns in a swaggering way. John hails them and there is some blunt talking. Pirrie says that if they’re to unite in one band they’ll all have to obey John Custance here. When their gruff Yorkshire leader, Joe Ashton, starts to demur, Pirrie raises his rifle, the other goes for his revolver and Pirrie shoots him dead. The others are so stunned it takes them a moment to recover and by then Pirrie, John and Roger are covering them.

Pirrie takes it a stage further and orders the rest of his group to line up, shake hands with Custance and identify themselves. John is acutely aware of the ritual element, as his new men line up to offer fealty to their new warlord. The manual labourer from the other group has watched all this and makes another plea to join the enlarged group. In a flash, John realises the power of the ancient feudal system and the deep pleasure it gives to be in a position of power and able to offer mercy and help to the helpless.

Chapter 10 John now leads his group of 34 souls down through the looted ruins of Sedbergh and up to a resting place high up overlooking the Lune Valley. Roger is in charge of the rearguard. Pirrie has settled into being John’s lieutenant. John has a testy dialogue with him, reluctant to completely abandon the notions of democracy and decency, while Pirrie continually reminds him of the realities of the new world.

They come across an abandoned house on the tops. Pirrie takes a party to check it’s secure – the whole thing is running like the army, now – and then the party take separate rooms while John organises a guard. In a bedroom Ann accuses him of becoming a gangster and John insists he doesn’t want to and it will all change when they finally arrive at his brother’s farm. Ann complains that all the women ask her for decisions, since she is the Chieftain’s Wife. His children are scared of him. Even cynical old Roger and Olivia are scared of him, now. In a gesture towards their old friendship, John calls Roger and Olivia up to share the main bedroom, bed for the kids, carpeted floor for the adults.

Ann and Olivia see Pirrie walking off with Jane, presumably to have sex with her in the heather. The women loathe him and despise his taking advantage of the docile farm orphan. They discuss giving Jane the sharpest knife they can find in this cottage so she can slit Pirrie’s throat, but John springs to his lieutenant’s defence, which triggers an angry debate about what he’s become. He keeps saying that, as soon as they reach his brother’s farm, he’ll abandon his duties and everything will return to normal.

In the middle of the night they are attacked by quite a large group of men and it turns into a shooting match. John is dismayed when they start throwing grenades, but when the grenadier stands up to throw, a lucky shot from our guys in the house makes him drop the grenade and set off all the others. At that the attackers withdraw. John doubles the guard for the night. In the morning they go and survey the corpses, only a couple. Some of the men in the groups our heroes have accumulated fought and killed in the war, so they’re used to it.

Chapter 11 They finally march the last few miles to the narrow entrance to the valley named Blind Gill where John’s brother, David, has his legendary farm. There’s a nice stockade built across the valley entrance and Pirrie and John are admiring it from the road when a burst of machine gun fire scatters them. Pirrie is knocked to the road but, when Jane scampers out, picks up his body and carries him to the ditch the rest are taking cover in, it turns out it’s only as graze to the head which knocked him over.

John walks back towards the stockade carrying a white flag and tells whoever’s manning the machine gun that he’s David’s brother. He hears a utility vehicle fire up behind the stockade and motor off, then return a bit later. Then he hears his brother Dave’s voice. Dave makes his people open the gate a fraction so John can squeeze in. The brothers have a joyous reunion but then Dave devastates John by telling him he can’t bring his band in, only Ann and Mary and Davey. He explains that others got there first, have helped him man the barricades, they’ve already had to turn away some of their relatives. There just isn’t enough land to support them all.

John goes back to his people hiding in the ditch and they’ve already guessed the bad news. He puts it to them straight. Roger tells him and Ann and Mary and Davey to take up the offer and for a moment John is tempted. But then glances at Pirrie watching him, tapping the side of his rifle. He realises he wouldn’t make it in alive.

He goes back for another parley with David who, this time, is surrounded by other men, who listen to the conversation, David clearly doesn’t have any room for manouevre. Desperately he suggests John leads his group off and then ducks out, and doubles back with Ann and the kids. He’ll be waiting to let them in tonight. But both men know it won’t work. They shake hands and John is let through the stockade gate again.

Chapter 12 Pirrie has a plan. That night John and Pirrie wade through the freezing cold river which flows underneath David’s stockade and, once inside, open up a fusillade on the half dozen men manning the stockade and its machine gun, killing them all. During the gunfight, Pirrie is hit, collapses into the water and is washed downstream, dead. John’s last memory, as he passes out from his own injury, is of his own people swarming over the now-undefended stockade.

Chapter 13 In a short chapter obviously intended to be unbearably moving, John regains consciousness in David’s old house, his mind full of confused memories of being a boy, of having to attend his grandfather’s funeral, of the reading of the will where it was announced that David would inherit the farm, of his mother’s clumsy attempts to reassure him he would get her money and so have a decent life – these memories interspersed with present-moment impressions of Ann his wife treating and  reassuring him.

Because in his and Pirrie’s assault from within the stockade either he or Pirrie shot dead his beloved brother, David. Now John staggers to his feet, over to where his brother’s corpse is laid out on a bed. He kisses it, then turns to leave the bedroom. Ann asks:

‘Where are you going?’
‘There’s a lot to do,’ he said. ‘A city to be built.’ (p.195)

Old army tricks

Without any song and dance it is made clear that quite a few of the male characters served in the army and fought in the war. One man they meet said all this chaos and bloodshed was fine when it was somewhere else, but is strange here in England. John remembers handling a gun in the army and we are told he shot someone, but it feels sickeningly wrong shooting one of his own people. When he takes sentry duty he cups a cigarette in his palm to hide the glow, an ‘old army trick’ (p.124). We are told one of the Yorkshire band, Will Secombe, fought in the war, and Noah Blennitt, leader of the gunless loser group.

Because the novel turns into a series of military encounters. Some straightforward fighting, some less obvious but still military-style negotiations need to be held with other parties, such as happen atop the moor when Pirrie shoots dead Joe Ashton, leader of the other group. The way so many of the characters served in the Second World War, saw dead bodies or killed during it, underpins and informs the narrative.

Viewed from a certain angle, the entire novel is actually a sort of extension of war literature.


Introduction by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane was commissioned by Penguin to write the introduction for the new Penguin Classics edition and it made me pretty angry.

Macfarlane went to private school, then onto Cambridge, so he is well placed to lecture the rest of us about how to live, and to make a career as a writer in an industry dominated by the privately school, Oxbridge-educated elite.

Macfarlane’s sensitive books about mountains or walking ‘the old ways’ are favourably reviewed by other private school and Oxbridge-educated types – for example, The Old Ways was described as ‘a tour de force’ by William Dalrympple, himself attended Britain’s premiere Roman Catholic public school, Ampleforth, and then Cambridge – and Macfarlane has won a heap of awards judged by like-minded, pampered and deeply spiritual souls. Like calls to like. The chumocracy. Or just the narrow ruling class which runs the arts and media.

Macfarlane tries to make out The Death of Grass to be a serious and prophetic piece of literature, rather than the intense, gripping but ultimately shallow, potboiling thriller which it obviously is. Macfarlane tries to argue that the novel deals with nature’s revenge and uses the hundred year-old hackneyed Freudian term ‘the return of the repressed’. This is obvious bollocks, as you can see from my plot summary. People shoot each other. Nothing repressed about it.

And also, for anyone with even a passing interest in ecology or biology, there is precious little scientific content in the book. After scattered references to the Chung-Li virus in the first 40 or so pages and Roger’s pub chats with John about scientists’ attempts to fight it, the virus as such disappears from the story, which turns into the intense and violent adventures of a small group fighting their way across England.

Like many authors asked to write an introduction to a book, Macfarlane pads out the little he has to say by giving summaries of a lot of other books which are like it. Thus in the introduction’s eight pages he manages to namecheck and summarise:

  • Greener Than You Think by Ward Moore (1947)
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
  • The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
  • The Genocides by Thomas Disch (1961)
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2007)

So instead of describing the book he’s introducing, Macfarlane devotes a lot of effort to showing us how well-read and clever he is. Amazingly, he then lets loose a volley of characteristically upper-class criticism of British exceptionalism and the English character, which is so characteristic of modern upper-class progressives who have enjoyed all the privileges of an elite public school and Oxbridge.

He is quick to inform us that he despises ‘British exceptionalism’, the lingering thought that the British are ‘morally superior to other cultures and nations’ (for example Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, imperial Japan or Maoist China) tut tut no no. He descants on ‘the hollowness of the idea of “Englishness”‘ – which Macfarlane despises as only a superior-minded, privately educated Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge can.

Tut tut, all you stupid chavs who are patriots or love your country or thought that Britain was standing up to Hitler, Russia or the murderous Japs during the Second World War, tut tut, you should listen to superior beings like Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge Robert Macfarlane, who goes out of his way to tell readers that they ought to despise the novel’s depiction of ‘a Batsford England of bosomy downlands, sleepy seaside towns and well-fed burghers, warm beer, cricket on the green, tea on the lawn, and fair play.’

Stupid British people! Listen to Robert and learn to despise yourselves and the wretched, hypocritical country you live in!

Macfarlane goes onto completely lose all credibility by claiming J.G. Ballard as a ‘prophet’ of contemporary society a notion which, after having read Ballard’s complete works, I completely reject and devoted a blog post to:

Rather pathetically, Macfarlane says Ballard predicted reality television, the advent of ‘happy slapping’ and the decline of high-rise living:

a) as if Ballard actually did prophesy them instead of, in fact, being as aware of their development as anyone else who reads the papers and magazines (predicting the rise of ‘happy slapping’ as a major claim to fame! my God, what an idiot)

b)as if that is what Ballard’s claim to fame should rest on, on being a supposed prophet! Of course it shouldn’t, you nitwit! It isn’t on his claim to fame as a ‘prophet’ but the quality of his writing that a writer’s claim to fame should rest – otherwise he’s just an essayist or superficial cultural commentator, alongside thousands and thousands of others all lamenting the awfulness of modern society, much like Robert Macfarlane wringing his hands over anyone who could be nostalgic for an England of ‘bosomy downlands, sleepy seaside towns’.

Ballard’s claim to fame isn’t that he predicted ‘the decline of high-rise living’ – plenty of intelligent architects and sociologists objected to high-rises from the moment the first ones were built. Ballard’s claim to fame is that he wrote stunningly complex and visionary novels like The Crystal World or The Atrocity Exhibition and conveyed in all his best work a unique sense of psychosis and mental collapse in grippingly bizarre settings and scenarios.

To suggest that Ballard’s fame should rest on his ‘prediction’ of 24-hour TV and ‘happy slapping’, good God, what an obtuse, illiterate and superficial notion, and what an insult to a great writer.

Macfarlane then goes on to try and claim visionary prophet status for Christopher and this book. God, what a tired and jaded case to make for a writer, that he was a ‘great prophet’. Of course Christopher wasn’t a bleeding ‘prophet’. Thousands of science fiction writers had depicted global catastrophes and ecological collapse and global famine and the rest of it for decades before Christopher, and novels, plays, dramas, and movies on the exact same subject have carried on proliferating like all other cultural products in a world drowning in cultural product.

The simple truth is that while any number of writers, novelists, essayists or film-makers have carried on making any number of cultural products, the human population has carried on growing exponentially and we now know we are destroying the world like a species of unstoppable vermin.

That’s the truth Macfarlane is too scared to speak. It is the overpopulation of the entire human race which is killing the planet. Instead Macfarlane’s introduction takes the tired and lazy route of blaming everything bad in the world on the British and on their sense of ‘exceptionalism’. The Death of Grass is a gripping genre novel but with a lot of shocking moments and unexpected insights into human nature. Macfarlane does the unexpected subtleties and psychological disturbances of this book a disservice by pressing them into the service of his own lofty, woke, public school, snobbish progressivism.

It was precisely this kind of metropolitan urban elitism which is so dismissive of ‘British exceptionalism’ and contemptuous of ‘English values’, which mocks the English flag and loses no opportunity to slag off white people and their ‘institutional racism’, which hypocritically spews such unremitting criticism of the nation, language and history from which it has benefited so enormously, which helped deliver the 2016 Brexit vote from a huge number of ordinary people fed up of being patronised and despised and ignored and last year helped the incompetent and corrupt Conservative Party win huge swathes of the industrial north and gain a historic general election victory which will probably keep them in power for the rest of the decade.

So, far from being an apt introduction to Christopher’s sci fi classic, I take Macfarlane’s introduction to be a patronising insult.


Credit

The Death of Grass by John Christopher was published by Michael Joseph in 1956. All references are to the 2009 Penguin Classics paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ – until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small group of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism, in order to reach the safety of the remote valley where his brother owns a farm where they can plant non-grass crops and defend themselves
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but with two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger in the memory
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a century or so hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like Mothers into whose body a bewildered twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head; it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents the voice is real and belongs to a telepathic explorer from a distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

2010s

2019 Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns – sensitive and insightful biography with special emphasis on a) Wyndham’s wartime experiences first as a fire warden, then censor, then called up to serve in Normandy, and b) Wyndham’s women, the strong feminist thread which runs through all his works

Fuck America, or why the British cultural elite’s subservience to all things American is a form of cultural and political betrayal

Polemic – a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something

WHY are progressive publications like the Guardian and Independent and Huffington Post, and all the BBC TV and radio channels, and most other radio and TV stations and so many British-based culture websites, so in thrall to, so subservient to, so obsessed by the culture and politics of the United States of America – this shameful, ailing, failing, racist, global capitalist, violent, imperialist monster nation?

WHY are we subjected every year to the obsessive coverage of American movies and movie stars and the Golden Globes and the Oscars? American movies are consumer capitalism in its purest, most exploitative form.

WHY the endless TV programmes which send chefs, comedians and pop stars off on road trips to the same old destinations across America, or yet another tired documentary about the art scene or music or street life of New York or California?

WHY the endless American voices on radio and TV, on the news and in the papers?

WHY is it impossible to have any programmes or discussions about the internet or social media or artificial intelligence which are not dominated by American experts and American gurus? Does no-one in Britain know anything aboutn the internet?

SURELY the efforts of the progressive Left should be on REJECTING American influence – rejecting its violence and gun culture and political extremism and military imperialism and drug wars and grotesque prison population – rejecting American influence at every level and trying to sustain and extend traditional European values of social democracy?


Fuck America (a poem to be shouted through a megaphone on the model of Howl by Allen Ginsberg)

Fuck America with its screwed-up race relations, its black men shot on a weekly basis by its racist police.

Fuck America, proud possessor of the largest prison population in the world (2.2 million), disproportionately blacks and Hispanics.

Fuck America with its ridiculous war on drugs. President Nixon declared that war in 1971, has it succeeded in wiping out cocaine and heroin use?

Fuck America, world leader in opioid addiction.

Fuck America and its urban decay, entire cities like Detroit, Birmingham and Flint abandoned in smouldering ruins, urban wastelands, blighted generations.

Fuck America with its out-of-control gun culture, its high school massacres and the daily death toll among its feral street gangs.

Fuck America with its shameful healthcare system which condemns tens of millions of citizens to misery, unnecessary pain and early death.

Fuck America with its endless imperialist wars. The war in Afghanistan began in 2003 and is still ongoing. It is estimated to have cost $2 trillion and failed in almost all its objectives.

Fuck America with its hypertrophic consumer capitalism, its creation of entirely false needs and wants, its marketing of junk food, junk music and junk movies to screw money out of a glamour-dazzled population of moronic drones.

Fuck America and the ever-deeper penetration of our private lives and identities and activities by its creepy social media, phone and internet giants. Fuck Amazon, Facebook and Google and their grotesque evasion of tax in their host countries.

Fuck American universities with their promotion of woke culture, their extreme and angry versions of feminism, black and gay rights, which originate in the uniquely exaggerated hypermasculinity of their absurd Hollywood macho stereotypes and the horrors of American slavery – an extreme and polarising culture war which has generated a litany of abusive terms – ‘pale, male and stale’, ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white male rage’, ‘the male gaze’, ‘mansplaining’, ‘whitesplaining’ – which have not brought about a peaceful happy society but serve solely to fuel the toxic animosities between the embittered minorities of an increasingly fragmented society.

Fuck America with its rotten political culture, the paralysing political polarisation which regularly brings the entire government to the brink of collapse, with its Tea Party and its Moral Majority and its President Trump. Nations get the leaders they deserve and so America has awarded itself a bullshit artist, a dumb-ass, know-nothing, braggart, pussy-grabbing bully-boy. Well, they deserve him but he’s nothing to do with me. I didn’t vote for him. He doesn’t rule me. Like all other Americans, he can fuck off.

It’s a disgusting indictment of a bloated, decadent, failing state.

So WHY ON EARTH are so many ‘progressive’ media outlets, artists, writers and gallery curators so in thrall to this monstrous, corrupt, violent and immoral rotting empire?


References

The American War on Terror

Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and Linda Bilmes of Harvard University, have stated the total costs of the Iraq War on the US economy will be three trillion dollars and possibly more, in their book The Three Trillion Dollar War published in March 2008. This estimate does not include the cost to the rest of the world, or to Iraq. (Financial cost of the Iraq War)

Between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in the United States’ post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars)

The cost of nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan will amount to more than $2 trillion. Was the money well spent? There is little to show for it. The Taliban control much of the country. Afghanistan remains one of the world’s largest sources of refugees and migrants. More than 2,400 American soldiers and more than 38,000 Afghan civilians have died. (What Did the U.S. Get for $2 trillion in Afghanistan?)

American Torture

‘After the U.S. dismissed United Nations concerns about torture in 2006, one UK judge observed, “America’s idea of what is torture … does not appear to coincide with that of most civilized nations.”‘ (Torture and the United States)

American Drone Attacks

The Intercept magazine reported, ‘Between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes [in northeastern Afghanistan] killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.’

During President Obama’s presidency, the use of drone strikes dramatically increased compared to their use under the Bush administration. This was the unforeseen result of Obama’s election pledges not to risk US servicemen’s lives, to reduce the costs of America’s terror wars, and to be more effective.

Black men shot by police in America

The American Prison Population

The United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population but houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, some 2.2 million prisoners, 60% of them black or Hispanic, giving it the highest incarceration rate, per head, of any country in the world. The Land of the Free is more accurately described as the Land of the Locked-Up. (Comparison of United States incarceration rate with other countries)

American Drug addiction

‘The number of people suffering from addiction in America is astounding.’ (Statistics on Drug Addiction)

The American Opioid epidemic

Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. (Opioid Overdose Crisis)

American Urban decay

Motor City Industrial Park

An abandoned car company plant known as Motor City Industrial Park, Detroit (2008)

Extreme poverty in America

An estimated 41 million Americans live in poverty. (A journey through a land of extreme poverty: welcome to America)

American Gun culture

‘The gun culture of the United States can be considered unique among developed countries in terms of the large number of firearms owned by civilians, generally permissive regulations, and high levels of gun violence.’ (Gun culture in the United States)

American Mass shootings

Comparing deaths from terrorist attack with deaths from Americans shooting each other (and themselves)

‘For every one American killed by an act of terror in the United States or abroad in 2014, more than 1,049 died because of guns. Using numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we found that from 2001 to 2014, 440,095 people died by firearms on US soil… This data covered all manners of death, including homicide, accident and suicide. According to the US State Department, the number of US citizens killed overseas as a result of incidents of terrorism from 2001 to 2014 was 369. In addition, we compiled all terrorism incidents inside the United States and found that between 2001 and 2014, there were 3,043 people killed in domestic acts of terrorism. This brings the total to 3,412.’

So: from 2001 to 2014 3,412 deaths from terrorism (almost all in 9/11); over the same period, 440,095 gun-related deaths. (CNN: American deaths in terrorism vs. gun violence in one graph) Does America declare a three trillion dollar war on guns? Nope.

American Healthcare

‘About 44 million people in this country have no health insurance, and another 38 million have inadequate health insurance. This means that nearly one-third of Americans face each day without the security of knowing that, if and when they need it, medical care is available to them and their families.’ (Healthcare crisis)

‘Americans spend twice per capita what France spends on health care, but their life expectancy is four years shorter, their rates of maternal and infant death are almost twice as high, and, unlike the French, Americans leave 30 million people uninsured. The amount Americans spend unnecessarily on health care weighs more heavily on their economy, Case and Deaton write, than the Versailles Treaty reparations did on Germany’s in the 1920s.’ (Left Behind by Helen Epstein)

American Junk Food

‘Obesity rates in the United States are the highest in the world.’ (Obesity in the United States)


So

So WHY are British curators so slavishly in thrall to American painters, sculptures, artists, photographers, novelists, playwrights and – above all – film-makers?

Because they’re so much richer, more glamorous, more fun and more successful than the handful of British artists depicting the gloomy, shabby British scene?

In my experience, British film and documentary makers, writers and commentators, artists and curators, are all far more familiar with the geography, look and feel and issues and restaurants of New York and Los Angeles than they are with Nottingham or Luton.

Here’s an anecdote:

In the week commencing Monday 20 February 2017 I was listening to radio 4’s World At One News which was doing yet another item about Brexit. The presenter, Martha Kearney, introduced a piece from Middlesbrough, where a reporter had gone to interview people because it had one of the highest Leave voters in the country. Anyway, Kearney introduced Middlesbrough as being in the North-West of England. Then we listened to the piece. But when we came back to Kearney 3 minutes later, she made a hurried apology. She explained that she should, of course, have said that Middlesbrough is in the North-East of England

Think about it for a moment. The researcher who researched the piece and wrote the link to it must have thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England. Any sub-editor who reviewed and checked the piece must have thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West. The editor of the whole programme presumably had sight of the piece and its link before approving it and so also thought that Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England. And then Kearney read the link out live on air and didn’t notice anything wrong, until – during the broadcast of the actual item – someone somewhere finally realised they’d made a mistake. Martha Kearney also thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England.

So nobody working on one of Radio 4’s flagship news programmes knows where in England Middlesbrough is.

How do people in Middlesbrough feel about this? Do you think it confirms everything they already believe about Londoners and the people in charge of everything?

But there’s a sweet coda to this story. The following week, on 26 February 2017 the 89th Academy Awards ceremony was held in Los Angeles. There was an embarrassing cock-up over the announcement of the Best Picture Award, with host Warren Beatty initially reading out the wrong result (saying La La Land had won, when it was in fact Moonlight).

The point is that the following Monday, 27 February, Radio 4’s World At One had an item on the story and who did they get to talk about it? Martha Kearney! And why? Because Martha just happened to have been attending the Oscars ceremony and was sitting in the audience when the cock-up happened. Why? Because Martha’s husband works in films and was an executive producer of the Academy Awards nominated short documentary Watani: My Homeland (about Syrian refugees, naturally).

And Martha’s background?

Martha Kearney was brought up in an academic environment; her father, the historian Hugh Kearney, taught first at Sussex and later at Edinburgh universities. She was educated at St Joseph’s Catholic School, Burgess Hill, before attending the independent Brighton and Hove High School and completing her secondary education at George Watson’s Ladies College in Edinburgh (a private school with annual fees of £13,170.) From 1976 to 1980 she read classics at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

So: private school-educated BBC presenter Martha Kearney knows more about the Oscars and Los Angeles and the plight of Syrian refugees than she does about the geography of her own country.

For me this little nexus of events neatly crystalises the idea of a metropolitan, cultural and media élite. It combines an upper-middle-class, university-and-private school milieu – exactly the milieu John Gray and other analysts highlight as providing the core vote for the modern urban bourgeois Labour Party – with an everso earnest concern for fashionable ‘issues’ (Syrian refugees), a slavish adulation of American culture and awards and glamour and dazzle, and a chronic ignorance about the lives and experiences of people in the poorer provincial parts of her own country.

To summarise: in my opinion the British cultural élite’s slavish adulation of American life and values is intimately entwined with its ignorance of, and contempt for, the lives and opinions of the mass of their own countrymen and woman, and is a form of political and cultural betrayal.


Importing woke culture which is not appropriate to Britain

Obviously Britain has its own racism and sexism and homophobia which need to be addressed, but I want to make three points:

1. Britain is not America The two countries have very, very different histories. The history of American slavery, intrinsic to the development of the whole country and not abolished until 1865 and at the cost of one of the bloodiest wars of all time, is not the same as the history of black people in this country, who only began to arrive in significant numbers after the Second World War. The histories of masculinity and femininity in America were influenced after the war by the gross stereotypes promoted by Hollywood and American advertising and TV (John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe). These are not the same as the images of masculinity and femininity you find in British movies or popular of the same period (Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, Sylvia Sim).

These are just a handful of ways in which eliding the histories of these two very different countries leads to completely misleading results.

I’m not saying sexism, racism and homophobia don’t exist in Britain, Good God no. I’m trying to emphasise that addressing issues like sexism and racism and homophobia in Britain requires a detailed and accurate study of the specifically British circumstances under which they developed.

Trying to solve British problems with American solutions won’t work. Describing the British situation with American terminology won’t work. Which brings me to my second point:

2. American rhetoric inflames The wholesale importing of the extreme, angry and divisive woke rhetoric which has been invented and perfected on American university campuses inflames the situation in Britain without addressing the specifically British nature and the specifically British history of the problems.

3. Eliding American problems with British problems, and using American terminology and American political tropes to describe British history, British situations and British social problems leads inevitably to simplifying and stereotyping these problems.

For British feminists to say all British men in positions of power are like Harvey Weinstein is like me saying all women drivers are rubbish. It’s just a stupid stereotype. It doesn’t name names, or gather evidence, or begin court proceedings, or gain convictions, or lobby politicians, or draft legislation, or pass Acts of Parliament to address the issue. It’s just generalised abuse, and one more contribution to the sewer of toxic abuse which all public and political discourse is turning into, thanks to American social media.

Importing American social problems and American political rhetoric and American toxic abuse into the specifically British arena is not helping – it is only exacerbating the fragmentation of British society into an ever-growing number of permanently angry and aggrieved constituencies, a situation which is already at a toxic level in America, and getting steadily worse here.

Where does it all end? Well, what have all the efforts of a million woke American academics and writers and actors and film-makers and artists and photographers and feminists and black activists and LGBT+ campaigners led up to? A peaceful, liberated and enlightened land? No. To President Donald Trump.

WHY on earth would anyone think this is a culture to be touched with a long barge pole while wearing a hazchem suit, let alone imported wholesale and gleefully celebrated?

In my opinion it’s like importing the plague and saying, ‘Well they have it in America: we ought to have it here.’

Advertising posters on the tube today 27/2/2020

  • TINA: The Tina Turner musical
  • THE LION KING musical
  • 9 TO 5 the musical
  • THE BOOK OF MORMON musical
  • THRILLER the musical
  • WICKED the musical
  • PRETTY WOMAN the musical
  • TATE membership, promoted by an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn

Which is why, in this context and amid this company, when the curators of the Masculinities exhibition at the Barbican choose to promote it with a photo of a black man they may think they’re being radical and diverse: but all I notice is that their poster is featuring one more American man photographed by an American photographer to promote an exhibition stuffed with American cultural products, which takes its place alongside all the other American cultural imports which saturate our culture.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Recent British exhibitions celebrating American artists and photographers


Related blog posts

How students, academics, artists and galleries help to create a globalised, woke discourse which alienates ordinary people and hands political power to the Right

‘As polls have attested [traditional Labour voters] rejected Labour because it had become a party that derided everything they loved.’
(John Gray in The New Statesman)

As of January 2020, Labour has 580,000 registered members, giving it the largest membership of any party in Europe, and yet it has just suffered its worst election defeat since 1987. How do we reconcile these contradictory facts?

Trying to make sense of Labour’s catastrophic defeat in the 2019 General Election has prompted a flood of articles and analyses, most of which rightly focus on the distorting effects of Brexit. But I was fascinated to read several articles, by writers from the Left and the Right, which also attribute the defeat to more profound changes which have taken place in the Labour Party itself, that:

  • The decline of the traditional, manual-labouring working class, the decline in Trades Union membership and the increasing diversity of types of work and workplace, with the rise of part-time and zero hours contracts, now mean that the only section of society which Labour can entirely rely on is the vote of students, academics and middle-class, urban, university-educated progressives – writers, artists, film-makers, actors and the like – in other words, the cultural élite.
  • Students and academics and artists and film-makers are vastly more woke and concerned about the cultural issues which make up political correctness – feminism, #metoo, Black Lives Matter, LGBT+ issues and trans rights – these issues matter hugely more to them than to the rest of the population. Why? Because they’re well fed, they have the time, and the education.

1. ‘Why Labour Lost’ by John Curtice in The Spectator

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde and Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Social Research. His article in the Spectator (in fact extracts from a speech) is measured and cautious, but includes the following revealing statements:

Where does the [Labour] party go from here? Well, you certainly need to understand where you are at. This is no longer a party that particularly gains the support of working-class voters. Although it does still do relatively well in places that you might call working-class communities. This, at the moment, is a party that has young people, it has graduates, and their distinctive characteristic is that they are socially liberal. These are the people who are remain-y. These are people who are not concerned about immigration…

… now the party should run with the grain of what its got, which is young, socially liberal, university-educated voters

This is where source of the new members who flocked into the Labour Party as it became clear that Jeremy Corbyn was running for leadership in 2015: young, socially liberal, aware and radical students or former students, who elected and then re-elected the old school, radical Socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Image result for labour party membership graph

UK political party membership

So if it has such an enormous membership, why did Labour lose so badly? Obviously Brexit played a large part, but so – every single post mortem and account of anyone who canvassed on the doorsteps indicates – did the public’s profound dislike and distrust of Jeremy Corbyn himself.

To put in bluntly: the half million or so members of the Labour Party repeatedly voted for a leader who was shown time after time to be incompetent and unelectable. And in so doing cemented the shift from Labour being a party of the working class, to it becoming a party which mostly represents the bien-pensant, socially liberal, urban, professional middle classes.

2. ‘Why the Left Keep Losing’ by John Gray in the New Statesman

I very much enjoy Gray’s detached scepticism. Like me, he starts from the belief that humans are only another type of animal, mammals who happen to be able to stand up, speak and make things and as a result have developed an over-inflated sense of their own importance, but whose main achievement, in the long run, may turn out to be making planet earth uninhabitable.

Gray rightly gives pride of place to Brexit in this long analysis of what went wrong for Labour. But it is set in the context of a broader attack on the self-defeating progressive strain within the party.

He starts by enjoying the way the progressive liberal-minded politically correct have been shocked to discover that they don’t own the electorate and that things don’t appear to be smoothly trundling along fixed railway lines towards their version of a progressive Nirvana.

For the two wings of British progressivism – liberal centrism and Corbynite leftism – the election has been a profound shock. It is almost as if there was something in the contemporary scene they have failed to comprehend. They regard themselves as the embodiment of advancing modernity. Yet the pattern they imagined in history shows no signs of emerging. Any tendency to gradual improvement has given way to kaleidoscopic flux. Rather than tending towards some rational harmony, values are plural and contending. Political monotheism – the faith that only one political system can be right for all of humankind – has given way to inescapable pluralism. Progress has ceased to be the providential arc of history and instead become a prize snatched for a moment from the caprice of the gods.

He is describing that state of blank incomprehension and incredulity which we have seen all across the progressive cultural élite (writers, commentators, film-makers, actors, playwrights, poets, novelists and academics) ever since Leave won the Brexit referendum (23 June 2016).

The root cause is because progressives don’t understand that the majority of people are not like them – didn’t go to university, don’t agonise every day about the slave trade and trans rights, don’t have cushy office jobs writing books and articles.

Because many people in Britain struggle to earn enough to keep a roof over their heads and feed their children. Many people never read books or magazine articles and only read newspapers for the football and racing results. In fact many people in this country – up to 8 million adults, a fifth of the population – are functionally illiterate. (Adult Illiteracy In The UK)

Ignoring these most basic facts about the country they live in and the people they live among, progressives think everyone is like them, deep down, whether they know it or not – because progressives are convinced that their values are the only correct values and so must inevitably triumph.

Given this mindset, the only reason they can conceive for their repeated failures is that it’s all due to some right-wing conspiracy, or Russians manipulating the internet, or the first past the post system, or the patriarchy, or the influence of the right-wing media, or institutional racism, or any number of what are, in effect, paranoid conspiracy theories.

A much simpler explanation doesn’t occur to them: that the majority of the British people do actually pretty much understand their ideas and values and simply – reject them.

Gray makes a detour to demolish the progressive case for changing the electoral system, the case the Liberals and Social Democratic Party and then the Lib Dems have been making all my adult life.

Because they don’t understand the nature of the population of the country they live in, Gray says, it rarely crosses the progressive mind to consider that, if we introduced some other form of electoral system such as proportional representation, it would in all probability not usher in a multicultural Paradise, but might reveal the electorate as being even more right-wing than we had imagined. Progressives easily forget that in the 2014 election UKIP won nearly 4 million votes. If we had an elementary system of proportional representation, that would have given them 80 MPs!

Progressives talk of building the kind of majority they want, as if it somehow already latently exists. More likely, parties of the far right would set the political agenda, as they do throughout much of the continent. If you want a European-style voting system, you get a European style of politics.

Sceptics love ironies and Gray is a turbo-charged sceptic, he revels in paradoxes and ironic reversals. Thus he enjoys the idea that Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for modernising New Labour, for the glamorous appeal of a global economy and for the unlimited immigration which went with it, ended up shafting his own party.

New Labour’s unthinking embrace of globalisation and open borders produced the working-class revolt against economic liberalism and mobilised support for Brexit.

A key element of this has been the unforeseen consequence of Blair and Brown’s idea to send 50% of the British population to university.

The result over the past fifteen years or so has been a huge increase in the number of young people with degrees, people who – if they did a humanities degree, certainly – will have been exposed to an exhilarating mix of Western Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, post-structuralism and the whole gamut of progressive ideas which come under the rubric of ‘Theory’ or ‘Critical Theory’. (What is critical theory)

I feel confident of this terrain since this is precisely the exhilarating mix of ideas which I absorbed as an English student back in the 1980s, when we thought reading Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan and Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida would somehow sort out the Miners’ Strike and overthrow Mrs Thatcher, much like the rioting students of 1968 thought that reading Michel Foucault would usher in the Millennium.

But it didn’t, did it?

It turns out that clever students reading clever books – devoting months of your life to studying ‘the death of the author’, Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony or Derrida’s notion of deconstruction – doesn’t really change anything. And then they all go out into the real world and become lawyers and accountants. Or TV producers and writers. Or they remain in academia and teach this self-reinforcing and weirdly irrelevant ideology to a new generation of young acolytes.

Gray devotes a central section of his essay to the baleful impact which contemporary woke academia and the progressive ideology it promotes have had on actual politics.

If only people aged between 18 and 24 had voted in the general election, Corbyn would have won an enormous majority. No doubt this is partly because of Corbyn’s promise to abolish student tuition fees and the difficulties young people face in the housing and jobs markets. But their support for Corbyn is also a by-product of beliefs and values they have absorbed at school and university. According to the progressive ideology that has been instilled in them, the West is uniquely malignant, the ultimate source of injustice and oppression throughout the world, and Western power and values essentially illegitimate.

Humanities and social sciences teaching has been largely shaped by progressive thinking for generations, though other perspectives were previously tolerated. The metamorphosis of universities into centres of censorship and indoctrination is a more recent development, and with the expansion of higher education it has become politically significant. By over-enlarging the university system, Blair created the constituency that enabled the Corbynites to displace New Labour. No longer mainly a cult of intellectuals, as in Orwell’s time, progressivism has become the unthinking faith of millions of graduates.

When Labour voters switched to Johnson, they were surely moved by moral revulsion as well as their material interests. As polls have attested, they rejected Labour because it had become a party that derided everything they loved. Many referenced Corbyn’s support for regimes and movements that are violently hostile to the West. Some cited anti-Semitism as one of the evils their parents or grandparents had gone to war to defeat. For working class voters, Labour had set itself against patriotism and moral decency.

Compare and contrast Gray’s summary with this excerpt from an article by Toby Young, who did some canvassing for a friend standing as a Tory candidate in Newcastle. All the working class people he spoke to said they were going to vote Conservative, often for the first time in their lives. This was partly because many wanted to get Brexit done, but also:

Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have talked a good deal about winning back these working class voters, but his policy positions haven’t been designed to appeal to them. I’m not just talking about his ambivalence on Brexit – there’s a widespread feeling among voters who value flag, faith and family that Corbyn isn’t one of them. Before he became Labour leader in 2015, he was an energetic protestor against nearly every armed conflict Britain has been involved in since Suez, including the Falklands War. He’s also called for the abandonment of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, the withdrawal of the UK from NATO and the dismantling of our security services – not to mention declining to sing the National Anthem at a Battle of Britain service in 2015. From the point of view of many working class voters, for whom love of country is still a deeply felt emotion, Corbyn seems to side with the country’s enemies more often than he does with Britain. (Britain’s Labour Party Got Woke – And Now It’s Broke)

Immediately after the election I read an interview with a Labour activist in a northern constituency which was home of several army barracks of the British Army. She said many people considered Corbyn a traitor who was a more enthusiastic supporter of groups like Hamas and the IRA than of our own armed forces.

The discrepancy between how woke, over-educated commentators interpreted the Brexit vote and the reality on the ground was epitomised by disputes about whether it involved some kind of nostalgia for the British Empire. I read numerous articles by academics and progressive commentators saying Brexit was the result of entrenched racism and/or nostalgia for the days when Britain was Great.

But on Radio 4 I heard Ruth Smeeth, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, saying she’d been reading London-based, college-educated commentators claiming that the people who voted Brexit were nostalgic for the British Empire, and went on quite crossly to say people voting Brexit had nothing to do with the bloody British Empire which hardly any of them remember…

It’s because where they live there’s widespread unemployment, lack of housing, the schools are poor, the infrastructure is falling to pieces and they just think they’ve been ignored and taken for granted by London politicians for too long. And being told they’re ignorant white racist imperialist chavs by posh London liberals doesn’t exactly help.

This is the problem Rebecca Long-Bailey tried to address a few weeks ago when she called for a patriotic progressivism. She had obviously seen how Corbyn’s support for Britain’s enemies lost him huge swathes of working class support, the support of not only soldiers and sailors and air force personnel, but all the families of those people, the average squaddie and seaman who have often come from rough working class backgrounds and for whom a career in the services, with the training which goes along with it, is a welcome way out of a life of low expectations.

But on ‘patriotism’ Long-Bailey is caught between two forces, the common sense views of the majority of the British public and the hyper-liberal progressive values of the modern Labour Party’s middle-class and student base. Just as she is on transgender rights and anti-Semitism and dwelling endlessly on the evils of the slave trade – because the majority of the population doesn’t hold these views, but the majority of the Labour Party’s young, indoctrinated, politically correct students and graduates (the ones John Gray describes) very powerfully do hold all these views.

They have been taught by their lecturers and professors that the British Empire was the worst thing in world history, worse than the Nazis and Stalin and Pol Pot, and that Britain only has any industry or prosperity because of the slave trade, and that all British institutions (starting with the police, the army and the judiciary) are institutionally racist and sexist – just as they think trans rights are one of the key issues of our time, and are vehemently anti-Israel and pro-Palestine – the attitude which lies behind the lamentable rise of anti-Semitism in the modern Labour Party.

Here’s an excerpt from an article in GQ lamenting the big hole Labour has dug for itself by identifying with progressive anti-patriotism, and essentially agreeing with the John Gray and Toby Young analyses:

Much has been made of Labour leadership hopeful Long-Bailey’s reference to “progressive patriotism”, a phrase which wants to have its cake and eat it, but ends up satisfying nobody. The fact that she felt compelled to mention at all it suggests a cultural jolt is underway. In this context, “progressive” is being used to soothe her suspicious supporters, to help them hold their noses when discussing something as demeaning as patriotism. For the millions of voters Labour has lost, patriotism is not and has never been a problem, so dressing it up in the frills of progressive politics not only neuters the idea, but insults their intelligence. (Boris Johnson has won the culture war… for now by George Chesterton in GQ magazine)

Who can forget Emily Thornberry’s tweeted photo of a white van parked outside a house displaying the English flag while she was out canvassing in Rochester, a photo which neatly embodied both the anti-patriotic instincts of the Labour high command, as well as their Islington middle-class contempt for the actual working classes they so ludicrously claim to represent.

Thornberry was forced to resign from the shadow cabinet as a result of this tweet and this image, but she was, of course, taken back into the cabinet a year later, and until very recently was one of the candidates to become next Labour leader. Who needs any additional proof of the Labour Party top cadres’ contempt for the ‘patriotic’, ‘white’, ‘working classes’, three terms which, in the last decade or so, have become terms of abuse within progressive ideology.

Image result for emily thornberry tweet

Towards the end of his essay Gray skewers politically correct progressives with a vengeance:

Liberal or Corbynite, the core of the progressivist cult is the belief that the values that have guided human civilisation to date, especially in the West, need to be junked. A new kind of society is required, which progressives will devise. They are equipped for this task with scraps of faux-Marxism and hyper-liberalism, from which they have assembled a world-view. They believed a majority of people would submit to their vision and follow them. Instead they have been ignored, while their world-view has melted down into a heap of trash. They retain their position in British institutions, but their self-image as the leaders of society has been badly shaken. It is only to be expected that many should be fixated on conspiracy theories, or otherwise unhinged. The feature of the contemporary scene progressives fail to understand, in the end, is themselves.

Given the grip of these progressive zealots over the party base, it is going to be difficult to create a coherent Labour Party ideology which can reunite its alienated working class voters, especially in the North, with the liberal, middle-class progressives of the bourgeois south.

And then Gray ends his essay with a calculated insult designed to infuriate the kind of woke progressives he is describing, suggesting that to a large extent their vehement espousal of women’s rights, black rights, Muslim rights, LGBT+ rights, trans rights and so on were in fact, in the end, the convenient posturing of cynical careerists who could see that it would help their careers as actors and film-makers and TV presenters and artists and gallery curators and so on to adopt the latest progressive views but who might, given the right-wing drift of the times, be prepared to abandon them… for the right price.

Faced with the possibility of a decade or more of Conservative rule, Britain’s cultural establishment may change its complexion. As well as an identity, progressive views have been a means of advancement in the academy, the arts and broadcast media. With the funding position of cultural institutions under review, the usefulness of progressivism as a career strategy may be about to decline.

As satirical insults go, this is quite funny, as funny as anything in Swift or Pope, but I think it’s wrong.

In my opinion progressives will continue painting themselves further and further into a virtuously woke corner, and in doing so permanently undermine the ability of a Left-of-centre government to ever return to power.

Conclusion

The point of this blog post is not to present conclusive evidence for my thesis. There is a world of evidence for countless other positions and I’ve mostly omitted the importance of Brexit which might turn out to have caused a one-off temporary alignment of British politics which then gently returns to its basic two-party model, all the commentators I’ve quoted say that is a possibility.

And I’m always ready to accept the possibility that I am simply wrong.

The main point of this brief commentary on John Gray’s article is more to explain to readers the thinking underlying my response to books and exhibitions which embody progressivee ideology i.e. which go out of their way to criticise Britain, Britain’s armed forces, the British Empire, white people, men, and straight people.

My points are:

1. The progressive academics and writers and artists and film-makers and gallery curators who use 1960s sociological terminology to attack British history, British heritage, the British Empire and British values, and who quote feminist and post-colonial rhetoric to attack men, the patriarchy, the male gaze, heteronormativity, Britain’s racist society and so on – they quite clearly think that History is On Their Side and that each one of their critical and minatory articles, works of art, films and exhibitions, are chipping away at the white, patriarchal, racist Establishment which, because of their efforts, will one day crumble away and reveal a multicultural Paradise in which the male gaze and inequality and manspreading have all been abolished.

2. But not only is this not very likely to happen, but the General Election of 2019 (and the Brexit vote and, if you want to drag the Yanks into it, the election of Donald Trump) suggest the precise opposite: that there is no such thing as history being on anyone’s side, that events take their own course regardless of anyone’s intentions, that their victory is far from inevitable. I entirely agree with Gray’s fundamental interpretation of human history which is things change, they change all the time and often at bewildering speed – but they don’t necessarily change for the better. To believe they do is a fundamentally Christian idea, based on the notion that History has a purpose and is heading towards a glorious endpoint, the Revolution, the Return of the King, the creation of a fair and just society.

But it’s not. It never has been and it never will. To believe otherwise, contrary to all the evidence of human history, is to have precisely the same kind of ‘faith’ as Christians and other religious believers do in their consoling ideologies. It is not, in other words, to live in the real world which we all actually inhabit.

3. And lastly, as the various writers quoted above suggest, there is plenty of evidence that, if anything, the metropolitan, liberal, progressive élite of artists and actors and film-makers and writers and gallery curators and their relentless insistence on woke issues actively alienates the majority of the population.

The majority of the population does not support its victim-grievance politics, its disproportionate concern for refugees and immigrants and every other minority cause, its excessive concern for the Palestinians and the black victims of the American police. Who gives a damn about all that (the overwhelmingly white, London, liberal middle classes, that’s who).

On the contrary most of the polling evidence shows that the majority of the British population just wants someone to sort out the NHS, and the police, and crack down on crime, and control immigration, and improve their local schools. Much the same issues, in other words, as have dominated all the general elections I can remember going back to the 1970s, and which a huge swathe of working class and Northern voters didn’t believe the Labour Party was capable of delivering.

The sound of losers

So it is this real-world political analysis which explains why, when I read yet another book by a left-wing academic attacking the British Empire or the slave trade i.e. fighting battles which were over generations or hundreds of years ago – or when I visit another exhibition about the wickedness of straight white men, or read another article explaining why I should be up in arms about the rapacious behaviour of Hollywood film producers, my first reaction is: this is the rhetoric of losers.

Not ‘losers’ in the playground, insult sense. I mean it is, quite literally, the rhetoric of the over-educated minority of the population who keep losing elections, who lost the last election, and the three before that, and the Brexit referendum. It is the sound of people who keep losing. Any way you look at it, the progressive Left’s record is appalling.

  • 2010 General Election = Conservative-led coalition
  • 2015 General Election = Conservative government
  • 2016 Leave wins the Brexit referendum
  • 2017 General Election = Conservative government
  • 2019 General Election = Conservative government

In order to win elections in a modern Western country you need to build coalitions and reach out to people, all kinds of people, imperfect people, people you don’t like or whose values you may not share or actively oppose, in order to assemble what is called ‘a majority’.

The woke insistence on an utterly pure, unstained and uncontaminated virtue – a kind of political virginity test – militates against this ever happening.

So all this explains why, when I visited the Barbican gallery’s exhibition Masculinities: Liberation through Photography and read its wall labels:

  • attacking traditional notions of masculinity
  • attacking men for running the Patriarchy and for their male gaze and for their manspreading and mansplaining and their toxic masculinity (in case you think I’m exaggerating, there is a section of the exhibition devoted to manspreading, and several displays devoted explicitly to toxic masculinity)
  • attacking white people for their institutional racism
  • attacking straight people for their homophobia
  • and attacking heteronormative people for their transphobia

I very simply concluded that this is not how you reach out and build alliances. This is not how you create coalitions. This is not how you win political power.

This is how you create a politically correct ivory tower, convinced of your own virtue and rectitude – this is how you propagate an ideology which objectifies, judges and demonises the majority of the population for what you claim to be its sins of sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and so on.

What I felt was that exhibitions like this are part of the much broader anti-British, anti-white, anti-straight, anti-family, anti-tradition cultural message being pumped out across all channels and all media by a London-based, university-educated, progressive élite, which worships American gay and black and feminist art, but which – when it came to the crunch – repelled huge numbers of traditional Labour Party voters and helped deliver the Conservative Party its biggest electoral victory since 1987.

Quite frankly this scares me. It scares me because I wonder whether the decline of the old manual-labouring working class, the disappearance of all the old heavy industries I grew up with – coalmining, steelmaking, shipbuilding, car manufactring – the casualisation and zero contract nature of so much modern work, the loss to Labour of the so-called Red Wall constituencies, the loss of Scotland dammit, combined with the sustained attack on all forms of traditional belief by the metropolitan cultural élite and the reduction of Labour support to the progressive middle classes of the big English cities – London, Bristol, Brighton…

All these social, economic and cultural changes hardly make me think we’re on the verge of some glorious multicultural, post-patriarchal age of Aquarius which progressive ideology promises if only we can smash the patriarchy and reclaim the night and free the nipple and stand up for trans rights and welcome tens of thousands more refugees into the country…

It all makes me wonder whether the Labour Party will ever hold power in Britain again.

And, more specifically, whether the kind of progressive art élite I’m describing is destined to become a permanent minority, stuck like a cracked record in its reverence of ‘transgressive’ and ‘rebel’ art by black and feminist and gay and trans artists from New York and Berlin and Seoul, luxuriating in its rhetoric of ‘subversion’ and ‘challenge’ and ‘interrogation’, while in reality being completely ignored by the great majority of the population or, if it makes any impression at all, simply contributing to the widespread sense that a snobbish progressive London élite is looking down its superior nose at the lifestyles, opinions and patriotic beliefs of the great majority of the working class, while hypocritically keeping all the money and power, the best schools, the private hospitals and the plum jobs for themselves.

The scale of the challenge


Related links

Here is an article by Owen Jones in the Guardian which soundly rejects the position I’ve sketched out. I agree with him that just because Labour lost is no reason to blame it on the various minorities which have achieved huge advances in freedom and reality over the past 30 or 40 years. I’m not blaming the minorities: I’m blaming the middle-class cultural élite which has prioritised trendy minority issues at the expense of the bread-and-butter issues which affect real communities the length and breadth of the land.

Also, analysing Jones’s piece, it is notable for being relatively light on psephological data i.e, quantitative or qualitative analysis of the 2019 election, and relies on going back to the 1970s and 1980s to dig up ancient examples of dated bigotry. In other words, it sounds good but unintentionally exposes the weakness of its own position. The 1970s were a long time ago. I was there. They were awful. But it’s 2020 now. Crapping on about 1970s bigotry is similar to crapping on about the British Empire or the slave trade – it’s enjoyable, makes us all feel virtuous, but avoids the really difficult task of explaining how you are going to tackle entrenched poverty and inequality NOW.

Related blog posts

The case against identity politics

Steve Bannon thinks identity politics are great for President Donald Trump. That’s what the president’s adviser told Robert Kuttner at the American Prospect. “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Anecdote

At the press launch of Masculinities at the Barbican I stood by the bar queuing for a free coffee. In front of me were two very posh art reviewers, laughing and joking about people they know in the art world. One was a man, one was a woman. They drank their coffee and set off into the exhibition where a massive introductory wall label asserts that GENDER is the decisive factor in power relations in Western society.

Is it, though? I was struck by the way both these posh people, man and woman, simply ignored the drone, the servant, the serf who poured them their coffees. When it was my turn, I asked him where he was from – Hungary, as it turned out – and tried out my one and only piece of Hungarian vocabulary on him: köszönöm.

There are well over a million East Europeans in the UK, performing all kinds of menial jobs, handing out coffee, working in warehouses, building, gardening, labouring. Bankers wives lunch together in the lovely restaurant at the Victoria and Albert Museum while foreign lackeys of both sexes serve and clean and wipe up after them.

So as you can tell, for me it’s not about gender; it’s about power and money and class, which can often be mixed up with gender, but just as often supersede and override it.

I’ve watched my friend Sarah, the banker’s wife, give her cleaner her tasks for the day and tell her au pair where to take the children, before going off to meet Gillian for coffee.

Maybe, as the feminists insist, all three of them are women and so share the same struggles and experience the same oppression, but it doesn’t look that way to me.

To me it looks as if one person in this situation has money, lots of money, and therefore lots of power over other people who have hardly any money and so have to obey the rich person. For me, in my opinion, money and power trump gender every time, and I am on the side of the people without money and without power.

Personal experience

I joined the Campaign For Homosexual Equality, although I am not myself gay, when I was 17 or 18 back in the late 1970s. I thought it was scandalous that gays and lesbians didn’t have the exact same rights as straight people, from the same age of consent to the same right to get married, have children etc. I used to like hanging round Windsor’s one gay pub where I was introduced by a gay activist to the colourful clientele and made a number of gay friends, far more fun and interesting than most of the boys and girls of my age.

At the same time, back in the late 70s, I attended Rock Against Racism marches and gigs, although I am not myself black. Again, I thought all kinds of legal and social discrimination against black people were disgusting and needed to be campaigned against, so I signed petitions and went on marches chanting lots of slogans.

Why identity politics is bad

1. Identity politics creates an equal and opposite reaction God knows how many articles I’ve read by ‘angry’ feminists, incensed by this, that or the other latest outrage against women.

And articles by angry Muslims, outraged by discrimination and Islamophobia, like Baroness Warsi.

And by angry black activists, outraged by racism and discrimination against persons of colour, like David Lammy.

And by angry Jews, outraged by anti-semitism, like Margaret Hodge.

But as they stoke a bottomless swamp of anger, none of these people seem to have considered two obvious points:

1. If you promote anger, permanent anger, about every single perceived insult and slight against every single section of society, you are, eventually, in effect, promoting an angry society. When I read puzzled articles in the liberal press wondering why society has suddenly become so angry, I reflect that at least part of the reason might be that you’ve been printing articles encouraging all women, all blacks, all Muslims, all gays and lesbians, and every other definable minority, to be as angry as possible.

2. What makes you think your anger is more righteous and holy than the anger of your opponents? The last decade or so has seen the new rise of ‘white anger’, in the States, in Australasia and across Europe. Why the surprise? If you demonise, mock, insult and abuse white people – and especially white men – as institutionally sexist, misogynist, racist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic, pathetic losers nostalgic for the vanished days of empire, well, why on earth would you be surprised if eventually this long-suffering minority (white men are a minority of the population in all these countries) might themselves develop a sense of grievance and get fed up of being insulted, blamed and abused all the time.

Hence the right-wing, and sometimes very right-wing movements, which have sprung up in the last decade or so all around the developed world, and especially in Eastern Europe.

I’m not in favour of these groups and parties, far from it. I’m just surprised that the hordes of identity politicians railing endlessly against men and white people are surprised that eventually these much-vilified men (all those mansplaining, manspreading, misogynist bastards), and these much-abused white people (the white racist, imperialist, whitesplaining bastards), have kicked back, set up their own political parties, and refuse to take it any more.

Why does it come as a surprise that they will begin writing and talking about their identities and their traditions and their communities and how they feel increasingly under threat from a globalised, neo-liberal economic order and its handmaiden, the globalised rhetoric of identity politics. In fact many of these post-industrial communities have had the stuffing kicked out of them over the past 30 years and are right be angry.

The great irony of our times is that woke identity politicians have created their nemesis, their mirror image. Western societies are drenched in feminist and politically correct rhetoric to an unprecedented degree. Which newspaper today doesn’t have an article about the terrible misogyny that all women have to face and the racism that all blacks have to face and the Islamophobia that all Muslims have to face and the homophobia that all gay people have to face.

In fact, more women, blacks and Asians, gays and lesbians are in positions of power and influence than ever before in world history, and has the result been the birth of a new, peaceful, calm and content society?

No. The exact opposite. It has resulted in the flowering of the Far Right: Trump, Brexit, the AfD, Five Star, Vox, Viktor Orban, and so on. In the European Parliament, nine far-right parties have formed a new bloc, and its name is: Identity and Democracy.

It turns out that the Left, the woke, and the politically correct do not have a monopoly on the rhetoric and discourse of identity. Other people can be angry about their identities and their communities and their beliefs being mocked and vilified, too.

So now all those angry black people and feminists and Muslims and LGBT+ activists I’ve been reading about for decades haven been joined by loads of angry white nationalists and racists and xenophobes and far-right conservatives.

As I’ve said, I have no truck with angry white nationalists and racists and xenophobes and far-right conservatives. I’m just stepping back, surveying the scene and marvelling at what a wonderful world we have created.

2. Identity politics divides and polarises society For a preview of how this will pan out, look at America, home of the most advanced feminist and BAME civil rights movements in the world. Is it, as a result, the most peaceful, calm and relaxed society in the West? No. It is the most poisonously divided Western society, where political opponents can’t even speak to each other, where all sides devote their time to sniffing out each other’s politically incorrect texts or tweets or speeches or jokes, and where the complete inability top laugh or joke about any of these issues is contributing to a toxic cultural atmosphere in which identity-motivated violence is growing. America is without doubt the most violent and socially divided country in the OECD.

3. Identity politics consumes conventional politics Back in the United Kingdom, look at the trouble caused in the Labour Party by the accusations about its supposedly institutional anti-semitism and, right now, the trouble leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey has got herself into on the tricky issue of transgender rights.

It’s difficult to take a view on transgender rights which someone else can’t criticise as bigoted and transphobic, or bigoted and misogynist. If you support the right of transwomen to call themselves women you upset quite a few feminists who insist they aren’t and they certainly shouldn’t be allowed into women-only spaces like changing rooms. But if you back this point of view, you are instantly accused of transphobia.

Trans rights are, in a sense, a quintessence of politically correct, identity politics because a really pure, ‘correct’ view which pleases all sides, is actually impossible. It calls for a degree of ‘correctness’ which isn’t actually achievable by mere mortals. Thus it will continue to bedevil the Left for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, is the net effect of all these squabbles over race and gender the creation of a happier society more at peace with itself?

No. The most obvious result is to wound anyone who gets caught up in these kinds of arguments because they are so poisonous and, once you’re embroiled in these sorts of controversies, they are extremely difficult to wriggle out of.

Will the Labour Party ever, ever again, be free of the taint of anti-Semitism which has it has been so comprehensively accused of?

And this is how you end up with people like Steven Bannon quoted as saying how great it is for people like him (former White House Chief Strategist to President Trump) when the Left go on about race and identity and gender – because it means they’ve handed over the entire debate about how to run the economy, how to tax and spend, about business and transport, about resources and the environment, about social and foreign policy, in fact most of the business of actual government, over to their opponents.

Identity politics means the Left becomes evermore focused on a handful of extremely contentious issues, and loses sight of all the larger problems which affect most people most of the time and which they look (often pretty reluctantly) to politicians to fix.

Modern, urban, university-educated identity politics has helped to make the Left seem totally irrelevant to the lives of huge numbers of people.

4. Identity politics condemns you to political impotence Thus the Left loses at a high, political and governmental level, but it also loses demographically, in terms of simple arithmetic.

Everyone in the woke bubble agrees with everyone else in the bubble, as I realised when I watched the very woke curator of the Masculinities exhibition at the Barbican explaining the very woke attitude of all the artists represented to the very woke audience of art journalists and critics who went off and wrote their very woke reviews to be read by the very woke readers of The Guardian etc.

But it is a minority bubble. Utterly pure social justice warriors – those who have such impeccably correct views that they cannot be criticised for islamophobia, racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, sexism or transphobia – are in a small minority.

They may – like on-message art gallery curators – share their immaculately progressive views with all the other artists and gallery curators and lime-minded progressives in America and Canada, and across Latin America and Australasia and Europe and Africa. How wonderful that all these like-minded people share the same values and support the same important causes!

But hardly anyone else does.

Jo Swinson wouldn’t stop telling everyone how proud she was to be the first woman leader of the Liberal Party, and I listened to a radio 4 interview just three days before the 2019 General Election, in which she spoke for nearly ten minutes about the burning importance of trans rights.

The result? The Liberal Party was slaughtered in the last general election and Swinson lost her own seat. So much for holding immaculately progressive views. For sure that makes you an immaculately progressive person, and it’s always lovely to be an angel and on the side of the good and the pure and the true. But in a democratic system, insisting on views held by only a tiny minority, means you lose and lose badly.

Look at the contenders to be the Democratic Presidential candidate against Donald Trump and how they’re using race and gender to tear each other to pieces. Elizabeth Warren is going to lose but not before she accuses all the men around her of being sexist pigs, abusers, harassers and misogynists, and a lot of that mud will stick.

Or look at the contenders for the Labour Party leadership struggling to address the issues of anti-semitism, racism and sexism. Any policies about the economy or industry or healthcare or the NHS or crime or immigration are difficult to make out through the blizzard of accusations of sexism and racism and transphobia which they’re throwing at each other.

And meanwhile, watch the bankers and heads of multinational corporations carry on wrecking the environment, paying their immigrant staff a pittance, and awarding themselves multi-million pound pay rises, happy in the knowledge that the Left is tearing itself to pieces with needless and bitter recriminations about which of them is more sexist or more racist than the other.

Watch Donald Trump and Boris Johnson sit back, rubbing their hands and laughing their heads off.

Conclusion

So my position is not that I’m against equality for women, LGBTG+ people, blacks, Muslims and so on. I am in favour of all these causes, and continue to vote for left-of-centre parties. But I think the never-ending rise of identity politics will:

  • in the name of ‘progressive’ values, permanently weaken the Left as a viable political force
  • lead to the permanent entrenchment of the Right in power
  • continue to create a more fractious, fragmented, angry and violent society
  • leaving huge corporations and the banks completely free to carry on business as usual

So this is the context for my reaction to an art exhibition like Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography at the Barbican, which I reviewed yesterday.

My reaction isn’t a knee-jerk negativity prompted because, as a white man, I feel somehow threatened by all these black artists or gay artists or feminist artists. I’m not threatened by them at all. I campaigned for black and gay causes when I was a teenager, and I really liked a lot of the black and gay and feminist art on display.

But taken as a political gesture, if the curators really take the word ‘politics’ in its simplest core sense, as ‘the activities associated with the governance of a country’, then I fear that exhibitions like this which are drenched in a rhetoric which attacks all men and all white people and all straight people, and blames them for all the injustices of the past – is in practice going to alienate the majority of the population, exacerbate social divisions, merely entrench the blinkered groupthink of a small minority of the hyper-woke metropolitan middle classes, and is part of the general cultural movement which is rendering progressive politics more and more irrelevant to most people’s day-to-day concerns.

The Barbican exhibition is drenched in the kind of righteous rhetoric which at best leaves most people cold, at worst actively insults some of the people we need on our side, and which paints the Left into an increasingly irrelevant corner and condemns it to perpetual powerlessness.

So it this analysis of the politics of the real, wider world, which lies behind my refusal simply to endorse all the anti-white, anti-male discourse enshrined in an exhibition like Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography.

I broadly support the political aims of all the groups represented (women, blacks, LGBT+). But I fear that the self-congratulatory elitism and the aggressively anti-mainstream rhetoric of the commentary and discourse which saturate exhibitions like this is not part of the solution, but are contributing to a really serious, long-term social and political crisis.


Articles against identity politics

Related blog posts

Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Across the bridge over the Serpentine is the second Serpentine Gallery, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery converted from a 200-year-old former gunpowder store by legendary architect Zaha Hadid. For the time being the Serpentine Gallery seems to be retaining its link with the Sackler family who are under attack in the States for owning one of the largest manufacturers of addictive opioid drugs, although other British galleries are severing their links with the controversial family.

This knowledge adds a pleasing level of irony to the exhibition on show here, for the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is currently hosting a FREE exhibition of work by Patrick Staff (a young British artist born in 1987) which very much focuses on The Body. To quote the gallery introduction:

Through a varied and interdisciplinary body of work, Patrick Staff interrogates notion of discipline, dissent, labour and queer identity. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Staff examines the ways in which history, technology, capitalism and the law have fundamentally transformed the way we regard the body today, with a particular focus on gender, debility and biopolitics.

Oh, I thought, another contemporary artist kvetching about gender.

The corridors

The gunpowder store was originally at the core of the building, protected by double thickness walls, with a square walkway around the two inner, rectangular powder stores, each not much bigger than a long domestic living room.

By far the best thing in this installation is that the walkways around the central rooms have had their floors covered with a yellow metal and the fluorescent lights overhead given a yellowy-green tinge. The effect is to make you feel like you’re walking through the set of a science fiction film or maybe some kind of specialist industrial facility. This is pleasingly freaky.

Installation view of Patrick Staff: On Venus at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Note the two oil drums. Several of these are placed in each of the four corridors. If you look above the head of the woman in my photo you can see a latticework of very small-bore pipes suspended from the ceiling. This network carries on round all the corridors and where they pass over a drum, they have a tap which is set to allow a steady drip-drip of fluids down into each drum. What fluids?

A piping network suspended from the ceiling slowly drips a mixture of natural and synthetic acids into steel barrels, suggestive of sharing intimate fluids, or the trafficking of viruses or data.

It isn’t suggestive of bodily fluids, though, is it? It’s suggestive of offices or factories where the overhead air conditioning or other piping has sprung a leak and facilities management have put in a bucket or other container to catch the drips while they phone a plumber.

The Ian Huntley room

Remember Ian Huntley? He was convicted of murdering two 10-year-old girls in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in August 2002, hence the name the papers gave the case, The Soham Murders, and sentenced to a minimum term of 40 years in prison.

Anyway, in April 2018 the Daily Star newspaper reported that Huntley wanted to transition to a woman, wore a blonde wig in prison and insisted on being called Nicola. The story was picked up by other tabloids with a predictable hurricane of outrage from the highly-paid bigots who write for those papers.

Only nine months later did pressure from Huntley himself force the Star to retract the story and admit that it was entirely false in every detail. This led to a storm of comment from the other side, from queer activists, the Guardian and some left-wing politicians, lamenting the way the story was just one among a steady stream of stories designed to criticise, outlaw and ridicule trans people.

So Patrick Staff has taken front covers from the tabs who published the story, along with some of the later retractions and turned them into detailed etchings on metal, reminiscent to us old guys of the kind of heavy metal type that old-style newspapers were set in before the print revolution of the 1980.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

My reaction to this was:

1. I’m not that thrilled about being reminded of Huntley and his pointless stupid murder of two beautiful young girls and the awful, awful suffering their parents must have gone through, especially as Huntley lied his head off to the investigating police for two long weeks of one of the most intensive searches in British police history.

2. I am a little staggered that a grown man is telling us that tabloid newspapers make things up. I thought that was the most obvious thing about them, that the tabloids make things up and pander to the crudest prejudices and stereotypes, turn the complex world into a series of cartoons and clichés in order to cater to the basest instincts of their badly educated readers. I’ve known that for nearly fifty years.

If they are having a go at transgender people, now, they’re only the latest in a long line of groups who have been victimised and attacked on the basis of their gender (Page 3 girls) or race (blacks) or marital status (single mums) or disabilities (welfare scroungers) and so on. They are a poisonous blight on the country but they cannot be defeated because lots of people identify with their values and way of thinking. And that is because a lot of people in this country are pitifully badly educated, with not only the reading age but the immaturity and general stupidity of a nine-year-old.

Good luck changing that. Millions of left-wing intellectuals, politicians and activists have tried throughout my lifetime. That said, change can be achieved. The Sun in particular was virulently homophobic when I was a young man and nowadays reports on Elton John’s marriage to David Furnish or any other gay or lesbian marriage in more or less factual terms.

Social attitudes can be changed and liberalised. But I’m not sure how much impact an art installation like this can have.

On Venus

The work On Venus is in the other powder room and consists of a screen hanging from the ceiling on which two films are projected.

One consists of scratched, warped and overlapping footage of the most disgusting aspects of factory farming, showing the management of animal commodities such as urine, semen, skins and furs. I glimpsed a few shots of cows in cramped pens having their stretched udders brutally sucked dry by metal pumps so we can have the fresh milk to pour onto our organic porridge every morning.

If you didn’t realise that most livestock farming is disgusting and immoral, you are an idiot. That’s what vegetarians have been saying for fifty years or more, and countless books, articles and documentaries have revealed over and over again, with little practical effect.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

The second film is a poem describing life on the planet Venus, conceived as:

“a state of non-life or near-death, a queer state of being that is volatile and in constant metamorphosis, infused with the violence of pressure and heat, destructive winds and the disorienting lapse of day into night.”

Conclusion

These are big issues he’s taking on. After years and years of political engagement I have reached a stage of exhaustion and complete detachment. Maybe Trump will be re-elected, maybe he won’t. Maybe Boris’s crew will make a go of Brexit, maybe they won’t. So many things have happened during my life, that I have realised a kind of informed, observant detachment is the best way to preserve your sanity.

Otherwise you end up like my left-wing friends and all the columnists and commentators in the Guardian, Independent, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, New Statesman, and all the curators of contemporary art, who ever since the referendum then election of Trump have lived in a state of permanent outrage and anger.

– I support the transgender movement, which has come out of nowhere in the past few years but does appear to be a genuine thing – not least because several of my daughter’s friends, and several of my middle-aged friends’ young adult children, wish to change gender. Fine.

– I support vegetarianism and would support any attempts to make farming less disgusting and less destructive of the environment.

– I’d sort of support banning all the tabloid media and their vicious, immoral, muck-raking, phone-hacking journalism – although that is never going to happen.

But Staff is clearly going beyond these specific topical issues, to ask bigger questions, or make interesting connections, or prompt more lateral thoughts – thoughts which you can sense but are just out of reach of the conscious mind, or the way we usually think about the world.

Something to do with what moral judgments are acceptable and unacceptable. Something to do with the power the tabloids exercise in defining reality for their audiences. But these are just sub-sets of the bigger question of how we define what is human and what is not, and apply treatments which are obviously inhumane and degrading to pretty much every other life form but ourselves – and even to ourselves as well.

How we long for an alien civilisation to come down from the stars and teach us how to live properly and run our societies like decent people. Quite clearly, we’re incapable of doing so ourselves.

Staff may be pushing towards some kind of change of attitudes and culture – but along with John Gray, I’ve come to believe that human nature doesn’t change. Cultural attitudes may, in some places, and for a while, be rerouted and redrawn – but the fundamental attributes of human nature don’t change.

Liberals castigate Trump and Johnson for their alleged racism or misogyny (defined as their supposed hatred of BAME people or women) but you only have to dip a little into left-wing print or social media to find equal or greater levels of anger vented against all conservatives or all republicans or all men or all white people.

Like Gray, I think a kind of informed detachment is the only practical attitude to exercise in our times, the only way to prevent yourself from being drawn into the steaming cesspit of anger which almost all political and public discourse seems to be becoming.

Patrick Staff talks about his Serpentine show

What I learned from Staff’s own introduction was a different take from actually visiting it.

I like his point that everyone lives as though everything is alright with the world when, in fact, it really isn’t. Seen from this perspective the topics he’s chosen here are just some of the things which have upset him or which he thinks lift the veil on our respectable passivity and reveal the intertwined horrors beneath.

Seen in this way, the four elements of the exhibition – factory corridor with leaking fluids, the tabloid lies about Ian Huntley which are also smears on trans people, factory farming, and the queer poem about Venus – become more like personal symbols than political statements – moments of horrified insight, from which he has constructed a personal mythology.

I find this a much more fruitful way of thinking about the installation, because it is the way many poets work, creating a network of everyday imagery which they manage to imbue with supercharged imaginative energy, and mould into a personal mythology.

The question then becomes why didn’t he or the curators explain this a bit more clearly on the one and only wall label by the front door which introduces the show and which was full of the usual curator boilerplate about bodies and gender and made Staff sound just like every other modern artist — when I had already begun to feel – and this video crystallises – the ways in which he’s not, in which he’s distinctive and interesting.

Having thought my way all around the issues and ideas and surrendered to the sensual impact of the installation, I ended up liking it much more than my initial negative impressions.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Only Human by Martin Parr @ the National Portrait Gallery

Born in 1952 in Epsom, Martin Parr has become one of Britain’s most celebrated and successful photographers. He has achieved this by:

  1. being extremely prolific, having taken thousands of tip-top photographs which he has packaged into numerous books and projects and exhibitions (he has published more than one hundred books, exhibited internationally, was President of the highly respected Magnum photo agency from 2013–17, and recently established the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting work by British and Irish photographers)
  2. being an extremely good talker – the exhibition features an eight-minute-long video interview in which Parr confidently, affably and articulately explains his work (can’t find this on YouTube but if you search you’ll find plenty of examples of him being interviewed and chatting away like a favourite uncle)
  3. having established a style, a niche, a unique selling point and brand, namely large, colour photos of ordinary British people in crushingly ordinary, unposed situations, captured in a blunt, unvarnished, warts-and-all style
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Massive colour prints

In fact, leafing through the many books on sale in the shop, you realise that his early work, for example shooting chapelgoers in Yorkshire, consisted of relatively small, black-and-white prints. It’s only in the past ten years or so that switching to digital cameras has allowed Parr to make much bigger images, with digital clarity and colour.

And it is hosts of these massive, colour prints of hundreds of images of the great British public, caught in casual moments, going about a wide range of odd, quirky and endearing activities, or just being ugly, fat, old, and scruffy – which make up the show.

Nice, France, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Humorous presentation

The exhibition fills the 14 or so rooms of the National Portrait Gallery’s main downstairs gallery space but the first thing to note is how Parr and the curators have made every effort to jazz it up in a humorous if rather downbeat way typical of the man and his love-hate relationship with the fabulous crapness of ordinary, everyday British culture. Thus:

Parr has always been interested in dancing, all kinds of dancing, and the big room devoted to shots of dancers – from punk to Goth, from gay pride to traditional Scottish dancing, to ballroom dancing to mosh pits at a metal concert – the room in which all these are hung is dominated by a slow-turning mirror ball projecting spangly facets on the walls and across the photos.

In the room devoted to beach life one entire wall is completely covered with a vast panorama of a beach absolutely packed with sunbathers in Argentina.

Installation view of the huge photo of Grandé Beach, Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 2014. Note the jokey deckchairs in front.

The Martin Parr café

Half way through the exhibition, the Portrait Gallery has turned a whole room into the Martin Parr café, not a stylish French joint with expresso machine, but a down at heel, fly-blown transport caff, with formica tables and those glass cases by the till which display a range of knackered looking Brandenburg cakes.

You really can buy tea and cakes here (two teas and two pieces of cake for a tenner), or a pint of the ‘Only Human’ craft beer which has been created for the show, read a copy of the exhibition catalogue left on each table, or stare at the cheap TV in the corner which is showing a video of the Pet Shop Boys busking at various locations around London (which Parr himself directed), or just sit and chat.

Buy now while stocks last

The gallery shop has similarly had a complete makeover to look like a cluttered, low-budget emporium festooned with big yellow and red placards proclaiming ‘Pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap’, and ‘Special offer’, ‘Special sale price’, and they have deliberately created the tackiest merchandise they can imagine, including Martin Parr sandals, deckchairs, tea towels, as well as the usual fridge magnets, lapel badges and loads of books by this most prolific of photographers.

Parraphernalia

The first room, before you’ve even handed over your ticket, is jokily titled Parraphernalia:

As Parr’s fame has grown, interest in the commercialisation of his images, name and likeness has grown exponentially. Parr approaches these opportunities with the same creativity he applies to his photography. Early in his career, Parr experimented with alternative methods for presenting his photographs, such as transferring pictures onto ceramic plates and other everyday objects.

Thus you’ll find a wall festooned with t-shirts, pyjamas, tote bags, mugs, posters, plates and so on each covered with a characteristic Parr image.

Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Fotoescultura

Then there’s a room of fotoescultura. What is fotoescultura? I hear you ask. Well:

In 2009, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide introduced Parr to Bruno Eslava, an eighty-four year old Mexican folk artist, who was one of the last remaining practitioners of the art of fotoescultura (photo sculpture). Hand-carved in wood, and incorporating a photograph transferred onto shaped tin, fotoesculturas are traditionally used to showcase prized portrait photographs in the home, frequently, but not always, of deceased loved ones. Parr commissioned Eslava to produce a series of these playful and affectionate objects to draw attention to the disappearing art of fotoescultura in Mexico.

These take up a wall covered with little ledges on which perch odd-shaped wood carvings with various photos of Parr himself on them.

Installation view of fotoesculturas at Only Human by Martin Parr. Photo by the author

Oneness

And right next to these was a big screen showing the recent set of idents for BBC 1. I had no idea that Parr was involved in making these – although if you read the credit roll at the end you realise the whole thing was researched, produced and directed by quite a huge cast of TV professionals. Presumably he came up with the basic idea and researched the organisations.

In 2016, BBC Creative commissioned Parr to create a series of idents for BBC One – short films between programmes that identify the broadcaster – on the subject of British ‘oneness’. He subsequently travelled throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales photographing volunteer organisations and sport and hobby clubs, which he felt exemplified this quality. Parr’s evolving portrait of modern Britain shows people united by shared interests and passions, and reflects the diversity of communities living in the UK today.

For each subject, both a 30-second film and a still photograph were made. The films were all produced in the same format: participants start by being engaged in their activity seemingly unaware of the camera, pause briefly to face the camera, then return to the activity as if nothing ever happened.

You can watch them on Parr’s website.

Full list of rooms and themes

The rooms are divided by theme, namely:

  • Parraphernalia (bric a brac covered with Parr images)
  • Fotoesculturas & Autoportraits (fotoesculturas explained above; autoportraits are self portraits in the styles of other cultures, from Turkey, Thailand, the Soviet Union etc)
  • Oneness (the BBC One idents)
  • Celebrity (photos of famous people e.g. Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry)
  • Grand Slam (he likes photographing the crowds at tennis tournaments)
  • Everybody Dance Now (people dancing, from Goth mosh pits to Scottish Ceilidhs)
  • Beside the Seaside (he’s visited every major seaside resort in the UK photographing the fat and pasty British at play)
  • Ordinary Portraits
  • British Abroad (pasty-faced ex-pats in Africa)
  • A Day at the Races (pasty-faced, tackily-dressed Brits at the races)
  • Interview (eight-minute video interview)
  • Café (complete with Martin Parr beer)
  • Britain in the time of Brexit (for which he went to Leave-voting areas and photographed tattooed chavs and their pit bull terriers)
  • The Establishment (quaint ceremonies of the City of London, Oxbridge students, Her Majesty the Queen)

The Queen visiting the Livery Hall of the Drapers’ Livery Company for their 650th Anniversary, the City of London, London, England, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Identity

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I welcome the weird and wonderful in art (and music and literature) – in fact, on the whole, I am more disposed to 20th and 21st century art than to classical (Renaissance to Victorian) art – nonetheless I am powerfully allergic to a lot of modern art curation, commentary and scholarly artspeak.

This is because I find it so limiting. Whereas the world is big and wide and weird, full of seven and a half billion squabbling, squealing, shagging, dying, fighting, working human beings – artspeak tends to reduce all artworks to the same three or four monotonously similar ‘issues’, namely:

  • gender (meaning all women are oppressed)
  • diversity (meaning all blacks and Muslims are oppressed)
  • same-sex desire (the polite, ladylike way of saying gay and lesbian sex: of course, all lesbians and gays and trans people are oppressed)
  • imperialism and colonialism (all colonial peoples and imperial subjects were oppressed)
  • and – sigh – identity (all the old, traditional categories of identity are being interrogated, questioned and transgressed)

It’s rare than any exhibition of a modern artist manages not to get trapped and wrapped, cribbed, cabined and confined, prepackaged and predigested, into one or other of these tidy, limiting and deadly dull categories.

Many modern artists go along with this handful of ‘ideas’ for the simple reason that they were educated at the same art schools as the art curators, and that this simple bundle of ideas appears to be all they were taught about the world.

About accounting, agriculture, applied mathematics, aquatic sciences, astronomy & planetary science, biochemistry, biology, business & commercial law, business management, chemistry, communication technologies, computing & IT, and a hundred and one other weird and wonderful subjects which the inhabitants of this crowded planet spend their time practicing and studying, they appear to know nothing.

No. Gender, diversity and identity appear to be the only ideas modern art is capable of ‘addressing’ and ‘interrogating’.

Unfortunately, Parr plays right into the hands of curators like this. Because he has spent so many years travelling round Britain photographing people in classic ‘British’ activities (pottering in allotments, dancing, at the beach, at sports tournaments or drinking at street parties), many of them with Union Jacks hanging in the background or round their necks – Parr’s entire oeuvre can, without so much as flexing a brain cell, be described as ‘an investigation into British identity in the age of Brexit’ or ‘an analysis of British identity in the era of multiculturalism’.

And the tired visitor consumes these exhausted truisms and clichés without missing a beat, without breaking a sweat, without the flicker of an idea troubling their minds. For example, see how this photo of bhangra dancers ‘raises questions of British identity.’

Bhangra dancers, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2017, commissioned by BBC One. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

The introduction and wall labels certainly don’t hold back:

This exhibition of new work, made in the UK and around the world, is a collection of individual portraits and Parr’s picture of our times. It is about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raises complex questions around both national and self-identity.

The portraits used were drawn from Parr’s Autoportraits series, also on view in this gallery. By transforming these pictures into shrine-like objects, Parr pokes fun at his own identity. At the
same time, he raises questions about the nature of photography, identity and memory.

Parr’s Autoportraits reflect his long-standing interest in travel and tourism, and highlight a rarely acknowledged niche in professional photography. As Parr moves from one absurd situation to the next, his pictures echo the ideals and aesthetics of the countries through which he moves, while inviting questions. If all photographs are illusions, can any portrait convey a sense of true identity?

Parr shows that our identities are revealed in part by how we spend our leisure time – the sports we watch, the players or teams we support, the way we celebrate victories or commiserate defeat.

These pictures might be called ‘environmental portraits’, images in which the identities of person and place intertwine. Do the clothes we wear, the groups we join, the careers we choose, or the hobbies we enthusiastically pursue, express our personality? Or is the converse true – does our participation in such things shape and define us?

The way we play, celebrate and enjoy our leisure time can reveal a lot about our identities. Questions of social status often sneak into the frame. Whether a glorious opportunity to put on your top hat and tails, or simply an excuse to have a flutter on the horses, this ‘sport of kings’ brings together people from many different walks of life.

The 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union is not only one of the biggest socio-political events of our time, it is also a curious manifestation of British identity. Politicians on both sides of the debate used the referendum to debate immigration and its impact on British society and culture. At times, this degenerated into a nationalistic argument for resisting change, rejecting the European way of doing things and returning to a more purely ‘British’ culture, however that might be defined.

But for me, somehow, the more this ‘issue’ of identity is mentioned, the more meaningless it becomes. Repeating a word over and over again doesn’t give it depth. As various philosophers and writers have pointed out, it tends to have the opposite effect and empty it of all meaning.

The commentary claims that Parr’s photographs are ‘about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raise complex questions around both national and self-identity.’

But do they? Do they really? Is a photo of some ordinary people standing at random on a beach ‘raising complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Or a photo of Grayson Perry, or Vivienne Westwood, or five black women sitting on the pavement at the Notting Hill carnival, or two blokes who work in a chain factory, or a couple of fisherman on a Cornish quayside, or toned and gorgeous men dancing at a gay nightclub, or a bunch of students at an Oxford party, or a photo of the Lady Mayoress of London, or of a bloke bending down to roll a bowls ball.

The Perry Family – daughter Florence, Philippa and Grayson, London, England, 2012. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Does this photo ‘raise complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

I just didn’t think see it. So there’s a lot of black people at the Notting Hill carnival, so Indians like dancing to bhangra music, so posh people go to private schools, so Parliament and the City of London still have loads of quaint ceremonies where people dress up in silly costumes.

And so Parr takes wonderfully off-kilter, unflattering and informal photos of all these things. But I don’t think his photos raise any questions at all. They just record things.

Take his photos of the British at the seaside, an extremely threadbare, hoary old cliché of a subject which has been covered by socially -minded photographers since at least the 1930s. Parr’s photos record the fact that British seaside resorts are often seedy, depressing places, the sea is freezing cold, it’s windy and sometimes rainy, and to compensate for the general air of failure, people wear silly hats, buy candy floss, and eat revolting Mr Whippy ice creams.

None of this raises any ‘complex questions’ at all. It seems to me to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Same goes for the last room in the show which ‘addresses’ ‘the Establishment’ and ‘interrogates’ notions of ‘privilege’ by taking photos of Oxford students, public school children and the Queen.

In all seriousness, can you think of a more tired and predictable, boring and clapped-out, old subject? Kids who go to private school are privileged? Oxford is full of braying public school toffs? As any kind of sociological ‘analysis’ or even journalistic statement, isn’t this the acme of obviousness?

Magdelene Ball, Cambridge, England, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

In other words, although curators and critics and Parr himself try to inject ‘questions’ and ‘issues’ into his photos, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Photographic beauty

And by doing so they also divert attention from any appreciation of the formal qualities of his photographs, Parr’s skill at capturing candid moments, his uncanny ability to create a composition out of nothing, the strange balances and symmetries which emerge in ordinary workaday life without anyone trying. The oddity of the everyday, the odd beauty of the everyday, the everyday beauty of oddness.

Preparing lobster pots, Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall, England, 2018. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

I don’t think Parr’s work has anything to do with ‘issues of Britishness’ and ‘questions of identity’. This kind of talk may be the kind of thing which gets publishers and art galleries excited, and lead to photo projects, commissions and exhibitions. In other words, which makes money.

But the actual pictures are about something else entirely. What makes (most of) them special is not their ‘incisive sociological analysis’ but their wonderfully skilful visual qualities. Their photographic qualities. The works here demonstrate Parr’s astonishing ability to capture, again and again, a particular kind of everyday surrealism. They are something to do with the banality of life which he pushes so far into Banality that they come back out the other end as the genuinely weird and strange.

He manages a consistent capturing of the routine oddity of loads of stuff which is going on around us, but which we rarely notice.

The British are ugly

Lastly, and most obvious of all – Parr shows how ugly, scruffy, pimply, fat, tattooed, tasteless and badly dressed the British are. This is probably the most striking and consistent aspect of Parr’s photos: the repeated evidence showing what a sorry sight we Brits present to the world.

It’s not just the parade of tattooed, Union Jack-draped chavs in the ‘Brexit’ room. Just as ugly are the posh geeks he photographed at Oxford or the grinning berks and their spotty partners he snapped at the Highland dances. By far the most blindingly obvious feature of Parr’s photographic oeuvre is how staggeringly ugly, badly dressed and graceless the British mostly are.

His subjects’ sheer lumpen plainness is emphasised by Parr’s:

  • deliberate use of raw, unflattering colour
  • the lack of any filters or post-production softening of the images
  • and the everyday activities and settings he seeks out

And the consistently raw bluntness of his photos makes you realise how highly posed, polished and post-produced to plastic perfection almost are all the other images we see around us are – from adverts to film stills, posters and billboards, and the thousands of shiny images of smiling perfection we consume on the internet every day.

Compared to all those digitally-enhanced images, Parr has for some time now made his name by producing glaringly unvarnished, untouched-up, unimproved images, showing the British reflections of themselves in all their ghastly, grisly grottiness.

New Model Army playing the Spa Pavilion at the Whitby Goth Weekend, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

But this is a genuinely transgressive thought – something which the polite and respectable curators – who prefer to expatiate at length on the socially acceptable themes of identity and gender and race – dare not mention.

This is the truth that dare not speak its name and which Martin Parr’s photographs ram home time after time. We Brits look awful.

Video

Video review of the exhibition by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines by John Allen Paulos (1995)

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. (p.201)

Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us. (p.3)

John Allen Paulos

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who came to wider fame with publication of his short (130-page) primer, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, published in 1988.

It was followed by Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man in 1991 and this book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper in 1995.

Structure

The book is made up of about 50 short chapters. He explains that each one of them will take a topic in the news in 1993 and 1994 and show how it can be analysed and understood better using mathematical tools.

The subjects of the essays are laid out under the same broad headings that you’d encounter in a newspaper, with big political stories at the front, giving way to:

  • Local, business and social issues
  • Lifestyle, spin and soft news
  • Science, medicine and the environment
  • Food, book reviews, sports and obituaries

Response

The book is disappointing in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, he does not look at specific stories. All the headlines are invented. Each 4 or 5-page essay may or may not call in aspects of various topics in the news, but they do not look at one major news story and carefully deconstruct how it has been created and publicised in disregard of basic mathematics and probability and statistics. (This alone is highly suggestive of the possibility that, despite all his complaints to the contrary, specific newspaper stories where specific mathematical howlers are made and can be corrected are, in fact surprisingly rare.)

The second disappointment is that, even though these essays are very short, they cannot stay focused on one idea or example for much more than a page. I hate to say it and I don’t mean to be rude, but Paulos’s text has some kind of attention deficit disorder: the essays skitter all over the place, quickly losing whatever thread they ever had in a blizzard of references to politics, baseball, pseudoscience and a steady stream of bad jokes. He is so fond of digressions, inserts, afterthoughts and tangents that it is often difficult to say what any given essay is about.

I was hoping that each essay would take a specific news story and show how journalists had misunderstood the relevant data and maths to get it wrong, and would then show the correct way to analyse and interpret it. I was hoping that the 50 or so examples would have been carefully chosen to build up for the reader an armoury of techniques of arithmetic, probability, calculus, logarithms and whatever else is necessary to immediately spot, deconstruct and correct articles with bad maths in them.

Nope. Not at all.

Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier

Take the very first piece, Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier. For a start he doesn’t tell us who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier is. I deduce from his introduction that she was President Clinton’s nomination for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. We can guess, then, that the nickname ‘quota queen’ implies she was a proponent of quotas, though whether for black people, women or what is not explained.

Why not?

Paulos introduces us to the Banzhaf power index, devised in 1965 by lawyer John F. Banzhaf.

The Banzhaf power index of a group, party or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa. (p.10)

He gives examples of companies where three or four shareholders hold different percentages of voting rights and shows how some coalitions of shareholders will always have decisive voting rights, whereas others never will (these are called the dummy) while even quite small shareholders can hold disproportionate power. For example in a situation where three shareholders hold 45%, 45% and 10% of the shares, the 10% party can often have the decisive say. In 45%, 45%, 8% and 2% the 2% is the dummy.

He then moves on to consider voting systems in some American states, including: cumulative voting, systems where votes don’t count as 1 but are proportionate to population, Borda counts (where voters rank the candidates and award progressively more points to those higher up the rankings), approval voting (where voters have as many votes as they want and can vote for as many candidates as they approve of), before going on to conclude that all voting systems have their drawbacks.

The essay ends with a typical afterthought, one-paragraph coda suggesting how the Supreme Court could end up being run by a cabal of just three judges. There are nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine (key word for Paulos), imagine a group of five judges agree to always discuss issues among themselves first, before the vote of the entire nine, and imagine they decide to always vote according to whatever the majority (3) decide. Then imagine that a sub-group of just three judges go away and secretly decide, that in the group of five, they will always agree. Thus they will dictate the outcome of every Supreme Court decision.

So:

1. I had no idea who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier was or, more precisely, I had to do a bit of detective work to figure it out, and still wasn’t utterly sure.

2. This is a very sketchy introduction to the issue of democratic voting systems. This is a vast subject, which Paulos skates over quickly and thinly.

Thus, in these four and a bit pages you have the characteristic Paulos experience of feeling you are wandering all over the place, not quite at random, but certainly not in a carefully planned sequential way designed to explore a topic thoroughly and reach a conclusion. You are introduced to a number of interesting ideas, with some maths formulae, but not in enough detail or at sufficient length to really understand them. And because he’s not addressing any particular newspaper report or article, there are no particular misconceptions to clear up: the essay is a brief musing, a corralling of thoughts on an interesting topic.

This scattergun approach characterises the whole book.

Psychological availability and anchoring effects

The second essay is titled Psychological availability and anchoring effects. He explains what the availability error, the anchor effect and the halo effect are. If this is the first time you’ve come across these notions, they’re powerful new ideas. But I recently reread Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland which came out three years before Paulos’s book and spends over three hundred pages investigating these and all the other cognitive biases which afflict mankind in vastly more depth than Paulos, with many more examples. Next to it, Paulos’s three-minute essay seemed sketchy and superficial.

General points

Rather than take all 50 essays to pieces, here are notes on what I actually did learn. Note that almost none of it was about maths, but general-purpose cautions about how the news media work, and how to counter its errors of logic. In fact, all of it could have come from a media studies course without any maths at all:

  • almost all ‘news’ reinforces conventional wisdom
  • because they’re so brief, almost all headlines must rely on readers’ existing assumptions and prejudices
  • almost all news stories relate something new back to similar examples from the past, even when the comparison is inappropriate, again reinforcing conventional wisdom and failing to recognise the genuinely new
  • all economic forecasts are rubbish: this is because economics (like the weather and many other aspects of everyday life) is a non-linear system. Chaos theory shows that non-linear systems are highly sensitive to even minuscule differences in starting conditions, which has been translated into pop culture as the Butterfly Effect
  • and also with ‘futurologists’: the further ahead they look, the less reliable their predictions
  • the news is deeply biased by always assuming human agency is at work in any outcome: if any disaster happens anywhere the newspapers always go searching for a culprit; in the present Brexit crisis lots of news outlets are agreeing to blame Theresa May. But often things happen at random or as an accumulation of unpredictable factors. Humans are not good at acknowledging the role of chance and randomness.

There is a tendency to look primarily for culpability and conflicts of human will rather than at the dynamics of a natural process. (p.160)

  • Hence so many newspapers endlessly playing the blame game. The Grenfell Tower disaster was, first and foremost, an accident in the literal sense of ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury’ – but you won’t find anybody who doesn’t fall in with the prevailing view that someone must be to blame. There is always someone to blame. We live in a Blame Society.
  • personalising beats stats, data or probability: nothing beats ‘the power of dramatic anecdote’ among the innumerate: ‘we all tend to be unduly swayed by the dramatic, the graphic, the visceral’ (p.82)
  • if you combine human beings’ tendency to personalise everything, and to look for someone to blame, you come up with Donald Trump, who dominates every day’s news
  • so much is happening all the time, in a world with more people and incidents than ever before, in which we are bombarded with more information via more media than ever before – that it would be extraordinary if all manner or extraordinary coincidences, correspondences and correlations didn’t happen all the time
  • random events can sometimes present a surprisingly ordered appearance
  • because people imbue meaning into absolutely everything, then the huge number of coincidences and correlations are wrongfully interpreted as meaningful

Tips and advice

I was dismayed at the poor quality of many of the little warnings which each chapter ends with. Although Paulos warns against truisms (on page 54) his book is full of them.

Local is not what it used to be, and we shouldn’t be surprised at how closely we’re linked. (p.55)

In the public realm, often the best we can do is to stand by and see how events unfold. (p.125)

Chapter three warns us that predictions about complex systems (the weather, the economy, big wars) are likely to be more reliable the simpler the system they’re predicting, and the shorter period they cover. Later he says we should be sceptical about all long-term predictions by politicians, economists and generals.

It didn’t need a mathematician to tell us that.

A lot of it just sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about society going to the dogs:

Our increasingly integrated and regimented society undermines our sense of self… Meaningless juxtapositions and coincidences replace conventional narratives and contribute to our dissociation… (pp.110-111)

News reports in general, and celebrity coverage in particular, are becoming ever-more self-referential. (p.113)

We need look no further than the perennial appeal of pseudoscientific garbage, now being presented in increasingly mainstream forums… (p.145)

The fashion pages have always puzzled me. In my smugly ignorant view, they appear to be so full of fluff and nonsense as to make the astrology columns insightful by comparison. (p.173)

Another aspect of articles in the society pages or in the stories about political and entertainment figures is the suggestion that ‘everybody’ knows everybody else. (p.189)

Sometimes his liberal earnestness topples into self-help book touchy-feeliness.

Achieving personal integration and a sense of self is for the benefit of ourselves and those we’re close to. (p.112)

But just occasionally he does say something unexpected:

The attention span created by television isn’t short; it’s long, but very, very shallow. (p.27)

That struck me as an interesting insight but, as with all his interesting comments, no maths was involved. You or I could have come up with it from general observation.

Complexity horizon

The notion that the interaction of human laws, conventions, events, politics, and general information overlap and interplay at ever-increasing speeds to eventually produce situations so complex as to appear unfathomable. Individuals, and groups and societies, have limits of complexity beyond which they cannot cope, but have to stand back and watch. Reading this made me think of Brexit.

He doesn’t mention it, but a logical spin-off would be that every individual has a complexity quotient like an intelligence quotient or IQ. Everyone could take a test in which they are faced with situations of slowly increasing complexity – or presented with increasingly complex sets of information – to find out where their understanding breaks off – which would become their CQ.

Social history

The book was published in 1995 and refers back to stories current in the news in 1993 and 1994. The run of domestic political subjects he covers in the book’s second quarter powerfully support my repeated conviction that it is surprising how little some issues have changed, how little movement there has been on them, and how they have just become a settled steady part of the social landscape of our era.

Thus Paulos has essays on:

  • gender bias in hiring
  • homophobia
  • accusations of racism arising from lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs (the problem of race crops up numerous times (pp.59-62, p.118)
  • the decline in educational standards
  • the appallingly high incidence of gun deaths, especially in black and minority communities
  • the fight over abortion

I feel increasingly disconnected from contemporary politics, not because it is addressing new issues I don’t understand, but for the opposite reason: it seems to be banging on about the same issues which I found old and tiresome twenty-five years ago.

The one topic which stood out as having changed is AIDS. In Innumeracy and in this book he mentions the prevalence or infection rates of AIDS and is obviously responding to numerous news stories which, he takes it for granted, report it in scary and alarmist terms. Reading these repeated references to AIDS made me realise how completely and utterly it has fallen off the news radar in the past decade or so.

In the section about political correctness he makes several good anti-PC points:

  • democracy is about individuals, the notion that everyone votes according to their conscience and best judgement; as soon as you start making it about groups (Muslims, blacks, women, gays) you start undermining democracy
  • racism and sexism and homophobia are common enough already without making them the standard go-to explanations for social phenomena which often have more complex causes; continually attributing all aspects of society to just a handful of inflammatory issues, keeps the issues inflammatory
  • members of groups often vie with each other to assert their loyalty, to proclaim their commitment to the party line and this suggests a powerful idea: that the more opinions are expressed, the more extreme these opinions will tend to become. This is a very relevant idea to our times when the ubiquity of social media has a) brought about a wonderful spirit of harmony and consensus, or b) divided society into evermore polarised and angry groupings

Something bad is coming

I learned to fear several phrases which indicate that a long, possibly incomprehensible and frivolously hypothetical example is about to appear:

‘Imagine…’

Imagine flipping a penny one thousand times in succession and obtaining some sequence of heads and tails… (p.75)

Imagine a supercomputer, the Delphic-Cray 1A, into which has been programmed the most complete and up-to-date scientific knowledge, the initial condition of all particles, and sophisticated mathematical techniques and formulas. Assume further that… Let’s assume for argument’s sake that… (p.115)

Imagine if a computer were able to generate a random sequence S more complex than itself. (p.124)

Imagine the toast moistened, folded, and compressed into a cubical piece of white dough… (p.174)

Imagine a factory that produces, say, diet food. Let’s suppose that it is run by a sadistic nutritionist… (p.179)

‘Assume that…’

Let’s assume that each of these sequences is a billion bits long… (p.121)

Assume the earth’s oceans contain pristinely pure water… (p.141)

Assume that there are three competing healthcare proposals before the senate… (p.155)

Assume that the probability of your winning the coin flip, thereby obtaining one point, is 25 percent. (p.177)

Assume that these packages come off the assembly line in random order and are packed in boxes of thirty-six. (p.179)

Jokes and Yanks

All the examples are taken from American politics (President Clinton), sports (baseball) and wars (Vietnam, First Gulf War) and from precisely 25 years ago (on page 77, he says he is writing in March 1994), both of which emphasise the sense of disconnect and irrelevance with a British reader in 2019.

As my kids know, I love corny, bad old jokes. But not as bad as the ones the book is littered with:

And then there was the man who answered a matchmaking company’s computerised personals ad in the paper. He expressed his desire for a partner who enjoys company, is comfortable in formal wear, likes winter sports, and is very short. The company matched him with a penguin. (pp.43-44)

The moronic inferno and the liberal fallacy

The net effect of reading this book carefully is something that the average person on the street knew long ago: don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

And especially don’t believe any story in a newspaper which involves numbers, statistics, percentages, data or probabilities. It will always be wrong.

More broadly his book simply fails to take account of the fact that most people are stupid and can’t think straight, even very, very educated people. All the bankers whose collective efforts brought about the 2008 crash. All the diplomats, strategists and military authorities who supported the Iraq War. All the well-meaning liberals who supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Everyone who voted Trump. Everyone who voted Brexit.

Most books of this genre predicate readers who are white, university-educated, liberal middle class and interested in news and current affairs, the arts etc and – in my opinion – grotesquely over-estimate both their value and their relevance to the rest of the population. Because this section of the population – the liberal, university-educated elite – is demonstrably in a minority.

Over half of Americans believe in ghosts, and a similar number believes in alien abductions. A third of Americans believe the earth is flat, and that the theory of evolution is a lie. About a fifth of British adults are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is what Saul Bellow referred to as ‘the moronic inferno’.

On a recent Radio 4 documentary about Brexit, one contributor who worked in David Cameron’s Number Ten commented that he and colleagues went out to do focus groups around the country to ask people whether we should leave the EU and that most people didn’t know what they were talking about. Many people they spoke to had never heard of the European Union.

On page 175 he says the purpose of reading a newspaper is to stretch the mind, to help us envision distant events, different people and unusual situations, and broaden our mental landscape.

Is that really why he thinks people read newspapers? As opposed to checking the sports results, catching up with celebrity gossip, checking what’s happening in the soaps, reading interviews with movie and pop stars, looking at fashion spreads, reading about health fads and, if you’re one of the minority who bother with political news, having all your prejudices about how wicked and stupid the government, the poor, the rich or foreigners etc are, and despising everyone who disagrees with you (Guardian readers hating Daily Mail readers; Daily Mail readers hating Guardian readers; Times readers feeling smugly superior to both).

This is a fairly entertaining, if very dated, book – although all the genuinely useful bits are generalisations about human nature which could have come from any media studies course.

But if it was intended as any kind of attempt to tackle the illogical thinking and profound innumeracy of Western societies, it is pissing in the wind. The problem is vastly bigger than this chatty, scattergun and occasionally impenetrable book can hope to scratch. On page 165 he says that a proper understanding of mathematics is vital to the creation of ‘an informed and effective citizenry’.

‘An informed and effective citizenry’?


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

‘Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words,’ said Mrs. Bowles. ‘Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you’ve got to tease people with stuff like that!’

It is 1999 and books are banned. Why? Because they make people think, ponder, reflect – and that ends up making them unhappy. And society in 1999 is dedicated to making people happy.

How? By offering them the all-day-long totally immersive experience of room-sized TVs playing endless soap operas in which you, the viewer, are included through computer-controlled scripts designed to tailor the storylines to suit your age and gender. By ensuring that even if people go out walking they have seashell-type little earpieces pumping raucous meaningless music into their brains all the time. By providing a world of physical activities, sports and gymnastics for the disciplined and, for the not-so sporty, building highways where you’re not allowed to drive slower than 55mph, and are encouraged to hit anything which trespasses onto them, cats, dogs, even people.

Or you can:

head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball.

Anything, anything at all, to stop people reading or thinking. Books are banned, religion is banned, festivals are banned, all art is abstract, and politics has died out due to lack of information or interest. People are just ruled.

In this world firemen protect citizens from the risk of being infected by ‘ideas’ by burning books wherever they are found. Enemies, snitches and gossips can anonymously report work colleagues or neighbours as suspected to be hiding books, and then the firemen turn up in their salamander-shaped fire engine, beat up the suspects to find the stash of forbidden books, throw them all in a pile and torch them with their kerosene flamethrowers.

The books leapt and danced like roasted birds, their wings ablaze with red and yellow feathers.

Part one – The Hearth and the Salamander

Guy Montag is one of these firemen and his story opens with this poetic invocation of the joys of incineration:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.

With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

Wow. Bradbury is nothing if not vivid!

Guy’s story is simple in outline. He becomes disillusioned with being a fireman, rebels against the powers that be, and escapes.

More specifically, after one particularly brutal burning, where the old lady who owned the house where books were hidden, not only refused to leave the building but herself lit the match which sent it up like a bonfire, thus turning herself into a human torch, Montag finds he has, almost without realising it, secreted a book in his jacket, which he then brings home.

Next day he takes off sick with a temperature. His wife, Mildred, is an extreme case of the bored suburban housewife. She has nagged Guy into paying a fortune to have three of the four walls in their living room converted into wall-sized TV screens, the ones which run the endless soap which the computer tailors to include her in the plots and scenes and conversations. Even when Guy is sick in bed, she won’t turn the deafening volume of the TV soap down, and listens to his complaints for the bare minimum before running back to her ‘real’ life, her ‘real’ family.

For Guy is having a crisis of conscience. Watching the woman prepared to incinerate herself rather than live in a world without books has shaken him. And, over the past few weeks, he’s found himself bumping into the idealistic young woman who’s moved in next door, Clarisse McClellan.

‘She was the first person in a good many years I’ve really liked. She was the first person I can remember who looked straight at me as if I counted.’

Clarisse is mercifully uninfected by the repressive culture. She likes flowers and nursery rhymes. She despises the people who go car-racing or window smashing. She yearns for a simpler time.

To his dismay Guy finds himself agreeing with Clarisse, beguiled by her honesty and openness. It makes returning to the gloomy house where his wife is either a) totally immersed in her wall-to-wall TV soap or b) even in her bed (they have separate beds) has the seashells plugged in, hissing stories and music, so that even in the darkest midnight hour, when he tries to tell he his secrets, his worries, his fears… she’s not listening, she can’t and won’t hear him. He is alone.

The hollowness of Mildred’s drugged, media-addicted life is emphasised by an earlier scene, when Guy returns home dirty and sweaty from a hard day burning books, and in the darkness of their bedroom his foot hits an object. When he stoops, it is an empty bottle of painkillers. Mildred has taken an overdose.

Guy calls emergency but instead of an ambulance, or concerned medics and nurses, the two guys who turn up are bored technicians who poke a tube with a digital camera lens down her throat guts and pump her stomach empty, at the same time administering a complete blood transfusion. They stand around yacking and one smokes a cigarette as the machines pump. It’s just another job. They tell Guy they get about ten of these a week. Once finished, they pack up and tell him she’ll probably feel hungry in the morning, bye, and he is left feeling bereft and uncomforted.

Indeed Mildred does feel hungry in the morning and has no memory whatever of her suicide attempt. When Guy describes the whole thing she laughs and says what a vivid imagination he’s got. He’s left wondering whether it was a suicide attempt, or whether she just took a few pills before going to sleep, woke up and took some more, woke up and took some more, and so on.

And worse, he wonders if it makes any difference. To her or to him. Her life is such a matter of indifference to her and, he realises with a start, to him, too.

While Guy is still in bed feeling feverish, his boss at the firestation, Captain Beatty pays a call. There is something uncanny and wise about old Beatty. At the knock at the front door Guy hastily stuffs the book he took from the old lady’s house under his pillow and remains in his sick-bed. When Beatty comes into his bedroom, takes a seat, lights his pipe and makes himself at home, Guy is paranoidly certain, certain… that Beatty knows he is hiding a book.

The scene is handled as powerfully as a fairy tale, as a fable: old man Beatty wisely and tolerantly explains that all firemen, sooner or later, experience a moment of doubt about their work, may even take a book home to read in secret. The authorities don’t hold it against them. Everyone has to find out for themselves how empty and pointless books are. So long as the fireman in question hands it in within, say, 24 hours, no more will be said about it. He looks at Guy. Guy, lying in his sickbed, sweats and turns red. Surely he knows!

Beatty takes his time. He leisurely explains how the firemen came about, how society willingly turned its back on books and learning. Why their job is so important.

Eventually the captain leaves. Guy gets up, shaking. Now is the time. He makes Mildred turn the bloody TV off and listen to him and watch him as he gets a chair, stands on it and reaches up to the ventilator grille in the hall. Guy stretches out and pulls over and down a sack which he lowers to the floor, gets down and opens up. The sack is full of books. Mildred is horrified and squirms away from these infectious objects. Guy himself sits there stunned. What has he done?

At that moment there is another ring on the front door bell and Guy and Mildred freeze in terror. Is it the captain back again? Panic sweat silence. After a few more rings, whoever it was goes away. The reader’s heart has stopped alongside Guy’s and Mildred’s. We are caught in Guy’s terror and guilt.

Part two – The Sieve and the Sand

For the rest of that cold November afternoon, Guy reads at random passages from his forbidden stash of books out loud to his bewildered wife, who keeps complaining that they don’t make sense. He mentions how the books remind him of Clarisse. Who? asks the wife. The young woman who moved in next door. Oh, says Mildred, I forgot to tell you. She was killed by joyriders. The rest of the family have moved away. Guy is devastated. How can all that young beauty and innocence just be snuffed out like that?

Then there comes a snuffling at the door.

The Hound? Is it the Hound? At the firestation there is an eight-legged machine nicknamed the Hound. Every human has a distinctive combination of hormones and secretions which gives them a unique chemical ‘small’. The Hound’s sensors can be set to this combination, then it is set loose to hunt them down. Being mechanical it tracks down its prey unrelentingly, unceasingly, until it finds and brings him down, holds him splayed with his mechanical legs and then the target is:

gripped in gentling paws while a four-inch hollow steel needle plunged down from the proboscis of the Hound to inject massive jolts of morphine or procaine.

Lying there now, with his wife huddled in a weeping neurotic ball, with the pile of incriminating books sprawled across his hallway, Guy is certain, sure that he can hear… a mechanical sniffling and snorting at his door. It is the Hound! The Hound has come to trap and kill him with its merciless shining needle!

They wait and wait. the snuffling ends. Guy opens the door. Nothing there. Guy takes one of the books, an old Bible, and goes to visit an old man he met once on a park bench, months ago, years ago. The old man was convinced Guy was going to turn him in, but they got talking and Guy was sympathetic to his stories of books and literature. The man gave Guy his card. He’s named Faber. He was a literature professor until one term, forty years ago, nobody turned up for his class. Society had lost interest.

Now Guy turns up on his doorstep, initially terrifying Faber who thinks he’s going to be arrested. But Guy shows him the Bible and they talk. Faber fills in some of the history which he lived through, how the government slowly got rid of books as part of its campaign to make everyone equal and happy.

Together they stumble towards an idea that maybe the books can be saved somehow. Maybe they can get back to the literate society which Faber remembers from his youth. Maybe – here’s a plan – they could plant books on every firemen in the land and so get the firemen abolished – by themselves! Obviously not just the two of them, it would need a network. Hmmm.

Faber gives Guy a device he’s built, an emerald-green earpiece. Via it Faber can hear Guy talking and Guy receives Faber’s messages. They are two-become-one.

Guy goes home. His wife’s two ghastly suburban wife friends come round for a party with the immersive TV show. Montag appals them by turning the TV walls off and then insisting on reading poetry to them, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, to be precise, which is indeed a bleak and nihilistic poem.

Not surprising that the women are all upset and one bursts into tears. Mildred forces Guy to put the book in an incinerator, and tries to cover up by saying it is part of a fireman’s training to occasionally dip into these nonsensical books in order to ridicule them – but the two women don’t really believe it and anyway Guy runs them out of the house.

Faber hears all this via the earpiece and is appalled at Guy’s rashness. What Faber thought they’d agreed should be the next step was for Guy to return to the station and confront Beatty.

Captain Beatty is waiting for him, with his hand open. Without a word Guy hands over the book to him. Beatty greets him like the prodigal son returned to the fold, reinforces the idea that books are pointless, silly, contradictory, only make people unhappy.

(His role – as wise father confessor who has himself experienced all the urge to rebel, has had all the illegal thoughts, and has overcome them in order to obey the system – reminds me very much of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four.)

Captain Beatty invites Guy to sit down and play cards with the rest of the men. Then the alarm goes off, they jump down the pole to the garage, suit up and race off to fire someone else’s house.

Part three – Burning Bright

Except that the fire engine stops in front of Guy’s house. Beatty teases Guy: is he really surprised, after his performance with the poetry? First the two housewives turned him in, then his own wife, Mildred. And Mildred blunders past him carrying a suitcase, weeping, without makeup, stumbles into a taxi and is gone.

And Guy is so conflicted, transported, bewildered by the contradictions of his situation, that he has no hesitation at all about burning his entire house down, burning the house of lies and alienation and unhappiness to the ground, and burning the books which fly along the hallway.

Then Beatty arrests him, smacking him in the face. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making the emerald earpiece link to Faber fall out of Guy’s ear (Faber has been listening in to everything that’s happened). ‘Hello, hello,’ says Captain Beatty, picking it up. ‘I thought you were doing more than just muttering to yourself. So you have an accomplice. Well, we will track him down and arrest him, too.’

And Guy snaps. He is still holding the flamethrower. ‘No,’ he says, and before he knows it, his hands have flicked the switch and turned Beatty into a flaming torch. Stunned, dazed, Guy makes the other two fireman turn their backs and coshes them unconscious.

Then in a nightmare of terror, just as he thought he could relax, the Hound appears out of nowhere and leaps at him, jabbing its steel needle into his leg, but Guy still has self-possession enough to turn the flamethrower on the Hound and burn out its innards, making it spring backwards, having administered a fraction of the fatal dose.

Rummaging in the garden where he had stashed a few remaining books, Guy turns and hobbles, one leg completely anaesthetised and numb from the Hound’s partial injection, down the alleyway.

Then there is the terrific scene I remember from reading the book as a boy, where Guy has to run across one of the ten-lane highways that ring the city. It is completely empty and floodlit like a gladiator’s arena. He sets off limping and is half-way across, when he hears the roar of a carful of joyriders revving up and aiming straight at him. At the last minute Guy trips and falls headlong and the car swerves a fraction to avoid him, the driver knowing that going over a bump at 150 mph would fling the car into the air and crash it. That’s all that saves him. No morality or sympathy. And while the car decelerates a few hundred yards further on down the highway, and spins to a turn in order to come back and try to hit him again, Guy limps to the other side of the highway and melts into the dark alleyways.

He gets to Faber’s house and tells him what’s happened. Faber turns on the TV. There is a massive manhunt out for Guy and they have brought in another Hound from another precinct. They watch as a police helicopter equipped with a camera sets off following the new Hound as it lollops through the city on its eight mechanical legs.

Quickly, Guy tells Faber to disinfect the entire house, burn the bedspread they’re sitting on, the rug he walked across, the chair he sat in, dowse everything in disinfectant, turn on the garden sprinklers. He asks Faber for a suitcase of the old man’s clothes to change into later. They take a swig of scotch, shake hands, then Guy runs off.

He makes a detour to the house of fireman Black, one of his colleagues, creeps in through the porch, hides some of his books in the kitchen and sneaks out again. Black will be betrayed. The fireman’s house will be torched. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Through the city’s darkened back alleys Guy runs, glimpsing through people’s windows, on their giant TV screens, live footage of the police helicopter following the Hound as it beetles towards Faber’s house, encounters the wall of sprinklers, hesitates, then picks up Guy’s scent.

Faster faster Guy runs in a breathless, terrifically intense chase, until he makes it to the river, the river on the edge of the city, just a minute or two before the Hound, strips off his clothes, wades far out, clutches the suitcase and lets himself be carried fast fast fast by the current away from the Hound, the city, the helicopters, the police, the fire service, his burned house, his murdered captain, far away into the cleansing healing countryside.

Saved and lost

Faber had told him to look for the old disused railway lines. When Guy has drifted down the river, moiled in the water, until he breathes country air, trees, hay – he clambers out naked and reborn, dresses in Faber’s old clothes, smells the countryside, looks up at the stars. Free!

His foot clinks against something. It’s a disused rail. He sets off stumbling along it wondering what he’ll find. What he finds is a small fire with four or five old geezers crouching round it for warmth. They welcome him to the circle, make a simple meal of bacon fried in a pan. the leader is Granger. He explains there is a very loose network of them all across the country, rebels, outcasts, who have memorised entire books. A community of memorisers, ‘bums on the outside, libraries inside’.

They hear the jets screech overhead. All through the book conversations have been interrupted by the roar of jet engines, and the narrative has been punctuated by radio announcements of looming war, of enlistment and call-ups. Now Bradbury goes into full-on hallucinatory, poetic prose mode to describe the nuclear war which ends the book.

‘Look!’ cried Montag.
And the war began and ended in that instant.

He gives a slow-motion nightmare description of the bombs falling, the last hundred feet, the last yard, the last inch. And then – Whoomf – the entire city jumps into the air, cartwheels, and falls as ashes.

The bums are knocked flat, and then slowly clamber up again, covered in dust and spume from the river. That’s it. The war is over. The city is gone, as hundreds of other cities all round the world are gone. Granger makes a speech about how people back there will be needing them, about how they’ll try to rebuild, about how they won’t flaunt their book knowledge but how, just maybe, the wisdom they carry might just about maybe prevent there being any more future wars. Guy joins the scruffy old men as they set off back towards the ruins, wondering what they’ll find.


Themes

Rereading Fahrenheit 451 after all these years, I see it through the prism of the two books of short stories I’ve just read as:

  1. less a novel with a plot than as a series of linked set-piece descriptions, often very brilliant and evocative
  2. less a novel than one of Bradbury’s many fables – that’s to say, a simplified story with a strong moral message
  3. an expansion of the theme which occurs in at least three of his short stories, that the future will burn books

Political correctness

I was astonished to see that the book contains an attack on political correctness. It attributes the death of books and literacy to a politically correct wish not to offend. When Captain Beatty calls on Guy, he explains how the books came to be banned, how the entire present state of civilisation came about. It was a question of not wanting to upset anyone’s sensibilities, particularly the sensibilities of minorities.

‘You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of this.’

And:

‘The bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat -lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean.

‘Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God!’

The population did it to themselves. Not wishing to offend any of the thousand and one minorities, authors censored themselves till their books, plays and movies were so bland no-one wanted to read them. Meanwhile, comics, sex and soap operas proliferated because they a) made people happy b) didn’t upset any particular minorities, in fact c) didn’t upset anyone. They were, in a sense, content free.

‘The public itself stopped reading of its own accord… I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them…’

America’s once and future wars

I had forgotten that the whole story is set against the looming prospect of war. According to the novel, America has started and won two atomic wars between 1960 and 1999. Now another one is in the offing. The characters’ conversations are continually interrupted by the deafening roar of jet bombers flying overhead.

Faber, for example, tells Guy not to even bother trying to overthrow the system; just let there be another war and society tear itself to pieces.

Guy hears the official radio announcing the mobilisation of a million men (in reality, ten million, Faber tells him.) When Mildred’s ghastly housewife friends come visiting they all empty-headedly declare the war will be over in 48 hours, just like the government promises.

A radio hummed somewhere. ‘. . . war may be declared any hour. This country stands ready to defend its –‘ The firehouse trembled as a great flight of jet planes whistled a single note across the black morning sky.

And as he walked he was listening to the Seashell radio in one ear… ‘We have mobilized a million men. Quick victory is ours if the war comes…’

‘Patience, Montag. Let the war turn off the TV `families.’ Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.’

‘The Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The Army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours they said, and everyone home. That’s what the Army said. Quick war. Pete was called yesterday and they said he’d be, back next week. Quick…’ [said Mrs Phelps]

You could feel the war getting ready in the sky that night. The way the clouds moved aside and came back, and the way the stars looked, a million of them swimming between the clouds, like the enemy discs, and the feeling that the sky might fall upon the city and turn it to chalk dust, and the moon go up in red fire; that was how the night felt.

Thus ever-present threat of war is as much a part of the fabric of the story as it is of George Orwell’s contemporary dystopia, Nineteen Eight-Four. Contributes as much to the sense of dread and menace, as if Guy’s personal tragedy is reflected by the whole world coming to grief.

And then of course the entire world does blow up. Guy’s story turns out to be an invisible footnote to the end of civilisation as we know it.

Anti-Americanism

It is also striking that Bradbury was aware, in 1953, of America’s unpopularity.

‘Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumours; the world is starving, but we’re well-fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much?’

Was he aware of this in 1953, or was he predicting it for his dystopian future? Either way it was remarkably prescient to anticipate the anti-American feeling which certainly dominated the world I grew up in in the 1970s, the left united against American commercial and military imperialism, against its support for dictators all round the globe and, right at the heart of the inferno, the epic mess of the Vietnam War.

The future will be stupid / TV / the internet

Beatty/Bradbury makes it quite clear – there will be no need for government intervention or oppression – ‘technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure’ will manoeuvre the whole population into willingly abolishing books, literature and thinking.

The thrust of the book is that American society is dumbing down into a brainless landscape of immersive video experiences and cheap thrills (wrecking balls, fast cars).

It would be easy to extract from the book all the moments when people’s experiences are mediated through the media: the centrepiece is Mildred’s addiction to her TV soaps, supported by the little TV party she has with her friends who are also fully paid up members of the TV ‘family’.

But, more subtly, the radio is present in the background, at his house, at the firestation, whispering rumours of war.

And then, during his terrified flight, Guy watches his own running relayed, first on Faber’s TV, and then through the lounge windows of the houses he runs past, Guy can see the live helicopter footage of the police chasing him. Like O.J. Simpson’s famous car chase.

On one level the entire book is a sermon against the dumbing down of America. 65 years later how does that message, that fear, hold up?

Personally, despite all temptations to the contrary, to throw your hands in the air and bewail the dumbing down of the social media age, I wonder, I’m more inclined – like Nietzsche – to confront all the woes of the age but, by an effort of will, to overcome them and assert that I don’t think it is.

More books are being sold and read than at any time in human history. Despite its visual content and the streaming of TV and video over laptops and smartphones, in reality the internet is still largely a reading experience. People read texts and tweets and emails. And argue and discuss them, all the time, in epic, unprecedented numbers.

Sure, most of the twitter storms and media frenzies which make the headlines are pitiful and stupid: but so was most of the arguing in pubs and front rooms and beauty salons for the last hundred years; the only difference now is that anyone can read the outpourings of everyone else.

We may be appalled at the stupidity of much of what appears on the internet, but a moment’s reflection suggests there is also an unprecedented wealth of highly intelligent, thoughtful and stimulating material out there – TED talks, millions of interesting blogs, countless new sources of detailed statistics, data and information.

In fact probably more people are taking part in written-down debates and arguments than at any point in human history. You may not like a lot of what is being written and debated and discussed, but books are not being burnt. There is no tampering with free speech in the free West. Quite the opposite: there has been an unprecedented explosion of quite literally, free speech.

If you give in, if you submit to the headlines about Trump and Brexit it is easy to despair. But then there was much more to despair about when Europe went to war in 1914, about the chaos of the 1920s, about the rise of fascism in the 1930s, about the world war of the 1940s, about the Cold War and the real threat of nuclear armageddon in the 1950s, about the widespread economic collapse of the 1970s, about the renewed Cold War confrontation of the 1980s. Relative to all those periods of global chaos and holocaust, the present seems amazingly peaceful and free.

The affluent society

In the 1950s and 60s American intellectuals worried that people were becoming so affluent, so comfortable and easy, that their lives were becoming hollow and meaningless. Mildred is the symbol of that feared, valium future, with her addiction to immersive TV soaps and her seashell headphones and the telltale suicide attempt in the opening pages which reveals for all to see how hollow and empty that life really is.

It was only reading some of the critiques of the book by young contemporary bloggers that I realised how this is an overlooked aspect or theme of the book, because that sense of American wellbeing has disappeared.

In the book everyone is middle class and has pretty much all they want. Money and jobs aren’t an issue. The problem is that everyone is entertaining themselves to death. The fundamental basis of the book is that America is too wealthy and how corrupting that affluent complacency became.

Whereas the last ten to twenty years have seen the reverse. For the first time American living standards have fallen. For the first time children can expect to be worse off than their parents. For the first time the ‘squeezed’ middle class is experiencing declining wages and standards of living. This – from everything I read – is the background to the revolt against the political establishment which gave rise to Trump, the unhappiness of huge parts of America which have experienced long-term economic decline.

Behind the louder themes of dumbing down, and nuclear war, and burning books, and a repressive society – possibly this quiet subtler thread is now the most telling part of the narrative. It foresaw an America which got steadily richer and richer and more and more hollow. For some decades, into the Me Generation 1970s, this seemed to be the case. But now, from the vantage point of rust belt, opioid-addicted America, Bradbury’s concern about the country becoming too wealthy, affluent and complacent seems like a period piece.

Although, on the face of it, a nightmare dystopia, Fahrenheit 451 is in fact a message in a bottle from a much happier, much more optimistic era in history.

Movie adaptation

Fahrenheit 451 was adapted into a movie by French director François Truffault. He was hot property in the 1960s. His adaptation looks incredibly clunky to us, now,


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1955 The October Country
1957 Dandelion Wine
1959 The Day It Rained Forever
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

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