When I look up long enough to see a shooting star, I think of you

Of course I do. We lay on our backs on a Cornish beach that August night, staring into the sky, you and I, each newly single, or soon to become so; and because the Perseids performed for us we assumed, quite naturally, that we would fall in love.

But we did not.

The truth is we were worlds apart. I hardly saw you at all after that night; and never again the two of us alone.

But yes, in one of the luminous fragments in the sentimental novella of my life in a parallel universe, it all played out rather differently: though to what end, I’m still not entirely sure.

Even so, in August, when I look up long enough to catch a falling star, I think of you. Of course I do.

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The dustbin of history escapes from… er, um, ah… the dustbin of history

Sounds a bit like the conundrum that triggered Bertrand Russell’s nervous breakdown in 1901 as he set about finessing set theory. Can a set be a member of itself? Turns out it depends who’s asking. Or put it another way: Is this a question?

But enough prevarication. I come bearing gifts. Because philologists, I have been informed, reliably, have recently been noting the improbable revival of that most hallowed of receptacles, the Dustbin of History.

This was, you will hardly need reminding, an object much-beloved once-upon-a-time by Marxist historians, though credit for its consecration can’t go to Charlie Marx himself. No: that plaudit goes instead to Charlie’s pithy grandson (philosophically speaking) Lenin.

But yes, clearly, the notion is properly Marxist. In a universe where the passage of time is synonymous with progress, it’s axiomatic that some ideas and methods will become obsolete. And where do you put things when they’ve become obsolete?

That’s right! Lenin initially evoked the bin as a final resting place for the moderate Menshevik wing of his party. The Mensheviks were bad eggs, the sorts of wretches we’d now call Blairites and spit at in the street.

So of course they deserved their fate. But over the years, though it had originally been fashioned from the finest galvanised steel, the bin began losing its lustre. The last thing consigned to it (or so we thought) was that sublime breezeblock monument to Marx’s life and work, The Berlin Wall.

In the last few months, though, we’ve seen it (the bin, not the wall) making the odd re-appearance.

Perhaps it’s something to do with the notion that sundry Mensheviks have been escaping, intent on wreaking all sorts of mischief.

But one commentator will be pleased, and indeed will feel vindicated. Over the last couple of decades or so, he has continued to evoke the Dustbin of History, and he has done so without any need to resort to apologetic irony. We are of course referring to that Hegelian philosopher and social commentator, Homer Simpson, famed for reducing the concept to a resonant three-letter acronym: “DOH!”

Suggested essay questions

  1. “Hegel hielt weniger auf Plotin als auf Proclus, und legte besonders diesem Buche des letzteren einen grossen Wert bei.” (Friedrich Creuzer) Discuss
  2. Set in order: i) the UK Parliament ii) British Home Stores iii) Welsh figure-skating
  3. Have you used both sides of your paper?
  4. Conjugate: i) ecstatically ii) with ironic detachment iii) soundly
  5. “All proper tea is theft” (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon on the Lapsang Souchong Crisis of 1764.) Are you calling me a liar?
  6. Can you catch the Zika virus from a toilet seat? (Please demonstrate.)
  7. Ever felt like just giving up and starting again?

I have sat up with them, the last of Edinburgh’s rentier class, as they blew what remained of their inheritance on amphetamines

Thanks to Lynn Barber’s recent TV interview with a portly pop-eyed gentleman, name of John Lydon, it has all come flooding back. Public Image Limited. That’s what they, we, were listening to. In chi-chi Cumberland Street mews flats, in shabby genteel apartments in Marchmont and Bruntsfield. The soundtrack to that time and space.

Ainslie, Fiona, Mark Cunninghame, Adj. Someone probably pledged one day to write about you. Only later might they have realised there was nothing really to say.

They came like house martins and like house martins went

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,
The intellectual sweetness of those lines
That cut through time or cross it withershins.

Holed up for a fortnight recently in a west Somerset village, I acquired a new skill. I reckon I’m now able, for the first time in my life, to identify with confidence each member of that glorious scimitar-winged trinity: the swift, the swallow and the house martin.

I’m now starting to wonder whether WB Yeats was ever able to say the same. We’ll never really know for sure, obviously: so there’s no point me stating definitively that the gregarious birds he describes in Coole Park, 1929 were martins, not swallows.

Someone somewhere would be sure to put me right, pointing out that swallows sometimes behave in exactly the way he describes. Or that they were particularly prone to do so in County Galway during the 1920s. Or alternatively they’ll invoke Yeats’s poetic licence and say it’s hardly worth quibbling about. And, you know, they may well be right.

On the other hand, maybe this is an unlikely scenario, because the poem isn’t much talked about these days: for many Yeats scholars, it’s a source of awkwardness and embarrassment. After all, you can’t read it without being reminded, even in passing, of one of the 20th Century’s most shameful acts of cultural vandalism.

Coole Park was the house and estate of Augusta Gregory, prime mover in the Irish Literary Renaissance. As such, the building should have become a national treasure; instead, because of its emotive associations with the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, a family seat in a time of civil war, it was bulldozed to make way for the Irish Republic. Celebrate that the next time you’re in Dublin for the Bloomsday craic.

Spookily, in the last stanza of the poem, Yeats offers us a vision of the building as a mound of rubble. He could hardly have guessed this would actually come to pass less than two years after he died.

So maybe he was fallible where swallows are concerned too. We have an odd attitude to writers, especially the ones we endow with god-like powers, who get things wrong. And this is not just a modern thing. Shakespeare, for instance, though steeped in country lore, often invoked the natural world in ways that tax the ingenuity of those minded to police his ex-Cathedra infallibility.

But such concerns have become even more marginalised in the wake of the English cultural revolution. Thanks in no small part to the subsequent rise of New Left Criticism, with its aggressively hostile attitude towards the English pastoral tradition, we’ve seen (to take one obvious example) the literary novel peppered, in recent decades, with all manner of shabby improbabilities. Daffodils in August, nuts in May.

So chuffing what, I hear you say. And, again, maybe you’re right. Maybe we’re all Magical Realists now. Literary people, and artistic people in general, are less curious about the natural world than they’ve ever been.

I’ve seen this at first hand several times. A decade ago, walking across Clissold Park in London with a couple of very talented painters, both newly anointed by the Royal Academy, I was astonished to discover that neither could identify a single one of the trees we passed.

Some were hard. It’s not everyone who knows what a grey poplar looks like. But they were confounded even by the humble horse chestnut.

It wasn’t their lack of knowledge that upset me at the time: more the fact that this didn’t give them pause for thought. Quite the opposite.

And indeed I witnessed a variant of this in Somerset. One afternoon, we came upon a man standing staring up under the high eaves of a derelict clapboard warehouse set back from the path by the old weir. We stopped to say hello. You tend to find yourself doing that sort of thing when you’re in west Somerset.

He said he was curious to see so many swallows coming and going and wondered what they were up to. We chatted for a while. He was colourfully dressed, flamboyantly so, urbane and cosmopolitan. Late 30s, middle class, affluent, well-educated. He was clearly a cultivated and curious and open-minded man. There was a compelling sense of mischief about him too: he had a giggling sort of laugh; and I could see he had that effortless knack, one I’ve always envied, of making instant friends.

We shared some of our own (admittedly limited) knowledge about what the birds were up to. We pointed out their nests, rough hemispheres of mud and twigs in the ragged shadow of the roofline. We told him if you looked carefully you could see the chicks peeking out. That’s what all the incessant coming and going was about. Swallows feeding their young.

We watched in silence for a while. Just the sound of water over the weir somewhere in the background.

And then, breaking the spell, I said: “But of course they’re not swallows, they’re martins.”

This seemed to irritate him; and what he did next, I realise now, should be regarded as a kindness. “Oh, come on,” he said as he turned to walk off. “Now you’re just being technical.”

 

 

A Universal Ending

People often ask me: “How do you go about writing stuff? What’s the secret?”

I rarely answer. Or rather, I use a technique so correctly identified by RL Stevenson as the Edinburgh gambit: I respond with a question of my own. Such as: “What do you mean stuff?” Or: “Oh look, what’s that over there?”

Today, however, for some inexplicable reason, I feel ready to succumb to more charitable inclinations. And believe me, I’m going long here. No teasing. No chickenfeed. Straight to the heart of the matter.

Here it is: Quality writing, the genuine article, best in class, is assembled out of prefabricated blocks in a modular process. As in Lego or Meccano. Or, more to the point, Ikea furniture. And, as Mozart discovered when he re-engineered the sonata form, you don’t really need all that many bits of kit. Half a dozen at most.

Below, for instance, is the Universal Ending. I’ve used variants of this on countless occasions. To tie up a profile of a septuagenarian advertising executive, for instance. And as a parting shot appended to many a colourful travel piece. And a user manual for an industrial air conditioning system manufactured by a well-known Korean company. And a review of Make My Wish Come True by Katie Price. Etcetera, etcetera.

If you send me a bottle of Islay* malt, I’ll tell you where I originally found it.

The last time I saw [insert name here] was just a few days before he died. I didn’t know anything about death, but I knew he was dying when I saw him. His voice was very faint and his face was drawn; they told me he had a lot of pain. When I got ready to leave the room, he asked me to bring him a tin box that was on his bureau. I got it and handed it to him. He poked around in it for a while with unsteady fingers and finally found what he wanted. He handed it to me. It was a quarter, or rather it looked like a quarter, but it had heads on both sides. “Never let the other fella call the turn, Jimmy, my boy,” said [insert name here], with a shadow of his old twinkle and the echo of his old chuckle. I still have the two-headed quarter. For a long time I didn’t like to think about it, or about [insert name here], but I do now.

* From the south side of the island, naturally. Only a deranged fool would consent to be fobbed off with anything concocted around the shores of Loch Indaal. Bruichladdich? Don’t make me laugh.

In a Green Shade: You could walk, under leafy canopy, almost all the way from Elmcote into Lincolnshire and meet not another soul

Chapter seventeen

Johnny’s dachshunds had been fed by Mrs Merrill in the servant’s hall. Now, Miss Voysey had come down to let them out into the garden. Their claws skittered on the hard surface of the scullery corridor as they followed her excitedly to the side door.

Walking alone on The Rose Walk, Miss Dorothy Moore leaned forward to appreciate the scent of the blossom of a damask rose. As she straightened again, she realised that she had become aware of a distant drone, like that of a lawn mower.

 …

˜Miss Voysey crossed the courtyard and headed toward The Theatre Lawn with her charges; but as she reached this point she stopped. Her expression clouded, then darkened. She began rounding up the dachshunds and marshalled them back along the path, shouting, as she did so: “Mrs Merrill! Mrs Merrill!”

 …

˜The long case clock at the foot of the main stair chimed lugubriously, in a minor key.

 …

˜Sunlight through the leaves of a tree played across a print of Primavera by Botticelli hung in a gilt frame on a half landing of the main stair. The flickering effect made it seem as if the figures in its garden scene were dancing.

 …

˜Aware now of a commotion, Mrs Merrill emerged from the scullery passage door and joined Miss Voysey and her mêlée of dachshunds in the courtyard. Merrill and Voysey conferred. As they did so, their faces became ever paler. Together, they succeeded in corralling the dogs back into the scullery passage. That done, Miss Voysey emerged again. She walked in haste back toward The Circle.

 …

˜A biplane, gaily painted in yellow, flew over the garden, heading south-southeast. It was low enough for you to be able to hear quite plainly that one cylinder of its engine was misfiring, but not so low that you could claim to see the pilot. When it had quite gone, you remained aware of small puffball clouds in a perfectly blue sky.

 …

˜Faint wisps of smoke, almost invisible in the sunlight, rose from the chimney of one of the cottages in Elmcote Bartrim.

 …

˜When Johnny returned to his study he found Mrs Merrill waiting for him. She looked anxious, drained. Her face was grey.

 …

˜At the very north-western corner of the gardens, where the hillside fell away toward The Spring Slope and The Lower Stream Garden, rocks had been arriving all morning. Now, head gardener Frank Adams, assisted by his head labourer, Ted Pearce, began lifting these rocks into place on a mammoth mound of earth, thus beginning the creation of what was already being referred to as The Rock Garden. “Plums in a pudding,” said Pearce. Adams, an unlit pipe in the corner of his mouth, wondered at how so many rocks could amount to so little on the ground. Pearce nodded in reply but said nothing.

 

Chapter eighteen

Quite by chance, the first aerial photograph of Elmcote (or at any rate the oldest surviving aerial shot that anyone’s yet discovered) was taken that weekend. It was taken by a flying club member, randomly, as he played with a specially-designed camera he’d acquired.

The quality of the photograph is astonishingly good. You can even see figures in the garden: and from the disposition of their shadows you can work out that it must have been taken around Noon. You can even make out that one of the figures, a woman, has a group of dogs around her.

Speculating about the individual stories of these tiny figures is fascinating; but more than anything, the photograph gives the garden a geographical context. You can see, for instance, that it’s placed at the vanishing point of a great forest; an epic swathe of rolling woodland in the heart of England that begins attenuating as it puts out an arm to the south east. Elmcote is held, delicately, in the fingers of its outstretched hand.

From high up among the clouds, you can appreciate the Shakespearean magic of such a forest. Its other-worldliness. And it was renowned then, as it had been for centuries, for the richness of its flora and its fauna: not just its several species of deer – roe, red and fallow – but also more exotic mammals, like wild cats and martens and boars; and more delicate phenomena: shrews, dormice, several unusual species of bat, adders and grass-snakes in profusion, plus a cornucopia of moths and butterflies and rare birds. It shimmered with life.

And yet, in the days before guide books and tourist trails, it was virtually unexplored – and certainly unexploited. You could walk, under leafy canopy, almost all the way from Elmcote into Lincolnshire and meet not another soul.

The photograph is also useful from another standpoint. It tends to confirm contemporary accounts suggesting that the garden at Elmcote was a garden with few overt structures. There were no follies here: no temples or pagodas or essays in eccentric outhouse architecture.

This, for some, was counter-intuitive: in later years, garden archaeologists would wonder at the amount of structure that they kept uncovering. Walls and steps and terraces and paths: strip away the greenery, they implied, and you might be left with the sort of bare bones you’d be confronted with if you’d unearthed the skeleton of a city. An archetypally great city. A Byzantium or a Troy or a Persepolis.

But no: from the air it is merely a labyrinth of hedge and tree.

All of its low walls and steps were living affairs, every nook and crevice filled with creeping and colonising plants. Even in its hey-day, Elmcote was a garden whose hard structures were, for the most part, artfully hidden.

Somewhere north of Moreton, on the back roads, you always started to suspect you had passed the point of no return

ELMCOTE WAS NOW AT THE HEIGHT of its powers; and this, a sultry evening in late June, was when it cast its strongest spell. Towards sundown in high summer, in the heart of England, the deepest, darkest heart of England, Elmcote begins drawing the day around itself – manor house, garden, hamlet and tree-lined lane, tight in the fields and the woodlands beyond.

It begins to seem like the very last place on earth, the end of the road; and yet, at the same time, an omphalos, the world’s very centre, its font et origo. Classen had not been prepared for this. And yet, thinking back, he’d surely had an inkling as he’d neared his destination, pointing his Riley ever more hesitantly along narrower and narrower sunken lanes: lanes already aspiring to twilight, lanes threaded through tree-tunnels, squeezed between lush verges and tall hedgerows.

Somewhere north of Moreton, on the back roads, you always started to suspect you had passed the point of no return. At crossroads, the signposts (or, more accurately, the fingerposts) were inevitably overgrown; and the hedgerows, dense inter-weavings of elder and hawthorn and hazel, sycamore and buckthorn and woodbine, were cut increasingly rarely by the sorts of gaps in which you might hope to uncover a stile.

Yes, Classen had been aware of all of that.

Now, though, as he penetrated ever deeper into the garden… as he, as it were, entered the very heart of the matter, its powers almost overwhelmed him.

And, yes, it’s true: a lot of nonsense was written about Elmcote in the late 1920s and early 1930s, not least in the pages of Country Life. Writers tended to stretch not for metaphor but for analogy: the pleasure gardens of Kubla Khan, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and of course, that most archetypal of all gardens, the Garden of Eden. All were cited in their turn. One contributor to an American journal rather ambitiously compared the gardens at Elmcote to the grounds of William Randolph Hearst’s retreat at San Simeon. Foolish talk – but almost excusably foolish.

Because how do you convey what cannot adequately be conveyed, explain the inexplicable? These writers were surely attempting to make manifest a feeling that here was a garden so unique that it was, in effect, all gardens.

Yet in some senses, Elmcote’s situation was not entirely promising, located as it was on the northernmost edge of the Cotswold uplands as they fell away toward the Vale of Evesham. In other words, Elmcote’s existence, clinging to the very edge of a plateau of high ground, had always been slightly precarious. Due west of the manor house, where much of the garden lay, the land sloped gently; but north-west, if you walked in a dead straight line, you’d find the land dropping away by almost four hundred feet within a mile and a half. Hardly precipitous – but hardly insignificant either.

Not that you were ever really aware, except in the vaguest of senses, a falling off here, a climb there, of naked topography. If this had been a treeless terrain, the manor house might have seemed a latter-day analogue of a hill fort or a commanding imperial villa, haughty on its ridge, dominating the valley below. But this was no treeless terrain. This was a richly wooded corner of England. To the south, vast areas of the Cotswolds had been cleared, down the millennia, for sheep pasture. But Elmcote lay in marginal land, atavistic woodland; and, as if to emphasise this point, facing it across the Vale of Evesham were the last vestiges of the southernmost edge of the ancient Forest of Arden.

It was hardly the largest garden in England. In acreage terms it was a mere bagatelle compared to the vast parklands of the more celebrated Great Houses of England. Chatsworth, say, or Stowe. But even the most ambitious of the vast estates featured much parkland and very little garden – garden, that is, in the vernacular English sense.

Elmcote was, in comparison with the dreary essays of a Capability Brown, a work of art. Or, rather, a series of works of art. It was an art gallery in which the rooms themselves were the exhibits. Nothing in England rivalled it for its level of its ambition, the dense richness of its design or its intensity. And indeed there were those who believed they could detect something metaphysical or transcendental within its innermost being.

The garden’s central axis began under an ancient cedar of Lebanon, a tree whose lower branches shaded the house’s the dining room windows; and this axis ran for half a mile or more to the north west. It featured room after glorious garden room, each enclosed in walls of high yew hedging – and the narrow doors in these hedges were aligned down the whole axis, forming the equivalent of the enfilade of a Renaissance palace. This enfilade terminated, beyond steps taking you up to a raised palisade a l’italienne of pleached hornbeams, in an impressive wrought iron structure called Heaven’s Gate.

Towards the End of the Morning, headless chickens and Michael Frayn’s vibrating windows

(Apropos, as always, of nothing really; though it perhaps chimes with speculation, across the last week or so, that print, declared dead a decade ago, had been spotted running around again, albeit in circles.)

The person who recently told me I must re-read Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn (he assumed, obviously, that I absolutely must have read it before) didn’t do so because he thought it was a great novel about Fleet Street.

Which is just as well, really, because I’d have gone all churlish and told him that there’s never been a great novel about Fleet Street. Not even a half-decent one.

Fans of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop will object, predictably; but Scoop wasn’t about Fleet Street. Not per se. And after all, much of it is actually set in the fictional East African country of Ishmaelia.

Fleet Street the physical location and Fleet Street journalists figure in lots of novels. Of course they do. But almost always peripherally. No creative writer has ever successfully immersed him or herself in the world of national newspapers during their heyday, roughly from 1920 to 1980, when there really was a community, an irreligious order, billeted within spitting distance of the Inns of Court; and when there really were thunderous print plans in the basements.

I’m including film and theatre in this. Plays featuring our heritage newspaper industry tend to be excruciatingly awful – and not really about newspaper people or their concerns at all. Like, for instance, David Hare’s Pravda. Hare is one of life’s tiresome politicos, perpetually stuck in a priggishly self-righteous version of the Lower Sixth. So he was never going to succeed in saying anything about a community of people he knew nothing about.

But knowledge isn’t really enough either. The problem for those who really do know about this world (paradoxically enough) is that they’re just not very good writers. After all, journalism is no place for a sensitive soul; and even if its survivors are not exactly thick they’re almost always thick-skinned.

I’d stretch this principle to embrace Graham Greene, a more than decent writer who served time as a reporter; yet, in his novels, his journalists are little more than stock characters and the worlds they inhabit are, from a psychological and emotional standpoint, flimsy.

You’d have to suspect that there might be exceptions to this rule though; and Michael Frayn surely comes closest to proving this.

And yet Towards the End of the Morning actually has more to tell us about television than the world of newspapers; and neither are more than colourful backdrops.

It was recommended to me not as a window on a rich and strange corner of the world but for its beautifully observed comic portrait of a manager. A departmental head. A man too busy to get any work done. A man perpetually bewailing the fact that he’s snowed under. A man whose inexperienced new assistant tidies up three weeks’ worth of work in a single afternoon.

We’ve all worked for one of them. (The former. The latter don’t tend to rise very far through the ranks. In any profession. And it is the fate of all those who work for useless managers to become, eventually, sooner rather than later, headless chickens. )

So, no, it’s not really a novel about Fleet Street. However, having entered this laborious and at times rambling caveat, I’m going to risk ridicule and ire by stating that, now and then, in glimpses, Frayn really does write beautifully about Fleet Street. The odd paragraph here and there. Wonderfully evocative fragments conveying what it must have felt like to work in one of the great news factories during the mid 1960s.

And it really does make you reflect wistfully on what he might have achieved had he been bothered.

Stuff, not to put too fine a point upon it, like this:

Just after eight o’clock the glass in all the windows started to vibrate. Here and there light shades and other thin metal fixtures burred faintly, or ticked, or rattled. In Dyson’s department, deserted, and lit only by the yellow sodium light coming in through the windows from the street-lamps in Hand and Ball Court, a ruler sticking out over the edge of old Eddy Moulton’s desk moved itself slowly sideways until it overbalanced and fell on the floor.

The great presses in the basement were running for the first edition.

A false start for Niall Ferguson in the wrong Island Race

At last. Clio, Muse of History, has entered the fray. She has Proclaimed. Her judgement has, of course, been handed down via the agency of her representatives on Earth, Historians. 300 of them. (Collective noun: a “parcel.”)

No, really. 300. It brings a tear to the eye. And yet we must also admit a delicious undertow of low comedy in this story published yesterday (25 May) in The Guardian. It’s all very evocative of comic fiction, something closer to, say, Tom Sharpe than PG Wodehouse.

You can understand why the ringleaders handed this to The Guardian: intellectually, it’s one of the softest targets in publishing. But you’d like to think they’d have gone with this option even if had been a tough ask, just for the comedy value of seeing Niall Ferguson disporting himself in the pages of a newspaper he affects to hate.

That aside, it’s a wonderful example of The History Game: that glorious piece of back parlour tomfoolery, where you insist on owning the future because you, sort of, in a flimsy, academic sort of a way, think you own the past. I’ve been collecting some of its sillier manifestations on a Pinterest board. (And I will get round to posting my anthology of history quotations, I promise.)

The truth is that I love it all, the sillier the better. And I identify with many of the leading lights here. Even though it’s intellectually shallow, sometimes shockingly so, History is a hugely important artform; and many of its practitioners are terribly charming. (Though at this point you’re perfectly at liberty to pause for a quiet moment or two while you reflect on the fact that George Osborne studied History.)

I’ve read and hugely enjoyed at least two of Ferguson’s books and at least one of Gardiner’s. Schama not so much. But I feel a little bit let down. Especially by Ferguson. I’d always taken him for a shrewd operator. Don’t know why, maybe something to do with his TV persona. But there you have it.

So I suppose the nub of my complaint here is a feeling that Ferguson’s evocation of Our Island Story by Henrietta Marshall was particularly inept. He’s actually doing down the whole tradition of Whig History here, particularly surprising because in some respects he’s the pre-eminent Whig Historian of our current era. I think we can all agree that you can be a Whig and, just about, pro the EU. (See below.) But you don’t have to trample all over a perfectly valid tradition to do it. Do you?

Of even more interest, though, is the wonderfully interesting side-issue he opens up. The question he begs. Because, actually, the frisson he creates by mugging Marshall makes you realise how insignificant the whole Island People notion, as a compelling piece of mytho-poetic rhetoric, has been so far in the Referendum debate. I thought it would be somewhere up there front and centre. Perhaps Ferguson had been assuming that too, and had done his homework accordingly.

And if that were the case, you could hardly fault his reasoning; because Island People imagery should be, one might imagine, particularly potent, evoking as it does not just William Shakespeare and the famous speech in Richard II but also Winston Churchill’s The Island Race, a popular abridgement of his peerless four volume history of Britain. It’s the 20th Century’s pre-eminent example of Whig History and it makes Ferguson’s efforts read like adolescent scribblings.

Brexiteers should be brandishing it in the faces of their opponents.

Inexplicably, they’re not. Or if they are, I’ve missed it.

So, yes, let’s be charitable. Perhaps Ferguson has been girding his loins for a skirmish that hasn’t really materialised. Perhaps, having become bored waiting for battle to commence, he’s getting his retaliation in first.

On the other hand, it might have been wiser to keep his powder dry.

The Island People may yet attempt to make themselves heard.

 

the_island_race

Winston Churchill: preface to The Island Race

History, damn it. History stuck on repeat

I’m so pleased. The History Game is popular again.

I wouldn’t mind betting it’s something to do with the notion that, in the EU Referendum, we’ve been asked to make a frightfully important decision. This whole business feels like it might just be the stuff of history.

And isn’t it of more than passing interest that, when history is pressed into service pursuant to a piece of public rhetoric, it’s almost always a certain type of history? Let’s call it, for the sake of argument, Marxist.

Remember Marx? You should do. Marx’s ideas took an awfully long time to die. They were first torn to shreds by philosophers and economists during the late Victorian era; and they came under further withering scrutiny among intellectuals in the inter-war years; yet, if his reputation survived in small pockets right up until the late 1980s (and it did), that was surely because of the longevity of nominally Marxist states.

But, intellectually, Marxism always faced an insurmountable problem, a problem that deepened with every day that passed. At its core, it’s a theory of history, leading to a potent brand of Prophesy – and a tipster, even one with guns and ammunition, becomes a laughing stock if his horses limp in last.

Or so we thought. Occult Socialism is fashionable once more, especially among London’s chattering classes. And Marx just happens to be a prime source, whether as cause or effect, of the spectacularly virulent form of intellectual Mumbo Jumbo that we’re calling the History Game.

Actually, that’s slightly unfair. The true source is Georg Hegel, the philosopher (we use the term loosely) who reinvented the art of Prophesy to pander to his patron, Frederick William III of Prussia.

Georg told Freddy that history boiled down to a catalogue of conflicts between nation states and that the process of history would be complete when one nation prevailed over all others. That nation, naturally enough, would be Prussia.

Decades later, Hegel had his homework copied by a rather dull-witted enfant terrible called Charley Marx. Chas merely crossed out the phrase “nation state” and replaced it with “class.” He also insisted that Hegel had insisted that this progression to the end of history was, like, sort of inevitable.

This mechanism and this insistence on its inevitability was Marx’s most pernicious gift to the 20th and 21st Centuries. Yes, he’s back: but there’s also a sense in which he never really went away in the first place. Most of us, at some level, whether we like it or not, are Marxist historians. This, in fact, is probably the single most insidious form of horsemeat in our intellectual food chain.

And we are all prone (increasingly so, it would seem) to let this form of Mumbo Jumbo spill over into our understanding of the world and our place in it. It all boils down to the bizarre notion that if you pay enough attention to what happened (we’re talking big picture here: politics, society, economics) in the past, you will be able to predict the future.

We’ll not waste any time pulling apart this fallacy. Because to do so would leave us even more at a loss in attempting to explain its popularity. And it is spectacularly popular. It creeps in, almost unnoticed, to all sorts of public utterances, from political speeches to BBC news reports and newspaper leaders. It’s especially prevalent in online spaces where chronically stupid people congregate in excitable numbers. Like the “comment is free” debates on the Guardian website.

There’s always someone somewhere wittering on about the “lessons of history” these days.

But here’s a thing: though the over-arching notion about the power of (or, indeed, lessons of) history is Hegelian, people who dabble in the Hegelian History Game rarely stick, at a detailed level, to a Hegelian theory of history. Because of course this isn’t a science. There is no single Law of History. Instead, many confused and contending and interrelated theories.

Hegelian history is dialectical and, though it’s not exactly linear, it processes in one direction and one direction only, ever onward and upward. Yet (at a localised, analytical level) the mechanism most likely to be evoked in public debate is cyclical history.

This is because some politicians and many journalists, especially columnists, suffer from a Cassandra Complex. They like to see themselves as gifted prophets who are shamefully neglected or downright ignored. So it is incumbent on them to waste whole reservoirs of ink and pixels declaiming the fact, almost-but-not-quite universally acknowledged, that those who ignore their prophets are condemned to repeat (the sufferings of) history over and over.

I feel their pain. I really do.

And I have always been fascinated by Prophets. Not necessarily the Old Testament sort, though you can learn a thing or two about English prose by reading Isaiah in the King James’s version.

I’m thinking of more popular forms of prophesy. And it does us all good to have reminders of the fairground and the racetrack brought to us in our daily diet of news.

Or, indeed, the Classical world. Think of Delphi. Alexander and the Gordian Knot.

Prophesy. Cherish this fad while it lasts. It may take a while to come round again. That’s the thing about history stuck on repeat. Inevitable yet unpredictable.

(And if you’re at all curious about what I’m referring to, I’ve started a History Stuck on Repeat clippings file on Pinterest. I’ll also, if I get round to it and can find some old notebooks, compile an anthology of quotations, some profound, some poignant, some just plain downright comic, about the discipline of history.)