dunkirk-poster-600x889Well, I went in with my expectations set reasonably low – the swooning and gasping from many of the critics automatically put me on my guard. (Remember how they tried to convince us that “Skyfall” was the best Bond film ever?) What you get from “Dunkirk” is a decent war film with some inspired moments but an awful lot of blockbuster padding and a distinct lack of memorable characters. Maybe Christopher Nolan was trying to show how war reduces us all to ciphers, but the ultimate effect is that the film becomes a string of hardware-driven set-pieces. The CGI is a big disappointment too: those much-touted aerial scenes struck me as a lot less impressive than those in “The Battle of Britain”, which is, remember, getting on for fifty years old. The constant cross-cutting between characters at crucial moments undercut the momentum too, the final appearance of the little boats was embarrassingly schmaltzy, while the climactic dog-fight had more than a touch of “Top Gun” about it. As for Hans Zimmer’s horribly bombastic, cod-Elgar score, the less said the better.

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But the single greatest shock, which recurs in emigrant reminiscences with the force of a primal scene, was seeing working-class Britons. The vast majority of the new arrivals modelled their idea of British people on the colonial officials and missionaries they had encountered in the Caribbean. They had met no others. A number of women, headed for nursing training, recall the shock of seeing “ordinary white people doing ordinary work. You were sort of made to believe that they lived in a more aristocratic way, that they didn’t clean floors and they didn’t sweep streets. I couldn’t understand any of what they were saying!” “It was really strange to see white people sweeping streets and doing manual jobs. I had not seen that before.” “We had white people pick up our luggage and that was one of the first shocks because in Guyana all the white people that we came into contact with spoke like Prince Charles and they were in very high positions.” For the men it was the same. “My images of white people were of a race which had all the good jobs and therefore lots of money. A people whose menfolk work while their women stay at home or play tennis.” The novelty of being addressed as “sir” by station porters and train staff would wear off. But the image of the white street sweeper was so powerful because it revealed to the migrants their new situation. If white people worked in such lowly jobs, then to seek any employment at all in Britain meant challenging those who already belonged.

Clair Wills, “Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain”.

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Ways of seeing

At the National Gallery. 

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St Stephen’s Chapel was the seat of the House of Commons from 1550 until it was destroyed by fire in 1834. Parliament’s authority was enhanced by this spectacular setting, and from it the English developed the habit of housing important secular institutions in buildings of medieval Gothic design. But the temple of democracy was surrounded by a den of thieves. Ben Jonson commented on how disreputable the little city of Westminster was. The palace was surrounded by shops and taverns; it did not help the area’s reputation that the three best-known taverns were called Hell, Heaven and Purgatory.  Hell had several exits, to allow MPs to make a quick getaway.

Diane Purkiss, “The English Civil War: A People’s History”.

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Is Europe really committing suicide? The reasonable arguments in  Douglas Murray’s polemic about Islamism and immigration are undermined by ultra-Powellite rhetoric. My review in The Times:

douglas murray bookAnyone who has seen Murray — a gay, Old Etonian associate editor of The Spectator — in one of his many television appearances will know that he is a formidable debater. It also takes a great deal of courage to take those ideas on to the airwaves when you know there are people who are capable of responding with more than angry words. Unfortunately, his arguments are encased in a diatribe about mass immigration and our continent’s alleged death wish, which is so lurid it often reads like an overheated Breitbart editorial. Murray is usually thought of as a neoconservative; the language he slips into here is much closer to that of a Pat Buchanan-style nativist. Sometimes it borders on worse than that. When he approvingly quotes Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban’s statement, expressed during last year’s crisis, that mass migration is “masquerading as a humanitarian cause, but its true nature is the occupation of territory”, you can’t help wondering what audience he is trying to court.

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As with my psoriasis, the affliction is not entirely unfortunate. It makes me think twice about going on stage and appearing in classrooms and at conferences – all the socially approved yet spiritually corrupting public talking that writers of even modest note are asked to do. Being obliging by nature and anxious for social approval, I would never say no if I weren’t afraid of stuttering. Also, as I judge from my own reactions, people who talk too easily and comfortably, with too much happy rolling of the vowels and satisfied curling of the lips around the grammatical rhythms, rouse distrust in some atavistic, pre-speech part of ourselves. We turn off… I am afraid of the audiences I discomfit and embarrass, to my own embarrassment and discomfiture. I am afraid of New York audiences, especially; they are too smart and left-wing for me.

John Updike, “Self-Consciousness: Memoirs”.

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The Thames near Cookham.

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I shouldn’t normally show what I’d written to anyone: what would be the point? You remember Tennyson reading an unpublished poem to Jowett; when he had finished, Jowett said, “I shouldn’t publish that if I were you, Tennyson.” Tennyson replied, “If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunch was downright filthy.” That’s about all that can happen.

Philip Larkin, interviewed by The Paris Review.

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Article 50

Twitter is a Brexit battleground today. I thought I’d feel more passionate one way or the other about the milestone we’ve just passed. Instead I’m just impatient for the whole process to start. I’ve already explained how I voted Remain and then instantly regretted it. All I’ll add is that if pro-EU campaigners had displayed as much emotion in the weeks before the referendum as they have in the last nine months they would probably have won. Instead they expected to get a victory by default, and now they’re understandably bitter and frustrated. Larry Siedentop saw the warning signs in “Democracy in Europe” nearly twenty years ago:

In recent decades the language of economics has largely driven out the language of politics and, in particular, the language of constitutionalism in Europe… [T]he pursuit of economic integration has resulted in a curious outcome. A European Union inspired by liberal democratic principles has increasingly acted on quasi-Marxist assumptions, assuming that when economic progress has been achieved, other institutional improvements will follow “inevitably” or as a matter of course. But that is a vulgar form of economic determinism which has been discredited both intellectually and practically. The state, whatever its form, is not the mere scaffolding of a market economy.

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