The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

Comedy rules – two great American novels 

We were in my last blog on the road in America, fifty years ago, give or take.

It put me in the mood for more America. Better wild and offbeat, I thought, rather than Frantzen-style intensive scrutiny. So having read the blurb I picked up Paul Beatty’s new novel, The Sellout, and read it just a week before it won the Man Booker prize last Tuesday. And that put me in the mood for a novel written almost fifty years ago, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

We’re in New Orleans, well away from all the California fun and games. Toole creates one of the great comic heroes, Ignatius J Reilly. A medievalist by education and inclination, preferring his own room and company, yet forced to work he creates chaos in the sales office of Levy Pants, and confusion in the streets as a hot-dog salesman. He is wonderfully quotable.

Optimism nauseates me. It is perverse. Since man’s fall his proper position in the universe has been one of misery.’ Advising us to avoid all of history apart from the early medieval he recommends that ‘for the contemporary period , you should study some selected comic books’. Strangely prophetic. ‘I suspect that I am the result of a particularly weak conception on the part of my father. His sperm was probably emitted in a rather offhand manner.’

Ignatius’s New Orleans is a place I’d want to visit: I was there in 1971, and might have met him, had he existed… but I listened to jazz and didn’t scratch below the surface.

Likewise Dickens, the LA ghetto brought back to life in Paul Beatty’s novel. Dickens had somehow dropped off the map. Along with segregation – blacks shutting out whites – Beatty’s hero and narrator wants to put it back. He also unwittingly takes on Hominy, a one-time child actor who insists on being his slave. So as a black man he’s taken before the courts, on charges of slavery and segregation, and the novel begins and ends with the case brought before the Supreme Court. Black comedy in every sense, but such is Beatty’s commitment to irreverence that he absolutely gets way with it.

Unlike Jonathan Frantzen’s families, who I wouldn’t want to meet, I’d love to have got acquainted with Toole’s and Beatty’s characters in real life. Though maybe not more than acquainted….

And now we have Donald Trump acting out one of the great American comedy turns. Only it’s not comedy. Would he was a novel, and we could laugh.

America shares its life with us. We could be put off but we know, or we should know, that our own lives in our own countries are just as absurd, just as lost and lonely, mixed-up, angry, funny, devoted, passionate. So two cheers for America. If only we could slip in there, past the miserable souls who staff the airport arrival halls – and wearing ear mufflers which let in the roar of both the big city and the prairie winds but shut out the news networks which blight every bar and home.

Something for Google to look into. I don’t want a Google glass which enhances my experience. Rather mufflers that screen out …

On the road 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,/Healthy, free, the world before me,  /The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.              Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Whitman walked, we’re driving. We’re in the USA. A far cry from the Camino. And yet….

We’ve not planned our journey, we don’t have expectations, there isn’t a goal. There’s no history along the way, the road is open, everyone and no-one has trodden this route before us. Encounters with God are accidental not planned. We don’t walk or shuffle, we drive. Our minds picks up the blisters, wheels the wear and tear, not our feet.

We travel in a straight line, travelling west, heading for the sierras and the ocean. America travels in straight lines. Or back east. Start in New York, or California. Route 1 or Route 66, or the Pacific Coast Highway. Keep travelling.

The hobo, riding the blinds… rootless … looking for work: ‘I’ve been doing some hard travellin’, as Woody Guthrie sang.

The Beats by contrast had it easy. Kerouac was out of Columbia University. But like the hobos they were footloose, in mind and body. Searching for God, as Kerouac put it, not work.

Heirs of Whitman, and Emerson, and Thoreau. Even John Muir, though the Beats travelled the road not the wilderness.

They’d escaped the impact of war, the road network arrowed across America, an invitation, the cars that travelled it were streamlined. How lucky and how unlucky they were. War and its aftermath were three thousand miles away, too young to fight or worry, they didn’t have to agonise over combat or parade a political conscience. They were beyond their upbringing… drugs and sex came easily. And jazz. California Zen was a convenient religion – Dharma Bums as well as On the Road.

The Midwest and California have their own dreams and myths. The Beats were originally out of New York, but found California. California lifestyle reinterprets America. Putting up a different dream against New York. Not a Hollywood dream. Precursors to hippies, but they didn’t seek to change the world – not just yet. Challenge because they couldn’t help it – witness the obscenity trials – but not change it. America was their head space, not a place beyond.

They could be measured, a little bit lyrical:

‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’ (Kerouac, On The Road)

And out of their minds:

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,…./who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,/who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull….(Howl, Ginsberg)

And as for me…

It’s 1971 – I’m on the open road, on the Beat trail, starting in New York, ending in California. A road journey, yes, but no automobile of my own. And I’m not hitch-hiking. Taking Greyhound buses city to city. The bus has its own iconography. Bus stations, hostels, camping out with friends in New Jersey, Toronto, Atlanta, Colorado, San Francisco, San Diego. Sleeping rough in Chattanooga. I couldn’t listen to music – but I could read. So Whitman and his streams of consciousness my companion. And Albert Marcuse. Mine was a counter-culture. I might teach history on California, but I wasn’t planning to sully myself with any other work along the way. No encounters with God, but charity from a Baptist preacher who paid for my breakfast and invited me to lunch with his family – but first I must attend his Sunday morning service, and hear him preach.

The long road north out of Texas, straight and parched and empty. Colorado I sensed was still Indian country. San Diego: we were all still hippies at heart. Barefoot and beaten by the sun. I could have tried surfing but instead I headed south, took to the road again, to Mexico. But the Mexicans wouldn’t let me in. Hair too long. Strange irony. They weren’t sure they wanted me back in America either. They cut back my visa to one month. I returned to Mexicali my hair shorn and my ears, unaccustomed to the sun, grew burnt and blistered, as I headed south to Oaxaca, the Yucatan and Chichen Itza.

Did the road came first, or the need to travel it? The road without destination, always going somewhere. Road movies aren’t about physical, but personal destinations. About setting out and avoiding arriving. Not seeking self-knowledge …but maybe achieving it. Though not knowing what to do with it.

My trip was my own road movie, before they invented the genre.

The road’s just one agenda for America. America has multiple agendas, it’s own powerful myths and images, but they have a kind of surface quality. Still a dream. Europe has multi-thousand years of history interwoven into its structures, artefacts and traditions. They root us, define us, hold us back and lift us up – America isn’t tied down – it looks for, loses, its way, finds it again.

James Dean on the one hand, Howl on the other. Drugs, sex, Zen … they are unto themselves, not adjuncts of another culture, a music, a street culture.

I’ve avoided the noise and anger and foolery of America for a while. But I’ll go back. Maybe because there’s no place for complacency – and no place for rebellion – quite like it. It has open spaces, and straight roads, and you can still be alone there. And the skies are big. And there are millions there like me. Chugging along, rebels at heart.

‘The normal parameters’

“I am endorsing Hillary. And all her lies and all her empty promises. I am endorsing Hillary. The second worst thing that could happen to this country. But she’s way behind in second place, you know? She’s wrong about absolutely everything – but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”

We enjoyed PJ O’Rourke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Serious, yes, but with a sense of the absurd which gets to the heart of things. There’s no-one else like him. (He’s a great fan on Jon Stewart, on the other side of the political spectrum.)

Who else is out there beyond Trump, beyond the normal parameters? A serious party game – where protagonists just might come to blows.

Thinking of the UK.

Farage, or farrago, as my spellcheck would have it, of course: he like Trump claims to be within boundaries. He’s fooled a good few people. But closet racism, and recent support for Trump, place him firmly outside.

Corbyn, with his past support for elective dictatorships like the Chavez regime, and backing from trade unions who muddle the pursuit of workers’ rights with political agendas from another era – likewise.

Sections of the Tory party, the libertarian Davies and Fox wing, are on the parameter edge, and should never ever be near positions of powers, let alone dictating.

O’Rourke takes inspiration from Hayek, and avows a small government, minimal intervention agenda. That’s firmly within. We’ve been battling in the UK and USA between big and small government for decades – and that’s the way debate should be.

*

Read on for O’Rourke on Brexit.

He recounted interviews he did for an American public radio programme: he’d set out to understand why Brits voted for Brexit. He quoted a ‘financier’ who argued that the euro and probably the EU was going down the tube sooner rather than later, so best get out now. (To which the obvious reply is – we’ll be hit amidships anyway, and immeasurably better to be in there, influencing proceedings.)

And a more cogent argument – this is no longer the country we grew up in. The older generation’s lament. It isn’t the same country of course, and it’s the same for every generation. The sanity of representative democracy normally allows us trade-offs between young and old, and we move forward, an erratic progress maybe, but progress nonetheless. But not when you chuck a referendum into the mix.

Not a point that O’Rourke made, but a US presidential election has some of the characteristics of a referendum, in the sense of the media blitz and the half-truths, and this time the blatant untruths. But running in parallel are the Congressional elections. There’s balance in the US political system (which sure as hell isn’t perfect!), which brings politics back closer to the centre, where both sides have their say, and policy evolves out of a rough consensus – policies and programmes balancing out over time.

(At least, there was a balance, before Tea Party, and Cruz, and acolytes, and now Trump, came along.)

But referendums on their own – overriding representative, parliamentary democracy… that’s another story.

‘Normal parameters.’ Depart too far, allow prejudice and ideology to take centre stage, and the damage could be irreparable.

 

Countering Extremism 

Another remarkable discussion at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. This time on countering extremism. How best to handle radical Islam is a contentious issue. And that’s a significant impediment in itself. But first and foremost, we have to be better informed.

Peter Frankopan, who chaired the panel of three (see * below for the participants) asked the audience, a full house in the town hall, how many of us had read the Koran. Maybe two or three put up their hands. We rely too much on opinions, commentators and hearsay, selective reporting and prejudice. Sadly I guess most of us won’t be rushing off to buy and read copies. But we owe it to ourselves, to the Muslim communities in our midst, and to our own futures, to be better informed.

Continue as we are now, and we will continue as polarised communities.

Radical Islamists argue that the West and Islam are incompatible, put a distorted view of Islam up against a immoral West beyond redemption. So young Muslims, already feeling excluded, feel they have to take sides.

As a society, whatever faith or non-faith we profess, we need counter-arguments, and at the core of these arguments must be inclusion – Muslims should be, must be, as much a part of this society as Christians. Prejudice is a conflicting and self-defeating agenda.  Achieve inclusion, and we can make  democracy, liberty, free speech shared values, across all communities.

Inclusion requires commitment on both sides, on all sides. We have a long way to go.

*Chaired by Peter Frankopan, and drawing on the experience of Sara Khan, founder of the charity Inspire, which challenges extremist ideologies in Muslim communities, Peter Neumann, academic and author of ‘Radicalised’, and Hanif Qadir, a one-time recruit to radical Islam now working with young people in danger from radicalisation.

Beneath a tamarisk tree on the Cornish coast

Reading Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore Sonnets, sitting beneath a tamarisk tree on the north Cornish coast.

…hankering after stone
That connived with the chisel, as if the grain
Remembered what the mallet tapped to know.

That ties in well with the landscape all about me, which has memories of many millennia stored within its rocks, ancient tracks, stone-hedged fields and sand dunes.

I love its blooms like saucers brimmed with meal,
Its berries a swart caviar of shot,
A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple 

Might that change the way you look upon the elderflower forever, or might it just be, depending on your mood, overwritten and overblown?

The tamarisk was planted long ago, when houses were cottages, and the land was ploughed, and the season was the farmer’s all year round, and not just the holiday-maker’s summer months. The wind scurries the fronds, a Cornish blue beyond and above, but they’re so fine that their susurrations lose out to the ash tree, which with the freshness of youth is a sounding-board for the breeze.

The tamarisk branches move uneasily, they creak, and the ash sways. The ash is all deep shade, the tamarisk a light touch of sun. A gull squawks, and when the wind falls low, there’s the distant sound of a combine harvester, for fields still do run away inland, when you climb beyond the pitched roofs and white facades of the holiday homes.

Inheriting a library

Inheriting books – that sets up a whole further range of problems. Problems I’m delighted to have but I’m also inheriting a responsibility. To a great aunt, who I knew well, but now I know her library – and I wish I’d known her better. Her books which take me through from 1910 to her death in the late 1990s are the story of her life – the intellectual, literary story. She read English at Oxford in the 1920s, but never worked, other than as a companion to a fierce-looking great-grandmother of mine, who I never knew.

When I downsized from house to flat I threw away some of the cheap novels (Everyman’s Library and the like) which had been her everyday reading staple – many duplicating books where I already owned copies, and others by authors hardly ever read today. But – for a few years now I’ve felt guilty. They were a mini-library, a personal story, and I wish we hadn’t parted company. I do sometimes imagine her up there, Auntie Frances, with a stern look and a gently wagging finger.

She was born in 1900 and her grandfather was the manager of a cotton mill, or so I understand, in Manchester, and he lived in Prestwich, and he was educated, a member of the new affluent middle class, that Manchester middle class which was the first real middle class in the whole wide world, and he was a book collector, and his books which my great aunt inherited were a pride and joy to her. And now to me.

As examples, two marvellous volumes, London City and London Suburb, which he subscribed for in the 1870s, and his name is in the back, along with all the other subscribers. Bound sets of Studio magazine. Beautifully bound volumes with tinted and tissued paintings of birds and flowers. Macauley’s History of England, in five volumes. Five – but I can only find four. I must have the fifth, surely? (I will be searching.) A middle section of  binding on the spine of volume two has come away, and that is on a small pile of books to be repaired. The metal clasp on a miniature prayer book has already been repaired.

But my biggest puzzle is a volume where the front cover hangs by a thread, and the opening pages are missing. Two books are bound together – a bible from the 1730s and a prayer book from the 1780s. Don’t ask me why they’re bound together. I will need to research.

The more I explore behind the old bindings the more conundrums, and the greater my pleasure. I now have a bookbinder who can help me out. And I will read – in so many ways Victorian books are superior to those of our own time – finer bindings, and illustrations each one of which was a labour of love.

Thirty years ago my great aunt took one book from her collection and gave it to me as a present. Pigot’s County Atlas of England, from 1840. Individual county maps, and a four-way fold-out map of England. I loved it, and when I set up my own publishing company in 1989, the little-lamented Garamond, I published it as a facsimile edition. It looked and looks superb, and I took delight seeing it featured in bookshop window displays. But, the book itself, well, it had to be broken apart before being sent for repro, and it came back to me with the counties as individual parts, the boards (cover) intact, but unbound. And it stayed that way until a month ago, and now at a cost of £230 I’ve had it rebound, and I’m as chuffed as can be to have it there, on my coffee table.

There’s another story to the book. My great-grandfather, whose second wife was the fierce-looking (and black-robed) lady I mention above,  was a successful builder – he built many the houses and shops which line the streets of Bramhall, my home village in Cheshire. And a young man, he’d worked for the rector of nearby Mobberley, the Reverend Herbert Leigh Mallory, the father of George Mallory, long a hero of mine, who lost his lfe along with Sandy Irvine somewhere above the Second Step just below the summit of Everest in 1924. His body was found in 1999.  So my atlas would have been in George’s library in the Mobberley rectory when he was growing up. I like that idea, and wonder if he might have perused and pored over it as I like to do.

I asked Noel Odell, the last man to see Mallory alive, disappearing into cloud, when I met him thirty years ago at the Royal Geographical Society, whether he thought Mallory and Irvine had made it to the summit – he was sure they had.

There will be other stories, I’m sure. More bookish adventures.