‘Putin, Russia and the West’

The series ‘Putin, Russia and the West’, dusted down by the BBC, has been compulsive viewing over the last three weeks – the last episode was on Wednesday night. Made in 2012 it was highly controversial at the time. It was described by the UK-based Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky as ‘nothing less than a party political broadcast for Putin and his United Russia party’. An article in the Moscow Times suggested that the makers of the series viewed ‘Putin’s anti-democratic crusade [as] largely a legitimate reaction to the hostile policies of the West, especially the United States’.

It’s ten years on, and that’s not remotely how I’d describe the series.

The USA under George Bush does come over as being naive, and outwitted by Putin – in that first episode. (Bush argued that he had been able ‘to get a sense of Putin’s soul.’) The many interviews given by Russian government ministers were all very plausible. But they all fell then, and even more so now, into line behind the boss.

Episode two tells a different story– 2004 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Putin is shown as being devious in the extreme, and still he lost out. Georgia, and its attempts in 2008 to reclaim the secessionist and pro-Russian areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was the subject of the third episode. Russia held all the cards, Georgia could be wiped out militarily if it chose, and the Georgian president, Saakashvili, was more than rash to take him on – however justified it might have seemed.

Honours even, maybe, up to that point. But if you watch nothing else – watch episode four. Medvedev is president, and new president Obama reaches out, and it’s all smiles and mutual understand. You get to like Medvedev. He signs a new START agreement with Obama. We have brinkmanship on both sides. But Medvedev signs.

He and Putin had, however, an agreement – one or other would be president after the next election in 2012, and Putin won their United Russia party over to his side. Medvedev’s attempts to open up Russia to the West, to Silicon valley, to Western-style media – all sidelined, ultimately crushed by Putin.

What is so galling – we, Russia and the West – we got so close.

By the end of episode four you know the die is cast. The invasion and occupation of Crimea and the Donbas came two years later. Now even the Russian Orthodox Church is arguing the cause of Mother Russia: ‘God’s truth’ is on Russia’s side.

A rapprochement with Russia would have been an example to the world, with very practical consequences in the case of Syria, and for China given the unholy alliance it has now forged with Russia. That said, how much it would have reduced the Western world’s obsession with its own self-interest is debatable. Many if not most of the world’s problems would be as they are now, albeit in a different form.

There is one overriding conclusion I’d draw, and that is the danger of ‘great men’, or ‘strongmen’, to use Gideon Rachman’s term in his new book, ‘The Age of the Strongmen’*. They can come to characterise a nation, as Putin is now attempting to characterise Russia. And we are tempted to judge the Russian people as we judge him.  When we make judgements, draw up sanctions and cut economic ties we need to keep this in mind. Why ban Russians from playing at Wimbledon if they are avowed opponents of the regime? Why stop playing Russian music?

Putin is Rachman’s archetype for the ‘strongman’. Erdogan in Turkey, Xi Jinping, Duterte in the Philippines, Orban in Hungary all fit the bill. All maintain friendly relations with Putin. And Marine Le Pen?

Remember Dmitry Medvedev? My final image has to be of Medvedev, at a session immediately before the invasion of President Putin’s 30-member security council, of which he’s now deputy head, parroting his master’s insistence that Ukraine is a natural part of Russia. He looked strained, and his other recent pronouncements suggest a degree of brainwashing.

How could the reasonable man of 2011 fall so low?

* ‘The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World’.

Reading the Telegraph

Buy a newspaper you don’t normally read ….

Last Monday (11th April) it was the Daily Telegraph. The headline of an article by Tim Stanley had caught my eye: ‘The French establishment is not fit for purpose.’ In this context it is the French ‘centre’, and Emmanuel Macron, he’s referring to.

That word ’establishment’ again. A club no-one owns to being a member of. Think … the MPs’ expenses scandal, think Brexit, think ‘us and them’, with the Telegraph, the ‘us’ brigade par excellence, trying to kid ordinary folk that they, the Telegraph, represent ‘them’, the outsiders, the done-down.

I turned to the centre pages. To the left, an article by Theresa May’s old right-hand, Nick Timothy, and indications of Tory infighting. He agonises about complacency in the Tory party. That Johnson, he suggests, should survive is absurd. The Party is deluding itself. ‘Johnson has deliberately formed a third-eleven cabinet, to avoid creating powerful rivals.’ (Having played third-eleven cricket when I aspired to the first eleven, the analogy hits home.) Timothy is talking sense.

Only so far – he indicates support for the government’s despicable plan to despatch asylum seekers to Rwanda.

To the right, a typical Telegraph, gung-ho, latter-day-Thatcherite leading article. Under Thatcher a ‘defining characteristic’ of the Tories had been ‘an unashamed celebration of self-made success’. The Left derided this as a ‘loads-of-money’ fixation with wealth. ‘Right’ and ‘Left’: this dumb polarisation of Right and Left. We have, it seems, to be one or the other, when most of us are somewhere in between. But the Telegraph and the right wing of the Tory party aren’t comfortable without an enemy. 

Read on. ‘The government is ‘fearful of doing anything that might benefit moderate or high earners’. It is ‘like Labour obsessed with the distributional impact of its policies’, though the fuel tax cut in Sunak’s recent budget would suggest otherwise. If there was any (re-)distributional element in that budget it passed me by.

At the bottom of the page we have the article I mentioned above, by Tim Stanley, about France and last Sunday’s French election. The centre in French politics is it seems ‘zigging about like a jelly on a wild horse’. Marine Le Pen has been ‘detoxified by the French establishment’. It seems the centre and the establishment are, once again, one and the same. That old trope. With an immigrant issue that has been massively politicised by the hard Right, one hand, and a radical left galvanised by Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Bernie Sanders of American politics (that may be unfair on both of them!) on the other, the centre in France, if it is to hold, has a fight on its hands.

Le Pen has said that she ‘would quit NATO’s integrated military command and seek a closer alliance with Russia if she were elected’ (New York Times)

That’s where a better and wiser journalist than Tim Stanley would be focusing his attention.

Trespass – good or bad?

A few thoughts on The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes. Published in autumn 2020 it was released in paperback last autumn.

Hayes has written a remarkable book. He trespasses on some of England’s biggest estates, climbing walls or crossing rivers as necessary. But all his trespasses would be allowable under Scottish law.

His focus is on property, and on how attitudes to property have evolved to accord with (or, put another way, dictated) the status quo in each generation. He’s not advocating revolution or confiscation. The world is as it is. His argument is for open access, and he makes it with learning and skill, and of course the necessary irreverence.

Vast acres of our landscape are the results of enclosures going back to the 16th century. And earlier. He’s good at that break-out into early modernity which followed the Reformation. Captain Pouch, and the brutality that followed rebellion in response to hunger, in the 17th century, is just one example. Hayes’s is an outsider’s view of history, and you learn new things – see them in a different way. All the while he’s gently trespassing and lighting fires and camping out.

One hero is Roger Deakin, another natural outsider. But Hayes for his part has a more  political message. There are so many examples one could quote. The 1824 Vagrancy Act as a response to soldier returning from the Napoleonic Wars without employment and hungry. He homes in on the Drax family and fortune (the head of the family is an MP) and its origins in slavery. They see no reason to feel any guilt.  William Beckford’s fortune was also based on slavery, his reputation muddled up with his status as a gay hero. Basildon Park and India, and the cornering of trade and disempowering of India and Indians, on which its fortunes were based.   

Early on Hayes brings in then foundational tome of English law, Blackstone’s Commentary, to show how the law was on the side of the men of property. Thomas Hobbes has property as a man-made construct, ‘designed to lift us out of our state of nature’. Grotius considers property as an institution invented by man but once invented it became a ‘law of nature’. For John Locke Locke if you mixed labour, ‘something this is his own’, with land he ‘thereby makes it his property’.  Blackstone asserted that ‘occupancy gave also the original right to the permanent property in the substance if the earth itself’.

We haven’t moved on much from Gainsborough’s gentleman’s idea of the English countryside. We don’t challenge the origins of the great estates. Or at least we didn’t. Which side are we on in that great debate? The National Trust is doing its best to steer a course.  There’s Croome Park in Worcestershire, half an hour from where I live, where the Trust is restoring the park to its Capability Brown glory, with some farming added in. It’s what the public wants and there lies the great irony.

We love the landscapes we’re allowed into, but don’t worry too much about being excluded. Or most of us don’t. We’re urbanised. Open up the country and most of us wouldn’t go there anyway. Hayes’s will never become a great national cause. Landowners needn’t worry. Wilderness, the festival, is safe (less so the real thing, but that’s not Hayes’s subject), despite Hayes’s attempt to fray the edges.

‘Sealing of one part of the world from another’ is Orwell specifically on nationalism. Immigrants as cockroaches. Legitimised superiority by virtue of inherited property, birth and land, blood and earth. Fascist ideas of Blut und Boden. Now we have Putin: like the rest of us Hayes didn’t see him coming.  

Hayes is the forever outsider. At Heathrow or Basildon Park or Windsor Park, he captures the landscape and the mood and the story. If they weren’t there and we were all insiders… but that can never be. (Each generation generates its own breed of powerful men, and maybe women, and they marry into the old money and land. Socialist experiments have got nowhere. Private enterprise allies with land and as liberalism is shoved aside, the boundaries shift a little or as in China radically change but boundaries remain. What do William the Conqueror and modern China have in common?)

Hayes the outsider. But I want to go with him where I can. To the hills above Hebden Bridge, bought as a shooting estate, where the moors are ‘systematically burned each year to increase the yield of new green shoots…’ I can’t see why I shouldn’t kayak on wide stretches of river. Apart from the fact I’m maybe too old. The USA seems to have got river access right early on. I’d like to see multiple footpaths opened up through great estates. And scrap this crazy world of breeding birds and then letting them out on the land for a few months in managed woodlands before shooting them.

Hayes begins with the 1932 Kinder Trespass – that’s my part of the world. Setting in train the idea that ultimately we’ll follow Scotland and open up access. Is he right that once you’ve seen the importance of land rights you can’t unsee them? Once seen, you can’t unsee the cat, as Henry George put it.

I love the ideas of heterotopia, spaces for outsiders forged deep inside society, and ‘third spaces, ‘where real life occurs’. Check them out. My daughter used to work for an organisation called ‘Free Space’, which found temporarily unoccupied spaces in London where arts projects (as I recall) could base themselves.

We need more wildernesses. (But that isn’t really Hayes’s subject. He’s not a romantic, a Muir or a Hopkins, espousing wildness for its own sake.) And charging for Stonehenge – maybe we have to. That means we exclude ‘whole sections of the population’. But is there anyone out there, other than midsummer Druids, who actually feel themselves excluded?  

So I’m with him all the way… only I’m not. And maybe he isn’t either. Turning the world upside down with some utopia at the end of the rainbow is a mug’s game. Anarchy will get us nowhere. Hayes would be lost. He’s happy with his tent and campfires. But a Robert Tombs-style history, upbeat about England and everything English, won’t get us anywhere either – unless it’s deeper into Brexit and petty nationalism. And we’d continue to walk as landowners dictate, and we may find as I have local field paths barbed-wired into the sides of fields, and rights of way diverted at a landowner’s behest, so that he can, as in one case I know, keep the best view for himself.

Apart from anything else it’s beautifully written and illustrated. In its own way it is a wonderfully wise book.

Decline of an empire?

Almost three weeks on. The USA is out of Afghanistan. Recriminations continue, and pundits have their say. Tony Blair called it imbecilic, and argued the West should stay to protect its gains. Niall Ferguson looked to historical analogies, and specifically Britain’s experience after 1918, focusing on the idea of decline of empire. He quoted Winston Churchill bitterly recalling a ‘refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the state.’ He quotes this against Biden, when it could be quoted in his favour. Biden has always been consistent on Afghanistan – see my last blog.

Ferguson as always gets to the heart of the matter but I’m not convinced by analogies. My experience as an historian tells me to enter caveats at every stage. Ferguson raised the spectre of American economic weakness, and the size of American debt.  But with a strong internal economy in no way is its economic situation comparable to Britain’s in the 1920s.

And what are the ‘gains’ the West has achieved in Afghanistan? We established a thriving outpost, with less than friendly counties on all sides. Abandoning it is a calamity, and it was massively mismanaged, but it had an inevitability about it. The Afghan army without the all-important bond and commitment of a national (as opposed to tribal) identity was always an artificial construct, and unlikely to hold together under duress, as the Taliban proved.  

It sounds as if I’m writing with the advantage of hindsight – which I am, of course. But the military reality should have been perfectly clear to the Americans. To Biden it may only have been the sheer speed of the collapse that took him by surprise.

The Economist was forthright: ‘America’s power to deter its enemies and re-assure its friends has diminished.’  ‘Its withdrawal is likely to embolden jihadists everywhere.’

Is that right? The Taliban will have no truck with terrorists. To have their success seen as a rallying call for Al-Shabaab, or any branch of IS, is in no way in their interest.  They made that mistake back in 2001. Their leaders know a little of life in Qatar.

It’s in the West’s interests to engage with the Taliban, to release (subject to conditions) the World Bank funding that is currently suspended, and to allow food programmes, specifically the World Food Programme, to continue, without conditions.

The first condition must be to show that the Taliban can assert its authority over all the whole country, and hold it together where all previous attempts have failed. The second is humanitarian – above all women’s rights, with regard to education and employment.

The Taliban may go part way, testing Western resolve. Our approach has to be pragmatic.

Biden, and Trump, and Obama, were all right: the USA has to focus on the Pacific, and China, while Europe and NATO ups its game in Europe. The oil imperative is not what it was. The Middle East and by extension Islam and Afghanistan no longer need to be theatres of Western operation. And we now know that the wider world doesn’t look upon Western-style democracy as some universal panacea.

Impose values (however sure we may be that they are right) and resentment, and then outright opposition, are likely to follow. We need to remind ourselves that we lead best by example.

And that, turning the focus back on ourselves, is a hard hard road.

Museums – first steps toward censorship

A quick note this sunny bank holiday morning. Get the serious stuff off my mind before enjoying the day.

My last blog took in Empire and trade and how we handle our colonial legacy. I mentioned that Oxford’s Oriel College had decided not to ‘begin the process of removing’ the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Instead they’ve outlined a series of initiatives which will take the controversy as a starting point – a strategic plan for improving equality, diversity and inclusion, a tutor to cover the same, scholarships, an annual lecture, student prize…

This has to be the right way forward. The focus on context. By understanding context the college and by extension the university and indeed anyone who will listen can move forward.

The following report from the Independent has a very different story. It speaks for itself:

A trustee who backed the ‘decolonising’ of the curriculum has been purged from the board of a prestigious museum group, triggering the resignation of its chair in protest. The refusal to reappoint Aminul Hoque – a leading Bangladeshi-British academic – at the Royal Museums Greenwich is being seen as the latest example of the government’s ‘culture war’.

Likewise this item from the Museums Journal, highlighting a letter sent to national museums by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden which stated that ‘publicly-funded bodies should align with the government’s stance on contested heritage’.

‘The government did not “support the removal of statues or other similar objects” and told recipients (of a letter sent to national museums) that he “would expect arm’s lengths bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the government’s position”’.

This is simply sinister. The issue here is not the removal or otherwise of statues. It is the wider agenda implied. It represents an attempt to influence research into and the presentation of our cultural heritage which is simply unprecedented. That heritage, the impact of colonisation on the world, is what it is. And it needs to be centre-stage if we’re to understand the world we live in, and change it for the better.

Dowden insists that museums ‘continue to act impartially’ and by so doing interferes in an unprecedented and highly partial and dangerous way.

It is consistent with attempts to stir up a wider opposition to the BBC as a licence-funded operation, using its news coverage, which is to an impartial observer (check out opinions from other country’s on this!) remarkably impartial in an ever-more divided world, as an excuse for turning it into just another subscription channel, and thereby losing its identity as a national channel – leaving British TV open to market forces, which has of course been Rupert Murdoch’s aim all along.

The Diana/Martin Bashir story is almost twenty-five years old but is being treated as if it’s current news. By the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press. Murdoch is of course about to launch Times Radio to compete with BBC Radio.

We live in dangerous times, with the Americanisation of our media, and the serious consequences that could result, a real possibility. The tabloids and Telegraph and Times won’t help us. Their owners ensure their readers are unaware of the hard realities. Journalists and writers to get published need to toe the line. The BBC likewise must toe the line: it cannot make a case for itself. Social media is a deeply divided and contentious space.

Those of us who can must make our case as best we can. The wider public, most certainly in the case of the BBC, is on our side. Open minds and impartiality have become part of our DNA. We must not give them up lightly.

More thoughts for the day

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has the nation in mourning. We have something we, most of us, agree on. He was a good man, who, as Prince Albert before him, used his position to advance a wide range of good causes – the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme above all. He was also a fine cricketer, which does count for something.

And Rachael Blackmore won the Grand National quite brilliantly: the first woman jockey to do so.

The BBC ran tributes across all stations to the Duke. But elsewhere…

Hungary: ‘The last radio station that is critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government is due to go off the air.’ Poland: ‘Media freedom …now faces its greatest set of challenges since 2015 as the government continues to wage a multi-pronged attack on independent media … ‘ Both reports are dated February 2021. In the Czech Republic and Slovenia the independence of the state broadcaster is also under threat.

As for the BBC, we’re used to grumbles from left and right about bias toward the other side. Now the left, obsessed by its own squabbles and with a wholly outdated understanding of the working man, and with minimal support in the popular press, has lost all influence. Murdoch, on the other hand, that happy paragon of all that’s best in Aussie and American, is unchallenged. The Sunday Times on the Greensill collapse and David Cameron: hammering the Tory old guard might just suit Murdoch’s politics. Should I be suspicious?

Maybe now, with arch-disruptor Cummings consigned to outer darkness and Covid and the Red Wall north and big spending to focus on, the government will worry less about the BBC. They can burnish their social conservative credentials by insisting refugees go through official channels, as if any refugee has access to such things. They can espouse freedom of speech (in the face of ‘no platforming’) and mock wokery, but legislate to limit freedom of assembly. We will see how far they go.

I referred to ‘an outdated understanding of the working man’ on the left. That takes me to Red Wall seats ‘up north’, and the smart housing estates that are popping up everywhere, where houses are cheap, by comparison to London, and the standard of living, despite lower wage and salary levels than down south, relatively high. That is the new north, and it’s this that is probably driving the big increase in the Tory vote.

The old working class before the WW1 was instinctively conservative and Tory. They knew their place. The new prosperous working class has more confidence, they doff caps to no-one, and they’ve bought into what may or may not be the fiction that they have in the new Tory dispensation a recognised and valued place.

I’m reading Jesse Norman’s splendid biography of Adam Smith. Why would someone of Norman’s obvious sanity be serving in a government where pragmatism and the wide sympathies as evinced by Norman can be in short supply?Norman, on the way Friedmanite economics distorted and still radically distorts what Adam Smith really stood for, is revealing. Peter Kellner in the current edition of Prospect has a letter which suggests we should see the Tory party in terms of a Vann diagram, with old-style conservatism overlapping the new ideological variety. Norman maybe is the true conservative, and he needs to be in there to make certain the ideologues don’t take over.

And, finally, how the 18th century prefigured the 21st. Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, which had been a major port serving Europe for hundreds of years. His father was Comptroller of Customs for Kirkcaldy. The big switch over to Glasgow and the Clyde, and the American trade, not least tobacco, was already happening. By the 1750s Glasgow was importing more tobacco than all the English ports combined. It was the American economy that intrigued Smith. He looked west, not east. We have that dilemma to this day. Do we look west, or east? Glasgow ironically is now a stronghold of support for Scottish independence, and the Scot Nats look to Europe. England on the other hand would love that US trade deal….

Flying the flag

In yesterday’s news we had government minister Robert Jenrick ‘flying the flag’ on UK public buildings (the government will be making it a regulation), and displaying the flag prominently behind him in a BBC interview – and gentle comments from BBC journalists about the prominence of that flag being turned against the BBC. All staged in the cause of the new hard-right Tory jingoism.

Cass Sunstein’s new book This Is Not Normal is just out. Timely: it’s what Jenrick and other revanchist (meaning ‘recovering lost territory’) Tories are about. Trying to change the ‘normal’. Taking us back. Politics as a battleground. He won’t change the younger generation, so why polarise other than for electoral advantage – unless he really believes that we can turn back history by endless harping on about the past.

I’ll give no ground to anyone when it comes to pride in country – and that means patriotism. I’m English, and I’m British.  But I’m not lost in past glories, nor do I believe that we as a nation are better than other nations. What I want our focus to be on what we can offer other nations – and what they can offer us. Bringing the world closer together, while retaining our identities.

We polarise at our peril. We desperately need shared conversations and shared conclusions.

Zen is about being comfortable in the moment, and that means not grasping on to something – ‘grasping’ is a good word here. Not craving something you can’t have – in this context, the past. Or trying to define the future in terms of the past.

You can’t go back there. You can prop up all the ancient statues, send demonstrators down for ten years according to new draft legislation – but you can’t go back to the past.

Statues commemorate ‘heroes’ who died a natural death. Let their statues do the same. They occupy some important public spaces. Maybe a 50-year year max lifespan before they’re taken down – a hundred years for a big hero?

I’m being fanciful, but life is so much more fun that way. I came upon the following from a Buddhist commentary yesterday:  

‘But, if you have genuine insight and see clearly this bundle [life in all its aspects], constantly changing, now laughing, now crying, now being afraid, now having the silliest notions, now being quite sincere, now being very willing, now being compassionate: and you will see this bundle constantly changing through life; well, that is how it will go on.’*

I also read about a monk who would  ‘without breaking stride … gently close a gate that had blown open, and carefully pick up things that had blown down’. ‘Without breaking stride.’ Not easy I appreciate, but there’s a message here. Don’t stop. Don’t look back.

A quote from Sam Harris (see his app, ‘Waking Up’), an ardent secularist who learnt much from his stay in a Buddhist monastery, also caught my eye: ‘It’s in the nature of everything to fall apart… everything from our bodies, our relationships, our institutions, our understanding of the world … everything requires continuous maintenance…’

What struck me was that phrase, ‘everything requires continuous maintenance’. That’s what parliamentary democracy, deliberative democracy, open democracy, or whatever you call it – that’s what it’s all about. We’re in the here and now, and there’s much work to do here, not in some distant dream world.  

*from a commentary by the Venerable Myokyo-ni on ‘The Record of Rinzai’

Poetry and politics out of San Francisco

Ferlinghetti and Hirschman, and remembering also the Turkish writer, Ahmet Altan

Back in the 1950s and 60s people were living on the edge, as they are now, in Covid times. The threat of nuclear war was ever-present. And by the 60s many of us were engaged in a fully-fledged protest movement. But we could be out there, talking, drinking, smoking, demonstrating. And a whole lot more.

I’ve been reading two San Francisco poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Hirschman. Back in 1953 Ferlinghetti founded the City Lights Bookstore, and in 1956 he published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and after he was prosecuted famously won a court case asserting the right of free speech under the First Amendment. Some forty years later, in 1998, he was named the first San Francisco Poet Laureate. Hirschman, in 2006, was the fourth.  

I had a Hirschman book on order… this was last Monday. The following day there arrived an email from a friend over in the States with a PS – had I seen the news, Ferlinghetti had just died. Aged 101. I’m sad, really sad, he’s gone. Amazed he was still alive.

Remember Howl? OK, you don’t remember. We weren’t alive or we were too young. But it’s a manifesto for anarchy, of a very 1950s and 60s kind. Not the destructive anarchy of the New Right of our own time. It’s the dream anarchy that the world will somehow set itself right. It’s just that ‘America’ is getting in the way.  Ginsberg celebrates ‘the best minds of his generation’, they’re ‘angel-headed hipsters … who poverty and tatters and hollowed-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz’. It’s political – but it doesn’t have a prospectus. It just wants you to know that it scorns the whole crazy moneyed apparatus of society.

Ferlinghetti also had the anarchist instinct but he was a practical guy. Founded the bookstore, published Howl, won that court case. But he also knew how to hit home: his is a ‘concrete continent/ spaced with bland billboards/ illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness’. (A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958)  Come 2007 he was more relaxed, the gentrification of San Francisco a big issue. But he was still campaigning for ‘poems that say something supremely original and supremely important, which everyone aches to hear, poetry that cries out to be heard, poetry that’s news’. Maybe the mass media might just print it, if it was ‘a new kind of news’. Though maybe ‘poets would still be ignored by our dominant culture, because they’re saying what our materialist, technophiliac world doesn’t want to hear’.

He was also asking that big question – what exactly what is a poet? He’s like an acrobat ‘on a high wire of his own making/ … a little charliechaplin man/ who may or may not catch/her fair eternal form’ when she comes swinging toward him. That’s from ‘A Coney Island’. His ‘Challenges to Young Poets’ from forty years later keeps it simple: ‘Write short poems in the voice of birds.’

Hirschman was something else, a Street not a Beat poet, a radical communist. (His book, ‘All That’s Left’, arrived yesterday.) ‘It was the Street poets who united with common causes…’ He celebrated SF’s Cafe Trieste, where you’d find ‘local radiances like Lawrence Ferlinghetti’, and ‘the older Beats and Baby Beats and the commies, the surrealists, the anarchists, the socialists, the jazzmen, the urban screwballs, the walk-in weirdos’. From another age he remembered ‘Federico, who would die for poetry’ – Lorca was a hero. ‘The sinking house of the setting sun’ was how he characterised New Orleans after Katrina. And, remembering the Virginia Tech massacre of thirty-two people, he wrote, ‘and now you know what a market/in old Baghdad feels like.’.

By contrast, the latter-day Ferlinghetti could be whimsical, a poet to smile and relax with in poems such as the ‘Green Street Mortuary Marching Band’. But he was still the same man. ‘To the Oracle at Delphi’ talks of America as a ‘new Empire … with its electronic highways/carrying its corporate monoculture/round the world’. (San Francisco Poems, 2001)

Hirschman never let up – hasn’t I’m sure to this day. You may or may not appreciate his encomium on Fidel Castro. But in the case of Mumia (Mumia Abu-Jamal) he drills his message home. Black Panther background, sentenced to death for murder in 1981, commuted in 2001, still in jail, many still arguing his case and his cause. Mumia has studied, taken a degree, written books, and inspired, all from jail. Hirschman imagines his final victory – ‘your victory will be the priceless uplifting of the human spirit’.

He refers to Mumia as the ‘Nazim Hikmet/of the American grain, that Turkish poet who/spent 26 years in prison…. No amount of bars/or shackles can chain/the revolutionary impulse/of the human heart’.

Mumia’s case still divides America, along party lines, Right and Left. I am, over in the UK, in no position to comment on the rights and wrongs of his conviction. But the reference to Nazim Hikmet does strike home.

In our own time, as some of us are planning holidays in Turkey, we have the extraordinary and vicious incarceration of Turkish journalists and writers (and teachers and lawyers and many others) under the Erdogan regime. One is the writer Ahmet Altan, arrested in 2016, then released and re-arrested the same day. Now serving a life sentence. In his book (smuggled as extracts from jail), ‘Never will I see the world again’, he writes:

‘Never again would I be able to kiss the woman I love, embrace my kids, meet with my friends…I would not be able to listen to a violin concerto or to go on a trip or browse in bookstores or buy bread from a bakery or gaze at the sea…’

It’s a long paragraph. And it hit me hard.

Getting yourself noticed

My recent reading has as always taken in various reviews, articles, books. One day last week they seemed to come together, on the theme of ‘getting noticed’. But not in the sense of shouting from the rooftops. This blog is after all combining ‘zen’ and ‘politics’. In politics you do have to make yourself heard. Zen exists below the radar. And ‘getting noticed’ doesn’t mean you won’t be as quickly forgotten.

Mary Wollstonecraft did get noticed in her own time. And then she was all but forgotten. Proto-feminist, author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, resident in Paris during the Terror, she was also mother of Mary Shelley, by William Godwin. (Grandmother of Frankenstein you might say.) She died in 1797. Godwin’s biography of his wife published the following year did her no favours. The opposite. ‘The more fully we are presented with the picture and story,’ Godwin wrote, ‘the more generally we shall find ourselves attached to their fate, and a sympathy in their excellencies.’ He was wrong, desperately so. Robert Southey accused Godwin of ‘a want all feeling in stripping his wife naked’. (See Richard Holmes’ This Long Pursuit.) That was mild compared to other execrations.

It’s taken two hundred years, but in our time she’s celebrated.

For someone totally different – I chanced on Hans Keller, refugee from Hitler, BBC musicologist, influential post-WW2 and through to the 1970s. Keller was in the Reithian BBC tradition, which had as its aims to ‘educate, inform, entertain’. Classical music was party of that educative purpose.

Wollstonecraft has found herself on the right side of history. Not so Keller. He wrote in 1973: ‘If we can bring ourselves to learn and practise the art of not listening to the radio, of turning it off… radio can become a cultural force of unprecedented potency.’ ‘As Nicholas Grace reviewing a new biography of Keller concludes: ‘Keller’s island of Reithian paternalism was soon to be swept away by a digital tsunami.’ (London Review of Book, February)

He may be all but forgotten, but how we listen to music, and how we concentrate when listening, they are still issues, and extend well beyond the confines of music.

Wollstonecraft and Keller brought to mind a few heroes of mine. The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who became a leading Civil Rights campaigner in the USA. George Orwell of course. He understood the absurdities of power better than anyone. It’s why he remains a point of reference for so many of us today. One example in my reading from last week. ‘Nationalism,’ Orwell wrote in 1945, is ‘the political doctrine of a delusional fantasist.’

People had hopes back then that we’d seen the back of the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. But nationalism still rides high. And Orwell remains as relevant as ever.

This is where where I could so easily veer away from Zen, from the pursuit of wisdom, if you will, to raw politics. I could list the hyper-nationalists of our time. From Putin across and down. Or the petty nationalists. I could include the UK reducing its foreign budget, and that would take me right back into the mire.

Also, in an earlier version of this blog I had Ed Miliband and Keir Starmer not getting heard. Rafael Behr in the Guardian suggesting that part of Starmer’s problem lay in ‘a lack of rudimentary storytelling’. In UK politics Covid and Brexit are the dominant stories. The story of the old Toryism of Major, Heseltine and Clark has all but disappeared: no-one is doing the telling.

They will find their way into future blogs. This blog has been about under the radar. We could all add the names of poets and novelists and adventurers and scientists. Just for now, Wollstonecraft and Keller, Orwell and Merton must suffice.

Fog and politics

A single bird was in unusual and glorious voice in thick fog at the top of the Common this early morning.  It’s the first day of February. I slowed my run, and listened. As if to a nightingale in the silence. Also this morning a coup in Myanmar, and by lunchtime indications that the South African version of the virus has touched down in the UK. We’ve incipient vaccine wars with the EU, who I want to support, but who’ve made fools of themselves, turning on Astra-Zeneca, and threatening UK supplies.

Back home, after breakfast I take refuge from all that’s happening and about to happen by putting, with my partner, Hazel, a few more pieces into our 1000-piece jigsaw. Jigsaws like early-morning runs (pilates for Hazel) can be surprisingly therapeutic.

I needed a little therapy. It’s a morning when the news gets you down. Might the answer be to walk away from it all? Does politics, as a discussion in the current edition of Prospect, has it, really matter? Academic Freya Johnston is pitched against old-school politician, Malcolm Rifkind.

Politics for Johnston is inseparable from the public dislike of politicians. ‘One reason that polls demonstrate indifference to politics is the public contempt for politicians.’ Rifkind accepts, as I do, that ‘normal people are more interested in their own well-being than by what happens on the national stage’. But on the plus side he quotes the vision of the politicians behind the launch of the NHS. Johnston ripostes that ‘rather, it responded to increasing social and cultural pressures’. Politics is of course the interplay between the two, politicians and public. Aneurin Bevan, who championed the NHS in parliament, was a good guy, and a hero. (We do need more like him.)

The exchange was depressing, with both sides reduced to quoting Jane Austen. Johnston needs reminding we are in a world of stark dualities, good and evil, compassion and cruelty, and, yes, liberal democracy and various forms of often brutal autocracy (and Trumpian shades inbetween). We can take nothing for granted. Public opinion does need to engage, whether it likes it or not.

Both the Economist (23rd January) and TLS (8th January) have featured a new book, ‘Out of the Ordinary’, by Marc Stears, which doesn’t shy away from voters’ disdain for politics and politicians. On the one hand we’ve the ‘technocrats’ of the Blair/Cameron era, on the other the ‘ideologues’ and zealotry of the Labour left. In both cases it’s ‘direction by others’. (Brexit has landed us instead with the zealotry of the Tory right, and their market obsessions.)

Stears argues for another approach, ‘the politics of the ordinary’. He likes the JB Priestley of ‘English Journey’. Nothing sentimental. Ditto George Orwell. We’re reminded of the Orwell aphorism that ‘to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’. Community engagement is fundamental to the picture, but I’d argue it’s not enough. Nor is the top-down, vote-buying capital investment the Tories talk about.

A genuine change of direction won’t come about by asserting that good sense and communitarian spirit will somehow win out in the end. But it would be helped by connecting ordinary folk, the you and me, and the next road, and the estate beyond the main road, with the economic and business as well as the social life of a community.

It would require a revival of a style of local government and local engagement that underpinned our politics until quite recent times. It would also involve short as well as long supply lines. Local suppliers employing local people to provide goods produced at a local level, alongside local services. Creating a landscape, a literal landscape, of SMEs – small and medium-sized enterprises, with government money supporting local business in a way people can connect to.  

It’s a direction of travel, not an easy answer. And it doesn’t discount the need for political and economic expertise, elites if you will. But it does require, and here I’m with Stears, that elites aren’t self-referential and self-serving, that they’re always connected, and don’t automatically renew.

I’m not arguing we turn our backs of the global world, or that we shouldn’t trade with Japan or South Korea or even China, but we do need a fundamental shift in the balance.

In this context I can’t let Freya Johnson get away with her ridiculous statement that ‘indifference [to the business of government] isn’t necessarily something to be lamented. It might even be strength’.

A few old-style ‘tribunes of the people’ might help. Marcus Rashford as he might be in a few years time. Trade unionists, remember Ernie Bevin and Jim Callaghan, brought hard experience from street and factory floor to government. It’s not so easy these days, but it’s that kind of connection from the street level via councils and other assemblies right up to parliament and the Cabinet that we need. I’m not against the occasional toff – we just need to mix them up with a few folk who’ve cut their teeth at a local level, and can bring a certain street-fighting capability to the business of government.

The obfuscations of 24-hour news, the miseries of Murdoch and Fox Media, the oddities of the Daily Mail – we have to do better. We thought the half-truths of social media were bad enough. Then came alternative truths, with conspiracy theories hot on their heels. We need an entirely different route, and disengagement Freya-Johnston-style from the process would be utterly foolish.

She’s an easy target, Freya Johnston, and I should dwell on her. Best to end by repeating that Orwell aphorism, ‘to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’.