“Fellow citizens,” said President Lincoln at Gettysburg, “We cannot escape History.”
You feel it as you take the ferry from the west coast of Scotland, cross the Irish Sea, and proceed slowly up the long inlet of Belfast Lough. You feel something remarkably similar when you cross out of Spain from La Linea on to the Rock of Gibraltar. There is a cemetery at the foot of the rock full of the dead from Trafalgar. You had thought that the past was a distant foreign land only alluded to in textbooks. But the rock remains a citadel and a fortress, littered with ancient redoubts and buttresses. Union flags are scrawled on pavements. No surrender! It’s here, it’s now.
Mrs May features heavily in February 3rd’s Sunday Telegraph (Page 1: “May: I’ll fight for Britain in Brussels”. And on page 19 she writes to us personally (“I’m going to battle for Britain in Brussels”). The phrase “Battle for Britain” resonates of course. Earlier in the week, one of the last of The Few died. It was announced on the BBC, and then we heard the voice of Winston: “Never in the field of human conflict…” Nothing is accidental.
Basically, Mrs May wants to renegotiate the Irish “backstop” which now appears to be the main impediment frustrating a UK/EU deal.
I was about to write, “Well, good luck with that.” But that is not a constructive way to speak. I really do wish her all the luck in the world. But all the luck in the world cannot change the unalterable fact that when the UK leaves the EU, there will be a border between the Irish Republic, and Northern Ireland. From this perspective, it now seems incredible that in 2016, politicians on both the Remain and the Leave side did not draw our attention to this fact. It just shows you – all these patricians nurtured to lead are just as fallible as the rest of us.
So now they are scrabbling to find some means to square the circle – to take the UK out of the EU while simultaneously maintaining the island of Ireland at least as some kind of economic entity.
I’m not sure that Westminster has the credentials to step up to this problem. I remember during the troubles John Major commenting on the latest Belfast bombing: “Imagine if this sort of thing were going on in Surrey…” As a comment it was well meant but it merely served to emphasise the point that Belfast is not Surrey.
I have this notion that our ruling class does not really appreciate the cultural rifts that exist within the regions of the British Isles. Of course England with its disproportionately huge population (and also its very remarkable history) dominates the nations of the UK. The other nations tend to be depicted in the mass media in rather cartoonish fashion. The Scots occupy a Celtic twilight full of whisky and heather and doomed romanticism. The Welsh are all black-faced coal miners with wonderful tenor voices. The Irish are whimsical and funny and fey. It seems inconceivable that peoples so obviously lacking (didn’t an Australian call the Welsh “the village idiots of rugby”?) should want to control their own destiny.
So over the course of the next few weeks we are going to witness Westminster’s attempt to solve the problem of the backstop. Where to begin?
I wish to make a constructive, if rather unusual, suggestion.
Begin with the second movement to the First Symphony of Arnold Bax.
If I am besotted with the music of Arnold Bax (1883 – 1953), I think it is because he is the only great classical composer whose music might be described as “Celtic”. Born in London, he early showed signs of remarkable technical music facility manifest in his ability to sight-read complex orchestral scores at the piano. But in addition, he had a profound creative instinct. He led what some people would describe as a Bohemian life which took him to Russia, and crucially, to Ireland. He lived in Dublin, learned the Irish language, and wrote literature under the name of Dermot O’Byrne.
He had a huge compositional output. He wrote seven symphonies between 1921 and 1939. I would love to tell you all about them but I really need to tell you about the slow movement to the first symphony, and I mustn’t get side-tracked.
Well, let’s be side-tracked for a moment. All seven symphonies have three movements. They are composed, and wonderfully orchestrated, for a very large orchestra. He was very fond of the device of the epilogue – a quiet and contemplative close to a symphony following its climactic apotheosis. Epilogues feature in Symphonies 2, 3 (perhaps most notably), 6, and 7. The epilogue to the second symphony states to the listener quite clearly, “This is not the end; this is merely a pause on a very long journey.” By contrast, the epilogue to the seventh and last symphony states, in a manner rather subdued but so poignant, “Symphonically, this is everything I have to say.”
He used to come up to Morar, by Mallaig in the Scottish north-west, in the winter, to score his symphonies. He stayed at the Morar Station Hotel. I have stayed there a couple of times, on a pilgrimage. There is no blue plaque.
Who are the great English symphonists? Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Bax, and Walton. Yet Bax is almost never heard. He was knighted, he was Master of the King’s Music, and he is almost never heard. Why is that? Is it possible that his political sympathies have relevance?
It is often said that the second movement of Bax’s First Symphony, which is very dark – I’d go so far as to say it is the most sombre piece of music I know – mourns the loss of Bax’s friends in the First World War. It may be so, but it is more. I am convinced it is a commemoration of the friends he lost in the 1916 Easter uprising, and, more, it is a graphic and overpowering depiction of an execution. You cannot hear it without thinking of Yeats’ poem Easter 1916.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.