Minded to put the current political impasse out of my mind for a bit, I went on Saturday night to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, where The Royal Scottish National Orchestra closed their season with a bang, several bangs, in a scintillating performance of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.
In Babylon Belshazzar the King made a great feast…
To a thousand of his lords.
Why a thousand? This reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s nightmarish story, The Masque of the Red Death:
It was… while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.
It’s really the same, archetypal story. An enormously rich and powerful potentate turns his back on the misery of his people and throws a huge, decadent and opulent bash in honour of various false gods, for a bunch of sycophantic hangers-on. The revelry is arrested at its height by an omen or augury which strikes terror into the hearts of the assembly, and this is followed rapidly by a devastating visitation, and annihilation. In the Poe story, the visitation comes in the form of a masked infiltrator, the personification of the Red Death. In the biblical story of Walton’s Oratorio, to the accompaniment of Walton’s deadly chilling music, the visitation comes as a vision:
And in that same hour, as they feasted
Came forth fingers of a man’s hand
And the King saw
The part of the hand that wrote.
And this was the writing that was written:
“MENE, MENE, TEKEL UPHARSIN.”
“THOU ART WEIGHED IN THE BALANCE
AND FOUND WANTING.”
So on Saturday I didn’t, after all, escape from political realities. I thought of Westminster, and inevitably I thought, “Thou art weighed in the balance, and found wanting.” Wanting – not because Westminster has made a wrong decision, and opted to go down the wrong path; wanting – not because Brexit might be a bad idea, or even a good idea; but wanting, because, with respect to Europe, Westminster has done nothing at all. Wanting, because it doesn’t matter how elegant your consultation is, how revealing your history, how conscientious your examination, how probing your investigation, how accurate your diagnosis, and how wise your formulation, it all comes to naught if you fail to write a prescription. Wanting, because people are beginning to wonder whether the privileged route to power of the ruling class – the fields of Eton, PPE at Oxford, a research post somewhere in the bowels of Whitehall, selection, candidacy and, at last, a seat on the green benches, is of any use whatsoever to anybody. Wanting, because those who strut the corridors of the Palace of Westminster with a sense of importance and entitlement and even of Destiny have failed to notice they are no longer relevant. All the acres of wordage of doubtful intent have come to nothing. The racing driver Sir Jackie Stewart once said that there are many people who can open a deal, but very few who can close one. How true. The members are lost in a catacomb of labyrinthine proportions. Turn on the radio at any time of the day or night and you will be exposed to the same word salad – brexitmeansbrexitnodealisbetterthanabaddealirishbackstopsinglemarketcustomsunioncliffedgewtorulessoftbrexitbrinonorwaycanadapluscontrolofourborderssovereigntynewtradedealschlorinatedchickenborisnigel… like the crazed ravings of a critically unwell patient, toxic, febrile, and delirious. When somebody, in whatever walk of life, realises he has reached the end of the road, run out of options, and that the game is up, we may echo Daniel 5:5-31 in saying, “He’s seen the writing on the wall.” But the trouble with Westminster is that they haven’t yet seen the writing on the wall, even though it is there. Westminster fits the archetype: the fall of the Roman Empire, the illimitable domination of Darkness and Decay over the castellated abbeys of Prince Prospero – happy and dauntless and sagacious – sounds like Rory Stewart. The collapse of Babylon:
In that night was Belshazzar the King slain
And his Kingdom divided.
I’m rather fond of Walton’s Belshazzar. It is scored for colossal forces: Baritone solo, two choruses, a very large symphony orchestra, organ, and two additional brass bands. Sir Thomas Beecham didn’t think much of it and it is said that he encouraged Walton to throw in the brass bands and enjoy himself because he’d probably never hear the work performed again. There is an element of farce about Belshazzar. Perhaps there is something innately farcical about any depiction of decadence. That element of farce has also slipped over into reality of the machinations in Westminster. Part of the richness of the farce resides in the fact that the players can’t see the writing on the wall. They are players in a Whitehall Farce and they don’t know it. There is for example something farcical about the fact that – at time of writing – there are thirteen declared contenders for the position of Prime Minister. This reminds me of a blockbuster “sword and sandals” movie I once saw, of Spartacus vintage, depicting the collapse of the Roman Empire. Not long after Nero made his horse a Senator, the position of Roman Emperor came up for grabs, and while there were lots of eager contenders, the hero of the film and his beloved joined hands and escaped the throng, left the city, and lived happily ever after, deep in the Etruscan countryside. The film’s hero and heroine had realised that the climb up the greasy pole, to the prize at the top, just wasn’t worth the candle.