To London, and back (to normal)

The wild garlic is about to flower, acres of it, covering woodland slopes. The first cowslips are opening, the skylarks are ascending, the long tailed tit echoes itself. But yesterday it was London and the long lines of destination-driven travellers always keeping left in corridors below Paddington station. Occasional mask wearers on the underground, otherwise near normal. Normal would be delays and hold-ups, but now we flow smoothly.

My destination – meeting an old friend at the Royal Academy to view an exhibition of the paintings of the Japanese artist, Kawanabe Kyosai. His was a time (he was active c1850 to his death in 1889) of extraordinary change, the overthrow of the Shogunate, and the Meiji Restoration. There’s a saké-influenced crazy irreverence about Kyosai, his emblematic black crow in stark contrast with armies of frogs battling with bullrushes. I learnt about shogakai, parties where professional painters and calligraphers ‘produced spontaneous creations’. They were not known for ‘their seriousness or sobriety’.

Contrast the major Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, where I headed later in the day. Everything is measured and controlled, carefully worked through in drawings, and the effects precisely and wondrously calculated. Raphael’s workshop was legendary in its time and I can’t imagine alcohol featured. I’m assuming Kyosai sold his work on the open market. Raphael in contrast would be working within the constraints of patronage, not least the church in the form of Popes Julius II and Leo X.  Contrast the endless virgins in different poses with a naked child, studies in affection and reverence, with Kyosai’s long scroll which features a much-more-than-lifesize profile of the Buddha’s face with on its upper lip a tiny Zen Buddhist monk working his way up, an extended parasol in his right hand. ‘Today, once more, saké after saké,’ he captions a painting of a ‘shojo’, a mythical red-haired saké-loving creature out of Japanese folklore.

Later in the day I’m standing in front of an almost full-scale reproduction of Raphael’s extraordinary School of Athens, identifying Euclid and Pythagoras, and joining Plato and Aristotle’s discourse on the nature of reality…

Was Kyosai, in truth, no more than an illustrator? Ephemeral, a commentator in the style of Rowlandson or Gillray? A man of the people. Great art on the other hand belongs in cathedrals, churches, great houses…

Museums and galleries have opened Raphael’s world to ordinary folk, and he’s become part of our wider cultural heritage. Kyosai belongs to his time, his imagination is in your face, he’s a crazy acquaintance, not, maybe, a companion for the long term. If Raphael is for quiet and private contemplation, Kyosai is for sharing – ‘hey, look at this, check it out!’ Not that Kyosai is all comedy, all parody. There’s a sinuous grace to ‘Egret over Lotus Pond in the Rain’. But a minute or two later you’re looking at ‘Fart Battle’, which is just that.

The day ends with coffee in the café in the crypt in St Martin in the Fields. No-one pitching you out 5.30 or 6. Graves beneath your feet, brick-vaulted ceiling above. Then the tube and Paddington. Back to open spaces, commons and hidden valleys, where I can run or walk without seeing a soul.

Only the rumble of a distant train, heading to … London.

The world de-mystified

We, the people on this crazy planet, seek at one pole to identify, and work with, the world perceived as gaia, the mother of life, and at the other to command it: nature as enemy, to be tamed in what William James described more than a hundred years ago as ‘the moral equivalent of war’. The latter has indeed been the direction of travel for in the Western world for several hundred years, but we were, until even as late as the mid-20th century (if we exclude the USA and Europe), still getting no further than the edges.

Central Asia and Tibet were lands of mystics and Buddhists. There lay ancient paths to wisdom. Now those paths have been wiped by Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Britain may have governed India but its impact on Hindu and Muslim culture was minimal. A piece is a recent Economist highlighted how Indian cinema, Bollywood, while as popular as ever is now accessed in rural communities not by showings at the traditional communal fairs known as mela but in the privacy of private homes, which may be no more than shacks, via mobile phone.

The Economist also recently ran pieces on the railways which had opened up the Middle East in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire. East briefly met West in conditions of harmony, even if old attitudes to the Orient hardly budged. Tracks now run as far as borders, or have been torn up. Out of connection we brought division. And another piece describes and evokes the last kampong, or village, in Singapore, where the long-established Land Acquisition Act allows unrestricted development, the commercial maximisation of limited space.

The world has been thoroughly demystified.

Now we have Elon Musk seeking to re-make the world, and the solar system, in his own image. Tesla is green. He is scornful of climate change deniers. But he’s also loading the atmosphere with thousands of miniature satellites as part of his Starlink communication programme. From the distance in space where he or his satellites look back in the earth individual citizens are invisible.

Time Magazine made him their Man of the Year. ‘This is the man who aspires to save our planet and get us a new one to inhabit: clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a madcap hybrid of Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, the brooding, blue-skinned man-god who invents electric cars and moves to Mars.’

This is close to worship. You lose one deity, you create another…

Another aspirant deity out in California is libertarian Peter Thiel. Thiel, David Runciman writes in the London Review of Books, ‘rails against the use of public money for the betterment of people’s lives, especially the poor. Who are politicians to decide how we should live? The state only exists to protect the lives we build for ourselves, including the wealth we acquire along the way.’ Monopoly is the logical aim of any good capitalist.

A favourite book of Thiel’s is The Sovereign Individual (published 1997), co-authored by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father, William. The authors predict ‘the demise of the nation-state and the emergence of low or no tax libertarian communities in which the rich can finally emancipate themselves from ‘the exploitation of the capitalists by workers’.

Thiel ‘helped to bankroll the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create independent, ocean-based communities free from all government control.’ He was ‘an early vocal champion of Donald Trump’s presidential bid’. (All quotes are from David Runciman’s article.)

So where does that leave the still small voice of Zen, so optimistic in 2009. Where does the ordinary guy fit in? Likewise, run-of-the-mill limited-term democracy? And the big issues of migration, the armaments race, land use, species survival?

Thiel we can shunt off into one of his Seasteading communities. The state could build it for him.

And let’s have Musk focused literally down to earth, where he’s doing some real good, and could do so much more. But his mindset… he is a commander. He doesn’t do humility. We have messed up the environment and using the same machismo approach that landed in this mess he thinks he can put it right. I don’t share his premise. But we could use his ideas and energy. He could use our humility, but, well, let’s face it – that won’t happen!

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’

The only thing we have to fear …

Zenpolitics is what it says on the tin – it is about politics. The day-to-day, policy issues, political economy, all feature, but what’s always intrigued me is how people engage with politics – how they can best connect with politics in an open and constructive way. That’s where Zen comes in. We need the ability and the time, to step back and evaluate. To gain distance before we judge. And we need to be aware of all the pitfalls: where antagonisms and fear and anger and conspiracy take over, where we assume the worst before we look for the best, where cynicism overrides good sense.

See how this works out in what follows.

Henry Kissinger, back in the 1970s Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, and a prolific writer on political matters, identified what he called ‘the conservative dilemma’. Christopher Clark, in a review of the 19th century statesman, Count Metternich, is my source for the following:

‘Conservatism is the fruit of instability, Kissinger wrote, because in a society that is still cohesive, ‘it would occur to no one to be a conservative.’ It thus falls to conservatives to defend, in times of change, what had once been taken for granted. And – here is the rub – ‘the act of defence introduces rigidity.’ The deeper the fissure becomes between the defenders of order and the partisans of change, the greater the ‘temptation to dogmatism’ until, at some point, no further communication is possible between the contenders, because they no longer speak the same language. ‘Stability and reform, liberty and authority, come to appear as antithetical, and political contests turn doctrinal instead of empirical.’

This is, in broad terms, where we find ourselves now. The deeper divide, the more we fear the ‘other’, the more ready we are to assume the worst of people and organisations – however mainstream, and however, until recent times, considered to be more or less ordinary.

Consider now this agonised passage from Daniella Pletka, senior research fellow at the right-wing think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, from an article in the Washington Post.

‘I fear the grip of Manhattan-San Francisco progressive mores that increasingly permeate my daily newspapers, my children’s curriculums and my local government. I fear the virtue-signalling bullies who increasingly try to dominate or silence public discourse — and encourage my children to think that their being White is intrinsically evil, that America’s founding is akin to original sin. I fear the growing self-censorship that guides many people’s every utterance, and the leftist vigilantes who view every personal choice — from recipes to hairdos — through their twisted prisms of politics and culture. An entirely Democratic-run Washington, urged on by progressives’ media allies, would no doubt only accelerate these trends.’

Remember the famous Roosevelt quote: ‘The only thing we have to fear… is fear itself.’

And where might fear, and those who play on our fears, take us?

Let’s turn to the Murdoch-owned Fox News, under the editorial control (as it was) of Roger Ailes (if you haven’t seen the movie, Bombshell, make it a priority to do so).  Deborah Friedell writes in the London Review of Books as follows:

‘For Ailes, the election of Barack Obama was the ‘Alamo’, ‘the worst thing’ that could happen to America. If you watched Fox News, Barack Hussein Obama (they liked using his full name) was a racist with a ‘deep-seated hatred for white people’, who as a child in Indonesia had been indoctrinated at a madrassa funded by ‘Saudis’. While he was president, a Marxist-Islamist takeover of America was always imminent. On Fox and Friends, Trump would ask questions about Obama’s birth certificate – did it exist? In the afternoon Glenn Beck would suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency might be building concentration camps to house Obama’s opponents. Beck eventually walked that back and was rewarded with a series of death threats … In the years that followed, there was no Trumpian scandal that Fox News presenters couldn’t explain away. Impeachment was said to be a deep state coup to undo the presidential election. Children separated from their parents at the southern border were being held in ‘summer camps’ – that’s if they weren’t, as Ann Coulter alleged, “child actors”.’

New-wave Republicans find conspiracies everywhere. It’s become the default position. Courtesy of Trump, conspiracy is assumed to be the Democrats stock-in-trade, at root a conspiracy against the American way of life.

In the UK before Brexit we individualised (at least the Tory right-wing did) our scapegoats – the cheap matching of strivers against skivers and scroungers. The BBC being a ‘state’ institution, however hands-off, was always a target, and under Cummings direction has been even more so. Likewise the ‘metropolitan elite’ – from being descriptive, it’s now a term of abuse: we’re one step short of organised conspiracy against ordinary folk.

Covid has taken conspiracy to another level: 50% of Americans would refuse to take a Covid vaccine, I recall seeing in one recent poll. Back in July one in six UK citizens said they’d refuse a Covid vaccine. There must always be doubt about efficacy, and concern over possible dangers, and the public needs all the evidence they require to have full confidence in a new vaccine. Introduce even the possibility of conspiracy, doubt is venomised, and opposition so easily becomes toxic.

If only we knew our history better. We’d understand how conspiracy theories have always functioned: Freemasonry, the Illuminati, the ‘New World Order’ (an elite conspiring to totalitarian world government); the deaths of JFK and Princess Diana; and at whole other level the fictitious Protocol of the Elders of Zion, which fed into anti-Jewish sentiment, with terrible outcomes.

We tread dangerous ground. The conspiratorial right walk it with a sublime disregard for the consequences. There are, just this month, a few hopeful straws in the wind. The election of Joe Biden (but witness yesterday’s big ‘voter fraud’, pro-Trump march  in Washington DC); the ejection of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street (surely he should have departed with nothing – what was in the infamous box?); the Daily Mail finally acknowledging their appalling error in supporting Andrew Wakeford’s linkage of MMR vaccination and autism. As a recent Mail leader put it, ‘Knowing what we all know now, it should never have been given such credence – and that is a matter of profound regret.’ They have now embarked on a strong pro-vaccination campaign – and all power to them. Today we have Labour arguing for emergency laws to ‘stamp out dangerous’ anti-vaccine content online.

Tempering that we had, on the Andrew Marr show this Sunday morning, George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, arguing a no-deal Brexit case. The motor industry and agriculture, and Northern Ireland supermarkets, to name but three sectors, would, their leaders argue, be hugely impacted by no-deal tariffs, but it would, according to Eustice, all somehow come out OK in the wash. They were wrong to be concerned. Did he have any inkling of how foolish he looked?

And finally, another Brexiteer insider (time now, post-Cummings for Johnson to some selective culling?), the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden. He is, according to the Telegraph, beginning fresh negotiations with the BBC over the licence fee. There will be a new panel to assess the future of public service broadcasting. Dowden suggest in an article that there is a genuine debate over whether ‘we need them at all’.

Maybe post-Cummings we will see an end to this idiocy. Compare the BBC and Fox News. Fox demonstrates down what unholy avenues unaccountable media in private hands can take us.

The BBC has to answer to the British public – Fox only has to answer to Rupert Murdoch.

Serial incompetence

‘The only conclusion is serial incompetence,’ were Keir Starmer’s words when replying to Boris Johnson at last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Every government makes egregious mistakes – hovers on the brink from time to time. But incompetence has never been institutionalised, as it is now, from education across to foreign policy. Theresa May’s government hovered close, but she at least had six years as Home Secretary behind her. Johnson’s cabinet has various skills, not least first-class degrees in economics and PPE. But little or none when it comes to government. If competence is the left hand, then the right hand is flair. There is little of that either – maybe one senior minister, and he shall be nameless.

Theresa May relied on Nick Timothy. She wasn’t fully her own person. Boris Johnson relies on Cummings. The last Tsar and the Tsarina relied on Rasputin. Leaders should be their own men, or women. Merkel, Macron, Shinzo Abe are all good examples.

Erdogan (Turkey), Orban (Hungary), Kaczynski (Poland – I’m staying within EU boundaries) are their own men, you could argue. And at another level Xi Jinping and Trump. But they are out and out nationalists, all with an interest in restricting or, worse, suppressing rather than expanding debate.

But if we believe in representative and accountable democracy then it’s the Macrons and Merkels we need. Even a Cameron.

Accountable. That presupposes open debate. A press that presents and represents all shades of opinion. A society that welcomes ideas, and values expertise.

We’ve never been happy with the notion of an intelligentsia in this country. For Michael Gove, attacking expertise, it was an open goal. Universities are a target. Intellectual debate does indeed go down some odd byways. The likes of Douglas Murray find easy targets (post-structuralism, cancel culture), and disparage the wider institution. (15th August, Telegraph headline: ‘British universities have become indoctrination camps.’) If it’s not universities it’s chattering classes.  The problem is elites. We don’t like elites. I wouldn’t argue against that. But when ideas and informed debate are characterised as elitist – then we should worry.

That gives the opening to populism. Single ideas. Single identities. In our case, of course, it’s Brexit. We can’t, it seems, agree on fisheries policy, or state aid. David North is out there not-negotiating hard for a no-deal Brexit. (And as of today there are suggestions the government might renege on the Northern Ireland protocol in last year’s withdrawal agreement.)

Single ideas and identities are by their nature non-negotiable. Finding common ground, working with and not against others, is an alien mindset. Anger drives debate or negotiation. An instinct to confront and disrupt dictates.

Barack Obama set out in 2009 with an agenda of bringing countries together – new agendas for the Middle East, for Africa. Finding common ground. He discovered how difficult that could be.

Coming together in politics is so much harder than pulling apart. The Arab Spring brought that home, and the Syrian outcome was brutal. Obama could claim rapprochement in Cuba and indeed Iran. But it was a small reward for much effort.

The US economy under Obama had recovered well from the 2008 financial crash. It was at the very least (though Republicans of a Trumpian persuasion would disagree) a competent administration with good intentions.

But competence is not enough. Emotion and instinct behind single and easily assimilable ideas set their own agenda. Competence is non-essential.

That said, thinking of the UK, a government characterised by incompetence does at least give its opponents an opening…

Zen and democracy

How might Zen, and Zen practice, connect with democracy? 

Let Zen be clarity, clear-thinking. That space, in Zen terms, that original space, before thoughts crowd in, and one thought leads to another, and back, and tangentially to others. We lose track, surrender judgement, make easy moral judgements, and take the short cuts that characterise a cynical mind. Hamlet had it right: ‘… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’

Zen, and Buddhism more widely, puts other people on a par with self. Recognises compassion as our pre-eminent instinct. And once you escape self, and all the anxieties that attach, something akin to joy is revealed as innate. Not a manic or euphoric joy. Not a high, which presupposes a low to follow. You don’t have to badger yourself into being positive. It comes naturally

It’s Sunday morning. So let the sermon end here.

How might Zen connect with politics? Must it be political? First and foremost, Zen is democratic. It consults the interests of everyone. Democracy so defined is not the least-worst form of government, but as near to a miracle as you can get. And it is our ultimate challenge. How can we build out from family and locality, where we meet and consult and agree (that of course is a challenge in itself!), to national and international platforms? That will always be our challenge, renewed with every generation, with no neat Social Darwinian conclusion. No paradise, no for-all-time solution, awaits us. But it takes out our biggest enemies – the cynical mind and the lazy mind.

They are not always easy to spot. Julian Fellowes, who we all love as a conjuror of a romanticised past (and I’ll be watching Belgravia tonight), had a rant recently about how ‘the BBC, the National Theatre, the National Trust … have all been speaking with one voice. They are the left-of-centre metropolitan elite.’ ‘A kind of Hampstead voice.’

So easily does good sense get dismissed. But he claims not to take sides in these social battles. ‘I just watch people behave and how they respond… enjoy watching … human situations play out’. So, it seems, our lot takes sides, and they don’t. What depresses me is that Fellowes is a Tory peer. We need Tory politicians of the old school, who engage with ideas. Fellowes too casually allows the new-wave of doctrinaire small-state Tories take over the field. (One of the things that impressed me reading Peter Hennessy’s Never Again, about the early 1960s, is the way Harold Macmillan engaged with issues, and brought to bear the kind of intellect so obviously lacking now.)

Small state – that takes me back to my last post. We’ve a new Labour leader, with commitments to re-nationalising. He may or may not be right. Hard-core free-market economics, notionally ‘rational’ markets, matched against the beneficent hand of the state, which may, or may not, be the slippery slope which Friedrich Hayek warned against in The Road to Serfdom. It may just be that the way forward is that accursed ‘Hampstead’ weighing of arguments, seeking out a middle ground, which allows the wisest decisions – whereby, maybe, we re-nationalise railways, or in some way ‘re-involve’ the state, and subsidise the Royal Mail, but allow public utilities to stay private, under closer supervision. Or more or less, or all or none, of the above.

Big state, or small state. Both are predicated on dominant leadership. Which isn’t the same as strong leadership, which every democracy needs. British democracy is accountable democracy. That’s why it has inspired the world. I read an interesting article (Hal Foster, London Review of Books) recently about Albert Jarry’s wild and subversive play, Ubu Roi. Forgive the Freudian references. I liked it because it took me close to the dangers a cult of the leader can pose for democracy.

Ubu is ‘a travesty of sovereignty… both father and baby, both sovereign and beast; he represents the authoritarian leader as monster infant…akin to the “primal father”, the almighty patriarch who is shame-free to boot … we submit to the leader as authority and envy him as outlaw. Trump is one part Pere Ubu, one part primal father; so are Duterte, Bolsonaro, Putin…’  I’d add Xi Jinping. Boris needs to be wary he doesn’t head down the same path.

Mention of Boris reminds me of his alter ego, Dom Cummings. I’m a believer in disruption. Climate change, conservation of natural habitats and water supply, farming methods, demographics, all need radical and change-making thinking. Such matters are secondary for Cummings. He loves disruption for its own sake, and imagines he has answers where no-one else does. Pride and presupposition are dangerous attributes. Backed by big money and a loud-mouthed media they can turn a democracy. And vested interests then seek to ensure the turning is entrenched, and becomes a new normal.

And finally – the virus. How do you deal with pandemics? We were, arguably, too slow to respond in this country, and thousands of unnecessary deaths may be the consequence of that. The decisions government made were ‘science-based’. But other nations have interpreted the ‘science’ differently and acted more quickly. How much did politics influence the science? Did an instinct natural to this government cause it to delay intervention, ‘with the idea (quoting David Runciman) that hasty government intervention is often counter-productive’. This may, or may not, make for an interesting, and important, discussion in future.

Over the pond we have Trump, worried that damage to the economy could damage his re-election chances. Democratic governors are being pilloried as too cautious. In this country there is a high degree of unanimity about putting public health first. In the USA the virus has become just another part of the Great Divide.

If I wanted to cheer myself up writing this – cheer you up – I’ve failed. Democracy isn’t an easy path. And you can’t simply turn over a stone and find joy bubbling away underneath. But putting the other guy first,  looking for the common ground rather than pandering to someone’s personal ambition – they are useful starting-points.

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019 – part two

Back to Cheltenham. It’s now the second weekend and I’ve returned for a few more events, including (and all referenced below):

Simon Schama (as himself)

Booker Prize 2019  shortlist preview

The Times Debate: ‘The best and worst prime ministers’

The Times Debate, ‘Is the party over?

India Now

I’m staying with my earlier theme of language. I have no choice after listening to Simon Schama (promoting his new book of newspaper and magazine articles, from the last few years,  mainly from the FT, entitled ‘Wordy’). He has, as he put it, ‘always loved literary abundance’. He quoted Erasmus, and a book which had escaped my knowledge, ‘De Copia’ (of copiousness), from 1512. Think of words ‘surging in a golden stream, overflowing with an abundance of words and thoughts’. With the qualification that all this abundance should not be confused with’ futile and amorphous verbosity’.  Richness of imagination and elasticity of argument should be the key. 

A strict Zen approach might argue for less is more! But I love listening to Schama, and there’s not a word wasted. He loves lists, and they take you down surprising byways. (For example, the multitude of colours available to an artist’s palette, and their provenance.) Explore these byways, and you learn. Stuff you don’t need to know, or didn’t think you did. Schama has a facility of memory, and a certainty of recall, and a sureness of argument that is unusual. Maybe your dad reciting Shakespeare and readings Dickens to a young child helps a little.

Someone with a similar facility mentioned by Schama is Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s love of lists and popular culture can wear you down, but, again, nothing is wasted.

Another event at the festival, the following day, was the Booker Prize 2019 shortlist preview, and Rushdie is on the shortlist. His new novel has a 1950s American quiz show as its setting-off point. Schama chucks in a few references to popular music, but high art is more his focus. On Rembrandt he is peerless.

Talking of lists, Lucy Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted book is ‘Ducks, Newburyport’, and that is one long list, each item beginning with ‘The fact is that…’, all one sentence over 1020 pages plus. Surprisingly easy to read, and non-repetitive, but a 1020 pages list is a stretch…

But I’m one day ahead. After Schama I had one of those events that you don’t have to go to. But it sounded fun. ‘The best and worst prime ministers.’ Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist (who I used to read before they put the Times online behind a firewall), Anthony Seldon, biographer of every prime minister since the year dot, including Mrs May, and Deborah Mattinson, one-time pollster for Gordon Brown, and now running ‘Britain Thinks’. And what does it think? How do we define leadership – dominant, assertive, quick-witted, on the one hand, listening, engaged, persuasive, on the other – these may not quite be her categories. But close. You can place PMs on a spectrum extending between the two. Churchill comes out top as best PM, of course, Attlee, in the second camp, not far behind. Blair doing well pre-Iraq. Brown, as Anthony Eden, cursed by an over-long wait, and an urge to make an impact when he finally took on the role. The worst – Goderich, who cried when making his resignation speech after seven months in office. Bonar Law.

Gladstone got a mention – but what about Disraeli? The original one-nation Tory. Jewish, becoming PM against all the odds. The great sparring partner of Gladstone.

What wasn’t directly addressed was the effect that the pursuit of power, and the exercise of power, has on people. Has on prime ministers. Success in politics has a short timespan, it’s normally a response to events – to war, to the unions (in Thatcher’s case), maybe a new vision which the public buys into (Blair). Cameron might have refashioned the Tory party had the imperatives of austerity (as he understood them) not got in the way. Callaghan, the last of the old-school trade unionists politicians, wise, avuncular, but brought down by the unions. Harold Wilson, presiding over a powerful cabinet, but sterling was his undoing, and it’s his ministers who these days get the accolades.

I missed an intriguing panel discussion on PMQ – prime ministers’ questions. The worst, of British politics, or the best? Adversarial, a bear pit … but also a game, and a good one, played within the rules.  But now played out for media soundbites.  And, back to my theme of language…

… what of a PM who uses terms likes ‘surrender’, to the EU, and ‘collaboration’, with an enemy, the EU, and sees no issue with the glib use of wartime language. In the way that Trump uses terms like ‘traitor’ and ‘spy’ of his opponents in the impeachment proceedings. This crosses a threshold.

The one-time (and still?) journalist who is happy to mis-speak, and shrug it off, thinks he can still play the same game in high politics, as PM, no less.

Not only have we lost integrity – we’ve also lost oratory. Does that matter? Back to Schama. The ability to use language, to inspire, and at the same time to put over arguments cogently, and honestly. Passion and intelligence. Churchill had it. Michael Foot had it: you listened, you might not agree – but you listened. Where are they now? The orators. The Obamas. Do we have any? It’s impressive to strut up and down a stage, speaking without notes, but it’s a feat of memory, not oratory. Parliament should be a place for oratory. Maybe not PMQ – but PM and opposition leaders who could rise above point-scoring – that would be a transformation.

Inbetween all this I tried an oddball item. There are many such at Cheltenham. ‘The role of the poetry critic.’ I am no wiser.

Back to politics, and our big event on the Saturday, the Times Debate, ‘Is the party over?’ A pollster from Populus, Andrew Copper, placed parliamentary seats on a grid, with income levels one axis, and social attitudes from liberal to small-c conservative on the other. The analysis was intriguing. ‘Recent polling has shown that voters identify more strongly as Remainers or Leavers than with the two main parties.’ The Tories are now chasing the lower-income socially-conservative vote, they’re on Brexit Party territory, Farage territory. They may win traditional Labour seats, with new-style more socially-conservative MPs – and where then the more open social agenda Johnson talks about. Five, make it six, parties are in contention – more if we include Northern Ireland.

This was simply the best panel discussion I’ve been to – at Cheltenham or Hay. Chaired by Justin Webb, with acuity and affability. Philip Collins provided perspective, and Jess Phillips and Rory Stewart were the politicians. Jess Phillips out of tune with her leadership, but in tune with her constituents in Birmingham. And open and honest because that’s the only way she knows. Leave her party? She’ll hang on in there, hoping it will switch back from its Momentum ways to something still socialist but within the old parameters of parliamentary discourse. Rory Stewart has given up on his party. He’s now standing as an independent candidate for London mayor. Intelligent and totally on the ball. And damn it, like Jess, likeable. And like Jess, not playing games with the audience, and trying to be something he isn’t. As either Andrew or Philip remarked, he’ll get a ton of second preferences, and may win on a run-off as the second-favourite candidate. Sadiq Khan is weighed down by Corbin as party leader, the Tory candidate by Boris. Rory is a free agent. (It seems I’m on first-name terms with everyone!)

As Jess pointed out, she couldn’t do anything like that. Abandon party, stand as an independent. Rory has the dosh. He’s an old Etonian. If he may/may not have the money, but he has the connections. He can build an online base with ease. Jess has no such advantages, save for her political and personal skills. She literally couldn’t afford to re-invent herself.

As someone said – it would be good to see the two of them in the same cabinet. Sanity would prevail. One hopes.

Language – focus on language – in life and politics. The ability to express yourself cogently and honestly. We all fall short.  The danger is now that were all so inured to misuse and abuse of language that we go along with it. With Boris, a small-scale operator, for now, and maybe always too innocent – and Erdogan, Modi, Trump on a rising scale. And Xi Jinping at the top, with ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ now forming the preamble to China’s constitution.

That takes me to Narendra Modi and a panel discussion on India, entitled India Now, chaired by the director, Robin Niblett, of the think-tank, Chatham House. My friend, Hazel, wa,s in the meantime, enjoying the ‘Sunday Times Culture Discussion with Andrew Lloyd Webber’. Would have been – and was, I gather – fascinating. But politics came first.

The tenor of the discussion was well-caught by the title of book by one of the panel, Kapil Komireddi, ‘The Malevolent Republic’. Modi didn’t come off well. A Hindu nationalist wanting to re-shape India as a Hindu state, creating a hostile environment for dissent, building a personality cult, undermining the open democracy which India has, despite its size and convoluted history, managed to maintain, revoking the status of Jammu and Kashmir as a province, an unconstitutional act, upping the stakes in the hostilities with Pakistan. Playing the populist, embracing, literally, Donald Trump.

It would have been good to have someone on the panel just a little bit more onside with Modi: the growth rate is still 5%, could go higher, he’s strong in infrastructure projects … And we should remember, India will soon be, at 1.4 billion people, the most populous nation on the planet. Put against that – the question I’d meant to ask and didn’t – will India be able to feed itself in future, and water itself – will the rains and aquifers hold out?

Where are we, the UK, in all this? We were advised by the panel that, yes, there’s still a kind of fondness for things British in India, but the idea that the old ties of Empire would help us ease our way to post-Brexit deals with India is patently absurd.

I’ve hardly mentioned Brexit. The festival by and large avoided it. Negotiations this week may or may not conclude with a deal, which may or may not pass parliament. And that is all there is to say.

Cheltenham has been a wonderful few days. It rained and it poured, and the tents fluttered in the occasional big gust. But the place was teeming. And we had fun.

Tory debate debacle

We will shortly have a new leader of the Tory party, and they will be our new prime minister.

I watched part of the Tory leadership contenders’ debate last night. I was expecting little and got less. Their answers to the climate change question were abysmal. The question the 15-year-old girl asked was about zero emissions by 2025, not 2050. They didn’t get close to answering it. They never mentioned 2025. They were obsessed with parading what they’d already done. The only urgency was Brexit. At all costs.

Rory Stewart said the format didn’t suit him. He to my mind fared better than the others. But he too got drawn in to the squabblers’ den. Appealing to 160,000 Tory members (they are rushing to join, apparently, so they can vote), all more or less ancient and affluent, when the winner will have a country of 67 million to govern.

(For more on the party membership, see below.  They have lost all reason, and so maybe it’s not surprising that their aspiring leaders have too.)

The five contenders showed no signs of appreciating the simple absurdity of their position. What is lacking is, in one word, awareness – and, closely related, self-awareness. A simple awareness that ego, the obsession with getting across your own views, your own somehow superior identity, is the pathway of fools. The awareness that seeking after something permanent, beyond challenge, a one-time panacea for all our ills, is a blind alley. Blind alleys are not safe places.

To invite chaos, as Brexit does, or simply fail to recognise the urgencies of our times, in the case of climate change and the natural environment, is unforgivable.

Buddhists, for whom non-self, or non-ego, and impermanence are simply part of life (in no way are they beliefs, they are the way life is), also focus on dukkha, often translated as ‘unsatisfactoriness’ (also as ‘suffering’, but that has overly negative connotations) – not getting what we want, and too often getting what we don’t want. There is much talk out there of a post-Brexit disruption giving the country opportunities to set off in a new direction. The one guarantee is that the direction the country takes will not be that which they would wish upon it.

Before we slag them all off… The politician’s job is a tough one. The toughest, if they really want to get it right.  Many do have that self-awareness. Making enterprise and compassion their watchwords, and their perspective the whole wide world  looking out and not in. Getting that right isn’t so damned difficult, is it?

Policy will always be a challenge, and a nightmare. But get your head and your heart in the right place, and you’re in the right place to start. Yes, that’s stating the obvious. But it’s the obvious that so lacking among the Tory leadership candidates – and indeed the whole charabanc on board behind them.

* From today’s Independent (Tom Peck):

The latest day of fun in the Tory psychodrama was coloured by a poll on Tuesday morning, that showed that more than 50 per cent of the Conservative party’s membership do not care if Brexit destroys the Conservative party. More than  60 per cent don’t care if it hammers the UK economy and breaks up the union with Scotland or Northern Ireland. 

 

Making the case for silence

Zen is about silence. No soap box required.

I want to call out for silence – to call, not shout. Nothing comes of shouting, rabble rousing, name-calling – only further division, and the defeat of reason. We have too much shouting out there. Endless Brexit arguments and silence aren’t easy companions.

Silence is something we can all share, all people and all persuasions, all races and religions … silence makes no demands, it is there if you wish to find it …. silence leaves he or she who shouts loud out in the cold … it gives space to think and consider, has little time for short cuts and easy solutions.

I remember my son being disciplined by the school librarian for telling the librarian to shut up because her continued calls of silence were breaking his concentration.

You can’t command silence.

But silence is unexciting. Why not follow the pied piper? Or he or she who shouts loudest?

Shouting divides. With the European elections around the corner we find ourselves more polarised than ever.  ‘We are the people.’ The 52%. But what did we vote for? Brexit at any price? Remain also has its ranters. Shouting embeds ideas, good, on occasion, usually bad.

Reasoned argument is beyond ideology, beyond ‘big’ ideas, beyond assumptions. Reasoned argument requires silence. A prayer before we start. OK, unfashionable. It doesn’t have to be a prayer. But silence. Time to reflect. And, maybe, he who is most eager to speak should go last. Or speak not at all.

But that’s as maybe…

We’re faced with big subjects, big themes – with globalisation (which is ironically the natural and only outcome of a ‘free trade’ position), on the one hand, and the sense, and the reality, of being left behind by elites, by the big cities, the bankers, even by the younger generation, on the other. Pay is pegged back, annual increments a rarity, austerity has for many been brutal.

‘There is a real question about whether democratic capitalism is working, when it’s only working for part of the population.’ The words of Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton. Could the country be at a tipping point?

More than ever, we need to step back. We need silence. An end to shouting. Instead we need engagement, close engagement, with all the areas I mention above – engagement across Europe and not just in this country. That’s been our role in the past, and I see no reason to give up on that now.

In the recent past many of us have been too cautious, too reasonable – too slow. Silence has been a negative state. A place we retreat to. A place to hide. (We treat elites as somehow inevitable. We shrug and get on with life.)

I’ve found the last three years one hell of a challenge. (I am not alone of course.) The sense that there’s a continuity between my private world and the wider political world out there has been broken. Extremes and wild ideas have become common currency. If I acquiesced in a too-slow change of pace before, I can no longer do so now.

Silence has to be more positive, more active, more pro-active. More political.

But it must still be silence. Paring back the rush of ideas, allowing quiet space in between, that space which anger and emotion too easily fill. Don’t be fooled by the loudest voice. Or a half-truth in a headline.

There’s wisdom, a real wisdom, in silence. If wisdom isn’t too unfashionable a term these days.

A sense of humour

Thinking back to my last post, on the subject of language….

NVC, Nonviolent Communication, is an organisation founded by Marshall Rosenberg several decades ago. (Check out the book.) The name speaks for itself. It sets the benchmark high.

Humour, surely, is non-violent. And yet …

A weeks ago (23rd March) in Central London  more than a million marchers kept their sense of humour. Below are a few placards:

We know about cliff edges in Cornwall….Brutalists against Brexit….Even Tesco has better deals….Without free movement we can’t get rid of Nigel and Boris….I’m British. I’ve taken to the streets I protest. Things must be jolly bad….I wasn’t old enough to vote. I am now….I’d rather run through a field of wheat….I’m so angry I could make a placard…On second thoughts…

The Sun newspaper absolutely failed to bring any humour to the party. ‘Snarky little placards’ is how The Sun describes the placards. Who I wonder came up with that joyful phrase? (Likewise, ‘No sane person is impressed, even by 5.6 million Remainers signing a petition.’)

Humour can breed hostility. I don’t think most marchers set out to goad. Their humour was simply a way of handling what they saw as a disaster. But it riled the other side…

George Orwell in his pamphlet ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) is concerned about the language of debate, at a rather more elevated level than The Sun. But his message is clear.

‘All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.’

When the atmosphere is bad, even humour is drawn in.

We are treading on egg-shells.