A day in the life … in my life – Christmas shopping, Donald Trump, The Economist, writing blogs, workhouses, and a few other matters of consequence

It was an ordinary day. A haircut, and a mid-morning shop on Cheltenham’s High Street. 10th December, a festive time, but it didn’t look or feel that way. Shops with long queues outside, and yet it seemed far too many people inside. We wouldn’t have noticed before, but we do now. We are all watching our step, watching our neigbbours. Smiles would work wonders, but our smiles are masked.

Something else brought me down. Headlines about Johnson and his meeting-of-no-minds dinner with Ursula von der Leyen. The sheer and utter stupidity of a no-deal Brexit looms ever closer. In four words – putting party before country.

I was happy to be back home to a bowl of Hazel’s parsnip soup.

I then set about writing a blog. Being a glutton for punishment. Donald Trump, as actor, as a master of theatre, stage manager and scriptwriter and leading actor – the only actor. How his script, ‘fake news’, had literally trumped ‘post-truth’. We have our own news, these days, we’re partisan, and proud of it, and objective criteria by which we might identify what is actually true (as far as that’s ever possible) – well, that’s a mug’s game. And are we all at it – left as well as right of the political spectrum?

Trump is having a last throw in Texas: the state’s attorney-general is seeking to invalidate the votes in four states including Georgia. What would happen, I wonder, if he was successful? If the Supreme Court ruled in his favour, and electoral college votes were put in the hands of Republican-controlled legislatures, and the national vote was overturned. A divided America would be fractured. And just where the fracture lines would fall – who can say?

Good material. But my blog was too wordy, and not punchy enough.

I put it to one side, and listened instead to The Economist editors’ online review of 2020, for subscribers to the magazine. Covid and the way it was reported, competence and otherwise in the way it was handled, the implications for globalism, and supply chains, and future growth. The way the editors’ puzzle over the stories of now, and what could be the stories of the future.  The increased role of the state, something that’s likely to continue. Digital culture and changes in the workplace. The threat posed by China. The US election. Biden. The role of populism. The way the old generations have cornered resources – how underspending on infrastructure and housing and education have worked against the young. And, maybe above all, the importance of retaining and reinforcing our belief in classical English (NOT American!) liberalism – of open societies and free markets. The value of reasoned debate, and competence, and ‘remaking the social contact’, between the state and the people, and state and the market.  

Sometimes I wish The Economist would reach down and get its hands dirty a little more. Be more open to alternative economic models. Speak with more passion. But it does what it does with supreme competence, and I wouldn’t have it, with so much fakery around, any other way.

After that – my Trump blog was binned. Poor fare by comparison.

But my day wasn’t over. I’d volunteered to write up the report on our local history society’s evening meeting – Zoom of course. The subject was the Stroud workhouse, and the speaker a local Labour councillor who’d down some excellent research. Stroud, if you don’t know it, is an old industrial area, focused around the woollen industry, with a long and remarkable history. It’s tucked away in the steep valleys of the western Cotswolds. I’ve lived here now for three years.

Workhouses took over from earlier forms of parish relief following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Having to seek relief became a badge of shame. Couples and families were separated. By the 1930s workhouses had become more or less infirmaries – for the aged and infirm. The Stroud workhouse closed in 1940 and its remaining residents were shipped off to any corner of the Cotswolds that would have them.

I thought of our own times, how Covid has had knock-on effects across all areas of medicine and social care. The backlog of hip operations could take three years to clear. Resources had to be directed elsewhere in World War Two, just as they are now. 1948 finally pulled the curtain down on the old Poor Law, with the establishment of the modern welfare state and the NHS.

What will the post-Covid years bring?   

Time for a late night whisky – Benromach – a birthday present from my son.

Time to reflect.

Three days at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019

I read that Ian McEwen has read everything on Brexit, admitted to being an obsessive. He’s just written a book, Cockroach, about a cockroach which wakes up to find it’s become prime minsiter. He admits to a lack of subtlety.

I keep reading on Brexit. Never was a subject so pervasive and invasive. But any kind of orginality requires deep reading. And life just now has other attractions!

What can a literature festival offer? The Cheltenham Literature Festival is on my doorstep. One of the great advantages of living out of town, in the country, but not as much in the country as you might think. Maybe the Hay Festival is my favourite, by a small margin – the scale and vibe is overwhelming, and I love it. Cheltenham is urban, and you’ve a cafe and street culture which sets it apart.

I’ll take language as my theme. Not maybe what the organisers of the Cheltenham Literature Festival had in mind. They’re celebrating their 70th birthday. But what is literature if not language. Though language may not be literature.

It’s Saturday morning. I’ve yet to read David Nott’s book, ‘War Memoir’, about his life as a frontline surgeon, operating, literally, in the world’s most violent places. He was our first event, and he came across, initially, in interview, as out of his element. But honest. He’d found when working under fire in Sarajevo a kind of high, an excitement, this was where he wanted to be. Less a moral compass than a vocation. But he found that compass and now trains surgeons to work beyond the specialisations into which they’re shoe-horned by modern hospital practice. He has met Mullah Omar, met ISIS, and his dedication to life made his denunciations of those who seek and exercised power and the language of power for its own sake, careless of death, all the more powerful.

Our next event, the debate ‘Populism: Death of Democracy’, was topical, though there was always the danger we’d simply be re-visiting well-trodden territory. So it proved. The debate was chaired by Leslie Vinjamuri, of the think-tank Chatham House. Matthew Goodwin brought a British perspective to the subject, and Amy Pope, ex Obama advisor, an American perspective. Do the origins of populism lie more in cultural or economic issues? Identity or issues relating to jobs and income? Populist leaders exploit both – the apparent undermining of national cultures, of ways of life – being left behind – victims – of a political system, of elites operating in their own interest. The issues are real, and the crisis, with hindsight, inevitable. But the debate went round in circles.

Focusing on language would have helped. The misuse of language has turned a crisis which might have brought people together in a common understanding into conflagration. Language brings together, its misuse divides. Post-truth was well-established before 2016. Fake news and disdain of real expertise took hold in 2016 and beyond. Current parliamentary debates have coupled disdain and anger in a way that challenges truth in language still further.

Amy Pope contributed an American standpoint: she sees hope in the wider race and gender representation in the House of Representatives. But as she admitted, that doesn’t address the issue of the resentments of the ‘flyover states’, everything, that is, between the East Coast and California.

Sunday morning. Time for my next event, a celebration of the life of the American novelist, Toni Morrison, who died in August. As an editor at Random House, the first black editor in US publishing history, she opened doors for black writers, and she herself opened up the realities of Afro-American life as never before. She didn’t whitewash, or glorify, or sympathise. She allowed language to tell it as it is, and as she saw it. And the language is wonderful, inspired, magic passages of writing which capture all the hurts and hopes and failures, resignation on the one hand and the search for identities and roots on the other. The panel were black women, writers and publishers, and I’m a white and male, and in a big minority in that Cheltenham tent. But I came away inspired. The panel spoke Morrison’s language – Miss Morrison as two of then called her. They quoted favourite passages, and the most resonant was the speech she gave at the Nobel-Prize-giving ceremony.

‘…the recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.’

‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’

Next, another debate, ‘Who’s Next for the White House’. Leslie Vinjamuri again, joined by Sarah Baxter and Adam Boulter, both now of the Sunday Times, festival co-sponsors. As a choice, this was interesting, intriguing, but probably a mistake. We were on the same ground as the populism debate. And the same radical uncertainty of outcome. I may for my part see hope in a new and raised awareness coming through, or at least a cause we can identify with, in the opposition to populism. But where lies hope in the battle to be president? The Democrats are divided centre and left. Theirs is at least a debate I can connect to. Elizabeth Warren a powerful candidate, but with big-state ideas which could panic centrist voters. Trump is Trump, widening his river of no destination ever further and carrying his supporters along in the turbulence. We were asked for a show of hands at the end. Who do you think will be the next US president? Two-thirds, at least, thought Trump. Not me. I’d thought – Trump, no way, last time. Not again, that I cannot believe. Though were I to expect a Trump victory maybe my penchant for guessing wrong would somehow influence the outcome – and Trump would lose …

In the evening we had ‘An Evening of Joni Mitchell’. Note the ’of’. She is recovering slowly from a brain aneurysm, re-learning how to walk. She is not travelling. I knew that. Some didn’t. They expected Joni to be there. A 40-minte four-way ‘expert’ conversation talked about her childhood polio, speculated on its influence, touched on her relationships – but never on the detail of her songs. We’re back to language. They never touched on the language of her songs. What inspired her to write them. They are her legacy to the world. Would that come over in the second half? No. Her songs were given the full jazz band, wild sax, treatment, and the words got drowned. Very occasionally her rhythms came through. But while the music was almost OK, the treatment was a travesty.

And, finally, two events on the Monday. Smaller venues. The first in The Pillar Room, in the Town Hall. Two writers. Philip Marsden writing about a single-handed boat journey from Cornwall via the west of Ireland to the Summer Isles (the title of the book as well – I love the name) off the north-west coast of Scotland. You’re face to face with the sea, with the world, when single-handed. He’d walked with his aunt who lived in the North-West Highlands, and she’d died out there in an accident. Her library was full of books on (if I recall aright) on simplifying life, on Zen. Also talking at the event was Dan Richards about his book, ‘Outpost’, where he writes about bothies and cabins and lighthouses and even sheds at the bottom of gardens – your stepping-off points, as an explorer, of wilderness, or as a writer, the open spaces of the mind. The idea appeals, and I will buy the book. The authors are different as personalities,  Marsden aspiring to the slightly grizzled loner, Richards rather more (if he will forgive me) urbane. But for both experience is everything, and truth to experience, and truth to the way it’s expressed in language.

And finally, Laura Cummings, chief Observer art critic, and her family memoir, ‘On Chapel Sands’. Another smaller venue, The Nook: we sit round small tables, in greater comfort and more intimacy than usual. This was better for a writer whose book is about the brief and unexplained disappearance of a little girl for five days from a Lincolnshire beach, when she was only three years old. The little girl was the author’s mother. A long-time unsolved family mystery. She bravely followed the story where it took her. The small venue allowed intimacy and author tears.  In pursuit of the truth about the abduction, she dug behind family stories, as we’d expect, but she also interrogated family images. Her art critic skills proved useful. Photos can tell lies, or they can be bland – just another family photo. Or they can, as in this case, hide secrets which only a practised eye can reveal. A husband and wife photo from 1910 – but posed like a Vermeer, but Vermeer was all but unknown in England back then.

So, three days at the festival. For me it’s been, so far, above all about language. About the integrity of language. The natural substrate of a book festival you might think. But what’s struck me this time around is the importance of awareness of the role of language. A surgeon whose role would be so much less needed round the world if only power was subservient to truth. Politicians will, they must, use language as best they can to put an argument across. But to weaponise truth, which quickly becomes weaponising untruth, is a very different story.

Toni Morrison, and Philip Marsden and Dan Richards, opened/open up not narrow down the world. Language and shouting don’t go well together. Toni Morrison – a writer who engaged with an agonised world with extraordinary honesty – a writer of genius. And two writers who talk of quieter times, sailing or walking or writing. They’re not out to change the world, they don’t insist or demand. But they tell it like it is.

George Orwell – lessons for a post-truth world

How do you define an essay, and how does an essay differ from a blog, or an article by a newspaper columnist?

Bernard Crick in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (published in 2000)  of George Orwell’s essays attempts a definition: it can be moral, didactic and serious … it can be informal and flexible, ‘above all it leaves the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next’.

By comparison so much contemporary discourse is predictable: read a blog, your favourite blog, and you’ve a good idea what it might say.

Orwell as we all do had favourite themes (though he often surprises), but he approaches them in ways that are never tedious or predictable. The Prevention of Literature begins at a PEN Club meeting, ostensibly celebrating John Milton and freedom of the press, where none of the speakers highlight that freedom of the press means the freedom to criticise and oppose. (Two speakers eulogise the Soviet Union.) Antisemitism in Britain begins with specific examples (‘No, I do not like the Jews … Mind you, I’m not anti-Semitic, of course’), Politics and the English Language with passages which exemplify ‘a few of the bad habits which spread by imitation’, and How the Poor Die takes off on a harrowing journey based on his own experience in Hopital X in Paris in 1929.

The greatest joy in reading Orwell is his lucidity – and the sheer breadth of his experience and reading. (In Books v Cigarettes he owns to having just 442 books, and yet his range of reference and quotation is remarkable. There were of course always libraries.) His essays are models – and reminders – for our own time, as they were for the 1940s.

Likewise his conclusions. ‘The Catholic and Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot both be honest and intelligent.’ We no longer have a Russian ‘mythos’ (‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’) but we have ‘mythos’ which are all our own, and a society which in recent years has become more divided and less tolerant.

We don’t play with ideologies as they did in Orwell’s time. But we tailor what we say or write, more dangerously, we tailor what we think, to received notions, put identity and security before intellectual challenge.  ‘A bought mind’, now as then, ‘is a spoilt mind.’

Orwell continues: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.’ What applies to literature also applies to politics.

What we also get from Orwell is a portrayal of the mood of his times, the anxieties of a wartime and immediately post-war would where one spectre of totalitarianism has been removed but another is asserting itself ever more strongly, good minds all around Orwell are signing up, and tempering their beliefs and writing to what they deem a higher cause. Orwell doesn’t question the aim, the emancipation of the working class, but is adamant that Soviet Russia isn’t the vehicle by which that might be achieved.

(We also pick up on his anxieties about a post-Christian, avowedly humanist society, where socialism as as an ideal, as an alternative to the afterlife, has been compromised, maybe fatally.)

Totalitarian regimes require misinformation, they write and re-write their own histories (pro-Soviet intellectuals were caught out by the 1939 German/Soviet pact, and caught out again when Germany invaded Russia in 1941). But apologists for Russia weren’t the only enemy.

‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than active persecution.’ Examples include ‘the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books…’

Misinformation in our own time has been well-disguised: it’s about how the news is framed and who does the framing – about how we, as watchers and listeners and readers with it, are manipulated. But post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the recent German election, it’s out in the open. Which side is putting out ‘fake news’?

Many of the essays were written for Tribune, and that meant a left-wing and intellectual audience. I’d guess that Orwell would love to have written for a wider audience, to have hustled in alongside a newspaper magnate (or maybe not!) as Michael Foot did with Beaverbrook in the 1930s, or better still find popular media outlets that weren’t in the hands of rich men. 1984 and Animal Farm, written at the same time as the Tribune essays, did of course break through, but at the level of the educated middle- not working-class. So the best Orwell could do, the best he could hope for, was to influence other writers, other opinion-formers, to lay out a course between the intolerancies of the Tory (and Catholic, as he saw it) right and the radical and Sovietised left.

He does this with grace and precision at the conclusion of his essay of antisemitism, arguing for integrity based on self-examination:

‘I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.’

Hatreds and loyalties aren’t confined to nationalism of course. (Another subject on which Orwell writes with great insight.) My only caveat is his use of the word ‘intellectual’. It is not beyond all of us in our educated world to step back and step back and view our world dispassionately.

One obstacle, a fundamental one, to our doing so, is our use of language.  Orwell is explicit on the subject in Politics and the English language:

‘…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … where you make a stupid remark it will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits …’

There’s a mighty challenge here, and the first thing I must do is re-read what I’ve written here – is it an essay or a blog or just a few ruminations ? – and see how it fares when judged against Orwell’s high aspiration.