On The Triumph of Boris Johnson

In the November of 2007, I spent a few days in the Ladbroke Grove home of some friends. Both worked in the law. One had been state-educated, the other privately; both had been to university; each had just embarked on a career in one of the unimpeachable professions.

We were sitting in a pub of the sort that had just achieved modishness: sleek Victoriana, dark tones, smooth chalkboards displaying carefully printed copperplate specials. The conversation turned to the following year’s mayoral contest: Ken Livingstone was standing for re-election, and Boris Johnson had recently been named the Conservative Party’s candidate.

“I think we’ll vote Boris,” one said. “Yeah,” agreed the other.”He’s funny!”

I lost touch with this pair. But I wonder whether they’re laughing now.

*

In a New York Review of Books piece that has been getting a lot of traction on Twitter in the last few days, Fintan O’Toole pays serious attention to the role that humour has played in the rise of Boris Johnson: “his very weakness of character (the chaos, the fecklessness, the mendacity) provides for his admirers a patriotically heartening proof that the true English spirit has not yet been chewed up in the homogenizing maw of a humorless and excessively organized EU.” In other words, Boris was never “just” funny: the mood of his joking was pregnant with political purpose; he made people laugh because they recognised, in the contrast between his own studied carelessness and the sobriety of the established political codes against which he was even then ranged, a sort of authenticity.

The Johnsonian style is an end-of-the-pier patriotism, an ostentatiously ironic jingoism that appeals both to the sort of alt-right radicals who choose to see through the half-smiles … and the comfortable, middle-class professionals, often younger, who indulge in what the sociologists of contemporary class politics Annick Preur and Mike Savage have called “knowingness.” A facility with codes – he didn’t mean that, even though he said it – has been a breezy hallmark of sophistication for some time now. The joke is a means of distancing oneself from one’s message: if you only say something for a lark, nothing can stick. This is why Walter Benjamin wrote that “the cult de la blague … has become an essential constitutive element in fascist propaganda.” When is a joke not a joke? When it’s a strategy.

What, then, is the goal of the strategy? For Boris Johnson, it has always been power – to square the circle of appealing both to the Tory faithful and the Labour-leaning bourgeoisie, he adopted the role of joker-in-chief. Famously, he failed to win election to the presidency of the Oxford Union on his first attempt; for his second, successful, run, he hid his class privilege and fixed Toryism beneath a blanket of bonhomie. In 2016, this wilful irresponsibility inevitably fused with the similarly reckless cause of Brexit.

*

Fintan O’Toole has also written a book about Brexit. In Heroic Failure, he writes that, “Brexit is about many things, but one of them is the feeling that there is a much larger rot to stop, a natural order of things that is being eroded by feminism, multiculturalism, immigration, globalisation and Islam.” This instinctive sense of loss, this saudade, is not only a British phenomenon – it is, particularly in the developed world, an endemic meme. And in the last decade it has been harnessed, amplified and encouraged by innumerable actors.

That process of cultivation has been instrumental in, if not creating, then certainly codifying the so-called populism that currently moves through the liberal democracies. The important question about Brexit in particular, then, isn’t whether it can be done – it can, depending on your tolerance or enthusiasm for the consequences. It isn’t even if it’s a good idea – as a rule, the virtue of ideas in a democracy is less important than their capacity to corral together a majority. The important question is why. Only from there can we proceed productively.

In the summer of 2012, Anna and I attended a child’s birthday party. It was glorious weather, and we sat in a garden on plastic chairs, eating cake and watching a small person play with toys. His grandmother, whom I’d known since I was a child, was chatting to me about nothing: the weather, the roads, the television. Then she said something which struck me as merely wrong at first, but which later I realised was also significant. “I only watch Russia Today for news now,” she told me. “It’s the only place you can go to find out the truth.”

This was before even the channel’s transparent rebrand to the slightly-less-blatant RT. In 2012, here was a channel not so much partial as explicitly polemical. There was in those days no hiding the provenance of the information spat out by the presenters foolish or knavish enough to choose to work for Putin’s personal propagandists. My interlocutor was strongly Christian, but other than the fierceness of those beliefs she was the sort of woman you could meet any day on any street anywhere in Britain. What was it about these twenty-first-century Lord Haw-Haws that appealed to her?

Identity, of course. “A humiliated group seeking restitution of its dignity,” writes Francis Fukuyama in his recent book on this topic, “carries far more emotional weight than people pursuing their economic advantage.” One of the most astute observations made in the course of the 2016 referendum campaign which has – windingly, slowly – brought Boris Johnson to his lifetime goal of 10 Downing Street was, in fact, made by the man with whom Donald Trump hopes Johnson will soon work: Nigel Farage. When daily George Osborne filled the newspapers with the percentage impacts on GDP, on food prices, on inward investment of leaving the EU, Farage simply shrugged. Some things matter more to people, he said on national television. He meant their identity. It is easy to create a humiliated group if they feel their sense of self is in question.

“The idea that states are obsolete and should be superseded by international bodies is flawed,” Fukuyama – a man who in the 1990s believed we had reached a new consensus, a stable status quo – writes in Identity. The false move of the last half-century has been to invest the values of progress and justice exclusively in global institutions, without mirroring these clearly within national boundaries. In a recent Panorama presented by Nick Robinson, each of his interviews with EU officials – Michel Barnier, Martin Selmayr, Frans Timmermans – was decorated with the ephemera of banal nationalism, most notably a cushion with the EU flag on it. In the absence of an underlying enthusiasm for these reminders of European unity, however, EU pens and mugs are experienced by many as an imposition, as essentially alien – as an invasion, whatever the virtue of the message. To the mindset that is willing to believe in Russia Today more readily than they might the BBC, an EU cushion is not a token of trust.

The alternative has been provided. Since its rejection during the presidency of George W Bush, Putin’s Russia has recast itself as the champion of ‘conservative’ values: family, tradition, the nation state. The irony, of course, is that these values, in being held in opposition to the liberal democracies that unwisely refused Russia entry into the structures of global governance, have now been formulated in such a way as to undermine those self-same nation states. Nationalists garland Trumpism or Brexit even as these visions place untold stress on the structures of the states they purport to defend. Today, a certain stripe of conservative views themself as the true radical: I believe Russia Today, they might say, because I see through the lies of a calcified establishment – and I arm myself with the alternative knowledges I need to defeat it. This is the urge at the heart of Brexit. The architect of the Vote Leave victory, and Boris Johnson’s new senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, has quoted Bismarck:“If revolution there is to be, better to undertake it than undergo it.”

*

Around this time last year, I was a passenger in a septuagenarian’s car, driving home from a day-trip to Buxton. Two years earlier, they had assured me that their vote for Brexit had been unselfish: they had voted to leave the European Union because they thought it was not just best for the country … but for me and Anna. They believed that the UK would be more successful outside of the EU, and that this would benefit their younger compatriots directly.

Since that blissful dawn, of course, the Brexit negotiations had demonstrated the impossibility of delivering a seamless Brexit. Something would have to give, some compromise would need to be made. The compromise for our companions, it turns out, was us: there would, after all, be some suffering – perhaps years of it. But as long as we achieved something called national sovereignty, that’s what really mattered. Of course, they rejected Theresa May’s deal, at that point still known as “Chequers” – a sneering sobriquet redolent of a contempt for the privilege of the governing class.

Brexit is a consequence of this slow process, by which anti-politics has been expressed in increasingly obstreperous ways, first reform then leave then no-deal. Each successive iteration has for years been met by the supposedly detached ruling class with dialogue and co-option – Theresa May’s ‘Go Home’ trucks, Ed Miliband’s ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs. Each demand, once met, has given way to a marginally more demanding, subtly more aggressive, form of the same complaint. When, in the noughties, the BBC took to inviting Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage onto programmes such as Question Time, it did so using the defence that to debate issues was to neutralise the most unpleasant. The best disinfectant, the argument went, was rhetorical sunlight. How has that gone?

In his The New Faces of Fascism, Enzo Traverso argues persuasively that “anti-politics is the result of the hollowing-out of politics.” That is, when the public sphere seems to significant numbers of those acting within it atrophied, they will adopt increasingly oppositional positions. It follows, then, that the solution is not to debate those positions, but to revivify the political culture whose withering has led to the proliferation of disaffection.

Influenced by the ructions of the ideological 1970s, the managerialism of the 1990s feared the sort of political culture it urgently needed to nurture. It preferred, in its place, a narrowed space that focused on “efficiency” and “delivery.” In the neoliberal form this new technocracy took following the 1980s, the goals that leaders such as Tony Blair set themselves resulted in the transfer of vast tranches of wealth to an increasingly tiny elite; the austerity of the Cameron years – itself a purely political response to the 2008 banking crisis, which had the sole aim of laying the blame for an international financial collapse on the British Labour Party – only exacerbated this shift. In the US, meanwhile, fewer than 400 families supplied almost half the money raised by presidential candidates up to 2015. This is the hollowing-out of politics in action. The result is a strain of anti-politics ripe for exploitation.

What the anti-political want to be true is that there is a way to – yes – take back control. In the absence of levels to pull or buttons to push, they merely grind away at their masters. Anything, including mere financial well-being, seems worth sacrificing in order to achieve their destruction. One means of asserting control, of course, is to shape reality. This includes identity and politics, both of which are to one extent or another about self-perception. If control is about imposing your understanding of the world upon it, however unwilling the world or ill-fitting your understanding might be, then he who asserts most loudly, most brazenly, will be rewarded – perhaps the more egregious and obvious his absurdity, the more control he is visibly trying to stamp upon the unyielding matter of a reality that has got so far away from us.

In this context, the conservative radicals are through Johnson now taking their turn at the wheel: Dominic Raab at the Foreign Office, Priti Patel as Home Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House of Commons. They will say they seek restitution of national sovereignty; their project, of course, is different – to end at last neoliberalism’s managerialist moment (which many of them believe to have been a sort of stealth leftism) … and re-embrace creative destruction. Their failure would open up another space for a different kind of political revivification – one in which we might actively create inclusive identities and sustainable societies that deliver not just efficiency but a new kind of shared pride, one we might take in mutual care. Either way, surely the old order – the political culture at which in the last decade we were encouraged first to laugh, then sneer, and finally lob dynamite – is gone.

And what of our new PM, the man who in a West London pub during the days before Northern Rock was such a figure of no-risk fun? “The British have long held a liking for rapscallions,” Tom Crewe wrote in the LRB back in June. “After all, there’s a sort of authority about a man who lies straight to your face.” Oh, Boris – he’s such a card, such a breath of fresh air. And yet a few months earlier, in April, Crewe’s colleague Jonathan Parry had suggested that, “politics is a matter of the patient and careful handling of awkward issues by means of continuous compromise.” Both of these things can be true at once, in the circumstances we have now reached, after a decade of crisis and mismanagement. But, like hypergolic compounds, they cannot co-exist for long. Boris Johnson isn’t funny; he has become Britain’s ragnarok personified. We’re all revolutionaries now.

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On Political Obstinacy

Not gonna!

There’s an arresting moment in Bob Woodward’s book about the first few years of the Trump White House, Fear: Gary Cohn, the President’s Director of the National Economic Council, is briefing Trump about the shape of the American economy. Cohn and his fellow senior advisors have each found themselves spending a lot of their time with Trump on what they consider to be “the basics”. This time, Cohn is trying to explain the way in which the American economy is now heavily based on services:

“Who’s your one retailer in the Trump Tower?” [he asked.]

“Starbucks,” Trump replied. “And a restaurant in the basement. Oh, and two more restaurants in the basement.

“Exactly,” Cohn said. “So your retail space today is services.” [p. 136]

This appeal to Trump’s own personal and financial experience does not bear fruit: the President continues to insist that the people who voted for him in Ohio or Pennsylvania or West Virginia want their manufacturing jobs back, and that it would be a virtue of his administration were it to oblige. From Cohn’s perspective, this is madness: “there were towns 100 years ago that made horse carriages and buggy whips. […] They had to reinvent themselves,” he pleads [p. 137]. Still Trump will not budge. Cohn digs out data that demonstrates the majority of job leavers are found in the manufacturing sector – and that they want to move into services jobs which are perceived to be less arduous. Again, Trump restates his insistence on the need for mining and assembly lines, coal and cars. Cohn breaks:

“Why do you have these views?”

“I just do,” Trump replied. “I’ve had these views for thirty years.” [p. 138]

In this moment, it’s possibe to perceive the centrality in our contemporary politics of a sort of faith. Trump is speaking not just for himself but for many others when he simply shrugs that he has the opinions he has because he has them. The man who rails most vociferously against fake news is, perhaps without knowing, here diagnosing why it is so prevalent and potent: because people want to believe.

The breakdown of consensus is not unique to our era. The developed world’s agreed set of assumptions and rules last collapsed in the late 1970s, and, in the Anglo-American sphere at least, was reconstituted after a period of great conflict in the shape of Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberal trickle-down economics. There is a reason that Thatcher thought her greatest legacy to be Tony Blair: he was evidence that she had created a new political faith through which, just as Eden’s Conservatives accepted the welfare state of the Attlee government, the Labour Party of the 1990s accepted the gospel according to Milton Friedman.

The problem with faith of any kind is that, held too blindly, it can lead to a sort of obstinacy. Faced with the 2008 banking crisis, George Osborne committed whole-scale to neoliberal austerity, in the teeth of ample evidence that such a policy prescription contributed to, rather than helped resolve, the sluggishness of post-crash economies. China chose a huge programme of state investment, and its economy continued to grow; but in Europe the most obvious object lesson in austerity’s self-defeating obstinacy was found in Greece, a country which underwent punitive reforms at the hands of the Troika. All that pain indeed had little effect: according to a recent report from the Centre of Economic Policy Research, “It is [still] hard to avoid the conclusion that any solution to the Greek debt crisis that does not fall on the shoulders of taxpayers several generations removed will require conditional face-value debt relief.”

Greece, of course, exhibited its own form of obstinacy, voting “Oxi”in 2015 to its creditors’ latest set of swingeing conditions. That the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, ultimately ignored the result of the vote and accepted the Troika’s terms can be seen in at least two ways: as a pragmatic, even honourable, acceptance of a reality that would, if denied, have hurt his countrymen more even than it hurt his own political career; or as a craven capitulation to the anti-democratic cabal of the European Union, which Greece came so close to leaving.

The notion of Grexit, of course, birthed the reality of Brexit, amidst the maesltrom of which Theresa May is straining every sinew to avoid following Tsipras in her approach to plebiscites. In so doing, she can only state and restate, after every set-back and rebuff, her commitment to honouring the referendum, to ending free movement and to finding a deal. Events – such as suffering the worst government defeat ever recorded in the history of the mother of Parliaments – insist she give ground, but, as a matter of disposition more than calculation, she cannot. Most obviously, this cognitive dissonance can be observed in her offer, following her narrow victory in last week’s no confidence motion in the Commons, that she and her government would engage in dialogue with the leaders of the other political parties. Despite this apparently conciliatory form of words, she spent the next week pursuing the same strategy – tinkering with the so-called Irish backstop and winning the support of the European Research Group – that had led her to the point of losing the support of the Commons in the first place.

Jeremy Corbyn, too, demonstrated obstinacy in the same moment. Unlike the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, he refused to meet with the Prime Minister until such as time as she “took No Deal off the table”. He has, perhaps, been vindicated by events – there was no dialogue to be had with the PM, as even Corbyn’s foes within the Labour Party, such as Hilary Benn, now admit. Indeed, and as Nick Clegg will attest, a lack of obstinacy in politics – an over-readiness to engage with one’s political foes – is, however noble or apparently yearned for by the electorate, very far from a virtue. Corbyn owes his position at the apex of the Labour Party to an apparent authenticity borne of never having changed his mind about anything. (The unstoppable force of Brexit, of course, is forcing him to move more than he ever has – though he gives every inch grudgingly.) Stubbornness can be seen from some perspectives simply as consistency. If one believes in one’s principles, why would one compromise on them?

Run, Achilles, run!

That word again, belief. We have moved, in the collapse of the old consensus, from a period of anonymous technocracy to one of passionate intensity. The truth about Brexit, however, is that at some point its purity as a concept must collide with reality. Likewise, erstwhile Remainers – whether appealing for a “People’s Vote” or an extension of Article 50 – at times seem to be raging against the dying of the light. MPs like Caroline Flint, who campaigned with vigour for Remain but now push for a deal at any costs with equal energy, are making a virtue of their flexibility – and in terms of practical politics there is much to commend their position. Where, after all, will faith in our democracy be if Remainers, like Tsipras, get their way?

The problem with meeting your enemy halfway, however, is that they may not move at all … and the mid-point between you and them will consequently move closer and closer to their position. This is how the UK has found itself so close to No Deal: that strategy of May’s, to retain the unity of the world’s oldest political party by assuaging the ERG, works only if Jacob Rees-Mogg is willing also to concede ground. If he is not, then May becomes Achilles to Xeno’s turtle, endlessly seeking to overtake her quarry but only ever getting closer to their position.

In other words, Rees-Mogg’s obstinacy delivers him political dividends. Stubbornness is not without its benefits. There is, however, an absence in the gaps between the political poles at which May, Corbyn and Rees-Mogg sit: a communal space in which the common good is held and can be reached. Obstinacy insists on immovability, and on the mountain moving towards Mohammed. But this assumes politics to be a zero-sum game, in which the purpose is to achieve one’s own ends at any cost; obstinacy is certainly one means of achieving this total victory, but it is in so doing fundamentally selfish. In the defence of our current actors, the two-party system, in both the UK and the US, encourages this kind of exclusivity, and casts the pursuit of compromise as a grubby exercise. The electorate in both countries routinely bemoans the lack of bipartisan action amongst their politicians; but they have also traditionally and simultaneously complained that there is little difference between the two.

They do so less now than formerly, of course – because, on both sides of the Atlantic, parties of whatever stripe are defaulting to obstinacy in order to stay close to, or mask the truth or the weaknesses of, their convictions. This is digging trenches rather than building bridges … and the no man’s land between the two sides is being shelled for all to see.

On Political Impasse

“Friendship hath the skill and observation of the best physician, the diligence and vigilance of the best nurse, and the tenderness and patience of the best mother.” Edward Hyde, MP for Saltash in the Long Parliament (elected 1640).

Edward Hyde in 1626.

In the summer of 1640, no fewer than two Parliaments received their summons from the Crown. The first was dissolved after three weeks; the members of the second were only formally relieved of their duties twenty years later, on the eve of the Restoration. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the very different fates of these two parliaments proceeded from the same fundamental problem: across the preceding half-century new pressures had emerged within the polity that the existing constitutional settlement could not contain.

The UK’s current situation resembles nothing so much as the mid-seventeenth century. On today’s Politics Live, the excellent Peter Hennessey described the European issue as “particularly fissile” – because it refracts so variously through different people’s sense of patriotism. We are not good at understanding others’ definitions of the patriotic. This, too, was the issue in the 1640s: for Charles, patriotism was owed primarily to the Crown, as the unanswerably supreme source of power and authority in the kingdom; for Parliamentarians like John Pym, patriotism was linked indivisibly with defence of the ancient constitution and the rights of the Commons; for others, such as the MP for Saltash, Edward Hyde – who began as a critic of the King but later, at the Restoration, was appointed by the monarch Earl of Clarendon – patriotism was about achieving consensus and compromise, and therefore protecting the commonwealth from conflict. The tragedy of the time was that the latter was impossible.

Last night, the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, tweeted on the subject of the decision by Her Majesty’s Opposition to seek the government’s collapse: “A no confidence vote solves nothing – we need consensus not party politics.” The issue, of course, is that the current government has proven incapable of achieving that consensus – and the Conservative Party from which it is constituted refuses to take the drastic action necessary to rectify this situation, for fear of its own fate. Many Tories calculate, of course, that a Corbyn government would be a disaster for the country – and so they rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. Most do so in pursuit of what they have assessed to be the interests of the polity – their opponents likewise. The problem with patriotism is that it is one of the few things more mutable than the British constitution itself – and that makes it a very poor yardstick by which to measure the wisdom of policy. The Edward Hydes of 2019, then, find themselves in similarly hopeless isolation.

The Long Parliament ultimately entered into war with the Crown. We are at this stage – surely – far from civil war. We are, however, deep into the kind of political chaos which the England of the 1640s would have recognised. Partisans of every stripe publish pamphlets and proclamations; groups split and splinter with alarming alacrity; both utopian and millenarian visions of potential futures proliferate daily in the cheap press. The great student of these factions, the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, argued that, in the brief period of political freedom inaugurated by the vacuum that had suddenly appeared at the heart of the constitution, “the lower orders could [now] collect together and discuss whatever they liked, with no control from above at all.”

In 2016, David Cameron explained in a speech to Chatham House, that he would hold a referendum on EU membership in which “it will be your decision whether we remain in the EU […] Nobody else’s. Not politicians’, not parliament’s, not lobby group’s, not mine.” In doing so, he made a mistake even Charles I, famously ill-suited to power, did not: under his stewardship, the British Isles fell into political chaos as a matter of design rather than accident.

Not Charles I.

Charles at least tried to force the constitutional settlement with which he was saddled to cohere; Cameron happily promised a type of referendum that actively ate away at his own. An In/Out referendum was always an absurdly stark choice, and the last two years have demonstrated just how foolish it was to commit simply to leaving the EU upon command. Given the complexities of the legal and political frameworks involved, “Leave” was always a contingent instruction, a direction but not a route. John Pym could not unravel royal prerogative without recourse to war; Theresa May has been unable to exit the EU without plunging the country she nominally seeks to emancipate into its deepest constitutional crisis in centuries.

There is, of course, a conspiracy theory: that our political class, like Charles’s ill-fated advisors, Strafford and Laud, wishes only to have its way – and will seek to ride roughshod over any who attempt to stymie its will. In this vision, the Government could leave the EU tomorrow if it wished, and the Commons should vote against its instincts in an effort to honour the result of Cameron’s half-baked referendum. This paranoia is nothing new, and represents the long-standing wedge between the governed and the governors which acts for us in a similar way to that in which the increasing insufficiency of Tudor methods of revenue generation to meet the demands of Stuart expenditure and statecraft acted for our early modern ancestors.

In her Why We Get The Wrong Politicians (2018), Isabel Hardman attempts to identify the ways in which we might heal “this endless hostility to MPs” (p. 171). Her prescription is based on the analysis that we don’t so much get the wrong politicians as we have inherited and maintained the wrong political culture: “far more insidious [than conspiracy] is the way [that even] politicians try to seem different to their colleagues by disparaging politics itself” (p. 211). The former soldier and backbench Tory MP Johnny Mercer is a good example of this breed, and they do not help. What, ultimately, is the solution to apparently insoluble questions? How do we as a nation change a general direction into a specific route? Politics. There is no other mechanism of conversing as a community.

“We are divided because we are stuck as much as we are stuck because we are divided,” writes David Runciman in the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. This gets pithily to the heart of things, and Runciman like Hardman sees political (note: not necessarily constitutional) reform as the only long-term means out of our current bind. There are currently no good outcomes open to us: a disorderly, or No Deal, Brexit would be disastrously chaotic; overturning the 2016 referendum and remaining in the EU seems, well, cavalier in its subordination of the popular will to Parliament; a second referendum would be improbably fractious; a general election would simply roll the dice on the current parliamentary maths, and if polls are anything to go by would deliver nothing like a commanding enough majority for any party to push through a deal with any more success than May’s minority government has enjoyed. We have reached this impasse for reasons much wider than Brexit – the inadequacy of our political parties as currently constituted, the weakness of our legislature in comparison to the executive, the absence of reliable and consistent subsidiarity. Brexit will solve none of them; it is merely their ultimate expression.

Reform, too, would have been the better route in 1640. It proved impossible to take. We must hope than in 2019 we are more successful in finding a way to become unstuck. That effort must start in Parliament, with honest leadership that lays out to both sides in the country the uncomfortable truths about our system, and about Brexit, that the last two years have cast into the highest possible relief. There is as yet little sign that we will get that – but good politics is ultimately the art of dialogue. Edward Hyde knew what happened when leaders ceased to speak.

“I¬†had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes”

In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, which I read every Christmas Eve, Sherlock Holmes is at his most avuncular. He ribs Watson, teases Peterson and, famously, forgives the criminal. He’s far from the drug-addled obsessive of A Study in Scarlet, and devoid of the arrogant hauteur of “The Naval Treaty”.

This comes into particular relief in the audio play of the story which I listened to this morning: an adaptation from 1961, featuring Carleton Hobbs as Holmes and Norman Shelley as Watson. This series originally began as part of the BBC’s children’s programming, and you can tell: although the tone is a drily sardonic one that it is hard to imagine a children’s play adopting today, Hobbs’s Holmes is about as threatening as an old slipper (and not the kind in which one stores tobacco).

If Hobbs’s Holmes lacks even the sense of danger given the role by the patrician Basil Rathbone, in “The Blue Carbuncle” at least you can forgive him. The story features to my knowledge the only image in the canon of Holmes supping an ale in a back-street boozer; the story sees the Master at his homeliest.

The trappings of Victorian Yuletide are present in all this, obviously: peace on earth, good will to all men, and all that. As the gender exclusion of that phrase implies, however, Holmes’s festive spirit isn’t total in its embrace. There is the distinct whiff of snobbery in his approach to Henry Baker, the down-at-heel museum worker whose lost Christmas goose sets the story in motion, and, when the great detective requires advertisements to be placed in the newspaper, he demands, of course, that Peterson, a man who wears a uniform rather than a dressing gown to work, should be the one to wear out the necessary shoe leather.

There are the survivals of all this in Hobbs’s clipped tones and air of assumed authority. But, whether tucking into a woodcock or wishing a barkeep good health, there is primarily, in “The Blue Carbuncle” in general and in Hobbs’s version in particular, a domestic humility one otherwise rarely sees in Sherlock Holmes. You even get a sense of why Watson might have put up with him all those years – he could, when in a good mood, be fine company indeed.

May those with whom you spend the festivities be similarly well-disposed to you, and as suitably warm-hearted. Merry Christmas.

“All The Colours of the Spectrum”: Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”

I spent much of the weekend at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and managed to hear five of the six shortlisted Booker authors speak: four – Rachel Kushner, Daisy Johnson, Richard Powers and Robin Robertson – appeared together on stage on the Saturday; the fifth, Esi Edugyan, was on Sunday interviewed alone by the excellent¬†Afua Hirsch. This means I’ve only missed Anna Burns, which is a shame – because for my money her novel,¬†Milkman, is in the top flight of this year’s shortlist. But it’s Edugyan, I think, who is the author to beat this year.

Her novel,¬†Washington Black, begins on a Barbados plantation known as “Faith” in 1830. The titular narrator,¬†George Washington Black (or Wash for short), is a young slave of around ten years old (“I cannot say for certain” [p. 3]), and in the opening pages he gives us everything we might expect from this sort of story: cruel overseers, caring-but-cowed fellow slaves, brutal work, distant memories of earlier identities (“If you dead, you wake up again in your homeland,” insists Big Kit, one of the older slaves and one of the few with knowledge of Africa [p. 9]). Very early on, too, Edugyan makes clear that slavery was not merely an economic system, but a cultural and social one – a means of production as linked to white self-image as it was any particular business model:

Faith itself darkened under our new master. In the second week, he dismissed the old overseers. In their place arrived rough men from the docks, tattooed, red-faced, grimacing at the heat. These were ex-soldiers or old slavers or just island poor, with their papers crushed into a pocket and the sunken eyes of devils. Then the maimings began. What use could we be, injured so? (p. 8)

None at all, obviously. But that was not the point. Rather, slavery was – and, alas, can continue to be – as important in how it shores up, confirms and reflects on white supremacy as it was in providing for the ever-increasing demands of the proto-industrial economy. Very late in the novel, Wash will tell a white man: “You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men” (p. 405). (It’s surely deliberate that even Wash isn’t free of another prejudice of the time: phallocentrism.)

The corrupting influence of slavery as an institution, then, is one of Edugyan’s key themes. But in her talk at Cheltenham, she emphasised that she considers¬†Washington Black¬†a post-slavery narrative, one which shifts the emphasis from bondage to what happens¬†after¬†the bonds are if not slipped free then loosened, little by little over time. This is a wise vision of a novel such as this, since I have some sympathy with the criticism that the recent preponderance of slave fictions can crowd out important stories of other sorts. For the first fifty or a hundred pages of¬†Washington Black, then, I was impressed but uncertain: here was another brilliantly written novel of slavery which was going to rightly argue that the institution was wrong – and then move on. I was left feeling like Wash when he is first allowed by Titch, the naturalist brother of Faith’s master, to climb a hill in preparation for assisting in an experiment: “I was troubled by the enormous beauty of that place, of the jewel-like fields below us, littered as I knew them to be with broken teeth” (p. 60).

Washington Black¬†is indeed very finely written. It has by far the smoothest, most controlled prose style on the shortlist. There is never a dip or a jagged edge, except where one is intended to be; every character emerges from the pages fully-formed and of crystal clarity; the characters’ speech reads redolently of their period without falling into pastiche; description is eloquent and evocative without being over-wrought; there are where necessary flashes of absolute wit and insight – “Mister Wilde had told me I was born with a ring of luck at my neck. Luck is its own kind of manacle” (p. 231) – and elsewhere, where appropriate, of more dilatory and yet no less apposite virtues. In one astonishing passage, Wash oversees the ferrying of live cargo across the Atlantic:

The winter crossed was rough, and some of the less hardy genera began to die off. When the octopus I’d caught in the cover grew colourless, lethargic, we stopped paying the steward to bring us sea water. Goff and I descended to the clanging, grim lower hold on the rare days we were in port and, stepping out into the blanched air, we’d disembark alongside a crewman to gather clean sea water into fir-wood casks. Using some rude instrument of my devising, we tested for impurities. The breeze would lift my hat, and I’d crouch there with my sticks and papers, sometimes cupping the water to my face to taste for deadly metals. Occasionally, a small, curious crowd would gather at the boats glistening rail to peer down at the strand old man and his ugly burnt slave who drank straight from the sea. (pp. 317-8)

No one line in this passage stands out, and yet the whole thing taken together reads as improbably moving. In boasting such complete control, but also in being willing to push its characters into situations which demand she move past the politeness of polished prose into something rawer and yet still beautiful,¬†Washington Black¬†is orders of magnitude better than Edugyan’s previous novel,¬†Half-Blood Blues.¬†It is much broader and deeper, following Wash in four parts from plantation to initial freedom – and on to, ultimately, residence in England – via a series of perhaps unlikely but never less than credible events. At each stage of his journey away from slavery – first as fugitive and finally as a “free” man – Wash perceives more and more a piecemeal process which at first had at first been invisible to him. Here is where the novel becomes the post-slavery narrative it prefers to be: in establishing clearly, but then not dwelling on, the depredations of the slave trade,¬†Washington Black¬†is able more fully to understand its legacies – and those individuals who might once have been a part of it.

Most importantly, Wash comes to live in a world still defined by white supremacy. He can achieve nothing without a white sponsor or benefactor – and, even when he finds one, his talents are co-opted by them without permission or second thought. A prodigiously talented illustrator, via Titch Wash becomes fascinated by the natural world, and marine biology in particular. He comes to make a huge contribution to that discipline – and yet, in the sort of act of erasure that the recent movie¬†Hidden Figures¬†made so palpable, his name appears nowhere close to the record of that invention. It will be remembered instead as the work of a white man, Wash having merely drifted from an explicit slavery to another sort of indenture. “I had been a slave, I had been a fugitive […] and I had survived it only to let the best of my creations be taken from me,” Wash sighs (p. 337).

Not everything is perfectly balanced in the novel, however. Edugyan also said at Cheltenham that she was keen not to allow her white characters to become cruel caricatures – but rather to show how slavery came to erode their senses of self and personal relationships, too. In treating the figure of Titch with such care and even sympathy, however, the novel comes perilously close to centring the experience of a white man in a narrative about black slavery and emancipation. Prior to the moment at which she wisely removes Titch from the narrative, Edugyan cannot help but lead us, fascinated, by the nose in Titch’s wake. Perhaps we are meant to feel some of the unearned hero-worship Titch encourages in Wash, the slave he “frees” from the oversight of his master; but later in the novel Wash still believes that Titch “had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name […] His harm, I thought, was in not understanding that he still had the ability to cause it” (p. 406). This is an extremely forgiving vision of the scion of a slaveholding family, whatever abolitionist identity they may adopt in reaction to that practice; and there’s even something of the tragic to it, a poignancy which renders Titch some kind of hero, a figure of unusually poetic proportions who inevitably takes some of the narrative’s momentum with him when he leaves.

Crucial to all this is Edugyan’s concept of freedom. She sees it not as an unalloyed good so much as a tool we must all be given so we may be the person we truly are – good or bad. Wash is spun a story on the plantation by Big Kit, who tells him that freedom is about doing what you wish at all times. The novel is a journey away from that simplicity. “Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people,” Titch at another point lectures him, “as though I did not know the truth of this better than he” (p. 154); when Wash learns that the Faith plantation has been sold and disbanded, he comes to wonder about his old friends – “did they use their freedom wisely or foolishly?” (p. 183) ¬†We never know. What we are sure of, however, is that they will have been able, to one extent or another, to pick their path, unlike when they were held in bondage. “You speak of slavery as though it is a choice,” Wash later upbraids another character. “As if there are those who are naturally slaves, and those who are not” (p. 268). This, of course, is a calumny – and Wash is a proof of that, but one which the white scientists around him never quite fully perceive. Only in the Arctic wilderness where Titch’s father toiled in cataloguing natural phenomena is racism seen to be on hold, the exception proving the rule:

“And who introduced you to this delicacy?” said Titch. “Your man? […] Your Esquima, I mean. The one who brought us here on his sled.”

“Hesiod? But he is not our servant. […] He comes and goes at his own choosing. There is no word for ‘servant’ in his tongue.” (p. 203)

(No servant, perhaps; but he is named nevertheless by white men.)

Again, you’ll notice, Titch is the vehicle through which the lesson is dramatised. He is the crease in Edugyan’s philosophy, the anchored line that keeps the big ideas of her novel rooted a little too squarely in place. This is the primary reason I can see for the other big book on this year’s shortlist, Richard Powers’s¬†The Overstory, pipping Edugyan at the post. As distinct from what I still consider to be Milkman‘s unique qualities, both¬†Washington Black¬†and¬†The Overstory¬†feel like weighty novels addressing universal concerns – works which escape the particular.¬†I won’t have time before tonight’s ceremony to write up my thoughts on The Overstory,¬†but it is almost monumental in its solidity, its fixedness of purpose. It, too, is a philosophical novel: in Powers’s case, the governing principal is environmentalist unblinding, the book as a whole a sort of arboreal DeLillo, an American epic following nine disparate characters through a twentieth- and twenty-first-century reckoning with trees (“a tree is a passage between earth and sky” [p. 57]). As one has come to expect from Powers, an intellectual novelist whose books are influenced very much by his previous life as a computer programmer – all flawless logic and clarity of parameters –¬†The Overstory¬†is as complete as a megalith. It has no ideological flaws or accidents, no Titch to skip disruptively through the text. It is insistent, oddly monomaniacal for a novel so gloriously baggy, focusing squarely on its vision of the necessary reorienting of our understanding of what the world is, of “what life wants from people, and how it might use them” (p. 494).

Perhaps it is part of this project that¬†The Overstory¬†is never quite human, however.¬†Washington Black, on the other hand, is only ever over-generous in its extension of sympathy, too readily understanding of individuals’ perfidy and weakness. “I rather underestimated the intrepid nature of human stupidity,” we read at one point in the novel (p. 200), and it seems a lodestar for the book’s vision of us. The seminal line is given, of course, to the patriarch of a slaveholding family. I think it may be this clear-sightedness, but also this compassion, which wins Edugyan the prize this evening.

“This Whole City Is A Trap”: Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take”

There’s an episode of the venerable¬†Buffy the Vampire Slayer¬†spin-off,¬†Angel, entitled “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” (“AYNoHYEB”). It takes place in 1952, when the immortal vampire of the series’ title is living an amoral existence in downtown Los Angeles, passing through but not mixing with a series of avatars from the period: the out-of-work scriptwriter, the meathead actor, the sassy broad. The milieu is paranoid, informed by the Red Scare and McCarthyism; Angel first engages compassionately with these lost souls … and then, despairingly, gives up on them. “Take ’em all,” he sneers in the direction of a demon seeking to feed on the humans’ souls. Such is LA at the twilight of the golden age of Hollywood.

It might be odd that a work of epic poetry brings to mind a seminal forty-three minutes of network television from the earliest 2000s; but, certainly unknowingly, in his Booker-shortlisted The Long Take,¬†Robin Robertson covers much the same ground as “AYNoHYEB” writer Tim Minear: his detached, damaged protagonist, known almost exclusively simply as “Walker”, stalks the cities of post-war America – specifically New York, San Francisco and primarily Los Angeles – and consistently fails to engage with the people around him, even as he pines after a sense of community he at first cannot access and then, ultimately, sees destroyed. Walker is a Canadian veteran of World War II, fleeing the violence of a past which recurs to him, interrupting the free verse in which the majority of this “novel” is written, in italicised prose:

Mackintosh took up a Sten gun, shouting, spraying it like a hose at the Germans. He ran out of ammo, turned back toward us, then we saw how his chest just spat – then petalled open – and with a great convulsion he flopped down dead. (p. 160)

If it feels bathetic to compare the literary tale of a traumatised veteran with a popular TV show about a supernatural detective, then I may be conveying something of my feelings about¬†The Long Take: that it never quite justifies itself, never really leaves behind the stuff people have already said about the subjects it seeks to address. “Manhattan’s the place for reinvention,” we’re told at one point as if this is news (p. 17); we are asked to marvel repeatedly at the “Chinese, Japanese, Negroes, Filipinos, Mexicans, Indians / even Hindus and Sikhs” apparently – guess what? – to be found in American cities (p. 43); and as the years of Walker’s narrative pass by, his beloved post-war cities change, “buildings gone, / replaced by parking lots” (p. 184), as Joni Mitchell very nearly once sang. For an epic poem taking in these years of great change in the US immediately following 1945,¬†The Long Take¬†feels curiously familiar.

In part, this is deliberate. Robertson is seeking to encode in verse the grammar of film noir – the hard drinking journos who work alongside Walker at the¬†LA Press, the quick-bitten dialogue in the bars and on the trams, the sense of despair and of place. Indeed, in its evocation of this grimy atmosphere¬†The Long Take¬†earns some spurs. You have to forgive epic poetry some water-treading – a number of its lines will always exist only to pass from one section to the next. But Robertson scores some big hits nevertheless, and usually it’s when he’s describing cities (Walker, a wandering psychogeographer before the genre was coined, has a thing for the built environment, its “straight lines / and diagonals” [p. 4]). The writing in these sections is often properly lyrical:

The smell of orange blossom on a Sunday morning
in the dead streets of Los Angeles –
the Spanish-style courtyard apartment complexes,
Mediterranean villas with arrow-loops, Mexican ranch houses
with minarets, Swiss chalets with fire-pits and pools,
Medieval-style, Prairie-style, Beaux-Arts-style –
stretching in its long straight lines down to the gray Pacific Ocean. (p. 81)

This is lovely stuff, and to sustain an entire novel across more than two hundred pages of verse is a formal achievement of remarkable proportions – and one that Robertson fully realises. But what’s new about LA-as-architectural-pastiche, or the smell of orange blossom on a Californian breeze? Robertson ticks the boxes of his noir checklist even as the returns from doing so diminish. The hard-boiled pose of his noirish lead doesn’t help, either: not only is Walker a, to be fair understandably, distant figure; despite his radical politics, even his theoretical fraternal feeling for his fellow man is insufficiently expressed to make sense of his horror as the area of Bunker Hill he has called home begins to be demolished. Instead, he just comes across as the worst kind of architecture fan, initial enthusiasm shading into reactionary distaste for the new:

The open cupola of the Seymour Apartments no longer looks out
over the steel frame of the courthouse.
The new concrete of the courthouse
looms over what was once the Seymour, levelled that afternoon. (p. 199)

From early on, Walker is interested in cities and “how they fail” (p. 56), but do they really fail through concrete? Walker is a complex, ambivalent character … but in other ways he’s just a bit dull. His motivating principle comes down to needing to unburden himself: “He had to finish telling Billy what he’d done, back in France,” he resolves late on, thinking of his only constant friend throughout the novel. “It was eating him up. Eating him alive” (p. 216). Reader, if indeed “the only American history is on film” (p. 137), then I’ve seen this one.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that¬†The Long Take¬†has been recognised by the Booker for its undoubted stylistic achievements, and for its regular, but brief, flashes of poetic invention: a woman dances “tipping her toes like a cat / at the end of a rope” (p. 157); cities are “locked geometries of shadows” (p. 5); and everyday diner meals are elevated in metre:

He went down to Clifton’s for some split pea soup;
chili and beans,
corned beef hash if he could. (p. 62)

An epic needs more than some decent lines to keep itself in motion, however: it needs fire, a forward momentum, an almost delirious energy.¬†The Long Take¬†instead has too many longeurs, which perhaps mimic Walker’s sleepless urban perambulations, but which also rob these lines of their roll. Robertson winds up repetitive, circling the blocks of Bunker Hill in ever decreasing circles; and no amount of admiration for the formal discipline, the super-human acts of poetic will it takes to write a book like this, can quite make up for that vague air of the waiting room. For me at least, this novel – if that is what it is – ultimately felt just a little bit like a chore, worthy and even improving … but rarely entertaining. If¬†The Long Take¬†were the kind of movie it seeks to ape, some among its audience might clap and admiringly murmur “bravo”, but few – surely – would be enthusiastic enough to demand, “Encore!”

“It’s Amazing The Feelings That Are In You”: Anna Burns’s “Milkman”

I can’t recall reading quite so magnetic a novel as Anna Burns’s¬†Milkman¬†in some time. In many ways, it resembles Eimear McBride’s¬†A Girl is a Half-formed Thing: its first-person, controlled stream of consciousness lends the novel an air of immediacy and authenticity, and quickly builds its own syntax and grammar as a means of cuing the reader more clearly to its concerns and its protagonists’ character. In others, however, it’s quite different:¬†Milkman¬†is earthier and funnier; where McBride’s narrator, even in her novel’s most brutal moments, had so finely-wrought a voice that it could read other-worldly,¬†Milkman¬†is never anything less than fully embedded in its working-class Belfast¬†mise en scene.

Milkman¬†takes place some time during the 1970s depths of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and in the heart of a Catholic community entirely separated from the Protestant one it neighbours. The manners of elision that this situation encourages bring to mind China¬†Mi√©ville’s¬†The City & the City – so unlikely do the circumlocutions of Burns’s characters seem that they occasionally present as fantastical. So, too, do the commonplaces of their day-to-day: the way bushes are taken to click, or individuals to disappear; the distance of any authority outside of the community, and the weirdness of their intermittent materialisations, which happen quickly and just as rapidly retreat. “All this … seemed normality which meant then, that part of normality here was this constant, unacknowledged struggle to see” (p. 89).

This is one of the most refreshing aspects of¬†Milkman‘s considerable achievement: the way it recreates a world now oddly separated from our own, despite its proximity in terms of simple time. It also feels, in these days of Brexit and border wrangling, important to recall the distressing effects of division and demarcation in the province of Northern Ireland. The impossible pressures that the requirements of clan loyalty and gang solidarity place upon the people of Burns’s Belfast bend and twist them, taking them away from their own desires and goals and towards agendas and disputes not truly their own. They also demand of Burns’s characters destructive moral choices – or rather choices with no viable moral option available: “Do you stand strong? Do you bear witness, even if, in the process, you cause more suffering and prolonged humiliation for your son or your brother or your husband or your father? Or do you go away, back inside, abandoning your son ore your brother or your husband to these people?” (p. 95)

What is most impressive about¬†Milkman, though, is that it correctly situates the political within the personal, as well as vice versa. The novel isn’t the story of hitmen and hardmen engaged in an underground war, but of women and communities living a life above and within that context. No character in¬†Milkman¬†is named – it is safer in this similarly unnamed Belfast to avoid looking too closely at, or choosing to label too decisively, anything or anyone – but its narrator is the middle sister of a family which has already lost two of its sons to the Troubles, and who now finds herself the target of the titular individual. No deliverer of milk, this man – rather, rumour has it, he is a leading figure in the paramilitaries (again, this word is never used) … and he has taken a jealous dislike to the lad whom middle sister insists on continuing to call her maybe-boyfriend. In a conflict that passes from one generation to the next, Milkman is also the inheritor of his soubriquet – an older, “real” milkman (that is, a real “milkman”), was once known to middle sister’s mother. The detail of all these overlaid relationships spools out, often orthogonally, throughout the novel.

As they do, we come to understand how the politics of the community doesn’t just drive its events but also becomes a sort of mask for them: “maybe-boyfriend was to be killed,” middle sister worries, “under the catch-all of the political problems even if, in reality, the milkman was going to kill him out of disguised sexual jealousy over me” (p. 115). In this context – in which women beaten by their husbands are told it is because of some depredation meted out to their man by a soldier from over the water, or in which every murder is understood as having a purpose or justification regardless of its depravity – middle sister comes to feel that “my inner world, it had seemed, had gone away” (p. 178). Likewise, she comes to see Milkman’s stalking of her as of a piece with the unspoken rules of her community: proceeding piecemeal and in metaphor, almost imperceptible but no less, and perhaps more, claustrophobic for all that. The intensity of all this is exhausting for all concerned; each character gives up much in order to survive within a space continually boasting less and less room for manoeuvre.

Perhaps this is why middle sister’s habit of walking the streets reading a book troubles so many of the people around her. In a community governed entirely by rumour – Burns is aware, no doubt, of the anthropological function of gossip in societies which seek self-policing unity – what comes to seem most dangerous is information, education. No one is encouraged to achieve this – boys are spirited away to the fight at an early age, or forced into make-do marriages or closeted homosexual isolation, whilst girls are encouraged to compete for the affections of gangsters and assassins – but middle sister is routinely caught with her nose in a novel.

It’s the way you do it – reading book,¬†whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed, your lamp on, a cup of tea besides you, essays being penned – your discourses, your lubrications. It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical¬† illusion. Not public spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why – with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pill together – would anyone want to call attention to themselves here? (p. 200)

This tension between the individual and the group, self-improvement and conformity, is not resolved by the novel’s end – cannot, in a society dominated by a recourse to, an insistence on, a herd identity, be resolved. But nor can the community be saved by a resort to the inward. Instead, increasingly recursive self-justifications are sought in order to protect the integrity of the corporation. Women, again, are the forefront of this, demanding more rights and greater equality, and so the men try to pay lip service to these demands “by coming up with the invention of rape with sub-sections – meaning that in our district there could now be full rape, three-quarter rape, half-rape or one-quarter rape” (p. 311). Such are the rationalisations to which middle sister and her contemporaries are subject. Only in her third brother-in-law, for whom rape is not “equivocations, rhetorical stunts, sly debater tricks or a quarter amount of something” (p. 346), is there a sign of hope – and only in the re-emergence of her mother’s true self from under a smothering blanket of theatrical piety is there a suggestion of escape.

Despite the fact that¬†Milkman¬†dwells on constriction, it is an expansive novel full of wisdom and not a little optimism. It perceives a dark time in recent history and seeks not just to understand but explicate it, and to hint and suggest how the way out of it was found. It does so through that incredible voice – humane and witty, difficult and characterful yet almost instantly accessible. There is little about this novel that doesn’t work beautifully – perhaps only in the weakness and occasional redundancy of its plot and central mysteries does it struggle to make something of its promises – and in its unnamed universality is, alas, of renewed relevance in our increasingly tribal times. Burns has here written something rather special, and the book not just deserves its place on this year’s Booker shortlist; it seems to me a frontrunner for the prize.