Saturday, 20 August 2016

Imaginary Extract

"Unfortunately for them, he had been obnoxious enough to become a real person. To this they could not but take exception."

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Arrogance and Equality

The very worst thing with which one can be branded in keyboard warrior debates is ‘arrogance’. First of all let’s be clear that there is such a thing and that it is a very undesirable thing. It resides in an attitude towards others which is haughty, 'patronising' (another keyboard favourite, the true sense of which being that one speaks to others as a father might address a child and this, in a world where real fathers and real children exist), snobbish and, literally, condescending – talking down from what is considered to be a height above others.

However, in this age where “equality” is considered to be the most desirable quality in society and, consequently, egalitarianism to be the greatest virtue, and again, conversely, where ‘elitism’ is seen as the greatest sin, there is great confusion. People are terrified of being branded as arrogant and will even participate in an anti-intellectual race to the bottom in order to avoid it and to reassure others that they are free of this vice. They will go so far as to pretend that they are worse educated than they are and will deny knowing things that their education has taught them and books that it has introduced them to. You will see well-educated young men and women aping Billy Bragg in intoning words which they grew up pronouncing as Liberty, Equality and Fraternity as Liber’y, Equali’y and Fraterni’y. They will also live in the ci’y. They do this because they believe that to speak in this way gives them egalitarian credibility. They are on the side of and standing shoulder to shoulder with the poorly educated and the poor. What they haven’t understood is that aligning themselves with a lower stratum of education or of wealth doesn’t do the trick and may even betray their own haughtiness and prejudices in that they have so signally and deliberately sought out people who, secretly and precisely (it is their perceived 'lowliness' in these respects that recommended them to them), they believe to be ‘beneath’ them. The use of the glottal stop is an attempt to disown an education of which they feel ashamed (which is a great tragedy) or a social cachet which they also wish to slough off seeing it as inconveniently according them the wrong social credentials.

In what, then, resides, true humility? It is, perhaps, in the realisation that virtue pays no heed to social class, education or wealth. You will find hugely attractive virtues, such as courage and honesty, amidst the poorly educated and the plain poor just as you will find exactly the same virtues amidst the Hooray Henrys (you will also find the opposite vices amongst the whole of society of course). To assume that all of the poorly educated or all of the poor have a monopoly on virtue and that all of the well-educated or rich are devoid of it is to make a schoolboy error of over-simplification. Morality has no class and even those who go far out of their way to protest and advertise their egalitarian humility may, unwittingly, and in doing exactly that, betray that they are the true snobs.

Saturday, 23 July 2016


The person who knows where the bottom of the swimming pool is will have the best purchase on reality.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Complacency about the ‘New Poor’?

First of all, relax! I’m not about to come all Billy Graham with you. I give the quotations below from, respectively, the Old and New Testaments because they, handily, aspire to take a long term perspective on poverty as it manifests itself in the human race over history.

11"For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.' Deuteronomy 15:11

11The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me. Matthew 26:11 On the occasion of the woman in Bethany pouring expensive perfume on Christ’s feet and of some of the disciples complaining that it could have been sold and given to the poor.

These texts suggest that human poverty is an integral part of the human condition. Of course, the moment one hints anything of the sort, outrage will be expressed in many quarters at the inherent complacency of the assumption. It will seem that there is no greater sin than this complacency and its concomitant failing of not being a crusader filled with the virtue of the fight for our brothers and sisters. This is because we all know that the world is getting better all the time, human society is on a long march to progress and it is only a matter of time before poverty is ‘solved’ or eradicated from the world just like smallpox or polio were, right? Therefore you’re either for us or against us! You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem!

But what if this view of history is not right and we are not progressing to ever sunnier uplands? Are we being complacent or merely realistic and free from the affliction of starry-eyedness? We don’t seem to have eradicated crime and immorality from human history and, if you look at Shakespeare with King Lear in the 17th century, Swift with his ‘Modest Proposal’ in the 18th, Dickens with his workhouses in the 19th and Orwell on ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ in the 20th it doesn’t look like poverty is going anywhere fast. And that’s before we even begin to look at the rest of the world outside the UK. This reveals that the ’progressives’ and ‘meliorists’ are casually assuming a very particular and easily identifiable ideology which can certainly be contested as being the right one. Their assumption is far too casual when placed against the backcloth of history. Other interpretations are certainly available.

And then, what about governments? There is a tendency now to assume that the job of governments is the utter eradication of poverty and that any failure to achieve this extraordinary aim is evidence of a kernel of pure evil at their heart. Merely ‘governing’ what is there is not enough. Regrettably this means that every government will have to slink away under a burden of shame. This is, of course, not to say that governments should not do their best to provide their citizens with as good a quality of life as is possible by making the economy work as well as possible so that the standard of living is as good as it can be for as many as possible. But why wouldn’t they want to do this anyway for the good of everybody?

The Deuteronomy quotation might suggest that the interest is not in whether we can or can’t eradicate poverty (it suggests we can’t) but in how we respond to it. How do we behave towards the people with whom we rub shoulders every day in the local High Street, both rich and poor? For a comfortably off person does their response show them to be selfish and heartless or generous and sympathetic? For the poor do they respond to their condition with criminality or with dignity? For these are the choices that define what people really are and what people really are (rather than what they have) is what matters ultimately. The wealth and the poverty are merely the backcloth to the human drama. It is this that makes the novels of Dickens and Tolstoy so marvelous.

This morning I listened to a phone-in on the radio about the ‘new working poor.’ Many callers complained that life was tough, that they had to make sacrifices to raise their children and there were certain things that they were unable to do. No doubt if they had been calling in a hundred years ago they would have been saying the same things. The presenter talked with one caller who thought that the problem was that people’s expectations were too high and that it was wrong to feel that one had a ‘right’ to certain things. And while it is unpleasant to be obliged to make sacrifices and have less than others where does the sense of entitlement to something better come from? Who said the world owed you a free lunch? Where exactly is that written down? In UN charters perhaps but I don’t see the UN any more than our government eradicating world poverty or, for that matter, world criminality. It’s a fine idea but……..

What matters in these arguments is how you frame them. If you frame them within a progressive agenda then your reaction to poverty is going to be outrage and condemnation of..…somebody or other. If you don’t frame it thus your reaction might be very different. It might be slipping an extra £50 in your payment to the carpet fitters who worked hard for you all morning or it might be lending your season ticket to the old fella over the road when you are away because it is never going to be in your power to make them all wealthy. In other words it might be in your reaction to the real people with whom you come into contact in the particular rather then the nebulously general.

So its all in how you frame things. I’d suggest that Deuteronomy and Matthew get it right and that if we act on their assumptions we will make things as good as they can be without being hag-ridden by the spectre of having to bring in a new age of Aquarius.

Thursday, 7 July 2016


She worried the touch-pad
of her computer
with her finger
and reflected on
her lover's comment.
Sighing after her
as she left the house,
she mocked him.
He said
"Sighs matter."

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Longbowmen of Agincourt who hit the wrong target?

According to Brendan O’Neill who wrote an article – ‘Not thick or racist: just poor’ - in this week’s Spectator, celebrating the BREXIT Victory, those who voted LEAVE were typically those who “do physical labour, live in a modest home, and have never darkened the door of a University, (who were) more likely to have said ‘screw you’ to the EU…” And again – “Of the 240 local authorities that have low education levels – ie more than a quarter of adults do not have five A to Cs at GCSE – 83 per cent voted Leave.”

And so, how are we to characterise them whilst still remaining both politically correct and free of the taint of ‘elitisim if that is possible?’ Are they the low class drinking companions of Sir John Falstaff who went on (some of them at least) to win a glorious victory with their longbows at Agincourt or the Tommies who were pushed forward to get mown down on the first day of the Battle of the Somme? Are they the poor? Are they the dispossessed, the ‘plebs’ who voted in the plebiscite, the ‘proles’ from the proletariat (lumpen or otherwise), the workers, the unemployed or, heaven forfend, the ‘chavs’? Are they the true demos – the ‘people?’ Just making a list like this will trigger a number of reactions towards me, many hostile (I can feel some bristling as I write), but I still insist on it being worth asking these questions. Seeing the spectrum of reactions is, in itself, informative regarding the nature of the consciousness of our society.

In, as Bryan Appleyard has it, a great “howl of protest” they, whoever they are, expressed their rage at dispossession caused by globalisation and at being on the end of an austerity they certainly did not cause (that was the bankers) by targeting, of all things, the European Union. There is a strange illogicality in this. If they represent the true folk wisdom of the people which knows better than the educated elites how did they get it so wrong? If they have no wisdom by virtue of who they are, as some ‘elitists’ might aver, is it a surprise that they got it wrong and behaved so illogically? We seem to be caught in a cleft stick.

My educated voice even daring to speak about them with detachment, and therefore, to detach myself from them, as an object I am examining, will be castigated. My very attempt to characterize them will be seen as a condescension that is not permissible. But things are complicated. Am I really separate from or ‘above’ them? I come from the demographic into which they fall – my father grew up over a fish and chip shop owned by his father, a runaway from Hull at the age of 14. My father worked hard, became a policeman and sent me to the local Grammar School where I was educated as a result of which I would probably be considered now as ‘middle class’. This shows that none of us are in a fixed state but are all, potentially, ‘dynamic’ and that that dynamism exhibits an impulse towards intellectual betterment. It is the education that I received at my Grammar School that enabled me to look critically at what they have done and to see what the shortcomings are, not least the fact that, if things go wrong, it will be this very group who will suffer most keenly. And, in spite of this, like the similarly educated Rod Liddle, the brilliant Brexiteer columnist, I am one of them by origin and understand what motivates “them”, or should I say “us”? This, of course, is the crux of the matter. My very distancing myself from ”them” and talking ‘about’ them will constitute the charge against me and the evidence laid out for my elitism. I, too, am in a cleft stick.

Education is one of the gifts bestowed on us and, in right-thinking times (and I’m not sure ours constitutes one of these), it is one of the most highly prized assets a society can bestow. From the latin “e – ducare” – to lead out from, it means that a good school will challenge the narrow blinkered place where a child is (and where it might, if consulted, prefer to stay) and lead that child out by the hand to a better place where it can see more and with a wider perspective. It is education that might enable one to criticise what Brendan O’Neill admits to be the badly educated caucus that he champions and yet it might also be that very fact of an educated sensibility which is blamed for having ‘elitist’ rather than ‘educated’ insights like this. This is the paradox in which we are caught because we want to insist on folk wisdom while also wanting to praise and promote the merits of education. It can even result in the lampooning of certain sections of society on the grounds of their being educated as in Michael Gove’s rejection of ‘experts’ or the characterization of the typical Remain voter being, horror of horrors, a graduate.

But if education is not a prize which enables us to free ourselves from our backgrounds and escape poverty and to analyse critically the errors made by the uneducated, why do people complain that it is so unavailable to the poor? How have we come to the point where, specifically, being a graduate disqualifies you from having a sensible and informed view? If that’s the case what was all the striving for and does education have any value after all? Is this where we have come to?

I am sure that, in writing this, I have been guilty of condescension and that highly educated Brexiteers such as Rod Liddle would be the first to tell me so, in a very educated way, of course. If I am guilty of condescension and elitism it is a kind of educational elitism which I can't help but embrace, though. As a teacher my whole life has been invested in the idea that education does raise you - otherwise what's the point?

I don’t intend this article to be by any means to be the last word on this matter and it is largely exploratory – asking what I hope are pertinent questions rather than giving answers. For that reason I’d welcome comment from others.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

What's wrong with Britishness?

A very cultured blog writer I greatly respect complained about two Labour politicians, neither of whom I have much time for; Emily Thornberry - who tweeted an “Image from Rochester” of a white van man, and Pat Glass - who referred to the village of Sawley in Derbyshire as “wherever this is.” He spoke of the tweeted image as “a blameless white van and England's national flag.” But is it truly “blameless”? What does England’s national flag mean?

If an Italian, a Frenchman or even a German paraded his national flag in the streets, at home or abroad, during, say, a football tournament it would seem harmless, colourful and praiseworthy. As I mentioned above, I have little time for Emily Thornberry but, in suggesting that the display of the flag bearing the cross of St George, in contrast to this, was somehow unappealing, I think she was on to something. And her locating that something does not equate to merely the sneer of the liberal self-loathing intelligensia who look down on a thing so base as patriotism. What is this something? It is the unavoidable fact that the quality of English, and often British, nationalism which the national flag represents is different from that of other European nations.

This is because the flavour of a country’s nationalism emerges from its history and the history of the British over the last century is unique and peculiar to us. Uniquely among European nations we saw, in the first 50 years of the 20th Century, a decline from being the world’s superpower to being a nation more befitting our geographical size and dependent on the new superpower, the USA. Ever since this seismic shock to our national ego we have been floundering and struggling to adapt to the new order of things, much of the time in denial of it. We have inherited, for this reason a fragile national psychology which swings between a sense of entitlement, resentment, brittleness and anger. Its like someone who has never gone successfully through the five stages of grief after a bereavement and cannot come to terms with it. Or, perhaps, it’s like a playground bully who has been disarmed by the teachers and is now at his most dangerous. Because of this the England flag is dangerous.

When a French shopkeeper during the Euro 2016 competition sees the flag he is on his guard in a way in which he never would be on seeing the Swedish flag. Fans who cannot get over the fact that they are no longer exceptional but wish to assert that they are, are to be avoided especially when drunk.

Of course, given the special nature of our wounded national psyche, there is much that can be exploited by our press who profit by whipping up the resentful embers of our ‘greatness’ and demand, unreasonably, of, for example, our football teams that they rule the world once more. As a result, otherwise highly talented English footballers borne down by an unbearable weight of national expectation go to pieces on the big stage. Their emotional fragility simply buckles under the strain of trying to be something that they know in their hearts they are not. No amount of changes in the coaching staff will ever remedy this collective psychological frailty. The Welsh team, for example, on the other hand, enter the fray with none of this baggage rejoicing in their status as underdogs and using it to fuel real acts of heroism.

In the BREXIT referendum much trading on this bruised national mentality went on. Nigel Farage’s performance after the vote was in, in the European Parliament, was a perfect example of a British person giving himself permission to behave boorishly on the grounds of a flawed conception of who he is.