Trickling Down

I agree with President Biden: trickle-down economics don’t work.  The idea is that instead of ensuring a more equitable division of the cake, you make the cake bigger.  The economy must grow.  So you don’t discourage the multinational energy companies by imposing a windfall tax on them.  You don’t make the UK “unattractive” for inward investors.  You remove the cap on bankers’ bonuses so that the financial sector will attract “the best minds”.  The poor get richer precisely because the rich get richer.  But didn’t Her Late Majesty ask Gordon Brown, when he was PM in 2008, how come the bankers got it all wrong?    

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never received a bonus in my life.  Not quite true.  When I did my paper round as a schoolboy for £1 a week – good money at the time – I would get £2 at Christmas.  That was my last bonus.  I certainly never received a bonus throughout my medical career, and indeed I never got extra pay for overtime.  Indeed, the longer I worked, the poorer the hourly rate became.  I was like one of these labourers in Jesus’ parable who toils and sweats all day and then gets the same as the guy who comes along at the end to put in an hour’s graft. 

The gap between the rich and the poor is a recurring theme in the parables.  It doesn’t appear that Jesus believed in trickle-down economics any more than President Biden.  A virtuous young man asked Our Lord what he needed to do, aside from keeping the commandments, to live a perfect life.  Jesus advised him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.  The man went away, exceeding sorrowful, for he was very wealthy.  That figures.  My experience of wealthy people is that they are very careful with their money.  That is why they are wealthy, because they know how to accrue wealth.  The acquisition of money is likely to be their central preoccupation.  Jesus clearly thought such a preoccupation was inherently absurd, and he advised his disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  I’ve heard it said that a tiny door beside the main gate to Jerusalem was nicknamed “the eye of the needle”, but in any case Jesus conjured an inherently farcical image. 

Wealthy people tend to occupy positions of power and influence, and it is hardly surprising to find that they favour financial systems which protect their wealth, and the status quo.  They dwell in closed and fortified communities, their gates festooned with security cameras.  When they venture out into the world, they do so in bullet-proof limousines with darkened windows.  As the gap between rich and poor increases, the society becomes more fractured and, eventually, more violent. 

Mr Kwarteng defended his decision to cut taxes with the sweetener that more money is going into everybody’s pocket.  But at the same time, a massive bail-out for everybody’s energy bill is going to cost even more than the Covid furlough scheme, and if the Chancellor is not going to raise the money by taxes, he will have to borrow it.  Soon, if not already, the UK debt will be eye-wateringly vast.  (Incidentally, have you noticed the way in which the media tell us the annual household energy cap will be £2,500?  This is untrue.  There will be a cap on the kilowatt hour price, such that an average household will pay something in the order of £2,500 per annum.  That should be made clear.)  But how else can we cut energy costs long term?  We mustn’t be dependent upon Mr Putin’s turning on and off the gas taps on a whim; so, says the government, we need to restart drilling and fracking for oil and gas.  COP26 is history.

While all this is going on, various societal structures are fracturing.  For example, the National Health Service is under intolerable strain, and winter is still more than two months away.  Ms Coffey has outlined her rescue plan for England, dubbed “A, B, C, and D.”  Apparently they stand for Ambulances, Backlogs, (Social) Care, and Doctors & Dentists.  I’m always highly suspicious of these instant back-of-a-fag-packet political solutions to the problems of health care.  Didn’t Tony BIair say, “24 hours to save the NHS!”  I wonder if the Health Secretary knows that in medicine, A is for Airway, B for Breathing, C for Circulation, and D for (Neurological) Disability?  Or indeed that E stands for Exposure & Environment?  The fact that ABCD means one thing for a politician, and another for a doctor or nurse, rather suggests to me that the politicos and the medics are not “singing off the same hymn sheet.”      

Meanwhile, at the Labour Conference in Liverpool, Sir Keir Starmer has outlined ambitious plans for the achievement of 100% energy production from renewables, by 2030.  For the first time since 2010, I have the sense that Labour could win the next general election. 

Still in Transit

This strange Limbo which we currently inhabit reminds me of the long haul flight from Glasgow to London Heathrow to Changi Singapore, thence to Auckland New Zealand.  It is one long queue, interspersed by periods of enforced captivity and inactivity.  You check in, go through security, browse the book shelves and the duty free, find a lounge, await the call, board, sit interminably at the gate and then at the holding point, and finally get airborne.  Then you land again and negotiate the endless corridors of the terminals, with that mild anxiety that you might miss the connection.  Then you repeat the whole sequence, only more elaborately.  Baggage checked straight through, fingers crossed.  At security, watch, phone, wallet, loose change, laptop, belt, shoes, all deposited for X-ray scrutiny in a battered tray on the conveyer belt.  Another book shop, more duty free.  Another lounge.  The call to board. Another interminable wait on the taxiways.  You are exhausted and the journey has barely begun.   

But now, at long last, the passengers and their baggage have been secured on board, latecomers have been ensconced with suitably red faces, and the doors have been closed and cross-checked.  The captain has addressed us in clipped and barely audible tones, and the first officer has radioed the tower.

“Speedbird 747 push back.”

An excruciatingly slow reverse, and a protracted taxi round the periphery of the airport.

“Speedbird 747 hold.”

We sit at the holding point, by the threshold.

“Speedbird 747 clear for take-off.”

We’re off! 

How best to pass thirteen hours in the encapsulated quarantine of a mobile cigar tube?  You make some sort of contact with your neighbour.  Surely it is a failure if you do not.  Then there’s a blessed cocktail, and dinner.  You browse the airline mags.  You tune into whatever is on the radio or the telly.  Find the classical music station, find a good movie, read the first few pages of the book you bought at the airport.  At some stage, you take a walk up and down the aisles and visit the loo.  If it’s daylight, you glance out of the window and marry up what you see with the little aeroplane crawling across the map.  But you are in suspended animation, of a state of mind quite incapable of doing anything substantive. 

And with any luck, you sleep. 

All of a sudden, you are summoned to breakfast.  We have commenced our descent into Singapore.  All these hours of enforced inactivity and now we are compelled to bolt breakfast so the stewards can clear up before fastening lap-straps. 

Changi.  An enormous terminal.  You are stopping over, so now you have to retrieve your luggage, negotiate another series of long corridors, customs, immigration, and emerge into the steamy night.  You take a taxi, and catch up on local gossip, en route to the Sheraton Towers, 39 Scott Road.  The roads, and the floral displays on the overpasses are, as ever, impeccably manicured. 

Check in at the Sheraton.  Pause for a G & T at the bar, where an incredibly talented pianist is playing jazz in rich harmony, after the fashion of Bill Evans.  To dine or not to dine?  You have been snacking for the past 24 hours, and lost all sense of the appropriateness of mealtimes.  You’re not even sure if you ought to sleep.  And yet it is night time.  In your room, the telly is on, welcoming you personally.  Behind the message, a fish is meandering about a tank, goggling inanely. 

You awake in the night.  You have no idea where you are, when you are, or even who you are.

Last week the King evidently experienced this same dislocation of time.  Appending the royal signature to another municipal tome, he paused and muttered, “Is it the twelfth?”

“The thirteenth, sir.”

The Queen Consort whispered, “You wrote the twelfth last time.” 

Then the fountain pen exploded and there was a momentary flash of temper.

“…bloody thing…”

The Queen Consort, evidently well used to such petulant displays, went into damage control mode, took his place and, apparently, forged his signature.  I certainly didn’t think badly of the King for momentarily losing it.  Most of us, when we lose a parent, are given a week’s compassionate leave.  He has probably put in the hardest working week of his life.  Besides, temper is hereditary.  George VI, at least according to the movie The King’s Speech, could explode.  And I don’t think the Duke of Edinburgh suffered fools gladly.  The following day, on the Vine Show, Jeremy asked us, “Have you ever had leaky pen trouble?  Call us on 0800…”  And he consulted an expert in fountain pen technology.  Apparently it’s all to do with changes in the room’s atmospheric temperatures and pressures.  In the endless scrutiny of the royal activities of the week, no stone has been left unturned.     

Thus it is with this protracted period of mourning.  There is nothing else to do.  It is as if we have entered a hermetically sealed airship which must negotiate its way across this elaborately orchestrated and choreographed masque.  There is nothing else to be done other than to observe the world turn as we gradually make our way to the other side. 

The live stream from Westminster Hall, and the fish in the aquarium in the Singapore hotel bedroom, are one and the same.  Jetlagged, you stare at the screen, hypnotised.  I kept thinking I recognised faces in the Westminster queue.  Some of the obsequies were extravagant, others rather perfunctory; mostly they were dignified in their solemnity.  The silence was impressive.  No mobile phones!  I watched the endless procession with the distracted detachment of somebody who has completely lost track of time and space. 

Another morning, another taxi, another queue, and all the rituals of checking-in.  Once more we’re off!  And this time, a surge of the heart.  The next time you step out of this ship, you will walk into Aotearoa. 

Jacinda Ardern, the NZ PM, was on the Laura Kuenssberg show.  With extraordinary finesse, she managed to adulate the late Queen, and the current King, while anticipating that New Zealand would, within her lifetime, become a republic.  Here, people have been arrested for voicing republican sentiments during a time of mourning.  The issue was raised in Friday/Saturday’s Any Questions, so admirably chaired by Victoria Derbyshire, who has the grace not to interrupt.  Two questions: should people be allowed to disrupt a period of mourning with protest? …and, will the Queen’s passing strengthen or weaken the United Kingdom?  Somebody heckled, in a voice remarkably loud and clear:

Brexit broke Britain!

There was a shocked silence.  Ms Derbyshire said, “Moving on…” and passed to the next question.

Now it is 9.30 am on Monday morning, and we’re still aboard, somewhere over Australia’s hot red centre.  Back in Blighty, the great and the good have descended upon London.  Shortly, with the exception of President Biden who can retain his motorcade, all the presidents and prime ministers will take the bus to Westminster.  What a security nightmare.  Ms Kuenssberg asked Ms Ardern about the bus.  Ms Ardern couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about it.  Kiwis are very down-to-earth.  Ms Kuenssberg concluded the interview.  “Jacinda Ardern, thank you very much.”

“You take care now.”                                                          

Spring Tide

I find myself getting increasingly irritated today by a recurring piece of BBC reportage, stating that senior members of the Royal Family will accompany Her Late Majesty’s coffin from Holyrood Palace down the Royal Mile to St Giles’s Cathedral.  I find myself yelling at the radio.  “Not St Giles’s.  St Giles.  And, more importantly, not down the Royal Mile.  Up the Royal Mile.  It would only be down the Royal Mile if they were proceeding from the castle.  How can these people be so ignorant?”

And I confess I was irritated on Saturday night to find that the Last Night of the Proms had been cancelled.  I perfectly understand that the BBC would not wish to go ahead with the traditional knees-up, but they could easily have changed the format and the tone of the last night.  There is precedence here; in 2001, after 9/11, 21 years ago almost to the day, the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the American conductor Leonard Slatkin performed the piece that has become an iconic expression of US grief on solemn occasions, Barber’s Adagio for Strings.  Orchestral musicians are the most adept and versatile professionals in the world at making changes at short notice.  A conductor or a soloist is indisposed; a few phone calls are made to find who is available; sometimes the entire programme is recast one day before the performance.  The BBC Symphony Orchestra could quite easily have performed – as somebody put to me – Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, the Elgar Cello Concerto, and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony.  Sheku Kanneh-Mason was already booked to play, and the Elgar is in his repertoire.  I heard him play it, most beautifully, at a recent Edinburgh Festival.  What more natural thing, at a time of loss, than for people to come together and listen to great music?

And I’m even more irritated by a report from The Telegraph on September 10th, by Victoria Ward, royal correspondent, that King Charles III and Prime Minister Liz Truss will tour the UK to “share the grief” of the late Queen’s death.  Some reports are dubbing this mini-tour “Operation Spring Tide” though I suspect this is a conflation; I believe Spring Tide alludes to the whole procedure of the King’s accession.  No. 10 has been quick to say that the King and the PM will not be doing joint walkabouts in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.  I should hope not.  At least No. 10 recognise what a toxic mix that would be.

I don’t think I’ll pop through to Edinburgh today to stand on the Royal Mile.  Usually I’m a pushover for a piece of pageantry.  I quite appreciate a little magical stardust, even if I know it’s not real.  I used to sing in the choir of St Giles, and Her Majesty would drop by from time to time.  I sang Zadok the Priest to her.  It was said to be a piece she admired, but who knows?  Maybe she groaned inwardly.  Not Zadok again.  Anyway I think I will retain that as my last memory of the Queen in St Giles.    

But what a difference a week makes.  A week is indeed a long time in politics.  A week ago today, aeons ago, the Queen was on the throne, and Boris was Prime minister.  And now, Spring Tide has been activated.   I’m all for Spring Tide as a seamless means of transfer of power.  But Spring Tide as an orchestration of public grief, Spring Tide as a manifestation of unity, both political and constitutional, Spring Tide as emotional manipulation: no thank you.  It has always seemed to me that within the constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the most manipulated of all, the most subjected as it were, are the Royals themselves.  Who would volunteer to occupy that gilded cage?  King Charles has promised to surrender his charitable work to others, never again – at least in public – to speak his mind.  It’s really a form of abuse.    

It seems to me that this proposed conflation of a royal and prime ministerial tour, like that of a rock star and his supporting act, is, despite the denials of No. 10, an early attempt by the political establishment to manipulate the King while his antennae may not yet be fully deployed.  And yet I have a notion it won’t work.  I don’t think Charles will be a pushover.  People are asking, what will differentiate the Carolinian from the Elizabethan age?  What will characterise Charles III?

Stubbornness.

God save the King.   

It’s a Scrub!

“The launch director,” declared the NASA anchor man on September 2nd, with evident disappointment, “has declared a scrub.”  It’s back to the drawing board.  Artemis must trundle laboriously back to the laboratory.  The news featured briefly on the brand new Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, and one of the pundits – was it Emily Thornberry? – remarked that NASA’s aborted mission was a kind of metaphor for the current political situation in the UK.  Presumably she was referring to the impending launch of the new Prime Minister.

Inevitably, the Kuenssberg Show has already received a few brickbats from the TV critics.  Newbie on Sunday show gets off to a confused start is the banner headline of Alison Rowat’s piece in today’s Herald.  Ms Rowat complained that Ms Kuenssberg’s black sparkly dress contrasted with the light, bright graphics, in turn at odds with the pink trouser suit she wore in the credits.  No-one, said Ms Rowat, would probably comment on the clothes if it (sic) had been a man.  Well, Ms Rowat, you just did.

If the show failed to set the heather alight, I cannot think Ms Kuenssberg was entirely to blame.  Interviewing Liz Truss must be akin to having a conversation with one of these effigies on Easter Island.  Ms K asked Ms T is she were about to inherit a crisis (that she would be a shoo-in come Monday lunchtime seemed taken as read), and Ms T certainly foresaw challenges ahead.  Yes, persisted Ms K, but is it a crisis?  The Easter Island obelisk repeated that there would be challenges ahead. 

I can’t help but compare and contrast the current situation with the last time Britain in crisis – real crisis – had to choose between two individuals for the role of PM.  On May 10th 1940 the choice was between Winston and Lord Halifax.  Halifax was the front runner but he declined, on the grounds that he would be unable to lead effectively from the House of Lords.  Chamberlain, with evident regret, had to advise the king to send for Winston.  Halifax was a good friend of George VI, who in turn was dismayed to have to ask Winston to form a government.  Not that he let it show.  Winston’s own account of the trip to Buckingham Palace in The Gathering Storm is very amusing. 

Had the king sent for Halifax, history would doubtless have gone down a very different track.  In the film Darkest Hour, Halifax’s decision to decline the premiership is portrayed as a piece of political skulduggery; the chalice Winston was about to receive was so poisoned that any government he formed would inevitably collapse in short order, and Halifax could then move in, from a reinforced position of strength. 

And who knows, perhaps something similar is taking place even as we speak.  Ms Truss may wish to call a crisis a challenge, but the contents of Tuesday morning’s in-tray may prove so toxic that she, or anybody else for that matter, may not be able to deal with it.  Maybe this is why the Tory Party has voted her in.  When she founders, once more the palace (or Balmoral) can send for Boris.  Just flying a kite.

Of course, in 1940 Winston came through with flying colours, albeit having to endure a long and bumpy ride.  1940 might have been his finest hour, but 1941 was a terrible year of cumulative failure, and his political position was not secure until Montgomery secured victory at El Alamein in 1942, “the end of the beginning”.  So who would dare predict what “events” (Macmillan’s term) will confront Ms Truss.  Whatever scrutiny and criticism Laura Kuenssberg has to endure will be nothing compared with that levelled against Liz Truss.

But the highlight of Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg had to be the interview, in Kiev, with Ukraine’s very elegant, and articulate, First Lady.  Mrs Zelensky chose to speak Ukrainian, although I have an idea she would have been as eloquent speaking in English.  Her answers were very thoughtful.  Questions in English and answers in Ukrainian demand that the interview must, of necessity, be allowed to run its course, devoid of interjection.  The interview of a foreign dignitary on her own soil must also be respectful and not aggressive.  But it occurs to me that that style of interview could be perfectly well carried over to the hurly-burly of domestic politics.  If Ms Truss is going to be robotic, repetitive, thin on detail and, frankly, boring, let all of that run; let her speak for herself.

But I get ahead of myself.  It is 10.15 on Monday morning, even as I write.  The result of the prime ministerial contest is due around 12.30.  Maybe Mr Sunak will get in.  Or maybe there will be some kind of procedural glitch and they will have to run the contest again.  The returning officer has declared a scrub.     

The Seventh Resolve

The Dunblane Chamber Orchestra met up on Sunday afternoon, not to rehearse, but just to play music for fun.  We played Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, Haydn 6, his Trumpet Concerto, Fauré’s Pavanne, and Mozart 32.  Great fun indeed.  Mozart 32 is fantastic.  It is not so much a symphony as an extended overture, in the Italian style.  Its development section is out of this world.  I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t had the viola out of its case since we performed Schubert 2 in June.  I could easily have opened the case to find the Archinto Strad had vanished, and I would be like the Glasgow boy having to explain himself to his teacher: “The dug ett i’.”  But in fact the viola was there; it was even, more or less, in tune.  And I was even able, more or less, to negotiate the notes.  I suppose if you have put in the 10,000 hours, something of the muscle memory remains.  I heard last week on the radio a report of a study that suggested that the vocabulary of people who studied a foreign language at school decades ago remained as extensive as that of recent school leavers.  That suggests to me a lesson about hobbies and pastimes: never give anything up.  Unless, for one reason or another, you have to.

New Year is supposed to be the time for resolution, but I prefer to be resolved for September, because it is the start of Martinmas, the “new term”, the academic year, and I’ve never been able to lose the habit of thinking in terms of “terms” even if, thank heaven, I have no academic commitments.  There is a character in a Graham Greene novel – is it Fowler in The Quiet American, or Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, or Bendrix in The End of the Affair, or Query in A Burnt Out Case, who remarks, with evident self-loathing, “At the time, I still took my future seriously.”  They always have peculiar names, these Greene characters, awkward, uncomfortable names befitting a square peg in a round hole.  Once you stop taking your future seriously, you abandon hope.  If you abandon hope, you abandon resolution.  So, as Abe said, “We hereby highly resolve…”

There are seven things I try to do every day.  I start with a muttered consecration, a prayer of dedication if you will.  I read something; I write something; I play a musical instrument; I speak a foreign language; I get some exercise; seventhly, and perhaps more nebulously, I try to get outside of myself and attempt something generous.  All of these things are easy, with the exception of the seventh.  It is the seventh one which I fail to do most often.  I am haunted by that story in the Gospels.  “I was hungry and you fed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was in prison and you visited me…”  I haven’t carried out too many prison visitations recently.  I’m bad at hospitality.  Yesterday the minister in Dunblane Cathedral, who has a mischievous sense of humour, said “Guests are like fish.  They go off after about three days.”  Unlike some of my friends, I haven’t taken in any Ukrainian refugees.  I send money to salve my conscience.  Then I say, “Don’t beat yourself up.  You had an entire career tending the sick and needy.  How many times did you get up in the night?  Anything now would just be virtue-signalling – ‘cold as charity’.”

It doesn’t work.

Then there are the bucket lists.  You really must learn Wagner’s Ring Cycle!  You really must read Proust!  You really must master Maxwell’s equations!  (As you can see, I’m not exactly a bundle of laughs.)  But actually, I’ve largely dispensed with bucket lists.  Or at least I’ve whittled them down to one thing only.  I’ve lodged a book with the publisher (thereby hangs a tale), and I have another on the stocks.  This is the extent of my bucket list – finish the next tome.  It is a benison, to know what one is supposed to be about.

So here I am.  I may be holed up in my citadel, in company with my hostages bitterness, acidie, and self-recrimination, but I can still hear the tinny voice through the megaphone of the negotiator outside: “James, you still have a future.  Come out with your hands in the air.”

Or, as a character of mine remarked in Cobra, “The curtain has not come down on the opera, Sir Sphagnum, until you have heard the aria of the obese contralto.”              

Larkin at 100

BBC Radio 4 ran a series of fifteen minute programmes last week, after The World at One, on the poetry of Philip Larkin (1922 – 85).  It is the centenary of Larkin’s birth.  As so often, centenaries become a raison-d’être for programming.  Each programme took a poem and discussed it.  I didn’t hear them all, but I picked up Aubade, Toads Revisited, Going Going, and The Whitsun Weddings.  Larkin reads his own poems beautifully.  For the rest, the discussion, the analysis, I could have done without it.  And I could certainly have done without the ghastly musical drivel – I say “musical”, but it was just drivel – the programme’s producer felt compelled to superimpose upon Larkin’s mellifluous tones.  But musical drivel is all-pervasive in broadcasting.  I suppose it reflects the programme-makers’ terror of “dead air”.  They even do it to Professor Brian Cox, whose explanations of the wonder of the universe need to be augmented by a sound track designed to inform you, “This is pretty awesome.”  The producers don’t trust the listener to sit in quietude, and concentrate.  Rather the listener’s consciousness must be inculcated with “mood”.  So they talk about “mood music”.  No thank you.  I will respond to whatever’s on offer with whatever mood I choose.  (It’s the sort of thing Philip Larkin might have said.)   

So I would rather they had let Larkin recite The Whitsun Weddings, and leave it at that.  I’ve grown weary of criticism.  Somebody once asked T. S. Eliot what was the meaning of the line in Ash Wednesday:

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree

And Eliot replied, “It means:

“Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.”     

Eliot has a reputation for being a poor reciter of verse, which I think is quite unfounded.  He too reads beautifully.  He doesn’t “act”.  He merely recites.  Have you ever noticed that, if you flick the radio on and chance upon a conversation between two people, you can immediately tell whether you are listening to a radio play, or a real conversation in real time between real people?  This is because, in the case of drama, the participants are “acting”.  In fact, in the vanishingly rare occasion in which the thespians manage to conceal their craft utterly, the effect can be quite overpowering, and not a little unnerving.  Michael Caine can do it.  In front of the camera, he seems to be doing nothing at all.  Brian Cox, in his autobiography – the actor not the scientist – is a little disparaging of Caine’s technique, but surely that is because the machinations of technique have so completely vanished.  Caine’s depiction of vulnerability in Educating Rita, or The Quiet American, is more than convincing.  It simply is.  Who else can do this?  Her Majesty.  Her depiction of herself meeting Mr Bond at the 2012 Olympics was flawless.  It’s not easy to portray yourself.

Musicians can also be guilty of portentousness.  Pianists, I venture to say, are the worst, and Chopin, that least portentous of composers, is the composer who suffers most from it.  Misplaced rubato and crocodile tears.        

Just as portentous acting can smother the vessel of a poem in redundant barnacles, “criticism” seldom does much to enhance the original.  Is there anything more soul-destroying than a GCSE sample-paper on English Literature?  Who is the lady Eliot is addressing?  Why are there three leopards and not two, or four, and why are they white?  Why is the tree a juniper tree?  This kind of close textual analysis by diktat, and its implication that the examiners know what they are talking about, is anathema to any true response to literature.  They had much rather have asked, “Choose a poem you have enjoyed reading and say what you like about it.” 

Aubade is a powerful poem, but I can’t say I enjoyed it.  Larkin might have entitled it, “Timor mortis conturbat me”.  I can’t help feeling that if he hadn’t gone to bed half-drunk, he wouldn’t have felt so bloody awful at four o’clock in the morning.  I don’t know if GCSE would regard that as a valid piece of criticism.  Yet all criticism need not be adverse.  For me, the magic of Larkin lies primarily in the extraordinary vividness of the imagery.  But I don’t want to turn into a critic.  The lines speak for themselves.  From Aubade:

…telephones crouch, getting ready to ring…

In Toads Revisited, Larkin observes, I think rather with compassion than with disdain, the unemployed killing time in the local park:

Turning over their failures

By some bed of lobelias

Going Going is a lament, ahead of its time, for an England vanishing under a heap of detritus:

First slum of Europe: a role

It won’t be so hard to win,

With a cast of crooks and tarts.    

The Whitsun Weddings is, amongst other things, a fantastically vivid view from a swiftly moving railway carriage:

A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped

And rose…

Then the poet notices what is in the shade rather than in the sun:

An uncle shouting smut…

Larkin has a reputation for being misanthropic but it seems to me that, if he is deprecatory at all, he is self-deprecatory.  Look at the way he purportedly missed out on the Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty three

(Which was rather late for me) –

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first L. P.

What would GCSE have to say about that? 

Why did sexual intercourse begin in 1963?  Who is Chatterley, and what connects her to Please Please Me?

Gimme a break.

The End of the Golden Weather?

Yesterday was a very beautiful day here in L’Écosse Profonde; 27 degrees Celsius, and the prospect from a quiet country road heading north from Stirlingshire into Perthshire full of the intense greenery of high summer.  I was reminded of an ancient BBC Radio 2 programme in which the anchor would ham up a kind of posh Scottishness: “Greetings to you.  This is Desmond Carrington, speaking to you from my home in rural Purthsheer, Scutland…”  He evoked the vision of an aristocratic Caledonia that has ceased to exist, if it ever did, and the image of an ancient country seat buried at the head of a remote glen, occupied by Buchanesque figures like Sir Archie Roylance and Sandy Arbuthnot, 16th Lord Clanroyden, receiving mysterious visitors in fore-and-aft deerstalker hats and ulster wraps, descending from shooting brakes before the grand entrance to the ancestral pile.  Conjuring this image, and just when I thought summer might last forever, clouds began to amass all around the horizon, and the atmosphere became heavy and foreboding.  Back home, around 7 pm, the heavens opened.  In the still air, the downpour was intense, the stair rods absolutely vertical. 

Meanwhile, England is parched.  No green and pleasant land.  The drought is official.  There are hosepipe bans.  And there are mutterings.  Why have no reservoirs been created for many decades?  What is the government going to do about it?  Where, incidentally, is the government? 

If I were an entrepreneur, I would construct a desalination plant, on a ship.  If hot dry summers are the future, then my ship would anchor at the nearest port to the area of drought, and simply desalinate the waters in which she lay.  I could put my idea in front of Dragons’ Den.  “Let me get this straight,” that great heavyweight Scottish bruiser on the panel would say.  “You wanna traipse around the coast in your boat, dock, and change the water into wine.  How’re you gonna pump the fresh water into the reservoirs?  I’m out!” 

Work in progress.  Perhaps I should attend the hustings coming up in Perth tomorrow and put my idea forward to Mr Sunak and Ms Truss.  But, not being a member of the Tory party, I don’t suppose I’d get in.  Security will be very tight, tighter than ever, after what happened last week in Chautauqua.  J. K. Rowling expressed her sympathy on social media, and then received threats herself.  The moral of the tale is, don’t have anything to do with social media.    

Today, cloud, and thundery showers, are expected.  The end of the golden weather?  I’m glad I’ve spent the greater part of the last fortnight out of doors.  For example, last week I had two long walks in Edinburgh.  With the festival in full swing, Princes Street, the Bridges, and the Royal Mile are heaving, but in Edinburgh you only need to depart from the square mile and you would never know the festival was on.  Out west, I parked in Ingliston Park & Ride, by the airport, and walked the ten miles into town following the tram route: Gogarburn, Edinburgh Gateway, Gyle Central, Edinburgh Park Central… here passing the sculpted busts on plinths of the great Scottish poets of the twentieth century.  Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, Tom Leonard, Hamish Henderson, Liz Lochhead, Edwin Morgan, to name a few.  Leonard has the most acute ear for the voice of Glasgow:

heh jimmy

yawright ih

stull wayiz urryi

ih      

You can hear Tom Leonard read The six o’clock news online.  It is simultaneously profound, and absolutely priceless.          

…Edinburgh Park Station, Bankhead, Saughton, Balgreen, Murrayfield, Haymarket, West End, Princes Street, St Andrews Square.  I jumped on a tram and retraced my route back to the beginning.

And on another day I walked the seven hills, anticlock: Corstorphine, Craiglockhart… Another encounter with poetry.  Here at the old hospital, Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon. 

It seemed that out of battle I escaped

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped…

The half rhyme – escaped/scooped – produces a forlorn cadence like the dying fall of a whizz-bang crossing over the Ypres salient.  Here in Edinburgh, Owen must have observed the crowds on Princes Street, at six o’clock.

In twos and threes, they have not far to roam,

Crowds that thread eastward, gay of eyes;

Those seek no further than their quiet home,

Wives, walking westward, slow and wise.

Owen is sensitive and Keatsian, but Sassoon is hard as nails.

Somehow I always thought you’d get done in

Because you were so desperate keen to live…

I used to think that Owen and Sassoon at Craiglockhart were lost to the remote past, but from the top of Craiglockhart Hill I can see a ship in harbour at Leith.  It is not a desalination plant; it is a floating hotel for Ukrainian refugees.  It looks very smart.  At least it is not a hulk.  But the Great War no longer seems remote to me.  It now seems quite possible that it could lie ahead of us. 

…Braid Hills, Blackford Hill, Arthur’s Seat, Calton, and finally, Castle Hill.  Now there is no escaping the heaving crowds.  I tried to blag my way on to the castle esplanade but was politely turned away.  That’s okay.  I’ve previously attended the military tattoo, twice.  I remember last time, at the close, a disembodied voice with the comforting timbre of Tom Fleming advised us to sleep easily in our beds, “whiles we’ll guerd the toon.”  I can’t say I felt reassured.  But I never think it’s a good idea to disparage the army.  You never know when you might have need of one.                       

La Nostalgia

In last week’s blog (Hasta la Vista, Baby) I ventured to be critical of the manner in which, having scored the winning goal, the Lionesses shut down the Euro final against Germany.  I sent a truncated version of this to The Herald, conscious of the fact that I was entering a mine field and laying myself open to attack.  Well, I got published, with the banner headline “Women’s football is selling its soul as it treads the sordid path of the men’s game”.  Sure enough, the counterattack appeared the following day.  “Reading Dr Campbell’s letter, I despaired…”  He should have read another Campbell, Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul in Friday’s West Highland Free Press, who went further than I did, and quoted George Orwell:

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play.  It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.  In other words, it is war minus the shooting.” 

But I can’t say I was inclined to write further on the subject.  I flicked over to The Herald’s obituary columns.  When I used to scan the “matches, hatches, and despatches” in the days of my youth, I never recognised any of the names, but now it seems to me as if I know all of them.  I was saddened last week to read of the passing of an old friend from bygone days of music making in Glasgow.  Bernard Levin once made the observation that he could not get used to the disappearing act that many of his friends seemed to be performing with increasing regularity.  The funeral is tomorrow.  Unsure of the precise location of the church, I took a turn into Glasgow, its streets and pavements a riot of weeds and litter.  I paused to post a letter at a row of shops opposite my old school in the west end, and took a moment to cross the road and stand before the school entrance.  The last time I crossed that entrance was more than half a century ago.  There on the wall before me was the old school motto – Spero meliora – I hope for better things.  Things can only get better.  At least they didn’t try to tell you that your school days are the best days of your life; that would be non spero meliora or, this is as good as it gets.  Abandon hope all ye who enter here.  My recent sojourns around Glasgow’s west end have usually been accompanied by a sense of nostalgia, but this was quite the opposite.  I experienced a strange, vertiginous moment of near syncope, and a conviction that I was back exactly where I had started, and that the intervening fifty years had merely been a hallucination.  Time and space, maybe they are entirely imaginary.  All that hyperactivity was an illusion, and a delusion.  In reality, I have never moved from this spot.  I almost ran back to the car, started her up, and got out of Glasgow.   

I used to think that it would be quite nice to pass through that school entrance and take a look around, anonymously, maybe at some public event like an open day.  But I’ve changed my mind.  Never go back.  I would be terrified that once inside, I would discover that the great surprises of my life – aviation, medicine, New Zealand, and the people who populated these worlds – had all been a dream.  I never got out.  What a nightmare.  If truth be told, school for me was a desert.  The primary school was okay.  When I came out, I could read, write, and count.  After that, all you really need is access to a public library.  But I never learned a thing in secondary school.  Well, maybe I learned to play the viola, but that doesn’t count; that was an extra-curricular activity.  As for the rest, the excruciatingly monotonous drudgery of nine to four, it’s all a blank.  I spent six years of my life in a state of preoccupation and free-floating anxiety, listening out for the clang of the bell.  I would have been better off being a brick layer’s apprentice.  Winston said the same. 

I’ve grown suspicious of nostalgia.  It’s a means to avoid living in the present.  It’s a trick our memory plays on us.  It’s a narcotic; it’s anodyne – a drawing down of blinds.  Old men playing pétanque in the blazing afternoon sunshine.  Aye, we’ve seen the best of it.

Thou hast nor youth, nor age,

But as it were an after dinner’s sleep

Dreaming on both.

So tomorrow I will pay my respects to an old friend, and perhaps run into a few still in the land of the living, though whether I will recognise them, or they me, is another matter.  But I don’t think I’ll hang around.  That was the week that was; it’s over, let it go. 

Spero meliora.  I really do hope for better things.  Hope.  It’s a kind of nostalgia for the future.                        

Hasta la Vista, Baby

Flicked on the telly last night around 7 pm to find the score at Wembley was England 1 Germany 1 and they were into extra time.  So I watched.  I had thought that the ladies’ version of the beautiful game was altogether superior, lacking in petulance, bad temper, and melodrama.  Alas, I was disabused.  It is exactly the same as the men’s game.  Taking a dive, rolling in agony, aggression, foul language (the commentator said you didn’t need to be a lip reader), shirt pulling and indeed, after the winning goal was scored, shirt removal.  Then with about ten minutes to go, England took the ball to Germany’s left corner line and footered around, letting the clock run down.  No more open play; they shut the game down.  When the final whistle blew, Wembley erupted.  England was over the moon and Germany sick as a parrot.    

A Pyrrhic victory, if you ask me.  What shall it profit a woman if she gain the whole world, and lose her own soul?  But why is it that sport at a high level has become so deadly serious?  So deadly.

The answer is Money.  Where there’s muck, there’s brass.  Now that the Big Sponsors see the woman’s game can fill Wembley Stadium, the big movers and shakers will converge, broadcasting rights will be assigned, and television deals struck.  Already this Euro final is being cast as a game changer, a pivotal moment, and an inspiration to all young girls who want to play football.  Dare to follow your dream.  You too can be a histrionic shirt-puller. 

What were the words of the mythical T. E. Henley?  “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”  The young Alan Bennett ridiculed this – not so much the sentiment as its rendition by an Anglican vicar in his immortal Beyond the Fringe sketch.  The modern sensibility looks upon the idea of sportsmanship, or sportswomanship, with disdain and derision.  Didn’t an American football coach say that winning was not the most important thing, it was the only thing?  And of course Bob Shankly was famously misquoted when he purportedly said that football was more important than a matter of life and death.  He actually meant precisely the opposite, but somehow he got lost in translation.              

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games proceed apace in Birmingham.  The Prime Minister (still Boris) issued a statement of justification for the government’s spending three quarters of a billion on the project.  It was an “emphatic yes” to “legacy”.  His mode of delivery was similar to that of his closing remarks at his final PMQs.  The words came out so rapidly that they fell over one another.  He seems to have developed pressure of speech, said to be a sign of hypomania.  Bread and circuses.  Hasta la vista, baby.  Meanwhile the two contenders vying to be Her Majesty’s fifteenth PM employ strategies not dissimilar to a sports team who are having an off day but who know how to dig deep and produce a result even when it doesn’t look pretty.  Mr Sunak has decided to lower the base rate of income tax which, apparently far from being a U-turn, is entirely consistent with his earlier assertion that tax cuts belonged to a fantasy world.  But where is he going to find the money?  He’s going to fine everybody who doesn’t turn up for their GP appointment a tenner.  Meanwhile Ms Truss wants to give every school leaver with top grades automatic entry to Oxbridge.  I suppose that’s part of the “levelling up” agenda.  I wonder if Mr Sunak consulted the GPs, or Ms Truss Oxbridge, before they produced, like rabbits out of a hat, such policies.  But it isn’t the GPs, nor the universities, that the Prime Ministerial pretenders need, for the moment, to placate.  Rather it is – we are told – about 160,000 members of the Conservative Party.  Presumably once the premiership has been secured, any rash promises can then be nullified by executing a U-turn that is not a U-turn.  Sometimes in order to win, you need to win ugly.                

At a time when the UK is struggling to redefine her role in the world, we should remember the close links that have always existed between imperial ambition, and the sports field.  The Empire was forged on the playing fields of Eton.  There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight…  Play up, play up, and play the game.  This is why Boris was so keen to spend a lot on Birmingham.  It is a question of prestige, or, in modern parlance, “soft power”.  I’ve never liked the expression “soft power”.  It implies the coexistence of “hard power”.  So the country puts on a double act on “the international stage”.  Guns and roses.  The hard man soft man act.  The steel fist in the velvet glove.  Trident and The Last Night of the Proms. 

And yet…  Talking of the Proms, I listened to the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, live from the Royal Albert Hall, on Sunday morning.  They played Valentyn Silvestrov, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, and a beautiful version of the Ukrainian National Anthem.  I wonder if Mr Putin listened.  But I don’t know what his musical tastes might be.  Pussy Riot?  The Freedom Orchestra played beautifully.  During the slow movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, it occurred to me.  Mr Putin, in the end, you cannot defeat this.                      

The wheel is turning, but the hamster is dead

Last week, on the hottest day ever recorded in Scotland, with the sole purpose of being perverse, I went into the sauna at my local gym.  85 Celsius.  I fell into conversation with a Ukrainian refugee who asked me what the English word was for the machine in the gym on which you could run.  I couldn’t think, and replied, rather lamely, “a running machine.”  Then it came to me.  “A treadmill.”

“I haven’t heard that word.  Why treadmill?”

I had the image of a pony attached to a wheel at a pithead, endlessly walking in a circle to uplift a bucket of coal from the bowels of the earth.  I said, “It’s a kind of metaphor for carrying out an uncongenial repetitive task.  If you are obliged to persist, you’re on a treadmill.”

“Treadmill.”  He lodged it away.  He’d only been in Scotland for two weeks, but already he’d picked up a job as a translator.  I told him I thought he’d be very good at it.  Where did he learn English?  School?  He said he’d studied it at school and got nowhere, but then he just picked it up from U-tube.  I asked him if he found the Scottish accent difficult.  Not at all.  I told him sometimes I couldn’t understand the guys in the gym when they spoke rough urban Stirling, and I’m from Glasgow, 25 miles away.  The third occupant of the cubicle, a young lady, flashed me a grin.

The treadmill used to be a feature of life in prison.  Hard labour is punitive.  The labour is even more punitive if it is pointless, like painting coal white, cleaning a parade ground with a toothbrush, or moving heavy sacks from point A to point B, then from point B back to point A.  Such tasks are designed to break the spirit.  Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves…  Such is the myth of Sisyphus.  You push the heavy stone to the top of the hill, only for it to roll back down to the bottom.  You go back down and start all over again.  I remember at school, we all thought it preferable to receive two smart strokes of the tawse than to be forced to write out a hundred times, “I must not forget my pencil.”  The prefects were not allowed to beat us, but they could hand out lines.  Their favourite was, “Discipline is the fundamental basis of any well-organised society.”  The galling thing about that is that it’s not even true.  Discipline is the fundamental basis of any totalitarian regime.  I wonder what would have happened if I had gone to the headmaster and said, “I refuse to condone a lie.”  Like the guy in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible who refused to sign a confession, I would doubtless have paid a heavy price.  “Love is the fundamental basis of any well-organised society.  And by the way, the school toilets are a disgrace.”  I might have received three swipes of the strap, accompanied by the mantra, “GOD – IS – LOVE!”  So I would never have taken the risk.  But I might have buried deep in my 100 lines, say around line 63, one single seditious message.  You know where you can stick your well-organised society.  Safe enough.  You might write 100 lines, but nobody will ever read them.   

If you find yourself on a treadmill, what do you do?  Well, obviously, you get off.  But what if you can’t?  What if you are a galley slave, chained to your oar?  All you can do is try to retain a sense of self.  An attitude to your situation.  Survive.  And wait.  And try, somehow, to communicate with your peers, who are in the same boat.  At school, you would perform a small ceremonial act of rebellion, like sticking chewing gum to the underside of your desk, and you would hope like hell that your neighbour wasn’t a stooge, in the pocket of the authorities, and a clype.  

Sitting in the sauna, I conjured this thought experiment.  You are on a treadmill in the gym, pelting along at full tilt, and the conveyor belt abruptly halts.  Do you crash forward over the front of the machine, or fall off the back?  Either way, when Boris’s treadmill came to an abrupt halt, I think he would have done well to get off.  He might have followed the example of his great hero, Winston, who, when the electorate rejected him in 1945, couldn’t get out fast enough, even if he was determined in due course to make a come-back.  But they say that Boris is hanging around because he doesn’t believe either Rishi or Liz can cut the mustard.  The Tories will self-destruct and then Boris will say, “Here am I.  I can save you.  All you need do is ask.”  But Indispensability Syndrome is a terminal condition.  If you think you are indispensable, the caustic aphorism runs, just look at your appointments book the week after you are dead.

Sweating away in the sauna, I can’t decide whether the suddenly halted treadmill hurls you forward or tosses you back.  I’ll have to Google it.  But not now.  One of the advantages of the sauna is that it is a device-free zone.  I have never seen anybody bring their smartphone into the sauna.  Another advantage of sauna etiquette is that it allows conversation to be abruptly terminated.  The other day a guy was passing inappropriate remarks about a personable young lady whom he could observe through the Perspex door, conducting a children’s swimming class.  You know the sort of thing.  “Do you think if I told her I was seven years old I could join the class?  She can be my lifesaver any time…”  It was all very creepy.  I muttered, “Heat stroke”, left, and slid into the pool.