Brendan Ball

author

‘There the poor dare plead’

My career as a university student of English Literature was, to borrow a phrase, nasty, brutish and short. One of its many lowlights, most of which have slipped from memory, was a week or so of slogging through The Vision of Piers Plowman, a late 14th-century poem of 14000-odd lines attributed to one otherwise obscure William Langland. Though elegant enough in a lesser-Chaucerian way – lesser as it lacks Chaucer’s wit and birdsong and colour – it is, like other long medieval allegories where characters are named as abstract nouns (The Romaunt of the Rose, The Pilgrim’s Progress), a mostly tedious affair.

But there’s a line from it – the one I have used as the title here – that comes much to mind this week. Those living the latter half of that century must have thought the times not just tumultuous but apocalyptic: three epidemics of the Black Death; the great frosts and Biblical storms that destroyed harvests and starved the already miserable serfs; the rising anger across a land whose feudal lords had impoverished its people by lavishing fortunes on needless wars; the Peasant Rebellion (featuring my supposable ancestor John Ball, ‘the mad priest of Kent’) that burnt the Savoy Palace and briefly captured London; Wycliffe not being struck by thunderbolts for attacking the power of the clergy and translating the Gospels into the unholy language of the villeins; and, by way of culmination, the coup that removed and probably murdered an out-of-touch foreign-born (but nonetheless, to the medieval mind, divinely-appointed) king in favour of a native and more populist/nationalist successor – who then spent his entire reign obsessed with foiling assassination plots because the losing side, the side that hadn’t gone for the propaganda harking back to the glory days of military success two generations before, didn’t want to accept that they’d lost and had better just get over it.

Some of this may sound vaguely familiar. Then too, it was a bad time to be poor: on the non-VIP menu, the only pie was the one in the sky. And so to the Vision, where Pacience tells her listener he has no cause to envy what seem to be the lucky ones:

Though men rede of richesse

Right to the worldes ende,

I wiste never renk that riche was,

That when he rekene sholde,

Whan he drogh to his deeth day,

That he ne dredde hym soore,

And that at the rekenyng in arrerage fel

Rather than out of dette.

If your Middle English happens to be a bit rusty, the gist is that she never knew a rich man look forward to meeting his Maker, fearing a bigger bill than he could pay. There, at the rekenyng, the little man’s moment will finally come:

Ther the poore dar plede,

And preve by pure reson,

To have allowance of his lord,

By the lawe he it cleymeth;

Joye, that nevere joye hadde,

Of rightful jugge he asketh…

But every now and again the poore get tired of waiting. Why and to whom should they plead where no rightful jugge can be found? And so you arrive at 1789, 1917, or wherever you please, and, depending on your sympathies, either recoil at the thought of those barbarous times or lapse into romantic daydream. Both courses are dangerously naive.

It has been said that every revolution is impossible till it happens, after which it was always inevitable. World War I came about in part because people thought themselves to have advanced beyond such savagery. In the England of the Black Death, regicide was unimaginable – akin to a kind of national satanism – while just around the corner. The Berlin Wall stood as firm as ever one day before it fell, and that is in living memory. So is 9/11, which, out of the blue, instantly divided history into before and after. Those barbarous times are now.

I have ‘followed’ various anarchist pages on social media. By and large, I like anarchists: they have a healthy scepticism and a sense of humour. I give them my full blessing to seize the means of production and punch all the Nazis they please. But some, especially where they overlap with anti-fascists, have idealised notions of violent insurrection and communism that I’m not in a position to share. Unlike them, I’ve lived – and for a long time now – in a country where it was tried. I’ve seen what it did. There’s no getting away from the fact that it didn’t work. The problem is the people who end up in power. Mao and Pol Pot were medicines far worse than the disease. Even where at least some revolutionaries are true believers, the slightest chance or intrigue afterwards can throw up human detritus like Stalin. However just Wat Tyler’s cause, he was not head-of-state material. Demagogues never are. Look across the Atlantic. And imagine a Britain under, let’s say, Nigel Farage, with a cabinet and new ruling class supplied by UKIP, the EDL, PEGIDA and perhaps the scrapings of a few prisons… Implausible as it sounds, this – patriotism and integrity recognised only in thuggery and ignorance – is very close to what actually happened in Russia (and Germany, come to that, and maybe China too). The Bolsheviks’ murderous ideological stranglehold had much in common, ironically, with the current Islamic State. Luckless millions nevere joye hadde, and no rightful jugge either. (Incidentally, after all the fanfare of the 60th and 70th anniversaries of the World War II victory, I have heard not a peep here about the centenary of 1917…)

So much for that. The relevance? Well, I’ve been telling people for a while that, though I’m no kind of economist, even I can see that we’ve been following a plan basically intent on the restoration of feudalism. They mostly look half amused and half embarrassed on my behalf, as if I’ve announced that the trees are listening or that I’m the step-sister of Napoleon. But we now have five people as wealthy as the poorer half of the world. Last year it was 60-something, six months ago eight. How long till it’s three, two, one? And we have just, in the richest neighbourhood of the city that still gets mapped as the centre of the world, seen a tower block of poor people incinerated because they were not worth the cost of alarms and sprinklers, or even the extra 5000 pounds – out of 10 million supposedly allocated to its renovation – for non-flammable cladding. UK government policies condemned by the UN as violating the human rights of the sick and disabled are estimated to have caused as many as 30,000 preventable deaths, but that occurred well away from television cameras; the horror of Grenfell Tower, though, feels like a 9/11 moment, an iconic image fixed indelibly on the memory. And there’s no blaming it on terrorists or any other bogeymen. It is political, for sure, but in the way that the Hillsborough disaster was political: just as the latter could not have occurred at Wimbledon or Ascot, the Grenfell inferno would have been impossible in housing for the better off. It will go down in the tragic annals of British class struggle along with the Peterloo massacre and all the rest that schools don’t teach. Aristotle said that revolutions are not about trifles, but come from trifles. This is more than a trifle.

I don’t suggest, of course, that the UK is on the brink of armed insurrection. But the now visible combination of righteous anger and instant solidarity across social, ethnic, religious and even most political boundaries is a first in my lifetime. The corporate media’s power as an instrument of control, ever stronger over the last few decades and apparently invincible only last year in the Brexit vote, seems now to have crumbled in a mere few weeks. Their failure to shore up an execrable unelected prime minister devoid alike of humanity or intelligence was already a milestone; the sight of a man walking into a Tesco supermarket in broad daylight, seizing the entire stock of Sun newspapers, tearing them up in the doorway and binning the remains to the cheers and applause of passers-by was one I never quite expected to see. That, though a trifle on the face of it, was an act of revolution. While working as an examiner in spoken language tests, I regularly have to ask teenagers and students about their favourite TV programmes, and more often than not now the answer comes back: “I don’t watch television.” This too, whether or not they mean it as such, is an act of revolution. You can keep out economics from a national curriculum to minimise financial literacy; you can keep out philosophy if the last thing you need is a populace capable of critical thought or of reflection on truth or goodness or power or justice; you can expunge the parts of history that don’t fit your narrative; but ultimately, if people won’t read what you let them read and watch what you let them watch, who’s to assume they’ll think and vote as you require?

Whether a spark of anything non-worldly ever flickers in the head of a Trump or a Rupert Murdoch or a Theresa May is not for us to know, but you would have to imagine that a place where the most a poor man will dare is to plead – and probably think long and hard before that – must be something like their idea of heaven. But plede here is not a synonym of beg: it is a court metaphor, with justice claimed as a right by pure reson and by the lawe. And this lawe is of a kind that no government can repeal.

John F. Kennedy said that those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. Options presently exist for the first way, on both sides of the Atlantic, but Corbyn and Sanders are 68 and 75 with no obvious successors. A people’s movement seems to be making ground in Spain, and there was that French socialist but his name slips my mind and he seems to have disappeared… Anyway, at the time of writing, we have a British prime minister who, by her own admission, can not interact with the British public but must be protected from them by walls of security and hurried under guard into waiting black vehicles like a captured terrorist or a notorious child murderer. It’s no wonder that she wants to make the country ‘a world leader in internet regulation’.

Anyone thinking the current order can continue indefinitely has no grasp of history. Change or upheaval will come one way or another; the hope is to make it positive and peaceful. And for that, the clock may already be ticking.

Civilisation is a Lie

Type ‘civilisation’ into the search bar of Google and three of the five suggested searches relate to the long-running computer game. The other two are ‘civilisation meaning’ and ‘civilisation definition’. Somebody somewhere has clearly been thinking and wondering, as well they might. Hit the enter key and, putting aside the game and a TV mini-series and a book by a professor of Fine Art, you have the offerings of Wikipedia and two online dictionaries.

Good old Wiki first:

A civilization (UK and US) or civilisation (British English variant) is any complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment by a cultural elite.

Even with accompanying photos of the pyramids and Aristotle, I’m not sure that makes much of a sales pitch. A complex society (i.e., basically, division of labour into specialisations) I’ve nothing against, and to writing systems I’d be the last to object. But I can’t summon much enthusiasm for urban development if what I see from my window is anything to go by, or for an entrenched class system – or ‘social stratification’, to give it the impersonal and geological-sounding term which suggests a process of nature rather than of man. ‘Domination over the natural environment’ has been in the news quite a lot recently:

Here’s a dominated natural environment:

And that would make this the cultural elite:

The two online dictionaries make the whole thing sound a bit more promising:

An advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached.

An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of record-keeping, including writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.

High level of culture, intellectual development – that must be what our advanced governments defend on our behalf with our reluctant but salutary bombs, eliminating alleged threats to ‘our way of life’ without ever specifying what our way of life actually is.

This is all easy enough to say, of course, and to answer. After all, “that’s how the world works”, “it’s always been the same everywhere” et cetera ad nauseam. But before you decide there’s nothing to see here and it’s time to move along, let us for a moment consider some barbarians. Maybe it was not always the same everywhere. The obvious choice would the indigenous Americans (ancestors of those recently attacked by militarised police for trying to defend drinking water from oil), who had no class system and regarded rapacity as a sickness: ‘wetiko’, a sort of spiritual cannibalism unperceived by the sufferer who saw nothing wrong or irrational about enriching himself in ways that made the existence of others impossible or unbearable. The first Europeans to bring them civilisation and ‘our way of life’ had a hell of a time trying to make them comprehend that land was a possession to be dominated and owned, that men were subject by birth to an elaborate grading system, and that women were of no possible function in society beyond the reproductive and ornamental. And the myth of the ‘wild’ and ‘savage’ ‘jungle’ has endured to this day because the ‘civilised’ coloniser mind could not perceive or conceive a sustainably managed ecosystem in any land not flattened and fenced – or, you might say, not dominated. But those peoples have a long-established reputation as some kind of proto-hippies, so that also would be too easy. And it’s not of them that I think whenever I see or hear any of the human offal recently brought to power by ballot-enabled coups on each side of the Atlantic.

So take instead the barbarian of barbarians, a name synonymous with blood and terror and savagery, because every time I see a Michael Gove telling the mob that we’ve “had enough of experts”, or a Theresa May introducing immigration policies that deport and lock out teachers and nurses while letting in princelings and bankers, or Agent Orange trying to abolish healthcare for the poor or to discredit science, I think of Genghis Khan. (The pronunciation, by the way, has been lost in the English spelling: it should be “Chingiz” with a hard ‘ch’.)

When a city fell to his Mongols and the keys were, literally or metaphorically, handed over with the plunder set to begin, he delegated to others all that concerned material riches. The money would be channelled into the sponsorship of trade, and the sumptuous clothes and jewellery would be sent back to the steppe for the amusement and adornment of young girls milking yaks. He took a personal interest in one thing only: experts. Who were the place’s architects, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, teachers, doctors, master builders and so on? Ensuring they were added to the payroll and incorporated into the empire demanded his personal attention. Any self-respecting Mongol could ride and shoot, but civil expertise was also needed and was rewarded when found. The previous rulers, if they had no skill to recommend them, would be detailed as manual labour alongside those who had been menially serving them till the day or the hour before. He was clearly not a Tory. Teachers and doctors, indeed, were exempt from taxation, on the basis that even an idiot would understand you can never have too many of them.

This, be it remembered, was from a man who could not read or write so much as his own name, whose childhood peer group had consisted of horses, who had endured brute slavery and the abduction and rape of his wife, who had killed his half-brother to prevent him marrying his mother, and who only once in his life is recorded as having entered a walled and roofed building. Yet if civilisation really is, to take definition #5 from thefreedictionary.com, ‘intellectual, cultural and moral refinement’, he had a better understanding of it than those currently leading the western world. He was almost certainly the first ruler to promote universal literacy, to demonstrate almost total racial and religious tolerance, and to reject nepotism for a genuine meritocracy. And having as a boy been effectively abandoned to starvation, he knew hunger in its reality: a leader of nomadic cavalry was hardly in a position to set up a welfare state, but for a Mongol to eat in front of another and fail to offer him any was made punishable by death. A touch extreme, perhaps. But in modern Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, where about 1 in 65 people is estimated to be a millionaire, more than half a million others, employed and unemployed alike, are now dependent on charity-run food banks. Would it not seem to any reasonable person that something of fundamental importance has been lost here? After all we are taught from infancy to believe about civilisation (definition #5 above), is it really a position of extremism to suggest that we are now operating at a lower level of it than people eight centuries ago who could not write or spell the word? Its etymological meaning, as a classicist will tell you, is the tendency of people to build and live in cities, and perhaps in the end that is all it means.

The computer game is apparently going strong in its sixth incarnation. About twenty years ago, in days of youth and limitless time, I poured days and nights into the second.  I mainly remember the importance of railways for being able to move soldiers around, and the manner of my final victory: having successfully divided up the world with my allies the Chinese (led by Mao Zedong), I then, when the moment was ripe, betrayed them and sent my 16-bit nuclear missiles like sweet silver raindrops to cascade upon their cities. In retrospect, I’d say it should have been called Wetiko II. Sitting Bull and the Sioux were always wiped out in the early stages, and I don’t recall an option to play as Genghis Khan.

An Unsound Investment

It’s fair to say I picked a bad time to dabble in satire.

About two years ago, around the time of the Crimean annexation/referendum (delete according to nationality and/or political sympathies), I found myself, in the course of earning the daily crust, reading pile upon pile of essays from Russian students using again and again the same phrases recycled from Putin speeches and associated state-owned media coverage. No matter what random and apparently apolitical topic had been set as the writing part of an international examination – parent-child relationships, globalised cuisine, types of education, the march of technology, bicycle lanes – there would come sooner or later a reference to ‘our American colleagues’ or just plain ‘enemies’ wishing to ‘weaken our country’.

It wasn’t always from strangers. I heard the same rubber-stamped slogans and sentiments drop from the unwitting lips of acquaintances I had previously thought intelligent and discriminating. Those et tu moments are silently tragic. It’s hard at such times not to imagine the average Jo(achim) Publik of 1930’s Germany and ponder. If people felt the same way about second-hand opinions as they feel about second-hand clothes, the world would be a different place. But they don’t, and it isn’t.

I had recently finished (and published) a triptych of short stories based on The Golden Bough, the humour of one of which set off the unremitting darkness of the other two. That exception had been written with almost no forethought or planning and had come easily, with laughter rather than grind. How nice it would be, I thought, if I could write something longer, a novella for instance, in the same way.

Enter stage far-right the epidemic of cretinism, for that is really how it seemed – an epidemic spread through TV and media, highly infectious, severely damaging to brain function, apparently incurable by any visible means. Surely there was mileage in this, a kind of B-movie zombie-type affair, a Dr. Strangelove for the information age. Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog has always been a personal favourite, so I naturally thought of trying my hand at something of similar dimensions and in a similar spirit.

What could go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turned out. In three words, I underestimated reality. Or perhaps I overestimated my ability to outrun it, which comes to the same thing.

I thought that with the basic storyline I’d given myself some breathing room. An aging and benignly eccentric children’s cartoonist instantly becomes a national hate figure after a broad-daylight killing by a perpetrator dressed as one of his characters, an aristocratic cucumber. The victim turns out to be a North Korean dissident and enemy of sinister dictator Boh Gi Mon, with whom the said cartoonist is, by the reasoning of the media and therefore the public mind, clearly in league.

This was before I’d ever heard of threat-to-national-security Jeremy Corbyn and his fifth columnist army of Trotskyites.

The witch hunt of the main plotline commences, complete with effigy burnings in the towns and patrols by nationalist thugs in green wellies through the countryside, all with the aim of saving Britain from the Bogey peril and from foreign influences in general.

Then this happened, and suddenly it wasn’t quite so funny.

cox-and-thomas-mair Britain First Thomas Mair

The story goes on to describe the workings of the cretin epidemic itself, a controlled social experiment whereby the public undergoes unconscious gene mutation by contaminated fast food to create receptivity to mass media mind control. At the bidding of tabloid headlines, the masses are reduced to a state of incoherent jingoistic paranoia and accept all manner of exploitation and warmongering, and cheer on their oppressors for saving them from a non-existent threat.

Then Murdoch & co. said ‘Let there be Brexit’, and that joke went stale too.

master&slave

There at least remained along the way some incidental comedic value. The zombified victims roam the streets staring fixedly into mobile phones, sending messages to people walking beside them and seeing the world only through their camera apps. As one resistance member tells another, “Don’t look up at the sky or they’ll know you’re not one of them.”

Then came Pokemon Go.

pokemongo

So there you have it: a year and more invested in a novel that I thought was farce but turned out to be realism, whose originality value has depreciated faster than the stocks of the South Sea Company. Just say no to satire. I’ve learned the hard way.

Is there such a thing as meta-satire? Maybe someone could write a novel about it.

ENGLAND, THEIR ENGLAND: – An exile’s farewell

In the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge hangs a painting by Victorian artist Ford Madox Brown entitled ‘The Last of England’. A man and wife, crowded aboard a ship on a cold grey sea and battered by driving rain, pointedly refuse to look back at the White Cliffs of Dover disappearing behind them. It is understood that the journey is one-way, and conventional wisdom assumes they are heading for the Brave New World or the other colonies, as had so many. They are middle-class, more or less: though this is no luxury liner, their clothes are too good to belong to anyone driven out by poverty, so this farewell is a choice rather than a necessity. But there is an interesting detail to which I never seen a reference and which, probably, I only noticed because I happen to know first-hand those cliffs and that water. If the emigrants are bound for the Atlantic, the cliffs are on the wrong side. For them to be on the correct one, we must be at the back at the boat and the couple must be looking over the stern. But then ‘The Last of England’ makes no sense because they would still have to sail past the whole of the south coast and eventually leave it behind at Lizard Point and Escalls Cliff in Cornwall, which look nothing like that. But wherever the man and woman are going, one thing is certain: they are looking towards Europe.

But last week, 160 years later, their country voted to do the opposite, to turn away from our neighbours, from our history, from our very DNA, from the source of every civilising influence on our islands. brexitMost of the ‘victorious’ 52% had little or no idea what they were voting on: many of the disregarded and ever-growing poor, wanting to lash out at something or someone, swallowed the obvious lie that a Leave vote was somehow an anti-establishment protest, and have now doomed themselves and their children to more and worse of what they thought they were protesting against; many believed the other part of the lie, and can say with Caliban that The clouds methought would open and show riches; many acted through blatant xenophobia and/or the illusion that they could restore the ‘good old days’ of the 1950’s; some treated it as a bit of a laugh that would not affect the result. I hold no bitterness against those who thought they acted for the best: they were and are, to me at least, more sinned against than sinning. I admit to a certain disappointment with all the youngsters – incredibly, a majority of the 18-24 age group – who did not bother to go and vote when their own future hung in the balance, with the financially secure baby boomers who callously sacrificed their children and grandchildren to a slogan and a plastic flag, and also with the few educated people and ethnic minorities who voted Leave when they really should have known better. And I admit to something stronger than disappointment with the bigots and the political careerists, and with the so-called statesmen whose venality and greed drove the poor to such a pitch of madness and despair. UK-POVERTYBut none of this changes anything. The deed is done, and 60 million people are to throw away citizenship and employment rights in 27 countries while further impoverishing much of their own.

Nabokov wrote of the plight of White Soviet emigres in 1920’s Europe and of the surreal bureaucratic and social nightmare of being a ‘stateless person’. There are between five and six million Brits living abroad, two million of them in the EU, and they probably woke up last Friday morning to the sense of being something similar. I did.

Whether exile comes about through compulsion or choice or something between the two, it is not so easy not to look back at those white cliffs. I know. To adapt a currently popular meme, one does not simply become not English, any more than one simply becomes not European. Being once by good fortune at Leeds Castle in Kent on a quiet day, staring out over the lake at the trees and hills beyond, I had an understanding more total than words can convey of just why so many men had found England worth dying for. “I never imagined there were so many shades of green,” my wife’s university professor once told her, “until I went to England.” I grew up on the North Downs; the countryside is not spectacular in the way of the Grand Canyon or the Niagara Falls or Mount Fuji, but in gentle terms of colour blends and contour and other such things a painter might value, I do not know its equal in the world. Then there is the taste of the air on spring and autumn evenings when the breeze blows in from the sea. northdowns_homeSo when Kipling in his Christmas in India poem exclaims

‘O the toil that knows no breaking! O the Heimweh, ceaseless, aching!’

I know exactly that feeling because I have lived through it. But time moves on. Ten years ago the line could put a lump in my throat; now, as I record it here, I find myself noting and saluting Kipling’s technical device of avoiding ‘homesickness’, a sonic and rhythmic abomination near impossible to fit into metre, by replacing it with the German Heimweh.

Why, then, after all I have written above, am I so unmoved and dispassionate? Because another part of me says with equal sincerity: fuck England.this-is-england

‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ More than England, in my case. JFK might say ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’, but his country made him president. Mine has exiled me.

To be absolutely precise about this, it has given me a choice between it and my family. Courtesy of an idiotic and self-defeating immigration policy introduced as a sop thrown to nationalism and bigotry (with the ancillary benefit of excluding probable left-wing voters), non-EU nationals are admitted only with documentary evidence of earning 35,000 pounds per year, about 40% above the national average. Anyone not making that, or even anyone self-employed, is out of luck. Being married to and having children with a British citizen makes no difference. The Brit can come or stay, but his or her family must be forfeited as collateral damage.

Those responsible for this would have you believe it a tough necessity: the entire world, you see, is beating a path to the UK. The isles are sinking under the weight of economic migrants (now apparently a term of abuse, it occurring to no one that a Geordie or Yorkshireman moving down south for work is also an economic migrant). Anyone conniving at the evils of multiculturalism is a traitor, as a cousin of mine was called for not voting Leave. For self-preservation the country must act. ‘Make Britain great again.’ ‘Take Back Control.’ breakingpointOn this the gutter press and the barely-disguised Nazis marching through English high streets speak with one voice. Again and again the mantra is repeated: “My grandfather fought for this country – this is our country.” Well, as it happens, knuckle draggers, my grandfathers fought for it too. My great-grandfather survived Ypres. (I mean of course in physical terms; in mental terms there were no survivors of Ypres.) And in this country of yours for which my relatives fought and suffered, I am by law not permitted to live. As of last week, it has not even been enough that you shut me out of Britain: you have now shut me out of Europe too.

But, considering what is important to me, just how much would I want to return to the Best Country In The WorldTM, dream destination of every last human soul on the entire planet but most especially the brown ones?

Well, for one, my wife is quite important, and she, as I have said, is deemed an undesirable migrant. That she holds a degree in primary school teaching is of no interest or relevance to a country with a drastic shortage of primary school teachers. And the mere fact of her foreignness is clearly a problem anyway for a large part of supposedly cosmopolitan modern Britain.britain-eu-intolerance

Then there are my children, both in more or less the middle of school. What does good old Blighty hold for them, now that its main attraction of a free and liberal society is under such attack? Having spent 16 years teaching, I am not stringing mere words together when I say that Britain no longer has an education system: it has merely a school system, which is not at all the same thing. I have quite recently seen several proud parents sharing online their children’s first attempts at writing – comically misspelt names of animals and fruit, if I remember rightly. This would be fine and endearing if they were three or four years old, but the poor kids were eight or nine. I was reading The Lord of the Rings at that age. I was also (at the local village primary school) writing paragraphed, structured stories of maybe 1000 words – and I was not the only one in my class doing so. A national discussion has recently been held with all appearance of seriousness as to whether 11 or 12-year-olds should be able to multiply single-digit numbers. Edwardian children of that age coped with the equivalent of what is now A-Level maths. Several years ago the milestone was reached where more than 50% of 16-year-olds failed to get 5 GCSE’s at grade C or above, already a disgracefully low target. Put bluntly, most of them now leave school semi-literate.school I once read, I have no idea where, a comment by an American that ‘My school taught you to stand in a line and answer your name. It basically prepared you for prison.’ Ours prepare you to work in Poundland for Jobseeker’s Allowance. (This state of affairs is generally convenient for the status quo, but the pigeon has come home to roost with tragic irony in the matter of the referendum, when even the government, barring a few shameless chancers, needed a majority of the electorate to exercise the critical thought it had been conditioned not to possess.) And any youngsters bright enough to succeed despite the oversized classes and demoralised teachers then have to decide whether going to university is worth a debt that might saddle them for half their working lives. They had until recently the option of going abroad to the EU for a higher education at an affordable cost, but that is probably now gone.

And what of my own prospects there? I hold a master’s-level teaching qualification that British law does not recognise as a master’s degree because of an illogical technicality, so I would be demoting myself down to the poverty line by going as a supposedly low-skilled and forever mortgage-enslaved worker to a country where the government’s idea of affordable housing is anything under half a million pounds.

But man does not live by bread alone. This, after all, is a country that led the Enlightenment, that stands always as a bastion of individual liberty, that wrote the Convention on Human Rights (which it now wants to escape), the land of Shakespeare, of Chaucer, of hope and glory, of fish and chips. This is a land of – and here I regret having no way in text to convey the accent of Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses – culture. N’est-ce pas?the-port-of-london

The plain truth is that England has never cared a straw for art or artists of any kind. Shakespeare himself never bothered to correct his own proofs or to put out author-approved ‘official’ versions of any of his plays against the ‘pirate’ ones doing the rounds: being a dramatist, even the greatest alive, was apparently less important to him than getting his coat of arms and his house by the river and his life as a country gentleman. And it comes all the way forwards to our own time, when our major galleries hold prizes to fete new marvels of banality and pointlessness that would not get hung in a pub toilet in Italy or France – our Royal Academy having successfully rejected and our cognoscenti successfully ignored none other than Claude Monet working under their noses for eight months in London – while our most eloquent living graphic artist paints illegally on walls, his pictures whitewashed by local councils when morons complain. banksy_clacton_3059055bThe day Banksy dies, mind you, he will instantly be ‘discovered’ as a cultural asset and will barely make it into the ground before a blue plaque is stuck on his house.

I happened recently to stroll through the tiny Tikhvin cemetery in St. Petersburg, which holds the remains of, among others, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. The musicians have their corner, as do the writers, the painters and so on. And the reflection was inescapable that England has no equivalent. There is the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, of course, but that owes its origin to the mere chance of Chaucer having been Clerk of Works there. (Had contacts not secured him a court position, he would have died unknown.) Highgate Cemetery’s famous names are a few among 170,000. Near Canterbury in Kent where I for some time lived, Joseph Conrad, probably the first great novelist in the English language, lies beneath a modest stone bearing a misspelling of his name, interred there by ‘a few old friends, acquaintances and pressmen’. One, editor and critic Edward Garnett, wrote of it:

To those who attended Conrad’s funeral in Canterbury during the Cricket Festival of 1924, and drove through the crowded streets festooned with flags, there was something symbolical in England’s hospitality and in the crowd’s ignorance of even the existence of this great writer.

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A few months later from just across the Channel, he was followed into eternity by Anatole France, an admirable enough author but not by some distance his equal. And, as predicted by Conrad’s friend and biographer Georges Jean-Aubry, all Paris turned out for the funeral.

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The novel in English was only established as a serious art form by Henry James, Conrad and Ford Madox Ford – that is, by an American, a Pole and a half-German. Ford’s grandfather, painter Ford Madox Brown (see ‘The Last of England’ above), had formed with Swinburne and the Rossettis a circle that became the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and them a certain Charles Dickens had wanted imprisoned for immorality in their work. Ford the grandson, having served in the trenches of the Somme shortly after publishing probably the most technically perfect novel the English language had or has seen, was, by virtue of his profession, eventually demobilised in the eighteenth and final rank of priority along with ‘gypsies, vagrants and persons not engaging in productive labour’. It stands to reason, naturally, that the pen is not mightier than the shovel or the plough when a country and a world need rebuilding. But with all the blood and cruelty and horror that has bedevilled Russia, for instance, at no time in that nation’s entire history would it have valued and classed literary writers – even while repressing them – alongside ‘gypsies, vagrants and persons not engaging in productive labour’. Neither, most likely, would any country of mainland Europe.

It is not only the arts. The standard in England and Wales of public debate, and of most of what passes for journalism even at the national level, would embarrass the sort of third-world mud-hut village with which we mostly interact by bombing. (As of last year, you may remember, he who does not support wars to enrich the arms trade is officially a ‘terrorist sympathiser’.) Anyone thinking this an exaggeration is invited to glance at the websites of The Sun, The Daily Mail or The Daily Express, or indeed to watch five minutes of any Prime Minister’s Questions. Recent research showed that reading one of our tabloid newspapers was worse for the verbal ability and intelligence than reading nothing at all. And it is these newspapers that decided this referendum.biasbias3Mail Express EUbias2

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So ‘we’ the people have chosen to row ourselves out into the Atlantic, towards America – which is to say, in all probability, towards Donald J. Trump. A week or two ago, I saw beneath a clip of a fairly typical Trumpian oration a comment in limited but serviceable English: ‘As French I feel sorry for Americans. His speaking has no structures. He is like a old boring drunk guy.’ And I felt a pulse of recognition for this Gallic brother or cousin of mine who had echoed, in English roughly comparable to my French, my own thoughts whenever I see Monsieur Trump: remove the suits and money and stick him on the corner of any street, and passers-by, especially those with children, would cross the road to avoid him. In a different way, among the polished Etonian Tories, braying donkey Nigel Farage would be equally naked without his fascist following, so I have no doubt – speaking as one who has had just enough contact with the ruling classes to observe something of how they think and operate – that they will bin him at the first opportunity. But it will be too late. We are already at the point where foreigners and even non-white native Brits are being told in public that they should now pack their bags and go home. The evil genie that has been uncorked will not be going back into the bottle.

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This, for better or worse, is what foreigners will always call my country. But this for me it is The Last of it, and whether I ultimately turn to face Europe or the Commonwealth, I shall not look back at the white cliffs. If my compatriots wish to live as insular little Englanders hating and fearing, they will do so without me. Certainly they will not object. And I think that perhaps I shall change my one-line biography on my social media accounts to ‘Traitor, terrorist sympathiser, economic migrant and stateless person’ (‘refugee’ being disrespectful to the real ones), not for purposes of alliteration but because a few more traitors in the 1930’s in Germany and Italy and Japan – and yes, Russia – might have saved 80 million lives.A-lone-man-refusing-to-do-the-Nazi-salute-1936

The bureaucrats of Brussels did not do enough against poverty and exploitation, but they did demonstrably more than those of Westminster; besides which, expecting the average politician to care about the poorest in society is rather like expecting water to flow uphill. So in a disastrous failure to see the wood for the trees, those who rejected the EU for its many shortcomings forgot that it existed precisely so that they would have nothing better to worry and squabble about than who makes which regulations concerning the boundaries of fishing rights or who needs which type of visa to go where. What would our grandfathers and great-grandfathers not have given for such a set of ‘problems’?

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Europe, to those of us who wished to remain, was not about who makes which rules about what. It was about colour and cousinship, it was about peace and opportunity, it was about broader horizons of the mind and the heart, it was about our young growing up to see themselves as one big family and not as warring tribes, and as such it spoke to all that is finer in human nature. Glance now at hate-riven England and you already have to ask: was it all a dream? Were we, like Caliban, deceived by the sounds and sweet airs of a thousand twangling instruments? For if it was a dream, then all that now remains to us is to add our voice to his:

…that when I waked

I cried to dream again.

© 2017 Brendan Ball

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