Leninist MPs – or: Westminster’s shocking philistinism

Are our MPs Lenininst?

Today’s Guardian included an article by Martin Kettle from Bayreuth, declaring that:

Our MPs are Lenininst in their belief that politics is all and excludes a rich artistic life. It’s a sign of a failed society

Buxton Opera HouseWell, I can report that at least in deepest Derbyshire, things aren’t so philistine. The opening night of this year’s Buxton Festival was graced by the new (Labour) Chair of Derbyshire County Council, who far from seeming embarrassed, flaunted his allegiance with a striking red jacket. The fare may have been Saint-Saëns and Gounod rather than Wagner, but as someone who tends to Rossini’s view of Wagner (‘great moments but dull quarter hours’), that to my mind was no bad thing. Lenin may not have dared to listen to Beethoven often (poor man) but it seems he also liked plays – last night I saw Ostrovsky’s Too Clever by Half in a suitably manic production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and discovered that in 1918 Lenin attended and admired the Moscow Art Theatre production starring Stanislavski, seeing it ‘as a portrait of the moral and intellectual failings of the society created under the Tsars’. Perhaps that’s what our politicians can do best for culture – provide the butts for satire?

As befits one of the birthplaces of Chartism, Manchester has long been a place where culture and politics mix. For many years the concert hall, home to the Hallé Orchestra, was the Free Trade Hall, built to commemorate a notorious attack on peaceful protest (which led, amongst other things, to the Manchester Guardian and Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy). The hall was the venue for both high culture (Barbirolli etc) and wrestling. Its replacement, the much more comfortable Bridgewater Hall, is a wonderful concert hall but rather tamer.

As for politicians, others here have already indicated that a few cabinet ministers have betrayed a liking for Wagner. Amongst them is Michael Gove, the minister most likely (pace Martin) to lace his speeches with quotations from (in his words) ‘the best that has been written and said’. If that sometimes means misquotations from Keats (it’s ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ Michael: and you an English graduate!), I suppose we should be grateful. Mr Gove has even shared his admiration of Antonio Gramsci and declared in the Guardian’s own pages this week that ‘classical Marxists support free schools because they embody the ideal of the soviet, a self-managing institution run by workers in the wider public interest’. Such erudition, you see, Martin! What would your old Dad have made of that? I suspect he might have pointed out that the governance of free schools is hardly as open and free as a soviet, or even one of those local authority schools the Secretary of State appears to despise, despite his nominal responsibility for the education of all students in England. I certainly hope Professor Kettle would have seen off such dubious claims to cultural eclecticism.

Having just posted my two penn’orth to Comment is Free, I spotted that tomorrow’s paper will include a number of letters about the Secretary of State’s claims in Thursday’s edition. These include Professor Norman Thomas:

If free schools are doing well (except for some) because they are free from local authority control and can decide things for themselves, does that mean Gove will now introduce a bill bringing the national curriculum to an end instead of extending it, as he currently proposes, even including pressure on how to teach reading – by synthetic phonics? The national curriculum does not have to be taught in free schools or academies, any way, so why impose it on local authority schools?

Surely a Marxist of Mr Gove’s intelligence cannot be so confused as to advocate freedom for schools and at the same time deny it.

Aussiemandias? Shelley not!

Murdoch Murdoch: Shelley got there first

Who does ‘the shattered visage’, with its frown, its wrinkled lip and its sneer of cold command, remind you of? Yes, Rupert Murdoch is finding out that one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world had described his fate long ago, as Simon Hoggart points out in today’s Guardian:

It’s as if we were all in Shelley’s antique land watching the statue of Ozymandias collapse before our eyes.’

Or, in the word of a succinct letter a few pages later from Alasdair McKee:


Broadsides, Bono and pull quotes

Archbishop’s broadside and pullquote poetry

Thomas à Becket, Canterbury Cathedral
Beware the fate of turbulent priests! Stained glass window of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, from Wikimedia Commons
This Thursday’s Thought (and Word of the Day) is: ‘Why is a supposedly peaceable archbishop firing a broadside?’ Turbulent priest, beware the fate of your famous predecessor! (‘Downing Street hits back at archbishop’s broadside‘).

Supplementary question: Is Bono the new James Joyce? The Guardian embellishes an article in its print edition this week entitled ‘Why Bono should welcome his Glastonbury reckoning‘ with this gnomic quotation:

Pullguote over five
lines in here
here herey
herey herey
type over text

Herey, herey, indeed! Or, as letter writer John O’Dwyer comments: ‘Surely the lyrics of an unreleased U2 song, showing that Bono is a genius and the true heir of James Joyce.’

The niveous stole of winter

Poetic reflection on the early snow

Snow in the High Peak, 1 December 2010
'Frowning wood' and 'the spotless flood' in the High Peak, 1 December 2010
Wednesday’s seasonal weather Word of the Day is ‘niveous’. As James Hurdis wrote in The Favourite Village in 1800:

Wakes from its slumber the suspicious eye,
And bids it look abroad on hill, and dale,
Cottage, and steeple, in the niveous stole
Of Winter trimly dress’d. The silent show’r,
Precipitated still, no breeze disturbs,
While fine as dust it falls. Deep on the face
Of the wide landscape lies the spotless flood
Accumulating still, a vast expanse,
Save where the frowning wood without a leaf
Rears its dark branches on the distant hill.

I have today’s weather to thank for the inspiration and the Oxford English Dictionary for the reference to Hurdis, though strangely it spells the title of his poem Favorite Village – which would seem unlikely for a Sussex Clergyman and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He’s hardly a household name now, is he? (Does the same fate await today’s holder of this post? Was all that fuss over the election and voluntary de-selection of Ruth Padel a waste of time?)

I had to look up Hurdis in Oxford’s Dictionary of National Biography, as there’s precious little about him elsewhere online – thanks again to Derbyshire County Council Libraries – long may this cultural blessing last! I cannot resist (ah, near-fatal weakness mine!) including the DNB evaluation of the poet’s character:

The intensity of Hurdis’s feelings, and his inability to control them, resulted in repeated strife with all but his mother and sisters, by whom alone he seems not to have felt threatened. Indeed, his behaviour in his final years seems to have verged on the deranged.

No wonder he welcomed the silent, obscuring blanket of snow – as did the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. My thanks to my friend and colleague Trevor Millum for these lines from ‘London Snow’ which he sent me this morning:

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled – marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.

Snow in the High Peak, December 2010
'No sound of wheel rumbling', nor even a monk's footfall: Monk's Road, Charlesworth, 1 December 2010

‘Our literature is the best in the world’

Hyperactive Michael Gove is at it again.

Autumn apple
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness (John Keats): I hope M Gove approves
Hyperactive Michael Gove is at it again. It’s the old trick of picturing the situation as worse than it is in order to be seen to be bravely pushing through radical reform – when all he was doing was describing what has been in the National Curriculum since the Tories were last in power.
Having quoted Emma Thompson’s criticism of the casual use of English by students at her old school (see below), he told the Tory Conference on 5 October, in the Guardian’s words:

English teaching will be reformed to ensure that the poetry of Pope and Shelley, the satire of Swift and the novels of Dickens and Hardy are at the heart of classroom teaching…. Our literature is the best in the world – it is every child’s birthright, and we should be proud to teach it in every school.

These authors have been in the National Curriculum since the Tories were last in power – I’ve just checked and they are still there, so even those awful Labour types didn’t ban them. Perhaps Michael Gove, described by his former English teacher in the TES as a ‘precociously talented youngster’, hasn’t been doing his homework for once? Mike Duncan, who taught him at Robert Gordon’s College, told the TES: ‘I remember we had a game that we would play. He would come up with the first line of a novel and I would have to guess the title of the novel. I would do the same and he would always guess the title correctly.’ This suggests a new game: the opening sentences of books our leader ought to read next. Here’s a sentence from yesterday’s Guardian to get him started:

While Michael Gove and the Tories are occupied solving problems that don’t exist for the benefit of lunatics who don’t know anything about schools (Gove promises to end ’no touch’ rules for teachers, 2 October), the rest of us will carry on secure in the knowledge that there is no no-touch rule and that children mistakenly saying that they know their rights can be told to shush.

Answer: Carolyn Roberts, Head of ‘an orderly and happy’ Durham Johnston School. No wonder she signed off Struth; The Queen’s English Society may wince at the vernacular, but can you blame her?

What did Emma Thompson actually say?

I went to give a talk at my old school and the girls were all doing ‘likes’ and ‘innits?’ and ‘it aint’s, which drives me insane. I told them, ‘Don’t do it because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid.’ There is the necessity to have two languages – one you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity. Or you’re going to sound like a knob.

Her final comment rather undermines this, don’t you think?

This post features as part of my latest column in NATE’s English Drama Media: I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the temptation to plagiarise myself in the interests of topicality.

Postscript, 7 October: In today’s Guardian, Michael White writes:

Mid-Atlantic telly don Simon Schama wrote a very obliging article about David Cameron for Saturday’s FT without revealing he was poised to join the coalition as its back-to-history-basics curriculum adviser. Confronted with the country’s ignorance of past glories, he could start with the education secretary, Michael Gove, who muddled Isaiah Berlin and Immanuel Kant….

I think it’s categorically imperative that Michael Gove gets this right, don’t you?

And is our Mr Gove right that ‘our literature is the best in the world’? For that matter, whose literature is he talking about? Consider the authors he names….

‘Here’s a boat that cannot float’

As promised yesterday, there’s more drama – and poetry – to be wrung from this week’s election results. The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy reflects on democracy in action (and on the current inaction) in her new poem Democracy in The Guardian today. As she implies by her reference to ‘a moat’, the expenses scandal seems to have led voters cast their votes in numbers that don’t add up to anything other than uncertainty at present (even if hers rhyme sweetly). As David Hare puts it in an article elsewhere in today’s paper, the basic message is: ‘not so much “a plague on all your houses” as “a warning to all your houses”.’ Notice how Shakespeare creeps in here?

Floating voters or not, who, in Duffy’s words, will be the ‘sacrificial goat’? Will he burst into tears when his fate becomes clear, as a recent post mentioned, Lord Curzon did?

And please can we have more poetic comment?

Poetic justice? Voters select the Keats option

Waking up today to an inconclusive election result, it seems that after all the voters have chosen Keats after all

Waking up today to an inconclusive election result, it seems that after all the voters have been doing some wider reading than the leaders’ choices of Blake (three votes) and Owen (one). A surprise declaration, then, for John Keats of the Negative Capability Party. As his manifesto says:

Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

And to think he wrote that in 1817, long before even the 1832 Reform Act! Still, to quote a more demotic voice, ‘it ain’t over till it’s over’, so keep your poetry books ready for more turns, conceits and tragi-comic outcomes.

Rhyme and reason – during an election?

More votes for poets? Not if they’re dead….

Gordon Brown called on ‘the great poet William Blake’ to support his campaign, as noted in an earlier post. Not to be outdone, the other contenders have brandished their poetic sensitivities on the National Poetry Day site. It looks as if this could be a coalition squabble, since Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg also wants to lay claim to Blake, citing ‘Eternity’: ‘it’s a fantastic way of saying “seize the day” and the perfect poem to read in times of trouble, really uplifting.’ It’s time to ‘seize the day’ yourself, Nick!

David Cameron chose Wilfred Owen: ‘I still remember the first time I read his poems and the incredible power and anger about the First World War. For me, they were literally an eye-opener.’ Literally, David? Were you normally asleep during poetry lessons at Eton? I can feel a Lear moment coming on:

Get thee glass eyes;
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not.

This politician can hear Owen’s anger about about the First World War but is still happy to press ahead with buying Trident nuclear submarines, I recall. Alexander Pope in Rape of the Lock actually preferred a good drink, his politicians only pretend to be blind:

Coffee, which makes the politician wise
And see through all things with his half-shut eyes

Can we have both rhyme and reason at election time? See and hear Danny Chivers’ lively ‘Election Day’ poem here (and on YouTube) and decide where you’ll cast your vote!

Does Gordon Brown read this blog – or: would Blake vote Labour?

Prime Minister goes for the poetry (and nursing) vote

I suspect the Prime Minister has been reading this blog. Today he addressed the Royal College of Nursing Conference in Bournemouth. It seems that like William Blake he’s been seeing angels, for he said: ‘We feel like parents who have been in the presence of angels dressed in nurses’ uniforms, performing the most amazing works of mercy and care. And I will never forget seeing in real time every minute of the day that idea of service and selflessness summed up by the great poet William Blake:

Can I not see another’s woe?
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief?
And not seek for kind relief?

‘That is the spirit of nursing,’ he said, to (of course) rousing applause. Only last week this same William Blake was quoted on this very blog. He, being dead, cannot be canvassed (not that that stops politicians, of course). I haven’t checked but I doubt Blake ever had a vote (he died before the 1832 Reform Act, though would probably have been too poor to qualify even then). If he had, would he have supported New Labour? As I noted this morning, the Green Party has already laid claim to Blake’s own words in ‘Jerusalem’ about a ‘green and pleasant land’. Blake was a free spirit, unwilling to bound by the chains of a mainstream party – I suspect he would have sympathised with the Greens but probably fallen out with them after a while.

Next question: who would the following poets have voted for? Give chapter and verse – or at least verse, in support of your answers:

  • Keats
  • Byron
  • Dylan Thomas
  • Shakespeare

Further suggestions welcome!

St George, Blake and Shelley – and hang Parliament!

The Spirit Level
The Spirit Level
St George’s Day again and the High Street is festooned with flags. We must be proud of our local saint – though as Judith Maltby points out, he probably wasn’t local at all, at least not to England.

Perhaps this excitement is a sign of election fever? There’s certainly been some here; for the first time I can ever recall, a Parliamentary candidate has come to the door – the kind of good old-fashioned politics that makes you proud to be British. Actually, first to call was a canvasser who said ‘I’m looking for Tories: are you one?’ I vacillated but added that since it’s a very close race in High Peak, I’d love to talk about the issues. He responded: ‘I’m a messenger, not a missionary!’ However, he did then bring Andrew Bingham, the Conservative candidate, to the door – and I didn’t even inquire whether the non-dom Lord Ashcroft was funding their campaign.

I forgot to ask whether he agreed with Shelley that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ – that might have been an opening to ask his views of the current Poet Laureate too. (Should one select an MP on the basis of poetic preferences?) I did however have a question about inequality, prompted by my current reading of Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. I should have quoted William Blake:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

There are sharp questions about this in a letter from Rev Dennis Nadin in today’s Guardian: ‘Where is the voice of the poor to be heard in this election?’

And now I see that the same Andrew Bingham can be spotted walking past the famous Café Royston (of League Of Gentlemen fame) in a short video about the constituency by John Harris called Hang Parliament! on the Guardian site. It seems from this that although the Conservatives want us to ‘vote for change’ that doesn’t mean any change to the voting system. Perhaps, as Lord Curzon found out, it will all end in tears?