November 24, 2004

Oban and out

I am going to Scotland tomorrow, to Oban: to get away from London, to use up some leave, to play in the chess tournament there. I played there once before, in 1999, and have, ever since, wanted to go back.

I might have won it, five years ago, when I was a better player than I am today, not so weighed down by stress and tiredness and lack of confidence. I was in the leading pairing in the final round, and although I lost - I always lose crucial last round games, as I did in the tournament the other day - I remember it vividly. I remember thinking, for about half-an-hour after my opponent had gone slightly wrong, that I was actually going to win after all. I remember being so engrossed in the game that I was greatly surprised, after resigning in the final position and shaking hands, to look up and see this huge circle of people clustered around our board, dozens of them - or so it seemed - all craning their necks to follow what was happening and see for themselves how it was all going to turn out. Normally at chess one's concentration is, pace Wodehouse, disturbed by the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows, but there could have been a hundred people standing there, all coughing and shuffling and apologising to one another, and I would have been completely oblivious to them.

I remember not being oblivious to the sight of snow topping the island of Mull, dominating the view from wherever you looked. It was the first snow of the winter, one of the locals told me. We have had that snow already, but I am looking forward to it still. I remember the fish shop, still serving its chips in newspaper, and the signs in Gaelic at the local Tesco, and the entire smallness of the place, as if it was all of it standing on the end of the railway platform.

Mot of all it was the railway journey which I remember and which is probably my main reason for going back. It is three hours out from Glasgow, most of it spent tracking back and forth across the Highlands like a skier walking uphill. It is a difficult journey through difficult history, and having read Prebble's Glencoe I was reminded, as I went, of Alistair MacDonald's desperate and futile journey in the opposite direction, with his clan four hundred years before.

History transforms itself into tourism, all the more easily with the absence of the people. After Glencoe came Culloden, and after that the Clearances, and after that there was nothing there but a terrible emptiness to look at and think about the desperate MacDonalds and their deadline.

The emptiness itself, of course, is what you are there to look at - and there is plenty of it to see and plenty of time to see it, though one must wait for the way back to see Loch Lomond and the rest of the scenery, since the journey out, and uphill, is at night. It is still not a journey to be missed - such is the gradient that the train, as if exhausted, is obliged to wait for about ten minutes at each Highland station before setting off again, and the passengers all get out, mill about the platform and take themselves a cigarette break, their smoke mingling with the steam coming from the engine, as if the train itself were doing the same thing.


It occurred to me that the passage in Burnt Norton:

Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

is reminiscent of another passage of Eliot's. Conceivably his most famous, the lines that begin The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table

He is restless, Eliot. He needs to be on the move, he needs to be on the move in order to think. His poetry seems to me to be about there being something not quite right, - something he cannot pin down, but if he gets to walking, if he half leaves it alone, half keeps working at it, perhaps he can work out what it is that is bothering him.

It was bothering me on Saturday. I had an earworm of Prufrock when I was playing chess, by way of a change from the music, of one kind or another, that usually runs through my head while I am trying to concentrate on the game. I can see why. The passage has a rhythmical feel, like a piece of music which, after a brief introduction, discovers its tempo and begins to accelerate.

I suppose the example that comes easiest to mind is the overture from Le Nozze Di Figaro - a phrase to announce itself, and then it begins to move. Prufrock has its opening statement, the let us go then you and I, and then it picks up pace. It moves off like a motor car:

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent

and then it comes suddenly to a halt. As if Eliot himself had set off and looked round to discover his listener still motionless at the kerb:

To lead you to an overwhelming question...
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

I love that. I love that sudden arrest, that "come on!" to his reader.

I would love to hear the poem spoken. Spoken, not declaimed, as poetry, like theatre, usually is. (I can only go to the theatre about once a year because it annoys me so much to hear the way young actors speak.) It's necessary. I never understood Allen Ginsberg until I heard his poetry read out - first, Howl, read by the late Dave Widgery at a teach-in twenty years ago, and the more recently, film of Ginsberg himself reading from Kaddish. I cannot read his poem America, my single favourite poem, without hearing it read, with all the changes in voice and tone, from pleading to anger to weary resignation:
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set
that one would imagine from a theatrical soliloquy. But a soliloquy addressed to one person, a soliloquy spoken with just one particular person in mind.

Because that is its tone - a tone composed of many tones - America never settles. It, too, is a restless poem. And I see, although I had forgotten until now, that that very word, restless, is used at the beginning of Prufrock:
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
He is restless, Eliot. Restless because seeking rest. Seeking resolution. Something is not quite right, and he is seeking rest and resolution that he will never find.

November 21, 2004

Sight lines

I was in the City last Wednesday - visiting a library, perhaps the least damaging activity carried on in the Square Mile that day - and when I left I took the Central Line from St Paul's Underground station. It wasn't until a couple of days later that I realised I had done this - walked to the station and gone in - without even bothering to look up to see the Cathedral. One of the most beautiful and evocative buildings that has ever been built, not even one that I see every day (and it is more than twenty years since I went inside) and yet I hadn't even thought of giving it a glance on my way past along the street. God's teeth. I was brought up in Legoland, in Stevenage, in a town of brute concrete and mute metal, and yet I passed this palace of the imagination without a single thought, let alone a second one. I was not proud of myself.

I remember being in Prague seven years ago and seeing, as I went into the city centre on the tram, the most beautiful, by repute, of all the capital cities of Europe. The people who lived there, however, saw it not - their gaze remaining on their newspapers, on each other, or on nothing in particular, choosing the latter chiefly because it was nothing in particular. But they, at least, had all the excuse they needed, had anybody been impertinent enough to ask them for once: who wants to live in a palace when one works like a slave?

I used to neglect the architecture of Oxford in much the same way. Despite living there for fifteen years I never really looked at it properly. I never saw it. There is a Tudor house on Cornmarket Street, leaning out over the main pedestrian thoroughfare in the city, one I must have travelled along many hundreds of times. But I had still been there for at least a decade before I noticed the house, and then only because I was going into the shop on the ground floor. Before then, I never saw it.

It had become an optician's.

November 19, 2004

Burnt offering

I was thinking about Eliot again. On Wednesday I met a friend at the British Museum and on the way out we went to the London Review Bookshop nearby. We were particularly interested in the Classics section downstairs, where I would have bought Ste Croix's Class Struggles In The Ancient Greek World had it not been for the thirty pound price tag.

Searching around for something more palatable to my pocket, I found myself looking for a suitable selection of TS Eliot, as their Poetry section is right next to their Classics. I never really found one - either you had to buy a complete works, plays and all, or a selection that while possessing most of the great poems seemed to omit the Four Quartets - and it was these in which I was most interested, since I had been thinking about Burnt Norton ever since writing about it previously.

So I flicked through a few of the texts until I found the first of the Four Quartets, and started to read it again. And it's strange, I didn't much like the opening lines:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
which seem to me to be convoluted, which lack the aspect of linguistic clarity which I admire in Eliot's verse. To say so is not to ask the question what is the poet trying to say?, which rarely has a simple answer, especially not in Eliot, and which isn't, anyway, a question one should really be asking. The meaning of the poem depends ultimately on the reader. But it is to ask the question what is the poet saying?, i.e. what is the plain meaning of the words? What, before you start looking behind the curtain, is occurring at the front of the stage?

So, for instance, in the lines
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
it may be hard to say what is "cruel" about bringing life out of barren soil or in rain engendering new growth. But the lines, the words themselves, are easily followed. Only the meaning is obscure.

But with the opening of Burnt Norton, one feels one is being asked to memorise a formula, a convoluted incantation, trying to work out, as one goes, what time is doing in each instance or which version of time one is referring to:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
That is not Eliot, for me: while the quality of aphorism is the reason, above all, I like him, it is, I think, a necessary characteristic of an aphorism that it should be straightforward. It should be presentable, should seek to make its point. It should not dawdle.

But I moved on to the line which has been picking at me:
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality
and here it is not so much the aphorism which has preyed on my mind, as the line which preceded it.

That said, it is the second part of the line which gives the first its particular mood, and it's that mood which has always attracted and unsettled me - the mood of probable good reason for despair, the mood of likely futility. It is probably is not worth it - people will see what they wish to see, they will not look the truth in the face as they ought to, they will not tell the truth if telling the truth matters.

Because human kind cannot bear very much reality, and therefore those who cannot escape the truth, those who lack that facility for avoiding looking at and dealing with the unpalatably difficult, are always let down by the people who have that apparently perfectly common, normal and probably healthy characteristic. To think, to be unable not to think, is always to be Cassandra, and necessarily to be aware that this is so. And one must therefore always be reminded of it - of the inevitability of betrayal and defeat, and the equal inevitability of being aware of that outcome all along.

I will hear that, now, with the call of the bird. That is what was bothering me. Go, go, go, said the bird: I will hear that sound of despair with the call of the bird. I have never learned that call of the thrush, the bird to which Eliot refers, but I know that I shall listen for it now, and hear it, perhaps, in other birdsong that resembles that repeated monosyllable - the cry of the seagull, the blackbird's caw. Eliot asks:

....shall we follow
The deception of the thrush?
But it is no deception, really - that is another of his paradoxes. It is the absence of deception. That is the whole problem. That is the whole irreconcilable problem.

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation
and we are doomed to remain within that world of speculation, throughout our lives, while knowing, at the same time, that it was bound to turn out as it did, one end, which was always present.

November 16, 2004

Pret A Vomir

Printed on the back of the paper napkins in Pret A Manger is a corporate statement that begins like so:

Treasure Hunting

At Pret we often refer to staff recruitment as "treasure hunting".

November 15, 2004

I drew with a man...

I danced with a man, who danced with a girl, who danced with the Prince of Wales...
In Bobby Fischer's classic My Sixty Memorable Games, the very first game in the book is one he won at the New Jersey Open of 1957 against a player called James Sherwin. On Saturday, I played the very same James Sherwin, forty-seven years later, in a tournament at Birkbeck College. I got a draw.

He wasn't at all pleased about it, since his grading is rather higher than mine and his position was rather better than mine for most of the game. He wasn't happy. In fact, he was a thoroughly miserable old man. By contrast, I wasn't miserable at all. I fought hard for that draw, rescuing a poor position, keeping my nerve under pressure and steering myself to the draw before I ran out of time. I was even happier when I got home and discovered that, in fact, Sherwin once beat Bobby Fischer - in the very next game they played after his famous defeat. That's something to think about. I drew with a man who once beat Bobby Fischer.

I know it's a rather half-arsed claim to fame, not just because the victory and the draw were forty-seven years apart, but because I beat a man who once beat Bobby Fischer would be a rather greater distinction. And bearing in mind that I had been quite prepared to settle for I lost to a man who once beat Bobby Fischer and still count it to my credit, the draw itself isn't so very much to talk about. But I don't care. It matters to me.

Moreover, the very fact that his game against Fischer was forty-seven years ago is part of the appeal. Normally you get your result in first and then wait for them to get famous - beat (or draw with) a promising junior and then wait for them to become a grandmaster, in much the same way as you might see a band playing to an audience of seven at a pub and then tell everybody about it when they were household names. I've beaten at least one junior from whom I'm hoping for great things in the future, in the selfish hope of seeing a reward for this investment in future anecdote.

But this way round, you start hopping backwards, towards history already made. In his book Corruptions of Empire Alexander Cockburn writes:

I like skipping across the brother Andrew and I made a point last year of calling on Joe Vesel at his home near Carmel, California. Vesel was a witness to the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, which prompted the outbreak of World War I, hence determining the destiny of our century. Vesel had also gone to school with the assassin, Gavrilo Princip. Vesel is bursting with vim at 85 [the piece was written in 1986 - ejh] and he plunged into a detailed lecture on Balkan politics at the time of the assassination, with much edifying incidental detail, such as how Emperor Franz Josef had kissed him on the forehead when he, Vesel, was 10. Franz Josef had as a young man surely known people who had listened to Mozart play at the Viennese court.

I later told my mother that I had shaken hands with this particular chapter of history, and she riposted with the information that as a little girl, her grandmother Edith Blake had met an elderly Frenchman who as a little boy had been one of Marie Antoinette's pages. Edith asked him if Marie Antoinette had been pretty. He said, "Very", and drew a sketch of the Queen, which I can remember looking at when I was a youth.

So from Sherwin I get to Fischer, who drew with Botvinnik, who beat and drew with Emanuel Lasker, which in four degrees of separation takes us right back to the nineteenth century and the start of the modern era. Of course I could have done the same without even getting a draw against Sherwin, but at least this way I feel I contributed something. I played my part. I drew with a man, a miserable old man, who once beat Bobby Fischer.

November 11, 2004

The devil is the detail

A blog would be nothing without a large dose of solipsism. So here's a list of the pictures, posters and poems I have pinned up around my desk:

1. Roger McGough's poem, My cat and i:
Girls are simply the prettiest things
My cat and i believe
And we're always saddened
When it's time for them to leave

We watch them titivating
(that often takes a while)
And though they keep us waiting
My cat and i just smile

We like to see them to the door
Say how sad it couldn't last
Then my cat and i go back inside
And talk about the past.
2. A poster depicting George W Bush as a Second World War airman, standing in front of his plane and being watched by Arabs. The slogan is:



Now do we what we say, or....



3. This piece from the Guardian, because it has a photograph of Carnegie the cat standing on the card index at the Rochester Public Library in New York.

4. The lyrics to Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues. I sing this from start to finish when I play it, which is no fun for anybody but myself. When your gravity fails, and negativity don't pull you through.

5. A postcard reproduction of Joseph Wright's An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump.

6. A map of the world with all the national flags. It mentions Kampuchea and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

7. The Italian Pulp Fiction poster depicted here.

8. A postcard reproduction of Georges Braque's Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece.

9. A postcard reproduction of a detail from Bartolomé Bermejo's St Michael Triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antonio Juan. (The detail is an image of the devil: use the zoom function here and it's toward the bottom right.)

10. The Whiskas Cat Calendar 2004.

11. A picture of a kitten aiming a rifle out of a window like a sniper.

12. A frame from the very first issue of the web cartoon Get Your War On:

If you could say one thing to God right now, what would it be?

I think I would say "Thank you God, for your healing gift of religion". What about you?
13. A photograph of Guthrum.

14. A photograph of Alfred.

15. A passage from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass - part of the thirty-second section of Song of Myself:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained.
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

The passage is the one spoken by Christopher Lee under Edward Woodward's window in The Wicker Man. Ingrid Pitt plays the librarian. Very much the sort of librarian I'd like to be.

November 09, 2004

Walls have fears

Michael Howard probably has a fan round my way. There's an alleyway out the back, leading to the shops and the place where the shooting was two years ago. It's mostly used for parking cars left at the repair shop out the back, sometimes used by the local cats as a battleground, and occasionally - though not remotely as often as some of the residents claim - used for the sale and/or ingestion of drugs vended by the blokes who hang around outside the shops.

These activities, however frequent or infrequent, have clearly pushed somebody, whether a local resident or someone else, some distance over the edge, judging by the huge whitewashed graffiti that has appeared on one of the alleyway's walls. I've never seen a graffiti more politely phrased or more violent in intent, let alone both at the same time:


Mmm. I do trust that people who write graffiti will be exempted from the slaughter.

November 08, 2004

The lunatics are taking over on asylum

I didn't feel I was in the presence of greatness. But I didn't, unfortunately, get the chance to say so. There was a whole row of people from Brixton all waiting to denounce Mr Howard in various ways and from various viewpoints. However, the first audience member called to contribute went on for ever, despite managing to say very little. This drastically cut the time available for other speakers to be called before it was time for the break and the programme moved on to asylum and immigration.

Howard didn't do very well on the subject, as politicians never do when they are asked to explain irrational policies in a rational way: it only takes one informed voice asking how a quota can possibly work when it would mean somebody under threat of rape, torture or murder now being told not to flee until January when a new quota starts. It also means having to accept that immigration is a good and positive thing and then having to explain simultaneously that it's a drain on our resources that needs to be prevented. But of course immigration is always a dishonest debate, because it's really about race rather than about immigration: and debates about race are the most dishonest of them all, held not in public but behind closed doors and within closed minds.

The microphone-hogger was a posh-voiced woman called Rachel Heywood, from the local council's residents' consultation group, the Brixton Area Forum. Her understanding of how to make an impact when appearing briefly on television didn't seem to run to making her statement swiftly, memorably and to the point, but it did, obscurely, run to using the word locus.

Thinking about it, given that my own accent owes more than a little to the Home Counties middle class, it's probably just as well I didn't get on. It would have given a very strange impression of Brixton.

November 07, 2004

It's a bloody disgrace

Dear TV Plus

What's the point of buying a widescreen TV when the BBC screens black and white films?

I pay for a colour TV licence and expect to see films in colour. The BBC gets away with too much.

WM Wilson, Morecambe, Lancs.
[Actual letter, from ITV Telextext, page 134.]

November 06, 2004

Broadcast news

I got an email from a researcher at ITV:

Dear ejh

I am writing to invite you to join the audience of The Jonathan Dimbleby Programme this Sunday.

This week's guest is Conservative leader Michael Howard. The show is recorded live in front of a studio audience of around 30 people.

I noticed you had written a letter to The Guardian following Mr Howard's visit to Brixton earlier this year and thought you may be interested in participating in the programme.

Our studio audience of around 30 people is a crucial component to the programme and offers an excellent opportunity for people to pose their questions to decision-makers and policy shapers.

Audience members do not need an in-depth knowledge of the issues being debated, simply an interest.

Because the audience is small, it's particularly important that we get a good cross-section of opinions. If you would like to join the audience, please could you give me a call (number below) to discuss the details and so that I can get a rough idea of some of your views.

I look forward to hearing from you.


J---- P-----
Jonathan Dimbleby Programme
London Weekend Television

This was the letter (well, one of them is): not one of my very best, perhaps, but a reasonable effort in my occasional campaign to become the new Keith Flett. Short, a little sarcastic, makes a rhetorical comparison, the sort of thing I do. Anyway it seems to have impressed somebody.

So I'm on, in the audience, recording first thing tomorrow morning (there goes my lie-in) and transmitted in the early afternoon, annoyingly opposite the rugby league highlights on the other side. Also too early to take proper advantage of the Green Room, I suppose.

It's been ages since I was on telly - I think the last time was almost seven years ago now, on a Channel Four sofa with Bruce Grobbelaar and Sharron Davies. This time it's in an audience of potential Tory voters and Michael Howard. I hope he doesn't want to shake my hand or anything.

A surfeit of doctors

On Thursday afternoon, I suffered chest pains again. The same tight feeling, like a sharper heartburn, this time striking when I was sat down and forcing me to get up and walk around to try and shake it off. I found that this dulled the pain, but failed to terminate it, and I had to spend several minutes shelving books, all the while breathing cautiously, before both the pain and my concern about it would subside.

I bet it is my diet, when you come down to it. I'd promised myself just the day before that I would try to improve it, even if that improvement only added up to having something healthy to eat at lunchtime rather than the usual bar of chocolate and a sandwich. Whether the pre-packed pasta salad I therefore selected for lunch on Thursday really constituted "healthy" is a question in itself, but I doubt very much that it compensated for the chicken pieces and chips I ate on my way out that evening. (That's after my chest twinge of the very same afternoon.) And quite likely the ill effects of that particular too-frequent meal are compounded by the loathing I feel for myself every time I have it.

While shelving, and waiting for the pain to get better, or worse, I reflected that a medical library would probably be a paradoxically disastrous place to experience a collapse. You would think that being adjacent to a hospital and surrounded by medical texts and medical people would be the perfect place. But unfortunately these advantages would be cancelled out by the presence of so many medical students, in much the same way that the chicken and chips cancelled out the pasta salad. I can just imagine them all gathering round, blocking out my light and my air in their keenness to save my life, trying to remember which limb it is that one examines when checking a pulse.

I remember being seen by two medical students in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford after I collapsed in a newsagent about ten years ago. It consisted of a little bit of puzzled prodding and a large amount of baffled and incoherent muttering, as if I were being examined by Beavis and Butthead but without that pairing's human sympathy. I quite fancy the idea of losing my final consciousness in a library aisle, the titles and spine labels forming my last fading ocular frame. But I'd rather it were not accompanied by a ring of curious faces whispering to each other is he all right? and I think it's one of the library staff and do you remember how to check whether his heart is still beating?

November 02, 2004

Once more, but without feeling

What you think is not as important as what you feel. When it comes to the crunch, it's the latter that carries the day. As hard-headed a socialist as George Orwell said the same, writing, in My Country Right Or Left, of how it took a dream to clarify his feelings about the coming war:
...the night before the Russo-German pact was announced I dreamed that the war had started. It was one of those dreams which, whatever Freudian inner meaning they may have, do sometimes reveal to you the real state of your feelings. It taught me two things, first, that I should be simply relieved when the long-dreaded war started, secondly, that I was patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it if possible.
Four years ago, I realised only at the last minute that I really wanted Gore to win. Of course, I wanted Nader to win, and other than that, politically, my position was abstentionist. Prior to the very last night of the campaign, my position was pure politics, the reaction of the intellect, but at the last minute the heart takes over. When you know how you feel. What I felt was that I really wanted the Democrats to win.

Sometimes it's important to distinguish the supporters of a political party from that party itself, and this is true of no party more than the Democrats. In the absence of alternatives, parties come to take on a symbolic meaning that has very little connection with what they'd do, or even what they claim they'd do, in office. This is what enables today's presidential election to seem to be about so much, when in reality, it is about so little. However small the differences between Kerry and Bush - which are even smaller than the differences between Bush and Gore - the differences between supporters of the Democrats, and supporters of the Republicans, are enormous. Greater even than they were four years ago. The Independent has it completely backwards today: it titles its story A day that will decide the fate of the world and begins it thus:
For once, the cliché wheeled out by desperate politicians trying to terrify their lazier supporters into voting is no lie.
But surely it is the other way round! It is the desperate electorate trying to convince their lazier politicians that the election is of such importance. Not least, because both Republican and Democratic supporters have tried very hard to convince themselves that John Kerry is something very different to what he actually is, despite his own efforts to make plain the contrary. This reminds me very much of the 1997 General Election, in which many Labour voters had convinced themselves, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever other than their own imaginations, that Mr Blair had a secret radical agenda which he couldn't announce in case it lost him votes, but which he would unveil as soon as he got the chance. (He did, of course, have a secret radical agenda, but not the sort which they were thinking of.)

Even so. No matter how illusory these illusions were, they mattered, and they were no less illusory than the political campaign itself, at least in terms of the politicians themselves. But which groups of supporters should win - that did make a difference. This was, for me, the main reason, certainly the main emotional reason, to vote for a Labour Party in which I did not believe. The people I knew who were Labour, whether party members or not, whether active or not, were people whose values I shared. The people I knew who were Tories, were people whose values I despised and feared.

So the day after an election, it mattered rather less to me which politicians had won office and which had been turfed out, than which supporters were happy and which were despondent. Who would be emboldened, who demoralised? Who would be celebrating, who would go into hiding? This mattered. It mattered politically as well as emotionally. So, in 1997, I voted for Mr Blair's party, and drank champagne when the results came through, and was pleased with both champagne and victory.

This doesn't really apply any more. There is no enthusiasm left for Labour, and hence no celebration when they win, no emboldening of radical minds, no happiness. The people who would once have worked and struggled for a Labour victory, and would have felt you were letting them down if you sat on the sidelines, no longer care a great deal one way or the other. That is partly why the Left are not under any of the same pressure in this country as they are in the US, to vote for the candidate of the inch or be regarded as traitors to the cause. There is none of the same degree of belief - however unjustified that belief may be - that it matters who wins. In the US, because there is that belief, then the election still matters. It matters, even though it should not.

But there we have a problem, because there is more than one element affecting one's emotional response to the election. There is, certainly, this huge desire to see the good, thoughtful, civilised Democrat supporters triumph over the brutish, ignorant and wicked Republicans. Come across a Republican in an interview, and I am repelled. Come across a Democrat and I like them. Or I used to like them. Because the Democrats have made themselves utterly loathsome in this campaign. Utterly loathsome.

And paradoxically, what makes them loathsome is precisely what made me want them to win. I want them to win, because they believe so much that it matters who wins. But because they believe so much that it matters who wins, they hound and hunt down those who they think are sitting on the sidelines. And in doing so, they make me - gut feeling, never mind the politics of it - loathe them more than I ever liked them. In their intolerance, they make themselves intolerable.

The most shocking thing about their behaviour has been that it is not considered shocking. Not shocking enough to draw any seriously adverse comment during a period of months in which vast quantities of comment have been expended on almost every aspect of the campaign (sometimes without particular enthusiasm) no matter how trivial. There has been much comment on how Ralph Nader is unfairly hampering John Kerry's campaign by having the temerity to run. There has been almost no comment at all on how John Kerry has hampered Ralph Nader's campaign by trying to prevent him exercising his right to stand. To exercise one's democratic rights, this is worse than an impertinence, it is a disgrace - but to prevent the exercise of democratic rights is no disgrace at all.

Apparently, there is nothing undemocratic in trying to prevent your political opponents gather signatures, propose a candidate, get their candidate on the ballot. As Nader has observed himself, in a democracy it shouldn't be that hard to get on the ballot. But it can be, if your opponents make it impossible for you, as in Oregon:
In state after state, the Democrats have tried to discourage people from signing petitions to get Mr Nader on the ballot, said Maria Recio, who has been covering the campaign for Knight-Ridder newspapers.

In Oregon, one way to gain ballot access is to have a one-day meeting of 1,000 people or more, who then must be certified by the secretary of state.

"The Democratic Party got wind of it and told Democrats to go and take up space. Then they refused to sign. [Ralph Nader] was 50 voters short," she said.
To me, this is scandalous conduct whoever is on the receiving end. It would be kind to call it the worst sort of student politics, reminiscent of childish backstairs manoeuverings for sabbatical posts by arrogant and ambitious little kids. For it to play a significant role in this election of apparently world-historic importance, in what is apparently the world's most powerful and prominent democracy, is contemptible beyond words.

Or rather, contemptible without words, since it has mostly gone without comment. Or without adverse comment. The two-party system is God. What is spoken is only what it speaks - what it wishes silent is silenced. Nader only exists insofar as he affects John Kerry - he has no independent meaning and hence no independent rights. Even the earlier quoted story about Kerry supporters suppressing Nader's supporters is headlined Nader could decide election - again.

This is ironic in all sorts of obvious ways, not the least of which is that it is carried out by people calling themselves Democrats. Another of which is that it is the sort of systematic exclusion of one's political opponents which allowed the Republicans to steal the last election, and which the Democrats are hoping to prevent (and the Republicans repeat) in some very well-publicised ways. Very well-publicised, one might say, in much the same way that the suppression of Nader has not been.

Above and beyond this there has been the campaign of personal vilification which Nader has undergone. This has been particularly wicked and stupid - stupid, because people do not easily forget what has been said about them, and people who have thrown mud now will have the same mud thrown back at them later. But it has had a nasty, familiar whiff about it, the accusations of being a witting tool of the Republicans, the accusations of being a saboteur.

It reminds me, personally, of the way in which to be a socialist in the late Eighties was to be hounded, to be held responsible for all the problems and defeats of the labour movement, to have, as it were, personally put the Tories into power and kept them there. It was an awful, vicious time to be on the Left, and the scars of that time are not forgotten, just as the scars of the present anti-Nader campaign will not be forgotten.

But the real whiff is the whiff of Trotsky-Fascism. That is the mood, the hysterical, vicious mood of a witch-hunt in which no accusation was too wild or too vile. And of course the secret of that campaign's hysteria, as of the present one, is that the people leading the hue and cry were those who were most actively adopting the political positions of the people they purported to oppose. Shout Trotsky-Fascist, and the next thing you know there is the Nazi-Soviet Pact: shout Nader-Bush and not only do you do so as part of the most rightwing Democratic platform anyone can remember (and one which actually sought to put a Republican, John McCain, on the ticket) but you find yourself accusing Nader of taking Republican money when nobody is so keen on taking Republican money as the Democrats.

Of course there is a very good argument, with which I disagree, that says you should vote for the Democrats because that is the only way to beat Bush. It would be as unreasonable to disrespect the people who make that argument as it would be to agree with them without question - as too many of them expect the rest of us to do. And of course politics, when it matters, or when it is perceived to matter, breeds passion, and passion breeds intolerance. And of course all these things should be understood in full and forgiven in part, especially when all of us are prone to behaving much the same way when we think it really matters.

But nevertheless, the thing that the anti-Nader crowd understand least of all is that you cannot behave like this and then expect the support of the people who you have defamed. In a recent survey of Nader voters, some of the most bitter responses are those given to the question: How have the efforts to keep Nader off the ballot affected your decision? How could it be otherwise? How can anyone support, admire or accept any process of which they themselves are the target and the victim?

So, in pursuit of a politics in which the head should rule the heart, I find myself, this evening, with my heart ruling my head. I do know that, even if only in a small way, even if only because it will encourage the best Americans and discourage the worst, it might be a good idea if Kerry beats Bush. I knew - really knew - that it would be a good idea for Gore to beat Bush. As in fact he did.

But it is not what I feel. What I feel is that the Democrats have behaved disgracefully and should not get away with it. That they have done nothing to deserve to win and everything to deserve to lose. And that as they have selected people like me as the particular and chosen enemy, then I have no reason to wish them anything but ill.

What you think is not as important as what you feel. I know I may think differently in the morning, whether John Kerry has won or lost. But right now, what I feel is that I really couldn't care less.

November 01, 2004

Inch imperfect

Not long before the General Election of 1997, Richard Neville was widely quoted in the British press as having said something to this effect:
The difference between Labour and the Tories may only be an inch, but it's an inch worth living in.
It was quoted so widely, because it struck home in so many hearts: it was a philosophy which, for millions of people, represented their thoughts. One by which many of them cast their votes. I think, in fact, that Neville said it with Australian politics specifically in mind, but it didn't really matter because it was, every inch, just as applicable to British politics.

It wasn't that they liked New Labour. (It never really asked them to and there was never much there to like.) It wasn't that they wouldn't have taken anything better. But even if there had been anything better to take, they knew too many other people didn't seem to want it.This, it seemed, was as could as they could hope for, and it was certainly as good as they were going to get. So if New Labour were only an inch better than the Tories, then that inch was the inch which they would take. And it was an inch worth living in. For the Tories would always be Tories, while Labour, when all was said and done, were still Labour.

I never really went for it in any way, except for the gut identification that it made with Labour, almost any Labour, against the Tories. Even now, when it seems almost inconceivable to cast a vote for Labour in all but the most exceptional of circumstances, that feeling remains, uneroded, atavistic. Whenever the Tories attack Labour, that feeling always comes straight to the surface. These are our people, being attacked by theirs, and it is in our interest to defend them. Even now, it is possible to warm to Gordon Brown when he speaks out in defence of the public sector and its ethos, in a way that one could never warm to an equivocatory Charles Kennedy. Even now.

But, as I said at the time, as I have said since, and as I would say both now and in the future: live in that inch if you must, but beware of what happens, to both you and the inch, if you do. Because it's not just that that inch is an unsatisfactory inch, a truncated inch, an inch you would never have settled for when you were young. We all of us make compromises. We all of us settle for less than we once hoped, perhaps less than we should have settled for. That's not the issue. The problems are otherwise. The problems are these:
  1. If you settle for the inch, it is the most you will ever settle for.
  2. If you settle for the inch, that inch will move.
  3. If you settle for the inch, you will try and stop other people fighting for more than the inch.

I could have added a fourth to the list, which I never anticipated at the time, but which has become repeatedly obvious since: that if you settle for the inch, the people who are offering that inch will grow arrogant and self-satisfied beyond measure. If this wasn't obvious from the start, it was because many Labour people - I mean, elected Labour people - seemed to be accepting the New Labour inch only with the same reluctance as their supporters. Very often, this was true. But over the last few years - indeed, over the last two decades, since the process began with the triple defeats of 1983, the miners' strike and Wapping - the suits have first emerged and then completely taken over, arrogant and ambitious men and women who, if they believe anything at all, believe that their careers and the careers of people like them come before any other considerations.

While there have always been opportunists and arrogant careerists in the labour movement as there are anywhere else, they were previously constrained by the need to believe things, and the need to debate things. From the mid-Eighties, all that was gone. There could be no arguments, because they would suggest a divided Labour Party and a divided Labour Party could not win elections. And who is more arrogant than a functionary whose orders cannot be questioned? Nobody. Nobody anywhere, for these people got everything they wanted not out of fear but out of party loyalty. Out of loyalty to the inch.

Peter Mandelson begat Derek Draper, and Tony Blair begat Alan Milburn. All of these begat David Aaronovitch. All of them beget arrogance. Why can an Aaronovitch be so smug, be so pompous, be so easily able to back each successive governmental outrage with such aggression? Because nobody can stop the side he's backing. He has chosen the winning side. He knows that they're the winning side, because their opponents have many times sworn to let them win without a struggle. Without a peep. And so he, and they, can get away with anything. They have come to expect it. They have come not even to notice that they expect it.

If you settle for the inch, that inch will move. It's moved a very long way. It's moved many, many inches away from the particular inch in which we were supposed to consider it worth living. And of course, it will, and must. If you say that you will occupy the space just to the left of the rightwing party, then of course, when they move, so do you. You can move successfully, as New Labour have done. Or you can move with mixed results at best, as have the Democrats. But you will move, all right. It is the only policy you have. The Democrats adopt policies on welfare that would have shocked a Richard Nixon. New Labour adopt policies on students that did shock John Major. Two brief examples from a very long and ever-longer list. Wherever the Right goes, the inch goes also.

If you settle for the inch, it is the most you will ever settle for. All sorts of issues and causes drop off your agenda. Indeed, you have no agenda, other than occupying the inch. It is noticeable how vacuous, how intolerably trivial, is the coverage of the US Presidential Election. On and on it goes, dominating the news, and yet scarcely a word of any interest is ever spoken. We hear, interminably, about swing states, we are told, incessantly, that the candidates (well, two of them) have been campaigning hard in them, but when we listen to their campaigns they don't actually appear to be about anything. At most, they are about "leadership" and such seems to be the subject of almost the soundbites we ever hear. (In normal circumstances, reporting them through soundbites trivialises political campaigns. Here, for once, this is not true.)

Now leadership may matter, but in months and months of campaigning, can they find nothing else to talk about? Alexander Cockburn observes that they cannot, because it is an election about almost nothing, where the candidates agree on nearly everything, where so much that is crucial to almost any election is simply taken for granted, and not discussed:

At a quick count, off the agenda of debate this year are the role of the Federal Reserve; trade policy; economic redistribution; nuclear disarmament; reduction of the military budget and the allocation of military procurement; the role of the World Bank, IMF, WTO; crime, punishment and the prison explosion; the war on drugs; corporate welfare; forest policy; the destruction of small farmers and ranchers; Israel; Cuba; the corruption of the political system.
Most especially, the war is off the agenda. Which is strange, because when they are talking about leadership, it's mostly the leadership required in the war to which they are referring. But not the war itself. And this is odd, because the one issue which has caused the Democrats - meaning their supporters, rather than the corrupt old party itself - to hate Bush more than other is his disastrous and illegal war. But the Democrats select, enthuse about and presumably fool themselves about a candidate who, if anything, is likely to widen the war.

How could this madness happen? Because of the inch. We settle for the inch that says instead of opposing the war, we just have somebody who will prosecute it less incompetently than George Bush has. And we cover up for that by attacking those who have not settled for that. Because if you settle for the inch, you will try and stop other people fighting for more than the inch. Ralph Nader has not settled for the inch. He points out that to settle for the inch is, indeed, to let that inch move far away from where it was supposed to be, because, indeed, you refuse to ask for anything else. You tell them they can get away with anything as long as they are not the other side, and, in saying so, throw away any leverage you ever had in the first place:
This is the collapse of the Left ... They have in effect put a figurative ring in their nose. They have said to the Democrats, 'because the Republicans are so bad, we collapse. We're going for the least-worse.' When you don't make any demands, when you engage in unconditional surrender, why should Kerry ever look back at you? Why should he give you the time of day?"
Why should he? You've already told him not to. And this is the tragedy of this stupid election, in which nothing is really being decided, an election whose length, news coverage, expense and passion are in inverse proportion to its content. Four years ago, Ralph Nader, rejecting the inch, did really well. Five, six per cent in a number of states, a decent start, a platform. A platform for having something real to say. Which you cannot have, and have the inch.

You cannot have real politics, and not hurt the Democrats, any more than you can have any real politics here and not hurt New Labour. So to complain afterwards, to complain now, to complain about the consequences, is asinine. Either everybody votes for the Democrats, and settles for whatsoever Democrat we get, or they do not. And yet, in 2004, people have thrown up their hands in horror as if they hadn't known what they were doing in 2000. Or as if it could ever be any different.

So they have thrown that platform away. Perhaps for a generation, perhaps for longer. And for what? For this amoeba. For this clod of a man, this mediocrity, this man who makes Al Gore look like Martin Luther King. But what else could you have? If you want a politics without content, who, except a politician without substance, could deliver it? And hence all the hoopla, all the hysteria, all the sound and fury signifying nothing. All for a man whose sole claim to our affections is that he is not a monkey. He's an inch short of being a monkey. So he should be. It is all we asked for. It is all we want.