Category Archives: musings

Why it’s pointless to argue with a Brexit flat-earther

Conversations I’ve had over the past few weeks have confirmed for me that while those of us who want to remain in the European Union do so based on the balance of evidence, the Brexit position is largely borne of instinct, not intellect.

Put simply, Brexiteers don’t have – or want – evidence to support their cause, nor do they change their minds when confronted with evidence that proves their position untenable. No, they have convictions instead. They reckon.

“I reckon we should leave the EU. The European Court of Human Rights makes us give chicken to burglars.”

No it doesn’t. Anyway, the European Court of Human Rights has nothing to do with the EU. We set it up after the Second World War to enforce the Convention on Human Rights, which we helped to write.

“Yeah, but the EU imposes laws on us.”

EU voting records show that since 1999 the British government has voted ‘no’ to proposed legislation 57 times, abstained 70 times, and voted ‘yes’ 2,474 times. We’ve been in favour of almost all of it: the UK has been on ‘the losing side’ in Brussels on just 2% of occasions in the last 17 years.

“It’s undemocratic.”

As opposed to the House of Lords? The monarchy? A parliamentary majority based on 35% of the popular vote?

“It’s bureaucratic.”

The European Commission employs about 33,000 people, around 6,000 work in the European Parliament’s general secretariat, and the European Council employs about 3,500. That’s 42,500 all in. The UK has 440,000 civil servants – more than ten times as many as the EU.

“We’ll be better off if we leave.”

Most economists say we won’t. The IMF, the OECD, the Bank of England, the Treasury, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the London School of Economics all say we won’t. Do you think you know more than them? Since we joined the EU, our GDP per head has more than doubled – being in the EU has hardly hindered us.

“But we’re flooded with immigrants.”

We’re a nation built on immigration; immigration has accounted for half of UK GDP growth since 2005. And besides, we have more control over our borders than most EU countries. If we leave, we’ll have to sign up to the Schengen Agreement to access the single market, like Norway and Switzerland had to. That means we’ll have no control at all. Is that what you want?

“Well, foreigners come over here and use the NHS.”

About 100,000 immigrants work in the NHS. They keep it going. The NHS is foundering because of underinvestment.

“Yeah, but I still reckon we should leave.”

Not fond of facts, are you?

The thing is, you just can’t use logic or evidence to move someone who feels instead of thinks. That’s why trying to explain to most Brexiteers that they’re wrong is so futile and frustrating. They’re obstinate flat-earthers.

“I reckon the world is flat.”

Interesting. It’s not, though, is it? Look at the phases of the moon; the way ships seem to disappear over the horizon. Consider how you can see farther when you stand on higher ground. Think about why there are different time zones. Look at the images of the planet taken from space.

“Yeah, but I still reckon it’s flat.”

I reckon you’re an idiot.

“My opinion is just as valid as yours.”

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by this attitude, though. As a country, we have a long history of sticking our fingers in our ears and stubbornly rejecting evidence. The British are traditionally a happily ignorant people, proud of their heritage (which they only have to believe in) rather than their history (which requires effort to learn and understand).

This popular ignorance has served successive governments well, allowing them to rely on nationalist propaganda as a means of drumming up support for otherwise indefensible actions.

Now, however, it’s coming back to bite them on the aris. The people most likely to fall for this sort of popular jingoism – the over-60s and the undereducated – are the ones who are most likely to vote for Brexit, according to YouGov research. That’s why Farage et al. have been appealing to fear and impulse by banging on about immigrants and ‘taking control’ and ‘making Britain great again’, as if any of these spurious notions stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

My parents’ generation, the post-war baby boomers, were raised in a culture of Boy’s Own stories of plucky British derring-do and doing down Johnny Foreigner. They now find that the world has changed while they’ve stood still, and everything they were brought up to believe is now considered wrong. Where’s the certainty they once knew? Where’s the safety they felt when the world was smaller and their outlook more insular? No wonder they’re frightened and bewildered. Of course they’re voting Brexit. They don’t want to admit that they can’t bring back the Great Britain of their youth. (It disappeared long ago – if it even existed. We haven’t been a global power since 1945; arguably, since before then. The Suez Crisis was the last nail in our Imperial coffin and that was 60 years ago.)

As for the other majority group of Brexiteers, the undereducated, it stands to reason that they’d follow their gut instincts and ignore facts. How could they be expected to change their minds when they’re not accustomed to using them? They’ve been conditioned from birth to believe that instinct is better than intellect, even if evidence proves their instinct false. Counter an undereducated Brexiteer’s objections with evidence – however plentiful – and they too will still insist that faceless, unelected Eurocrats are straightening their bananas and imposing laws, and that Austerity Britain’s social problems are the fault of immigrants rather than the government, because they’ve unquestioningly swallowed the lie that everything that’s wrong in the country is Europe’s fault, and that parliament will fix everything when it ‘regains control’ by leaving. It won’t. It can’t. (Indeed, in some cases, like immigration, the UK will actually have less control: as many have pointed out, access to the single market for non-EU members means ceding immigration control entirely, as Switzerland and Norway’s signing of the Schengen Agreement demonstrates. Without the single market, we’re knackered. And any deal we will negotiate has to be worse than our current arrangements – that much is surely obvious.)

What seems particularly odd in both cases – and is more than a little redolent of the protests of a Stockholm syndrome sufferer – is the fact that anyone would want to hand more power to the British government when they’ve been so ill-served by Westminster for so long. The EU offers balances and checks that our own venal MPs surely warrant. I despise and despair of our politicians and would give more power to European Union if I could, not less.

Don’t get me wrong – the union is far from perfect. It’s badly in need of reform and the Juncker Commission needs to go. But that’s hardly a reason to abandon it. This is far too complicated an issue to be handed to the public to decide. Cameron’s a fool for letting this get as far as a plebiscite.

#voteremain.

Clive James at the Cambridge Literary Festival

Note that the following is from fallible memory. This is not a review – more an attempt to capture what happened as much for my benefit as anyone else’s. If you were there and remember it all quite differently, feel free to tell me. I’ve doubtless missed a lot of detail and jumbled the sequence. I also don’t know James’ own poetry so I’ve only quoted one of his. There were more.

8.30pm, Friday 14th November 2014. The Cambridge Union Chamber.

There was much affectionate applause as he shuffled in. As he silenced the crowd, he recalled the bass Boris Christoff, who basked in audiences’ applause to a famously nauseating degree, physically gathering the adulation to himself with great sweeping arm gestures from the edge of the stage. (Christoff once apparently enjoyed an audience’s ovation so much that, in the middle of a performance of Boris Godunov, he sang the same aria twice, causing many to miss their trains, James said. Much laughter and applause followed, James beckoning like Christoff as it came.) The point was that, like Christoff, he always needed his ego feeding; he was privileged still to be able to get that kick, he said.

Mentally, his acuity was as evident as ever. Physically, he seemed on the ropes. He was slow of movement, sounded hoarse, and was clearly fighting the urge to cough, but it must be stressed that he didn’t actually seem too bad given the state of his health – something that, knowing how much it interested people, he spent a while outlining: he has emphysema (now known as COPD, a name that reminded him of a TV show) and leukaemia (currently in remission). He reflected too on the – to him – inexplicable media interest in his decline. When you talk of expiring by Saturday, he said, it’s slightly embarrassing when Sunday comes around and you’re still here. In fact, he said, he was now in the habit of making final appearances. Much applause at this.

He was happy that his leukaemia mercifully has one redeeming feature: it’s of the non-painful sort. And when it eventually comes to get him – whenever that might be – he won’t know much about it. The emphysema is reward for a lifetime’s enthusiastic smoking (if I remember rightly from his Unreliable Memoirs he used a hubcap as an ashtray and filled it daily), and the doctors at Addenbrooke’s are working immuno-globular marvels. He goes there every three weeks to be treated with his fellow sufferers. “It’s an exclusive club. We sit in silence, reading. When the tea lady comes around it’s a real event.”

There are two ways, he said, to deal with terminal illnesses: you sit and wait to die, or you keep working as if you have all the time in the world. Having always written, he continues to write, although he notes that he writes of death more and more.

Asking that no one took photos (unless he dropped dead on stage, in which case we were more than welcome – he would try to fall in a suitably photogenic attitude), he noted that, in the age of Twitter, pictures could be around the world in seconds, and he regretted not being able to write his own captions. “I want to say I’m having a wonderful time and am perfectly happy.”

Despite his mistrust of modern technology (I remember him once saying on Radio 4 that the computer’s insistence on committing the ephemeral to eternity made it an instrument of the devil), he’s gratified that Twitter has afforded him widespread global recognition for his poetry: a poem about the Japanese maple tree in his garden, recently published in the New Yorker, went viral. He recited it.

Japanese Maple

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see

So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls

On that small tree

And saturates your brick back garden walls,

So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends

This glistening illuminates the air.

It never ends.

Whenever the rain comes it will be there,

Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that. That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colours will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

[Assume applause after all recitations.]

He explained how the state of his health meant he’d never see Australia again, but that it didn’t matter to him because his family were all here and his recollection of his Australian childhood grew more vivid to him every day. He couldn’t remember what happened the day before, but…

Flashback… At school he’d been made to learn poems by rote. “We had to recite four lines at the end of every day or else we wouldn’t be allowed home. Some of my classmates are still there.”

It wasn’t till he was at university in Sydney, however, that he decided he wanted to be a poet. He therefore took the important first step of dressing like one, in open-necked shirt, khaki drills and desert boots. He would then hide in the bushes by the science block and surprise girls by jumping out and declaiming ee cummings:

you shall above all things be glad and young

you shall above all things be glad and young

For if you’re young, whatever life you wear

It will become you; and if you are glad

whatever’s living will yourself become.

Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:

i can entirely her only love

whose any mystery makes every man’s

flesh put space on; and his mind take off time

that you should ever think, may god forbid

and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:

for that way knowledge lies, the foetal grave

called progress, and negation’s dead undoom.

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing

than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance

 

This method of flirtation was universally unsuccessful. Poetry doesn’t work that way, he noted, advising current undergraduates to choose shorter poems with which to woo girls so that the poor saps would be less humiliated when the targets of their affections walked away. “Painters have the advantage over poets as they can say, ‘In order to truly see your soul I need to see you with your clothes off.’ No poet gets away with that. Lucian Freud was a case in point…”

cummings was wrong in that poem anyway, he said. The greatest of love poets he identified as Auden and Marvell. Recalling Alan Bennett’s famous comment about the lines on Wystan’s face (‘if that’s his face, whatever must his scrotum look like?’) to the delight of the audience, he then recited ‘Lullaby‘:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:

To lovers as they lie upon

Her tolerant enchanted slope

In their ordinary swoon,

Grave the vision Venus sends

Of supernatural sympathy,

Universal love and hope;

While an abstract insight wakes

Among the glaciers and the rocks

The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity

On the stroke of midnight pass

Like vibrations of a bell,

And fashionable madmen raise

Their pedantic boring cry:

Every farthing of the cost,

All the dreaded cards foretell,

Shall be paid, but from this night

Not a whisper, not a thought,

Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:

Let the winds of dawn that blow

Softly round your dreaming head

Such a day of welcome show

Eye and knocking heart may bless,

Find the mortal world enough;

Noons of dryness find you fed

By the involuntary powers,

Nights of insult let you pass

Watched by every human love.

 

Magnificent old bugger indeed. It was some time before James found out Auden was gay and that the poem was probably addressed to a trucker or similar bit of rough. Or maybe even MacNeice or Isherwood. (James is fond of MacNeice, thinking him criminally underrated because of his lyricism.) “I wasn’t shocked,” he said of Auden’s homosexuality. “It broadened my mind – and my mind at the time needed broadening.” He later came to meet the poet at Cambridge. Auden’s famously slovenly personal habits were much in evidence: what appeared to be a tie depicting a Jackson Pollock turned out to be a plain, knitted number that bore the accretions of a hundred breakfasts.

The other great love poet? The marvellous Marvell, of course. He recited The Definition of Love, prefacing his performance with the comment that if he stumbled over any lines he might as well drop dead then and there. He stumbled. Happily, he didn’t drop.

I.

My love is of a birth as rare

As ’tis, for object, strange and high ;

It was begotten by Despair,

Upon Impossibility.

II.

Magnanimous Despair alone

Could show me so divine a thing,

Where feeble hope could ne’er have flown,

But vainly flapped its tinsel wing.

III.

And yet I quickly might arrive

Where my extended soul is fixed ;

But Fate does iron wedges drive,

And always crowds itself betwixt.

IV.

For Fate with jealous eye does see

Two perfect loves, nor lets them close ;

Their union would her ruin be,

And her tyrannic power depose.

V.

And therefore her decrees of steel

Us as the distant poles have placed,

(Though Love’s whole world on us doth wheel),

Not by themselves to be embraced,

VI.

Unless the giddy heaven fall,

And earth some new convulsion tear.

And, us to join, the world should all

Be cramp’d into a planisphere.

VII.

As lines… as lines…

[Here, James lost his way and had to skip to the next line.]

But ours, so truly parallel,

Though infinite, can never meet.

VIII.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,

But Fate so enviously debars,

Is the conjunction of the mind,

And opposition of the stars.

 

[Applause, and on to the Q&A.]

Someone asked what he’d choose to recite now if he were to jump from the bushes. (“One of mine!”) Someone asked his favourite place in Cambridge. (Hugh’s bookstall in the market; King’s chapel.) A woman spent five minutes telling everyone about her dyslexia and saying how clever she was. James suggested she read his new book. Then he got up and shuffled out and that was that.

One final flourish that came his way is worth recording. In the middle of one answer he suddenly had a flash of memory and triumphantly recited the lines he’d forgotten earlier:

As lines, so love’s oblique, may well

Themselves in every angle greet :

But ours, so truly parallel,

Though infinite, can never meet.

There followed more Christoff-esque applause-grabbing. He looked like he meant it this time.

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack

I’m disappointed to note that until about an hour ago I hadn’t heard of Robert Liston, the C19th surgeon noted for his impressive speed in the days before anaesthesia, a man who prided himself on his ability to amputate a leg in under two-and-a-half minutes. Now that I do know, I have to share, for he falls under that admirable category “Men Of Whom Tales Are Told”.

He is the only surgeon known to have achieved an impressive 300% mortality in an operation when his patient as well as his assistant, whose fingers were accidentally lopped off during surgery, both died of gangrene after the procedure, and a notable spectator suffered a fatal fear-induced heart attack in theatre, Liston having got too close for comfort with his blade as he was flashing around, presumably trying to beat his personal best. Liston once also accidentally whipped off a patient’s balls with an overenthusiastic swish of his scalpel as he was amputating the man’s leg.

All this from Chapter 1 of Richard Gordon’s Great Medical Disasters.

I begin to understand Sir Launcelot Spratt rather better.

Lives of the poets

I saw Roger McGough once in Barnes (where I suppose he must live) and, remembering a short poem he had written about his only being famous enough to cause passing pedestrians to walk into lampposts as they half-recognised his face, thought he’d appreciate the subtle gesture of my feigning a trip as I went past him. Not so. Not even a twitch of a smile. I learned then you can’t rely on a pratfall to convey the message: “I not only recognise you but remember one of your poems.” I bet Brian Patten would have got the joke, though.

Art is not an English thing

I have just looked online – unsuccessfully – for this AP Herbert poem to share with a friend. In the absence of an available version, the only sensible thing seemed to type it up myself from Kingsley Amis’s New Oxford Book of English Verse. I’m not entirely sure how the author of Uncommon Law might have reacted to my doing so, but I think it’s fair enough to offer a copy here as the poem seems unavailable elsewhere and it definitely deserves your attention. I’m happy to remove it or offer a negotiable cow to any affronted copyright holder.

AP Herbert (1890 – 1971)

Lines for a Worthy Person who has drifted by accident into a Chelsea revel

It is a very curious fact
That those who write or paint or act,
Compose or etch,
Or sculp* or sketch,
Or practise things like pottery,
Have not got consciences like us,
Are frankly not monogamous;
Their moral tone is all their own,
Their love-affairs a lottery.
It’s hard to say why writing verse
Should terminate in drink or worse,
Why flutes and harps
And flats and sharps
Should lead to indiscretions;
But if you read the Poets’ Lives
You’ll find the number of their wives
In fact exceeds
The normal needs
Of almost all professions.

As my poor father used to say
In 1863,
Once people start on all this Art,
Goodbye, moralitee!
And what my father used to say
Is good enough for me.

Oh, may no little child of mine
Compose or model, draw, design,
And sit at ease
On people’s knees,
With other odious habits!
See what eccentric things they wear,
Observe their odd un-English hair-
The women bald,
The men (so called)
As thickly furred as rabbits!
Not these the kind of people who
Were prominent at Waterloo,
Not this the stock
Which stood the shock
When Kaiser picked his quarrel.
Let Dagoes paint and write and sing,
But Art is not an English thing;
Better be pure
And die obscure
Than famous but immoral!

As my poor father used to say
In 1863,
Once people start on all this Art,
Farewell, monogamee!
And what my father used to say,
And what my father used to say,
Is good enough for me.

And shall we let this canker stick
Inside the body politic?
Oh, let us take
Some steps to make
Our messy nation cleaner!
The whole is greater than the part,
We should at once prohibit Art,
Let Music be a felony
And Verse a misdemeanour;
Let long-haired gentlemen who draw
Be segregated by the law,
And every bard
Do six months’ hard
Who lyrically twaddles,
But licences be issued to
A few selected clerics, who
Shall fashion odes
In serious modes
On statutory models.

As my poor father used to say
In 1863,
Once people start on all this Art,
Farewell, moralitee!
And what my father used to say,
And what my father used to say,
And what my father used to say,
Is good enough for me.

[*Yes, it says “sculp” rather than “sculpt” in the NOBoELV.]

As a writer he was brahma

To go a bit Ned Sherrin on you, a brief anecdote about Noel Coward. I heard it some years ago, I’ve half forgotten it, but it amuses me enough to want to discover who may have told it / made it up. It sounds like something Kenneth Williams would have trotted out on Aspel & Company circa 1989. It goes something like this:

Coward is at the theatre with a friend, watching a performance of, presumably, one of his own plays, such is his ego. The performance having concluded, the effete dramatist goes backstage to offer congratulations and notes to the cast, the need to piss overwhelming him as he trips down the corridors. He bursts into the nearest dressing room, ignoring the awestruck actress within, and relieves himself urgently and copiously into her sink. Relating the story afterwards, she says, with great admiration,

“You could tell he was a gentleman… he kept the taps running.”

Details, if you have them, please.

8 out of 10 Londoners…

A nondescript South London corner shop, the type you see on every street. By which, of course, I mean one that isn’t actually on a corner at all. In the aisle next to mine, a grandmother, mother and daughter. Or do I mean two mothers and a daughter? Three generations of women from the same family anyway. I’m getting off track.

I ignore them easily as I try to find a loaf of bread that doesn’t look like it was baked more than a month ago. I want toast, not a paperweight, after all. I am a fussy consumer. I hear a shrieked protest.

“You can’t give her cat food: she’s not a cat!”

I glance round the corner of my aisle, trying not to seem too shifty. I contemplate the small selection of shampoos on offer as if I suddenly have a desperate urge to wash my hair. I think I’m being subtle but I’m probably as conspicuous as a man in a Stasi-issued trilby staring through two holes cut in a newspaper. It doesn’t matter. I turn, ever-so-nonchalantly, away from the Vosene Medicated and see the older of the two mothers, the grandmother if you like, looking at a tin of Whiskas. Her daughter has her hands on her hips. She is evidently the one who has just offered this admonishment.

The older woman continues to look at the tin of cat food. She is lost in contemplation.

After an overly-long pause she glances up at her daughter.

“I’ll get it anyway.”

Guffawing, I have to turn away. I do hope she didn’t want to give it to the little girl in the pram.

Always Stir It Clockwise

1998 I think it was. A pub in Bristol. Can’t remember which one. I was having a couple of pints with my great friend Thos. Smoking, too. You could do that sort of thing then. I did. A shabby gent, unwashed and hedgehog-chinned, charged up to us and tried to clamber under our table, eyes darting around, hands constantly wringing, a pervasive smell of something unusual and chemical in the air around him.

“Hide me: I’m a bank robber.”

He was clearly no such thing, unless a very unsuccessful one. The only thing he had probably stolen recently was the tube of Body Shop Hemp Handcream which he was perpetually rubbing into his hands like Lady Macbeth doing her out-damn-spot routine, flecks of the stuff spattering everything within five feet of him. We had a brief chat about his career as a professional drummer. This seemed perfectly natural at the time.

A member of the pub bar staff approached, asked him to leave.

Having clocked her, he turned conspiratorially toward us.

“You see that woman?” He leered. “If she stirs her teabag clockwise, she’s ANY man’s.”

You can’t argue with that sort of thing.

Positions of Bang

A corner shop. Late at night. I am buying a pack of fags.

Two Asian men behind the counter, clearly having some sort of involved discussion. One turns from his friend to me.

“How many positions of bang are there in a woman? There must be at least 69, yes? They are numbered.”

Rendered speechless, I shook my head and left. I love that phrase, ‘positions of bang’, though I’ve never had a chance to use it.

The Number Cruncher

Kilburn. About a decade ago. I was stood in WHSmith, reading the newspapers. It’s what we did before the internet. That or the library. Libraries had more tramps and more of a crusty, fuggy aroma. Smith’s was cleaner, and had multiple copies of papers, so Smith’s was better. Smith’s even had magazines.

I was skimming through The Times, or some such similarly improving broadsheet, when suddenly a copy of The Sun was urgently flapped under my nose. I looked up. A troubled, quizzical face was glaring back at me, as one of its owner’s digits was repeatedly and quickly stabbed at the back page, somewhere in the region of a story about a footballer’s weekly wage.

“You see that number there?”

I did see. I confirmed as much.

“Is that a BIG number?”

It was somewhere in the thousands. I said, yes, it was pretty big, but such things were relative. The face looked momentarily less troubled. Then it shouted at me.

“A million! THAT’s a big number.”

I couldn’t deny it.

“Did you know that the sun is a million times bigger than the Earth?”

I wasn’t sure if anyone could be said to know such a thing but was also aware that an epistemological debate would clearly be neither relevant nor welcome. I told him I didn’t. He smiled proudly. He knew something I didn’t. That was enough for him. Knowledge is power.