Sorry for the long silence. I’ve been busy: attending and speaking at the funeral in England of a beloved ex-colleague – that’s three of my close contemporaries gone in the last year or so, with just three of us left: who’ll be next? – and exhausting journeys for that and to visit – more enjoyably – my Ukrainan refugees, now installed in my UK home, plus two of my children and their families. Back in Sweden now, I’ve just written a long review of a book on ‘the happiness of the British working class’ (in the 19th century), and a new Preface for the re-issue later this year of a forty-year old book of mine. These tasks have taken my mind off the sadness, temporarily, and given me a reason for continuing to live. I write, therefore I am.
That’s all there is to it, really. I write because I need to write – for no other reason. It’s pure self-indulgence. I’ve given up hoping to influence people with my ideas, in view of the pretty poor sales and non-existent press reviews of my most recent books; which – if people read them – ought to put them right about British imperialism, in particular. There’s so much nonsense being talked now about that, from Rees-Mogg on the idiot Right to the callow young statue-topplers on the Left. But people don’t read me on that; instead they go to rank amateurs – the aforesaid Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Paxman – whose celebrity and therefore attraction to readers rest on other grounds entirely. (The exception may be the assertive Rightist academic Niall Ferguson; but he was never an imperial historian au fond.)
But then, as that other amateur Michael Gove asserted a few years ago: ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’; of whom – on this subject – I’m one. I try to write clearly and attractively for a general readership, with even a few jokes to enliven my narrative; but it doesn’t get through. The great British public bases its ideas about almost everything on prejudice, self-interest, the tabloid press, un-mediated propaganda, celebrity, and – especially perhaps these days – ad hominem assumptions about the people who are offering their opinions. I’m not seen on telly, or lounging on the Commons benches, or mouthing off about anything; I’m not part of the London or Oxbridge literati, despite my stint writing for the LRB; I live in Hull, for God’s sake, or far away in Sweden; I’m pretty ordinary – even dull – apart from my writing; and my views on imperialism – or anything else – can’t be reduced to simple slogans. So I’m not getting through. – Or is it simply that my writing is crap? Or my poor choice of publishers? I’m reluctant to think that. I’ve been through about a dozen of them over the years, from OUP and CUP ‘downwards’; and they’ve (mostly) worked pretty hard for me. But in any case that’s now all water – and words – under the bridge. I no longer really care. As long as I’m still writing. Like here.
Moan over. And I don’t think that this is at the root of my enduring depression just now. There are far more serious things, outside my personal experience, to depress any left-leaning progressive Englishman or woman these days; including the current political state of our country of birth, its impact on fellow-citizens far more vulnerable than ourselves, the situation in Ukraine and Turkey, the rise of proto-fascism globally, US politics, climate change, blah blah blah… as many blahs as you can think of.
To which I personally would want to add the situation in my adoptive country of Sweden, which appears to be catching up with Britain and America in the worst ways possible: i.e. sliding to the Right. The forcible extradition (after 18 years’ residence) of an elderly and bed-ridden British woman who was too incapacitated with Altzheimers to be able to fill in the forms that would have allowed her to stay in the country post-Brexit, with police officers rummaging through her belongings to see what she will have to take back with her, is the latest indication of this: see https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/feb/15/european-commission-contacts-sweden-plans-deport-british-woman-brexit. Suella Braverman would have been proud of this. It’s all the doing of the Nazi-origin ‘Sweden Democrats’; a minority party, not actually part of the current governing Centre-Right coalition, but seemingly wielding great influence on the government. Remind you of UKIP, anyone?
Back to imperialism. Why don’t you go out and buy British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t? It might boost my sales – and hence my mood – by one or two points.
I think you are too pessimistic as to your influence. It is not measured in sales volumes but in long term influence and results. I don’t know but I do not suppose Marx sold huge volumes…and his influence wasn’t immediate but long term.
And does anyone actually buy Rees Mogg, or Johnson, or Paxman’s books let alone read them? People just read the newspaper articles…then forget them. Incidentally Paxman’s “expertise” was aggressive rudeness.
I think Gove was referring to “commentators”, and misused the word “experts”. By expert I mean someone who understands and applies physical laws, not extrapolations of estimates or polls or likewise. It is one of the few things on which I agree with the slivey Gove.
And yes, I did buy your book…new as it happens…and most of yours. For what it’s worth they have influenced me…in your direction.
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Thank you, Bernard, for another interesting blog.
I have read recently about how the COVID years have caused a major blow-out in the annual death rate, that is not explained entirely by deaths caused directly by the Coronavirus. The virus is perhaps affecting us in ways that are not entirely obvious, as well as causing disruptions to health services, which must be operating well below their previous standard of efficacy. The NHS is in ruins it appears from this distance. Thus, your personal experience of an excess of deaths of friends fits in with the generalised structural pattern. My condolences on your losses.
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