Barbara Smaller, The New Yorker.
Barbara Smaller, The New Yorker.
Macaulay , like Burke, was an intellectual MP who harnessed history to politics. He was a literary celebrity of forceful personality and decided opinions – “I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything,” remarked the prime minister, Lord Melbourne… His strength was not analysis but narrative. He aimed at a large readership, “to supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies”. He applied literary narrative techniques to a major work of English history for the first time, concentrating on vivid descriptions of events and people, lauding heroism and denouncing vices (above all those of the Stuarts – “inconstancy, perfidy, baseness”, etc), and dwelling on heroic and pathetic ends; death scenes were a speciality. He was brilliant on memorable sayings and details, not least the gruesome: rebels hanged from a pub sign (the White Hart); a woman about to be burned at the stake arranging the straw herself so that she would die quickly. How much was true? Macaulay was not interested in testing evidence, but exploiting it. Popularity came: and a cheque for £200,000 from Longmans in 1856 – worth several millions today – was preserved by the publishers as the relic of a prodigy.
Well, 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.
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.
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.
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:
Anyone 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.
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.