That bloody liberal establishment …

I took in the newspaper headlines in the supermarket yesterday. The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) caught my eye, snugged in near the Daily Mail. I bought a copy and over lunch read up on a recent biography of Descartes and the correspondence of Albert Camus and Maria Casares, celebrated author and the most celebrated French (though born in Spain) actress of her time. I was taken down back alleys which intrigue in themselves, and also have resonances with the here and now. Descartes escaping to the Netherlands to be free to explore his ideas on the primacy of human reason, away from the frivolities and scepticism of the Richelieu-dominated court. Camus and Casares: a correspondence that’s so distinctively French – could there be an English equivalent, and a bestseller to boot?

I’ve not found such byways of the intellect so rewarding recently. They belong to the old certainties, and the old certainties have faced a pretty ruthless challenge.

We had crises in politics ten years ago, indeed the biggest financial crisis for eighty years, but reason and rational debate were still the order of the day. That curious liberal idea of progress, however intermittent, however blighted, still underlay our attitudes, incremental, one step forward, one back – but we had a direction of travel. The House of Commons took a big hit with the expenses scandal, and austerity divided the nation in the years that followed, but debate still followed the traditional course in parliament, the media sniped and panicked, but didn’t dominate. Likewise the Tory right with their psychodramatic skills: they were kept on the periphery.

Post-referendum, the idea of a perverse ‘liberal establishment’ has taken hold, with all the anger toward and alienation from the ‘establishment’ now pinned on a  supposed liberal elite. Thinkers like David Goodhart have not helped, recusing themselves from a ‘liberal establishment’ (overly fond of smart dinner parties) of which they claim to have been a part.

Now we find liberal democracy ‘fighting for its life’. There’s a Times (newspaper) debate at the forthcoming Cheltenham Literary Festival entitled ‘Is Liberal Democracy Dying?’.  The Economist has just launched, as a counter-punch to doubters, a series of articles on great liberal thinkers, beginning with John Stuart Mill.

In much of the media the word ‘liberal’ is pitched against the ‘will of the people’, expertise against an instinct for change regardless of where change might take us. A new establishment, which has pulled strings covertly for many a year, asserts itself, funded by billionaires, pursuing apparently simple solutions to intractable problems, and supporting leaders who they think might enact those solutions.

How does this connect back to the two Frenchmen, Descartes and Camus? Simply that intellectual debate, and the pursuit of intellect byways as well as highways, is the very substance of our humanity. We might hide from it, in front of the TV many an evening, we may affect to scorn intellectuals and highbrow pursuits. The Economist quotes the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, ‘who thought that pushpin, a board game, was  “of equal value … with poetry”’.’

The intellectual life, as well as cultural life, is about sustained thought, sustained engagement, about expertise, about the ability to argue and debate, and change and challenge. It’s all about imagination, but not about dreams or fantasies. (Though they have their place.) Deeper pleasures build on themselves, take us in new directions. Simple pleasures endlessly repeat. There should be no snobbery here, but it’s too easy to paint intellectual life that way.

Taking John Stuart Mill as an exemplar, in The Economist’s words: ‘He renounced shibboleths, orthodoxies and received wisdom: anything that stopped people thinking for themselves.’

I don’t want to see this country ruled by a liberal establishment, or a media establishment. But I do hold to liberal ideas of openness and debate, and to the belief that intellectual life should be part of the warp and weft of everyday life, and not an adjunct hived off to universities.

That’s a tall order of course. But what if we re-define ‘intellectual life’ and take it out of its ivory tower. To quote the Economist on Mill again: ‘[He] wanted [people] to be exposed to as wide a range of opinion as possible, and for no idea or practice to remain unchallenged. That was the path to both true happiness and progress.’

And it allows us to re-define intellectual life, as the life of the mind.

Holding to that definition, we won’t suddenly solve the world’s problems. But we will at least be opening doors, rather than closing them, and that is the first pre-requisite of progress.

Political dream worlds – the case of Daniel Hannan

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams …

WB Yeats was writing about love… but I’m thinking here of shattered political dreams. Dreams of love, yes, they drive our lives, and they are, just occasionally, fulfilled. But they are personal, one to one. And we accept and expect the risk.

But do not transfer the world of dreams to politics. Aspirations, yes. Not dreams.

Why do some people who are trained as historians not act like them? Bring the rigour that history requires to argument? One reason is that they see history as story, they’re story-tellers, conjurers of dream worlds, they fit the realities to the story and they come to believe the story. Another is that they engage in hypotheses, and parade them as fact, without the rigour of peer-review that we get in scientific disciplines. Story and hypotheses can of course inspire each other.

Why would, for example, the arch-Brexiteer and free-trader Daniel Hannan (and Oxford-educated historian) miss the mark by such a margin? Brexit, he wrote on the Conservative Home website back in May, isn’t working out as he thought it would. I remember a piece he wrote in the Daily Telegraph before the referendum vote about how a post-Brexit Britain would look in ten years’ time. He imagined the future – or rather, a future, anticipated it as if truth and certainty were engrained within it, which no trained historian should do. He believed his own imaginings. Hope became a certain future reality.

He fooled himself, and he gave substance to the visions of others.

The past is full of accidents, wrong turnings, expectations which are never realised, impossible to realise, based on dreams and imaginings. We have no choice but to have radical ideas, our world requires it, on the way the world economy functions, disparities of wealth, population growth and movements, the poverty of much of mass-culture, climate change – Christ, yes! – be radical. But pursue change incrementally. Avoid the sudden turnings.

The NHS, which we are busy celebrating, came about and has survived over seventy years, because it was of its time, it was a logical and necessary step. It may seem to us, with our hindsights, like the fulfilment of a dream, but it was anything but.  It came out of the hard necessities of its time.

Connections…

How we each connect to events and stories … how our personal connections make them more real for us. My context here is the story Philippe Sands tells in East West Street. (See my last post.)

Poetry is a powerful connector. Sands quotes the Polish poet, Jozef Wittlin, ‘the poet of hopeful idylls’.

‘Where are you now, park benches of Lwow, blackened with age and rain, coarse and  cracked like the bark of medieval olive trees,’ he wrote in 1946.  (Lwow has many names – Lvov, Lemberg, Lviv.)

‘I can hear the bells of Lwow ringing, each one rings differently. I can hear the splash of the fountains in market square, and the soughing of fragrant trees, which the spring rain has washed clean of dust.’

I was reminded of a powerful poem I discovered two or three years ago, To Go To Lvov, by Adam Zagajewski.

To leave/in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September/or in March. But only if Lvov exists,/if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just/in my new passport, if lances of trees/—of poplar and ash—still breathe aloud …

Why do I connect to this – to the many identities of Lvov, its history, the frontiers that change around the city, but the city remains?

In part because in the foolishness of our own times, and the mega-weight of warfare we can bring to bear, and the arrogance of our notions of superiority, we have destroyed cities and communities which date back to biblical times. ‘Our notions’ – innocent, protesting our innocence, we have disturbed the age-old patterns, the habits and simple tolerance that allowed people’s and ways of life to rub along – sometime only just, but they did –  they rubbed along together.

But more, even more, because of the destruction of the Jewish community in Poland and Ukraine.

Martin Buber lectured in Lemberg. He was a passionate advocate of Jewish and Arab coexistence in Palestine, and author of ‘I and Thou’, and he’s long-time hero of mine. Coexistence. Two peoples, side by side. 

Sands’ grandfather moved from Lemberg to Vienna, his mother Ruth escaped Vienna on a train in 1939. Also in that decade, though earlier, my professor at the Warburg Institute, Ernst Gombrich, had left Vienna for London, along with many others from the Jewish community of that remarkable city.

Gombrich suggested to me I might make the Jewish ghetto in 18th century Venice my subject for a PhD thesis. That sadly never happened.

One final link. I see that Sands serves on the board of the Hay Festival, from which we’ve just returned. His advocacy of human rights in the context of international law matches the mood and commitment of many of the speakers at Hay … matches the mood of so many people around the world, their belief that their own small contributions, taking in the aggregate, will ultimately turn the tides of history around, and we as individuals whatever our groups, communities, countries, will come to see ourselves as citizens of the world.

Gloucester, Easter Sunday morning

Easter Sunday, and a forecast of dullness belied by brilliant sun, and a blue sky which set off the white stone of Gloucester Cathedral. 8pm, early morning communion in the choir, before the high altar. Above us the great 14th century window reputedly commemorating the battle of Crecy. About thirty people at communion, come 11pm the cathedral will be packed, chairs await them in every corner of nave and aisle. After communion I waited awhile, and stood at the back of the nave, looking toward organ and altar, and all was (for a few minutes) empty, not a soul, just the great Norman columns in stately procession toward the transept, and the simple vaulted ceiling, in sharp contrast to the wonderful fan vaulting of the choir.

(Should anyone wonder why a blog with zen in its title should be comfortable with early communion… There’s a silence, a time for contemplation, in the early morning. I’ll say no more than that.)

In the cathedral precinct there’s major landscaping, and fences everywhere, but lift your eyes to the cathedral walls, the tower and the sky, and there is all the space, and all the serenity you could wish for in the world.

Ivor Gurney has a close association with the cathedral.  The son of a Gloucester tailor, he was composer, writer of songs, poet, and a celebrant of the Gloucestershire landscape, in his poems from the front, and in his letters. Windows in the Lady Chapel commemorate him, and I always pay a visit when I come to the cathedral – but not today. The Lady Chapel is fenced off, major renovations until the autumn. They will make for easier access, and maybe more people will find sanctuary there, and take in the wonderful stained glass (by Tom Denny) of the Gurney memorial. He survived the first war, but his mind didn’t, incarcerated in a mental home in Kent he longed for his home county, and the Severn vale, where he’d walked countless times…

One place he walked was Cranham, whose woods he celebrated, and where I am now. Reached via the Portway, down and up which I drove an hour or two ago. Gurney would have walked, and he’d have seen that amphitheatre of woodland and meadow opening up ahead, farms either side, and a vast sky above. He was obsessed with the idea of beauty, above all the beauty of his home county. It gave him comfort in France. He recalls in a letter home how the tower of the church of Merville reminds him of Gloucester’s tower. Both churches rise above the landscape, are landmarks, and inspirations.

Walking back to my car, I passed along pedestrianised streets, stained, a little ragged, forlorn, and empty on an Easter Sunday morning. Only Macdonalds and Burger King open, and they only just. How would Gurney have responded to the decay of his old city? To the contrast between shops, and cathedral and precinct, an absolute contrast. How I wondered as I walked back could the city be revived, made vibrant and colourful as a city centre should be – and keep all the while the quiet and sanctity and celebration of the cathedral and its surrounds.

One of many questions this Easter, an Easter where questions seem to crowd in on all sides – so many questions where there are no obvious answers.

The sleep of reason (2) – Goya

I mentioned ‘the sleep of reason’ in my last post. I had in mind Goya’s Los Caprichos print series, and specifically plate 43, ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’. Owls gather above the sleeping artist’s head, no owlish wisdom here, just confusion, compounded by bats swarming behind – the owls lit, the bats unlit, and below two cat-like creatures look out, lynxes maybe, one directly at us, black and ominous, drawing us in.

By 1799 when Goya published Los Caprichos the high hopes of the Enlightenment had faded – his time maybe not too similar to our own.

Sleep of reason

Goya is clear that we cannot live by reason alone. ‘Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.’

We have in recent times been short-changed on both. Imagination looking back not forward, reason pilloried as ‘expertise’. And for many us, for the first time in our lives, we feel the tide of human improvement, I won’t say progress, is running against us.

Can music help? Leonard Cohen’s words from his song, Anthem, have helped me. (I love singing it!) Simply the idea that there’s a crack, however formidable the surface textures might seem just now, there is a crack. A crack in everything.

Rings the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

Applies to the whole Brexit edifice. And the Trumpian. We haven’t come so far that we could now go back. Surely not.

I see that the artist Sarah Gillespie has made ‘the crack in everything’ the title of a painting. Maybe I’ll make it the title of a poem.

And another artist, Turner Prize-winner Wolfgang Tillmans, quoted in the RA Magazine: ‘ …this amorphous, right-wing, nationalist sentiment … has become the central issue of world politics …how, as a sort of avant-garde artist, do you engage with the number one political subject?’

How does an artist respond? Or a writer? A musician?

Propaganda has its place, but propaganda and art are not easy bedfellows. Caricature if it points up absurdity, gross behaviour and the like has a powerful role to play. But not if it only appeals to the already converted. In the hands of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gilray caricature becomes an artform in itself. But we must tread carefully.

What we can’t do, in our anger or frustration, is allow ourselves to abandon reason, to let reason sleep awhile.

‘Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.’

A puzzling innocence

Back in January I wrote a poem which touched on a nightmare which I trusted with the bright and clear skies, and warmth, of June would evaporate. It didn’t, of course.

There is a foolish innocence abroad in the land. I thought back in January that we could all handle it with gentle irony. Now it’s for real – and the irony, still gentle, has a sharper focus. Irony better than anger? I’m not sure!

*

A puzzling innocence
at home on English shores

Is it a puzzling innocence, that we should wish
to shake ourselves free of all the sand and salt,
a dog out of the waves,

more than sand and salt –
we would be somewhere else, another beach –

the same waves, the same wrack and kelp,
but the sea would be somehow different,

the tide driven by another moon and
under that new moon we’d trade our goods

beyond our shores unfettered, be more English –
the moon an English moon –

ours would be
a calculated innocence, a glorious future,
an imagination of a past when we rode oceans –

grew rich on other lands – unshackled, the sea
we’d command would stretch no more than

a few miles off our shores, yet we would
still be lords –  you say,

                         it’s bright-eyed innocence
to see only the benign, the old navy afloat,
a few new tugboats on calm and peaceful waters –

but who needs containers in this grand design –

where once we traded pounds we’d trade in pence
and who are you to say, that’s not a better way

(c) Chris Collier, January 2016

Troubadours for our time

Leonard Cohen and Victor Jara 

Troubadour, two definitions : 1) medieval lyric poet/musician; 2) a singer, especially of folk songs. (Merriam Webster) It’s the first definition I like.

The death of Leonard Cohen set me to thinking. Who might be the troubadours of our own time? Troubadours for our time?

I tried in an early version of this post to characterise Leonard Cohen as somehow in that medieval tradition. As a poet of love, even courtly love. He was inspired and tormented by his muse, and his audience connected and were inspired in turn. But I’m foolish to try and say more than that. The more I listen to his songs the more in awe I am. There’s a fine piece by Edward Doxx connecting Cohen to John Donne. It gets closer than I ever could. He quotes Cohen:  ‘So come, my friends, be not afraid/We are so lightly here/It is in love that we are made/in love we disappear.’

Cohen didn’t take up the cudgels against violence and injustice, as Dylan once did.  Nor did he understand ‘the other side’ quite as Woody Guthrie did: ‘As I went walking I saw a sign there/And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,/That side was made for you and me.’

But he did write and sing ‘Democracy’, which lays bare a dysfunctional USA, but in the midst of it all just about finds reason for optimism. ‘It’s coming to America first,/the cradle of the best and of the worst./It’s here they got the range/and the machinery for change/and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.’ 

Asked two years ago if songs can offer solutions to political problems, he replied, ‘I think the song itself is a kind of solution.’

Dylan back in the 60s confronted the ‘masters of war’ and racists: ‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll,/with a gun that he twirled around his diamond ring finger.’ There was a rawness about Dylan back then, just voice and guitar and a language we’d never heard. There’s something about a troubadour who carries his guitar and gathers an audience around him wherever he might be. (Once or twice I did just that!) No band in sight.

Dylan put overt protest behind him, took on another persona,  many personas – but he’s still the troubadour.

As for others …..Buffy Sainte-Marie has long been a favourite of mine. ‘Welcome welcome emigrante,’ words for our own time as much as hers. Pete Seeger and Euan MacColl were at the political coal-face: amazingly MacColl also wrote ‘The first time ever I saw your face’. Joan Baez has never lost her touch or her commitment, or her ability to inspire. She was the first for me, back over fifty years ago.

Bruce Springsteen, a man with a guitar, and a rock band. A different kind of troubadour. As for Steve Earle, ‘hardcore troubadour’, Springsteen may have been the ‘consummate chronicler of welfare-line blues, but Steve had lived the life’. (Lauren St John).

There’s another , who I’ve just re-discovered, playing my old vinyls. Someone who maybe I should have put first, ahead even of Cohen, Guthrie, Dylan. I’m thinking of Victor Jara, a Chilean troubadour who died for his songs, his poetry, his guitar, his beliefs, his hands first broken, and then murdered in the stadium in Santiago on 1973, when Pinochet with CIA backing overthrew the Allende regime. His songs have a purity and a magic, and a simple beauty, and they stop me in my tracks.

Yes, my guitar is a worker/shining and smelling of spring/my guitar is not for killers/greedy for money and power/but for the people who labour/so that the future may flower. (His last poem, which could never be a song, written in the stadium.)

The Beatles could have been troubadours, if they’d followed the direction taken by Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby. Ralph McTell (Streets of London) was memorable, though sentimental. Billy Bragg never sentimental, stridently political, a street singer. But in truth he never inspired me. One song that did was Peter Gabriel’s lament for Steve Biko, which is searing, searching, and angry.

Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand… chanteurs/chanteuses, troubadours. There’s a Gallic intensity we Brits and Americans find hard to match. They’ve inspired me, but they’re not my focus here.

For I’ve a question. For anyone who reads this, for my children, for generations born in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, even the noughties.

Who are your troubadours?

Singers and poets for whom words matter, for whom stories matter, for whom love matters, and above all – injustice. Who sing to be heard, and to be understood. Who sing with passion and with anger.

Back in the 60s the civil rights movement galvanised us, in the UK as well as the USA. Apartheid likewise. We’d a sense that history was on our side, justice and social justice would prevail. Now, in 2016, post Brexit and the Trump election we’re on the defensive. Nativist, racist and sexist attitudes find favour. Trump somehow finds the rule of law and torture compatible.

(Trump and torture reminded me of Victor Jara. Pinochet’s soldiers thought torture and death legitimate. Once hatred in engendered anything is possible.)

Who is singing for us, writing songs, wanting to be heard? Who will be singing?

Maybe we’ve been listening to the music too much in recent decades, and we’ve forgotten the song.