A sceptred isle

I’ve just watched Kipchoge win the London Marathon in the second fastest time in history. About 1 1/2 hours faster than my best time! I’ve run five and I’d love to do another, but I guess I’m getting just a little bit too old….

(I was out running this morning, up on Painswick Beacon, with a view west for sixty miles, well into Wales. And there were carpets of bluebells, wood sorrel hiding beneath the trees, violets and cowslips underfoot as I crossed the common, and even the golfers were friendly…)

Back to the London Marathon, I love the fact that it brings the big wide world to London, an incredible international event, and won by Boris Johnson’s favourite nationality, a Kenyan.

This is the world I want to be a part of. Do we start with Britain, then admit, yes, we are Europeans as well – and then reluctantly accept that we might just be citizens of the world – or indeed deny the fact – claim that it’s enough to be English. English, note, not British.

Or do we start by asserting that we’re citizens of the world, and let everything follow from that. It’s easy to say that Britain should come first, especially if we grew up when there were still great swathes of pink (the old empire) on maps of the world. But we do well to remember that we are exceptional as British not as lonely flag-wavers but in the context of the big wide world. Blinkers do not serve us well.

All our yesterdays are no substitute for all our tomorrows. This sceptred isle is part of a continent, and we’d do well to recognise that.

Obama and the big wide world

I gave President Obama my endorsement in my last blog – for which he’ll no doubt be grateful.

But, at the hard end of politics, has he disappointed the ‘yes we can!’ generation? The world we have to admit isn’t a happier place after over seven years of the Obama presidency. Can he be held responsible?

There are still inmates at Guantanamo, the Middle East is in greater turmoil than ever, we have a resurgent Putin, a more autocratic, less tolerant China under Xi Jinping. The euphoria after the end of the Cold War is a distant dream. (I’m avoiding here the subject of US domestic politics, more convoluted and intriguing than ever.)

Countering the arguments that a more assertive American policy could have contained Putin and Xi Jinping, it’s abundantly clear that threats of NATO intervention wouldn’t have stopped Putin, and Han Chinese momentum cannot and will not be contained by Western stick-waving.

The Middle East. America has been much criticised in the USA and elsewhere for not being more involved, for not wielding a cudgel. The USA and the West, it’s claimed, have lost influence. And, yes, there’s the Libyan invasion aftermath, and the red line that Assad is deemed to have crossed in Syria. It was rash ever to lay down that line.

On the other hand, the Arab Spring, enthusiastically supported in the West, and its aftermath have shown how little understanding Western politicians, and indeed press and pundits, have of Middle Eastern politics on the ground – of individual countries, factions religion and otherwise, what moves and motivates individual citizens.

Obama and the rest of us were carried along by all the euphoria. But Obama had at least recognised three years before that the USA could neither continue in Iraq and Afghanistan as it had done under George Bush, nor get involved in any overtly military way in Syria. The actions of the USA, UK and France over the last century have been a main cause of the Middle East’s problems (seeking causation is I admit a risky business, but on the one word ‘oil’ hinges much of the story), and a continuing attempt to impose solutions cannot be the way forward.

Some kind of equilibrium in the Middle East will only be achieved by allowing conflicts to find their own more local resolutions. Holding back has taken much more courage than renewed military intervention would have done.

I’m well aware of the impact that Putin has had in Syria in recent months. But that cannot change the main argument. The USA, and Europe, has no choice but to work with Putin, whatever old-style neo-con and new-fangled bludgeoning interventionists might argue. IS is a different matter, a vile and inhuman organisation, with which no-one can negotiate, and which can have no place in a peace settlement in Syria – which Assad must have. And I’m not going to attempt here any appraisal of clone attacks on Taliban targets in Pakistan: that would be taking us into a whole additional area of future modes of warfare, and their morality and implications for the rest of the world.

Obama cannot claim any headline agreements or extraordinary successes in his foreign policy. But he has established in direction of traffic, and that could – should – be much more important than any short-term gains.

Given the malfunctioning Congress and the pretty vile right-wing press Obama has faced throughout he has remained remarkably cool, good-natured, level-headed. I hope the future will put up a few of like calibre. Sadly none are showing their faces just at the moment. It would be intriguing to consider if there could be candidates in any other country – the French economy minister Emmanuel Macron, for example. But that’s for another time and place.

Obama and the U.K.

In a world beset with fanciful notions of power and influence, Obama stands out as a voice of sanity. I love the fact that he went to the Globe to listen to extracts from Hamlet this morning (400 years to the day since Shakespeare’s death), and later on in an address to young people in London urged them to ‘reject pessimism and cynicism’ and ‘know that progress is possible and problems can be solved’. ‘Yes, we can’ for the next generation of voters.

There’s his welcome intervention in the EU debate, making clear the USA view that UK has and will have much greater influence as part of the EU, rather than outside. And pointing out that for the USA a trade deal with the UK wouldn’t be a priority – would come ‘at the back of the queue’. Waverers in the Brexit debate take note.

We’ve had as a response, ‘irrelevant’, from Liam Fox, ‘talking down Britain’ from Nigel Farage (Farage and I don’t live in the same country), and references to Obama’s part-Kenyan ancestry from Boris Johnson. To think that a fool such as Boris has aspirations to be prime minister of this country.

‘Take a longer, more optimistic view of history.’ That’s also from Obama’s speech this morning. I’m tired in the context of the EU debate of hearing about a disfunctioning country, and a disfunctioning institution over in Brussels, linked to an extraordinarily optimistic vision of a golden age that lies around the corner, or up in the sky, outside the EU.

(Malfunctions are addressed by imagination and time and hard grind – not by magic pills.)

Aristophanes in his play The Birds positioned Cloud Cuckoo Land up in the sky, a kingdom of the birds between earth and the gods, and that’s roughly where the Brexit campaigners would leave us.

Staying with Ancient Greece, there’s a creature in Greek mythology known as a chimaera, an assemblage of the parts of other animals, ‘a monstrous, fire-breathing hybrid creature’ (Wikipedia). It usually had the head of a lion, and the head of a goat sticking out of its back, and a tail of a snake ending in another head. I can’t resist imagining Boris as the lion, head and shaggy mane, and Nigel as the goat. Who might be worthy of the tail?

Answers, please, on a postcard.

Taking the measure of Shakespeare

Justice and mercy – concepts which Shakespeare simply takes in his stride. His characters take up the arguments: Shakespeare himself stood above the fray. A way of avoiding arrest for sedition? ‘No, that’s not what I believe,’ he might have said, ‘that’s Angelo, or the Duke, or Isabella.’

They are concepts which weave their way through Measure for Measure, which I’ve recently read for the first time. The title refers to a passage in Matthew’s gospel: ‘…and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.’

For the story in outline – read on.

Angelo, left in charge by the Duke, who isn’t too keen on worldly affairs (‘I love the people,/But do not like to stage me to their eyes…’ – a reticence many in our time could usefully copy), sentences Claudio to death for the offence of – put simply – sex before marriage. Is this justice?

At the time he’s arrested Claudio accepts his guilt – and it seems, his fate: ‘Our natures do pursue,/Like rats that do ravin down their proper bane,/ A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.’

The Duke likewise supports the rule of law and its stern implementation:

‘Now as fond fathers,/having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,/Only to stick it in their children’s sight/For terror, not to use, in time the rod/Becomes more mocked than feared: so our decrees/Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,/ and Liberty plucks justice by the nose,/The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart/Goes all decorum.’

Now, quite apart, from anything else, the language is extraordinary. As a fond father I never threatened with twigs of birch, but I did try and ensure that the baby didn’t beat the nurse – or the dad. I love the half-rhyme of ‘nose’ and ‘nurse’. Stating the supremely obvious, Shakespeare was one hell of a poet.

I won’t recount the full story. But Claudio has a beautiful sister, Isabella, a novice nun, no less. Isabella pleads for mercy for her brother – pleas rejected by Angelo – in language reminiscent of Portia in the Merchant of Venice. Compare:

(Isabella) ‘…Well, believe this,/No ceremony that to great ones ‘longs, /Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword, /The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe, /Become them with one half so good a grace /As mercy does.’

(Portia) ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d,/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:/’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown;/His sceptre shows the force of temporal power…’

But then Angelo suggests a cruel bargain. He promises to free Claudio – if Isabella will sleep with him. Back to the Bible, and seeing the mote in another’s eye and not the beam in your own. (I grew up with metaphors such as this – but I doubt if my children would understand…)

The Duke has wisely kept Angelo under surveillance, and Angelo is tricked into sleeping with his ex-fiancee, Mariana, who he has cast aside, while thinking it’s Isabella – a very Shakespearian stratagem. (Always check who you’re sleeping with – that might be the warning here!)

There’s more, but it’s enough to remark how Shakespeare supports authority, but with a light touch – reminding us of the hypocrisy which too often (I was going to say always, but maybe we should let the Duke off – he seems an all-round good guy) goes hand-in-hand with authority.

Shakespeare never preaches – he leaves that to his characters. Sexual desire is part and parcel of life, and the rough, and the tumble, and the illicit and the licit, it’s all of a piece, all part of his story. To take out sexual desire would be ‘to geld and spay all the youth of the city’ (in Lucio’s words).

I could find all sorts of parallels with our own time. We have the current case of the Culture Secretary, and his affair with a hooker, and the press of which he’s in charge of regulating claiming that they didn’t report the story before because it wasn’t in the public interest. Hypocritical tosh of the highest order.

But that’s enough – let Shakespeare speak for himself. He is the world in microcosm, and even though he was writing four centuries ago the characters who walked the stages of the Globe or the Swan still walk our streets and share our beds today.


Workers or shirkers

There was a BBC2 programme on ‘workers or shirkers’ last night, exploring a division which dates back to Victorian times (and earlier), to notions of the deserving and undeserving poor.

Ian Hislop (and it came over very much as his programme) provided some interesting background detail, taking us back to the 1830s and Edwin Chadwick and the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which established the Victorian workhouse. We had Chadwick’s categorisation of the population from worker to able-bodied vagabond (I don’t have access here to the exact categories), all very utilitarian, but it was often brutal in its effects, and stigmatised poverty. Hislop of course doesn’t stigmatise but he fails in his programme to get to grips with what being an outsider in society entails. A wiser programme might have used that word – those destined to be ‘outside’ the mainstream – the unemployed, the handicapped, the uneducated, the illiterate – people from broken homes, with no parental role models, in reduced circumstances, people losing jobs in towns where there are no jobs available or only the most menial. The poor – and, too often, the elderly.

The very use of the word ‘shirkers’ is playing the tabloid’s game. Likewise using George Osborne’s 2012 Conservative Party conference speech: Osborne’s imaginary worker, setting off to work seeing the ‘closed blinds of [his] next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits’. The polarity is totally wrong. Yes, there is a category of able-bodied worker who chooses not to work when there are good opportunities for them to do so – the press parades them when it can find them.

My own experience (not least of education) suggests that it’s de-industrialisation, the switch from industry to services, available jobs now being of a fundamentally different kind, and in different locations, which lies at the heart of the problem. In Victorian times the surge to the cities brought problems of poverty on a massive scale. Today it’s the re-location of industry away from existing cities and towns, not least in the north of England, and the growth of new industries, especially service industries, in very different areas, which has brought new problems. Urban poverty has always been with us, and too easily becomes institutionalised. What we’re not faced with, contrary to what some would have us believe, is a wild and wilful recalcitrance.

If you’re ‘working class’, probably with a rented home, little by way of savings, limited education – when you’re world goes wrong you have nothing to fall back on. Maybe there’s a job sweeping streets, or loading shelves, paying little – much less than in a previous job. If you’re ‘middle class’, educated, home-owner, with friends and relations who may be able to help – you’re sheltered from the worst. And – if you’re lazy, don’t feel inclined to work too hard, or to get on too far in life,  it doesn’t really matter. Your circumstances will be reduced, but there will be no-one out there pointing a finger at you.

We’re back – and I’ve argued this many times – to compassion, and at the heart of compassion lies understanding. Hislop never once mentioned compassion, and never once tried to understand, to get inside the mind, the reality, of being an outsider.

That simple polarity – you’re a worker, or you’re a shirker. Hislop ended his programme by repeating it and pronouncing, ‘I’m with the workers.’ As he claimed most people are when presented with that false division. And that division has of course become the stock-in-trade of the press. Forty years ago we accepted and were proud of the welfare state and we had moved a long way from that Victorian divide. But it’s now back, and it’s pretty brutal, and where once the BBC might have been expected to show some neutrality – and indeed recognise the plight of society’s outsiders, it’s no longer fashionable to do – or maybe, and simply, the BBC no longer dares to show a heart of its sleeves.

And finally – Hislop made no mention at all of the extraordinary population growth in the early 19th century, consequent upon the industrial revolution, and the major problems faced by cities such as Manchester. See Alison Light’s Common Ground for the situation in Cheltenham. The Poor Law Amendment Act was a response to a perceived and real emergency. We have no such excuse in our own times.

Yes, there is a continuing discussion to be had about whether or not austerity has gone too far, and payments of some benefits have increased to an extraordinary degree in recent years. There are issues to be addressed but the worker-shirker divide is entirely the wrong context.

The Lake District – Langdale valley, April, inclement

3pm said the forecast for the weather to go downhill. It’s 1.30 and we’re sheltering in the Sticklebarn pub in the Langdale valley. Only sheep and walkers and rain, or hail and snow and rain, happen in the Langdales. The seasons arrive late, but the weather arrives early.

Climbing up to Crinkle Crag – all hail and snow and gales, all hail Macbeth, and it’s rocky, and I’m wet, but there’s something bizarrely joyful about it all. What – in weather like this – the hell am I doing here?

Lichen, extravagant orange, marks marks grey stone – as if the farmer had thought a stone to be sheep, but his palette, equally extravagant (poor multi-coloured beasts) is red and blue. (And not just the sheep – for tractors his palette is red, yellow and green.)

A line of trees marking the road heading away down the valley appears to be a natural extension of our mountain path – but we must allow for a 1000ft drop down to….

a drowned landscape – every field waterlogged, patterning the land, picking out the rain sky, and the cloud sky, and the fleeting sunlight.

Screes emerge out of rock valleys and spill down the sheer side of Pike o’Stickle – once fifty years I ran the screes but could I have run these screes as once I thought and if I did how come I’m now alive?  Memory playing false. 

We met two other walkers, one having left at 7 and now wet and joyful and talkative and springing done the mountain, and another on the way up, gloomy, a grunt returns a greeting, a plague on other walkers – dealing with inner demons.

We have no inner demons, but it’s our fear of outer demons, interlacing the gale and hail, that drive us off the summit ridge. You can see the lines of hail on a photo of me, bedraggled, smiling – slow exposure (photo not me) in the gloom.

(Four years ago we were here, and walking down to Three Tarns we met someone who’d climbed Everest the previous year – and all four of us took a wrong path down. It was summer, and a 10-minute mistake. But I’ve always felt reassured that we shared our error with an Everest mountaineer.)

We’re back in the hostel. Once a Victorian baronial pile. Silence and you hear the wind in the high-vaulted roof. Talk and words resound – you hear life stories, and they echo round. Hotels are for privacy, hostels are for sharing histories and exploits.

Youth hostels – almost fifty years on, and we’re all ages, and school-holiday children are belting around, making noise, and no-one cares. Who needs hush inside, when all is gale outside. Or in the morning after the gale, when all is still.