Debagging Boris

The philosopher AC Grayling’s argument in this week’s New European for not accepting the legitimacy of last year’s Brexit vote – http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/i-accuse-ac-grayling-s-denunciation-of-britain-s-craven-politicians-1-5218037 – is compelling; so compelling, in fact, as to raise the question of how far it would be permissible to go in order to nullify Brexit. Obviously any Parliamentary means would be permissible, but is unlikely in view of MPs’ craven kowtowing, as Grayling points out, and against their own better judgments, to the bullies of the tabloid press. I think this is the first time in history that Parliament, which is supposed to be our sovereign political authority, has been (effectively) circumvented on the way to a major decision affecting the whole nation. So much for the Brexiteers’ declared aim to restore British sovereignty. – The other ‘legitimate’ means of protest is, of course, protesting. There have been plenty of anti-Brexit marches and demos over the past year. But does anyone think they can have any effect?

The grotesqueries of the Brexit decision last June – unconstitutional, highly marginal, skewed by blatant lies, and involving only a minority of the total electorate – might suggest that this is one of those rare occasions when an extra-parliamentary and extra-legal struggle against it might be morally acceptable. That could take a number of forms. I personally would stop well short of serious violence against persons, though ‘debagging’ Boris Johnson in public has a certain attraction, and would be a familiar humiliation, I imagine, from his school days. Otherwise what is open to us outside the law? Mass tax-avoidance, with the money being sent to Brussels instead, might be an option. Hunger-strikes, lying down in roads, illegally raising EU flags on public buildings, digging up golf courses, refusing to fill in census forms, hijacking radio and TV stations and chaining ourselves to railings are others. There’s a whole armoury of methods we can draw on from history, especially anti-colonial movements and the suffragettes. Of course every one would need to be well organised, on a decent scale, and clearly signposted for what it is. (There’s no point in starving oneself if no-one knows what it’s for.) Any more suggestions?

Otherwise we unregenerate ‘remoaners’ are simply left to stew in silence. ‘Get over it!’ say the Brexiteers. That’s difficult in the face of such an existential political mis-step. ‘If you don’t like it, go and live elsewhere.’ Well, I may well do that, when my Swedish citizenship comes through; though that might make me even more resentful at being cut off geographically and politically from the England I used to love. And it might give me twinges of guilt at not having stayed behind to help the Resistance. Now if only we could de-bag Boris…. I’d come back for that.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ashamed to be a Brit

I’ve never gone in much for British ‘patriotism’, which probably makes me a traitor, or as near as dammit, in the eyes of UKIP and Theresa May (‘if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’). I admire and love other countries, regard Britain as just as mixed morally as most others – every nation has its achievements and crimes; and in any case I can’t see the logic in feeling ‘pride’ in a country simply through the accident of having been born there, when one has not contributed to its supposed qualities oneself. (Naturalised citizens may be different, having – one assumes – chosen British citizenship in preference to others. That’s why immigrants may be better Brits.) By the same token I guess it’s just as illogical to feel shame for a country whose past deficiencies are none of your making, and which you may even, in your small way, have battled against.

But that’s what I’m feeling now. I’m embarrassed and ashamed to be British, for the first time ever. Of course there are episodes in past British history which I’m appalled by, many of which are brought up against us Brits almost every day of the week. But they haven’t affected me like the events of the last year or two. I’ve even been able to weather our imperial legacy, for example – my particular field of study – on the grounds that it was at least mixed, sometimes well-intentioned, and in any case the fault of global forces, like international capitalism, rather than of any particular national agenda. (See my books.) The bombing of Dresden is compensated by the Battle of Britain and Dunkirk. Britain can’t compete with the Continent or the East in the Arts, but it did have Shakespeare. It was generous to refugees in the nineteenth century, anti-militaristic (its people, that is), and a leader in the field of social reform. It also gave birth to cricket and football. There’s a lot there to be ‘proud’ of, if ‘pride’ were a sensible way of looking at it. But it’s not enough for me to cling on to, just now.

It’s Brexit and its aftermath, of course, which have provoked this. Brexit brought out a side of the British nation I never realised was there to this extent, and spewed on to the surface of politics a group of people whose claim to ‘patriotism’ was founded on an understanding of the ‘best’ qualities and characteristics of the nation and its history which are totally opposed to mine. I realise that Brits are supposed to have been peculiarly xenophobic in the nineteenth century, and ‘imperialistic’ well into the twentieth; but that goes right against my understanding of them, based on considerable research. (See my The Absent-Minded Imperialists, 2004; and a number of pieces I’ve published on British ‘xenophobia’, of which the most popular appeared as ‘The Victorians and Europe’ in History Today, vol.42, January 1992.) These certainly weren’t the major national ‘discourses’ in British society in modern times. (‘Freedom’, possibly misunderstood, was the main one.) But they seem to be the ones that have been taken as the foundation of their brand of ‘patriotism’ by our new Europhobe nationalists, and especially their (objectively) ridiculous leaders, like May, Farage and Johnson (B). This is either a vile slur on us as a nation; or a sad sign that we have declined appallingly over recent years. It’s this, I think, that logically justifies my anti-patriotism today. Maybe I can’t be held responsible for the Massacre at Amritsar; but I can – even though it’s only through omission – for the political situation in Britain today.

The last straws, for me, came from the mouths of the dreadful Theresa May, and the clownish Boris Johnson, over the last few weeks. Under May (ultimately), the Home Office has been expelling legitimate European residents of Britain at a great rate recently, cruelly, in most people’s opinion – children brought up in English families, scientific researchers, taxpaying workers, legal partners of Brits, and so on – but justified by May on the grounds that Britain needs to be seen as a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/sep/30/brussels-uk-deported-eu-citizens?CMP=share_btn_link). In other words, she wants us to be seen as unwelcoming! That goes right against our boasted traditions for centuries. Following on that, a TV documentary this evening will apparently show Foreign Secretary Boris in a Burmese temple, about to start reciting Kipling’s ‘The Road to Mandalay’, with all its racist nonsense; only to be stopped – thank God – by the British ambassador’s muttering ‘not appropriate, old chap’ in his ear before he can get going (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/video/2017/sep/30/boris-johnson-caught-on-camera-reciting-kipling-poem-in-burmese-temple-video?CMP=share_btn_link). But how could he ever have thought it was?

I really don’t want to be represented in the world by these idiots. They’re giving their compatriots a terrible reputation abroad. And it’s justified. Which is why I’m positively ashamed of being British; for the time being, at any rate. Do Americans feel the same?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Brexit Goes Tits Up

I can’t think of anything to say about the Brexit farce/tragedy that hasn’t been said before. By my reading – which, so far as the internet is concerned, may be overly influenced by Google algorithms designed only to send me stuff I’m likely to agree with – just about everybody now accepts that we were serially lied to by the Brexiteers, Boris Johnson chief among them; and even most Brexiteers – apart from Boris, who may only be pretending – have given up on the idea that Brexit is putting us back on the road to a glorious future unknown since the British Empire was at its height. The best case they are making now is that it won’t be quite as bad as the Remainers claimed; and even if it is, we’ll still have taken back ‘control’: so there. Tell that to the Americans, who are slavering at the mouth for a trade agreement with our little isolated country that will subject us even more to their commercial requirements and courts! So much for the Left wing anti-EEC argument, that independence from the EU will allow us to build ‘socialism in one country’. No, it won’t.

I toyed with that idea myself before finally coming down on the Remain side, on the grounds that socialism (or at least anti-austerity) is more likely to be achieved in collaboration with our natural Leftist allies on the Continent. That belief – or hope – was strengthened when I realised that the kind of people who were leading the Brexit cause were, by and large, on the capitalist Right of the Tory Party and of UKIP, eager to use Britain’s ‘independence’ to lift ‘Brussels’ restrictions on, for example, employment and working practices. I also objected to the emphasis they put on ‘liberating’ us from the European Court of Justice (ECJ), in order, obviously, to avoid the more socially-liberal laws the latter was subjecting us to. The ECJ happens to be the part of the EU I like best. European law was framed very largely by British lawyers at a time when British law was fairer and more liberal than most other countries’ had been in recent years, and only began to appear out of kilter with ours, at least to Conservative Home Secretaries like Theresa May, as the latter moved more to the authoritarian Right. I still regard the EJC as the best guarantee at the present time of what used to be historical British values. Conservative Brexiters don’t agree. But then they’re pretty ignorant, on the whole, of their history.

Lastly, among the reasons I voted to stay within the EU, was the sense of personal identity I felt with Europe, which the vote last year took away from me. Brexiteers argue that only one national identity is possible, or permissible, for people; ‘if you say you’re a citizen of the world’, as Theresa May memorably put it at last year’s Tory Party conference, ‘you’re a citizen of nowhere’. (Phew!) In other words, I have to choose. (This mirrors Norman Tebbit’s notorious ‘cricket test’ of years ago: that if you’re a Pakistani-origin Briton you shouldn’t support Pakistan on the cricket field.) But that is not the modern way of looking at the ‘multiple identities’ that many of us feel we have in these global times. Obviously very many others think like me on this. On the News this morning it was reported that applications by Britons for dual nationality with EU countries has more than doubled since Brexit. I’m one of them – applying for joint Swedish citizenship the day after the Brexit vote. I feel I was robbed of one of my identities by that vote, which is worse in many ways than being robbed of one’s property or prospects; which will probably be the effect of Brexit on its misled popular constituency.

If I’d still been doubtful last June, events since then would have confirmed the wisdom of my eventual decision. The ‘Out’ vote represented only 35% of the British electorate; OK, 52% if you exclude those who didn’t bother to vote, and who of course might well have voted ‘Out’ if they had done; but still a very narrow majority, for such a huge decision. Bearing in mind the disinformation that spewed out from the Brexit side, and the constitutional fact that the referendum wasn’t supposed to be mandatory, there’s good reason to dispute the legitimacy of that. Then there are the huge problems and complications involved in extracting us from the EU, as we’re seeing now, which, even if the decision had been marginally a good one, surely wouldn’t have been thought worth the trouble if they had been revealed sooner; the scarcely-disguised contempt that is pouring on us from the Continent (which I imagine the Brexiteers take as a badge of pride); and the bad feelings back here in Britain that the whole episode has provoked. That embraces the frightening increase in racist and proto-Fascist organisations post-Brexit, and of racially-motivated assaults; the vitriol that has been poured on ‘Remainers’ by the likes of the Daily Mail, which must, surely, reflect the weakness of their position; and, of course, the horrific murder of Jo Cox, MP. Before ‘Brexit’ I had no idea that so many of my compatriots could turn so nasty. If I was reluctant to commit myself exclusively to my British nationality last June, I’m now desperate to escape from it; for, I think, ‘patriotic’, or at least traditional British, reasons. (More on this in my next post.)

So: what can we unreformed ‘Remainers’ do? Our best hope is undoubtedly for a second referendum when the terms of our divorce, and so the reality of the choice ahead of us, are known. The Daily Mail charge that this would be ‘undemocratic’ is clearly nonsense. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2017/09/14/5743/.) In fact it would be our first meaningful vote on the issue. Otherwise the next best option would seem to be as ‘soft’ a Brexit as possible. In any case the wounds created by this whole event will stay with us. A soft Brexit will make the Brexiteers feel betrayed, and so still nastier. A ‘hard’ one will exacerbate the resentment of ‘Europeans’ like me. I can’t see an end to it, myself. But at least I’ll have a bolt-hole, if my Swedish citizenship application goes through.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Centre Ground

That Theresa May should feel it necessary to use a speech at the Bank of England today to ‘defend capitalism’ is remarkable in the context of the history of the past 30-odd years. It shows how dramatically the political climate in Britain has changed more recently.

In one way it may be thought surprising that it has come so late. The financial crisis of 2007-8 ought, it seemed to many of us, to have turned people against capitalism right then. (Shortly after it, my son bought me a wonderful t-shirt, with a picture of Karl Marx, saying ‘I told you so’.) Instead, of course, it simply turned the capitalist screws even tighter, with ordinary people being made to pay for the banker-induced catastrophe, while the bankers themselves returned to their ill-gotten remuneration – and still dodging their taxes – within a few months. On a more popular front, many people reacted not leftwards, but by turning to the anti-immigrant and sometimes even proto-fascist Right. It’s the impact of all that, together with stories of nurses needing to use foodbanks, rising homelessness, well-publicised corruption in some large businesses, and the Grenfell Tower fire – widely interpreted as the outcome of a market-driven system – that seems to have finally driven the anti-capitalist message home. Plus, of course, the startling rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and his major re-casting of the Labour project, returning it to its socialist roots, which were celebrated so enthusiastically and joyfully in this week’s Labour Party conference in Brighton, ending with an inspirational ‘Leader’s speech’ yesterday afternoon. And, last of these causal factors, there is the egregious mess Theresa May and the Conservative government are currently making of everything. That must be a sign of a certain lack of confidence on the traditional pro-capitalist Right.

All of which would appear to bear out Corbyn’s bold claim in his Brighton speech that the ‘centre ground’ of British politics has now shifted to the Left. This would not be a new phenomenon. Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries we can see similar seismic shifts in public opinion and the terms of the contemporary political debates. In the 1900s they were turned Leftwards: just look at the newspapers and journals of the time, where ‘socialism’ was debated far more rationally, intelligently and sympathetically than today. That continued during the interwar period and after, where it transmuted into a widespread acceptance, even by the Tory Party, of social democracy and the welfare state. That was the ‘centre ground’ then; until Thatcher came along, determined to erase this, and re-situate the ‘centre’ where she thought (mistakenly) it had stood in Victorian times: unrestrained capitalism overriding all. Remember ‘TINA” – ‘there is no alternative’? We believed it for a while, even some of us on the Left, cowed by the seeming inexorability of the impersonal, material forces that were driving international capitalism, and which lay behind Thatcher, Reagan and then later Blair. (I’m reluctant to give them any personal credit, even for evil. But that’s the Marxist in me.)

The government’s response to the financial crisis – banks unreformed, more privatisation, austerity for the poor innocent proles – seemed to indicate that Thatcher’s capitalist ‘TINA’ could weather all that. And that the juggernaut would lumber on, undiverted, until, probably, finally collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions; just as Marx had predicted, but without the proletarian revolution he had hoped for, and so too late to save the world. (Because climate change is a result of capitalism, too.)

However, if Corbyn is right about the centre’s shifting – and May’s desperation to defend the old capitalist centre may be a symptom of this – we may be in for a pleasant surprise. It will be interesting to read her speech. (As I write, it has still not been delivered.) I imagine it won’t go the whole Thatcherite hog, but will accept the need for pragmatism when it comes to ‘privatisation’, for example; and some restraints on market forces. We’ll see.

Which is, let us be clear, no more than Corbyn is proposing. No-one on the British Left, so far as I’m aware, wants to put everything in the hands of the State. We all recognise the innovative and dynamic role of ‘market forces’, properly regulated. The difference between Labour and more moderate Conservatives is mainly one of degree. Which would return us to the 1950s and ’60s again; which is the ‘centre ground’ that I was brought up on.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Machine Stops

EM Forster’s early and uncharacteristic novella, The Machine Stops (1909), describes a future community living underground and getting all its wants supplied by a great global machine that feeds them to it – food, communication, entertainment, etc – while they’re sitting comfortably, and getting fatter, in their comfy chairs. The plot begins when the machine suddenly stops working, and the main character – a woman, if I remember rightly – has to clamber up on to the surface to see what’s happening. She finds it inhabited by a sub-race of serfs dedicated to keeping the system going for the benefit of the subterranean privileged elite. (Political bells ringing here!) I can’t now remember how it ends; badly, I think. I do recall that Forster wrote it to counter HG Wells’s more utopian versions of the future.

I thought of this while suffering from the after-effects of my recent burglary (see https://bernardjporter.com/2017/09/20/burgled/), one of which was my being more or less cut off from the internet, and particularly from the site that allows me to blog here. Hence (again) the hiatus; and my non-response to comments. I can’t say I didn’t already know how reliant I was becoming on ‘the Machine’, but this drove it home. It also nearly made me mad; not the disconnection itself, but my (electronic) conversation with WordPress’s ‘Happiness Engineer’ (sic), sitting somewhere in California, I imagine, who was trying to help me put it right. I won’t go through the excruciating twists and turns of this dialogue – they might make you mad too, consisting as they did mainly in circularities (‘I don’t know my password’; ‘to retrieve your password, enter your password’….); suffice it to say that it all seems to be fixed now. (The test will be if this post goes up.)

In the meantime I’ve been living in a kind of limbo, unable to do any useful work, but, worse than that, shocked by how dependent I’ve become on a very clever but still inanimate device. And on the clever young people I need to help me with it. Are they Forster’s surface-dwellers? I must read the book again. It seems extraordinarily far-seeing. But of course this – the 1900s – was the great age of predictive Science-Fi.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Essex Book Intro

INTRODUCTION

I’m an Essex boy through and through. But I’ve always been mildly embarrassed by that. Essex has never been a highly-regarded or ‘proud’ county, even before the emergence of ‘Essex Man’ (vulgar) and ‘Essex Girl’ (promiscuous) to sully its reputation in the 1980s. It was a non-county, with no special identity or pride compared with others like (especially) Yorkshire, where I live now. I realised this when I went up to university, meeting and envying people from much more attractive counties or cities than Essex; and particularly than London-suburban Essex, which Hornchurch was then. (It’s now part of Greater London.) This hybrid identity posed problems. Asked where I came from, I was in two minds whether to reply ‘Essex’, which sounded dull, or ‘East London’, which was more interesting, and which I would have preferred, as a bit of an inverted snob, but which implied eel pies and whelks, which wasn’t Hornchurch at all. (Simple ‘Hornchurch’ would have drawn a blank.) Besides, I knew the ‘proper’ or rural Essex far better, spending most of my summer holidays as a boy cycling over it, photographing and sketching churches and other historic buildings, following Essex County Cricket Club around, and visiting my father’s family in Chelmsford.

One of Essex’s problems is its place on the map. It’s quite a large county, as it happens – tenth out of 39 of the ‘historic’ counties; but lying under the great East Anglian bulge which is Norfolk and Suffolk, stretching down to the mudflats of the Thames river and estuary, and broken up more and more as you go south by further muddy estuaries and seeming nothingness. It sort of peters out to the east, boringly if you don’t like sea birds, sky-scapes or sailing, with no firm defining boundary around it. On the map of England it looks a bit like an armpit. To the south-west, of course, it has been extensively encroached upon by the ‘Great Wen’ of London, which has significantly changed the county’s character today; and all over by the ‘stockbroker belt’, on the lines to Liverpool Street (convenient for ‘The City’), taking over and converting many of the picturesque older houses, which has made it virtually unaffordable to live in for locals. You won’t find many Essex accents in the county today; only London (‘cockney’), ‘Estuary English’, and tight-arsed upper-class. For the sort of ‘Essex’ my father and grandparents used to speak – warm, rural, richly musical – you now have to venture into Suffolk or Cambridgeshire. Of course that’s a source of regret for nostalgic oldies like me.

But that’s ‘progress’, as they say. Nostalgia has its tearful pleasures, especially later in life, remembering (in my case) the bike rides, the leafy lanes, the quiet towns, the lovely little churches, the solitude, sitting in cornfields sketching and painting, resisting the advances of the cycling paedophiles (oh yes, we had them then), and those fun nights at the Youth Hostels (no cars allowed), crippled with cramp after a hundred miles a day of peddling. I’ve always resisted nostalgia; but I guess that, at my advanced age, it can’t do me much harm now. And I can put it in its place. Of course things have to change. And in the case of Essex, the changes of the past seventy-odd years have – in my view – added to the richness and certainly the fascination of the county; even the much-derided arrival, from the slums of East London, of Essex Man and Essex Girl.

Imagine what it would be like now without them. Actually I don’t need to imagine, living as I do presently in the East Riding of Yorkshire – or North Humberside, if you want to be up-to-date – which is similar to Essex in many ways, especially its landscape and wonderful old churches, but without Hull, on its southern border, being able to infuse it with the new blood and liveliness that the East End of London imparts to Barking, Brentwood, Billericay and all places north-east. The East Riding really is dull – and comfortable. (I love living here.) OK, it doesn’t have the clogged-up roads and railways, the (very) nouveaux riches in their pretentious ‘stockbroker Tudor’ homes, the concentration of ugly petrol stations, McDonald’s eateries, and snobby golf courses that blight the ‘home’ counties, all of which is to the good; and it is undoubtedly just as pretty as Essex. (Ask David Hockney.) But where are the life and vitality that you find in Essex, only partially compromised by their less salubrious sides: the Jamie Olivers, Bobby Moores, Graham Gooches, Russell Brands, Maggie Smiths, Grayson Perrys, Sandie Shaws, and (I’m afraid), David Irvings: to name but a few, most of them from the London side of the county. And where in the East Riding is the political radicalism that has been a great feature of Essex historically, deriving to a great extent from its proximity to the filthy metropolis next door? Or the New Town architecture – those great experiments in social living? And what can compare with the peculiarly attractive, semi-rural quality of Essex cricket?

What I hope to do in this book is to make out a case for Essex’s being at least interesting. I’m aware that I don’t have all the proper credentials for this task, not being what is called a ‘local’ historian; though I did write a book about Essex, illustrated, at the age of about fourteen, now lost (my mother kept none of my juvenilia), but, as I remember, mainly plagiarised from other books, which is how I thought history was written at that age. (Some of the students I later taught at university seemed not to have moved on from there.) My professional expertise is in more nation- and indeed world-wide history, plus a little foray into the history of architectural theory; but as I’ve found in my own writing in the past, an outsider’s perspective can often inform the most specialist of disciplines, so long as one is prepared to learn, respectfully, from the specialists’ work, and retains one’s own scholarly – that is, sceptical – discipline. Besides, I may be better placed than more parochial historians to properly appreciate and describe the place that my county and its inhabitants have played in Britain’s broader national history. As a non-specialist I feel fortunate that Essex, despite its low esteem, offers a plentiful specialist literature for me to plunder: stretching from the huge multi-volume Victoria County History of Essex, edited for a time by WR Powell, whom it so happens I knew as a boy when he attended the same Methodist church that my father and I did in Harold Wood; through to gazetteers, guide-books, archaeological reports, popular publications of the Essex Record Office, an early ‘Pevsner’, romantic travel-books, and even a novel or two. These, and my memories, especially as a boy brought up at the very meeting point between the two cultures whose intermingling has contributed so much to present-day Essex, are my sources. On top of that will be spread a layer of I hope intelligent speculation, which should be easily distinguishable from the ‘facts’, and so easy to discount, if it’s considered untrustworthy.

This book will not be the first to try to rescue Essex’s reputation. Many authors have written in ‘praise’ of Essex, albeit struggling against what they represent as almost impossible odds. If Essex hasn’t got a unique reputation for awfulness, it is certainly thought to have one by those several writers who have sought to defend it. ‘It’s arguably the most-maligned 1,300 square miles in the UK’, claimed a BBC documentary in 2010, before going on to give its own contrary view. ‘Yes, everyone knows about Essex’s reputation,’ writes another. ‘People from Essex in particular are well aware of that reputation, thanks to the knowing looks and smirks we frequently get when we confess our roots. In order to avoid this, less hardy locals will respond to the innocent enquiry with ambiguous statements like “near London” or “in the South East.”’ That’s my experience precisely. Its reputation as ‘flat and uninteresting’ goes back at least a couple of hundred years. No wonder then that, as the very first issue of the Essex Review put it as long ago as 1892, ‘it has often been said that there is less county pride in Essex than probably any other British county’. More recently – and partly because of the influence of ‘Essex Man’ and ‘Essex Girl’ – it has been described as ‘the dustbin of London’, ‘the golden turd of England’ (!), and plenty more in the same style. That’s what its defenders claim; which makes their task of rehabilitating the wretched place, of course, all the more heroic. I salute them.

The present book, however, won’t exactly fit into that pattern. I don’t see it as an ‘in praise of’ kind of book. It certainly isn’t intended to engender pride in Essexites’ Essexness – ‘Essexite’, incidentally, is a neologism, there being no other collective noun to describe the county’s inhabitants – as I don’t believe in the logic of any people’s feeling ‘pride’ in the mere accident of their birth. Besides, Yorkshire folk have enough of that for all of us. (They can keep it.) It won’t, I promise you, be too nostalgic, starry-eyed or honeysuckle-scented – though the smell of honeysuckle on balmy summer days is, as it happens, one of the things I recall most fondly about my cycle rides in the Essex countryside. Needless to say, the book won’t pretend to be comprehensive, or a ‘last word’. It will have worked, if it stimulates some interest in, and maybe a little affection for, an unjustly neglected corner of England.

It will begin with some very early prehistory, before cantering through the recorded history of the county, at quite a lick. The subsequent chapters will explore various ‘themes’ arising from all this, and some theories. You’ll see.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Burgled

The recent hiatus in posting has been due to the fact that I was burgled a week ago, and my laptop stolen. I thought my house was pretty secure, but they threw a brick through a window-pane, stuck an arm in, and snatched it away. This at 5 a.m: my neighbour heard the breaking glass but I – at the front of the house – didn’t. The police think they know the perpetrator, just out of gaol. Whether I get my laptop back I don’t know, but with the advice of the police I’ve ‘immobilised’ it, whatever that means. My insurance company (Lloyds Bank) turned up trumps and delivered a new computer five days later. I’m now trying to get into ‘iCloud’ (is that right?) to see if my ‘stuff’ is there. It’s mainly the work I did in Sweden, which wasn’t very much. I was just about to back it up on my desktop, with everything else. Hey-ho. I’m beginning to reconsider my opposition to capital punishment, when the victim is an academic.

In the meantime I’m starting on another book, encouraged by some of the feedback on recent posts. (They’ll be acknowledged.) It will be on ‘Essex.’ I may post drafts here, for comment; starting soon, with my draft Preface. Please remember, if you do read them, that my first drafts are usually unrecognisable from the final versions. And that I may not persist in this anyway.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Essex

It was wonderful to see Essex winning the County Cricket Championship today, and not only for partisan and nostalgic reasons (see https://bernardjporter.com/2017/08/15/cricket-nostalgia/). Essex CCC are different from most other county teams, and from all leading soccer teams, in being home-grown; recruiting nearly all its players locally, apart from its foreign captain, Ryan ten Doeschate, a Dutchman (but born in South Africa), who has nonetheless declared himself to be ‘Essex through and through’; which is what we want, isn’t it, for an immigrant to be fully accepted. It’s the team’s deep attachment to my own beloved county of origin that makes them worthier of my loyalty, I think, than a mere batch of highly-paid soccer mercenaries like West Ham. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2016/05/13/old-west-ham/.)

Anyway, Essex deserves it. For years the county has been traduced. At the start it was for being ‘flat and uninteresting’. Latterly it has been because of the rise of ‘Essex Girl’ and ‘Essex Man’: the former characterised as ‘thick, promiscuous and lacking in class’; the latter defined by Simon Heffer as ‘young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren;… typically self-made and [who] had benefitted from the policies of Margaret Thatcher’. (See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-39125171.) Of course – as we genuine Essexites repeatedly protested – these were not really characteristic of the county of Essex, but were mainly polished-up East Enders pushed out of London during the war and made to settle in its dull suburbs. (I explained in an earlier blog how my father was brought in to teach them: https://bernardjporter.com/2017/08/22/dad/.) They’ve also produced some sterling people (I listed a few in that article). But the ‘Essex Man and Girl’ stereotype has now sullied all of us, and blinded non-Essexites (that’s not a common term, by the way; I’ve made it up) to the delights and riches of the county.

To mention a few – I got to know the county intimately as a youngster, cycling around making sketches of scenes and churches, so I could be very expansive and boring if I wanted – there are the hills of the north-west; the ‘Constable Country’ along the Stour valley; impressive castles (Colchester, Hedingham…); beautiful churches (Thaxted, Saffron Walden, Greenstead: its nave made of oak logs and pre-Conquest; Little Maplestead; the Willingales – two churches of adjacent parishes sharing a churchyard; Waltham Abbey… and so many more); fine mansions, almost palaces (Audley End); delightful villages (Finchingfield, Newport); and then, out to the south and east, the fascinating marshlands, with one of the oldest English churches (7th century) at Bradwell-super-Mare; the site of Earl Byrhtnoth’s heroic battle with the Vikings, celebrated in the contemporary old-English poetic fragment ‘The Battle of Maldon’ (https://lightspill.com/poetry/oe/maldon.html); and of course fine popular watering places like Clacton and Southend… But I won’t go on. I have a library of books celebrating the Essex countryside, mostly written before the last war, when Essex was still delightfully rural – and radical. (The Peasant’s Revolt started there. William Morris was born there, or nearabouts, in Walthamstow. Thaxted had a communist vicar for many years.) It was full of leafy lanes, half-timbered and thatched houses, and people speaking Essex (like Suffolk). But no longer, of course. Well, that’s only to be expected.

The beginning of the end came, I think, when the rich – not the East Enders – moved out of London to villages from which they could easily commute, first class, to their posh jobs in their banks and the like; or developed a taste for country cottages dressed up as ‘holiday homes’, which pushed the house prices up far beyond what the yokels could afford. The same thing happened in all the ‘home counties’. And, of course, it was when ‘modernisation’ in a broader sense took hold.

So I’m unlikely to go back now. But it’s good to see a team of local lads winning the County Cricket Championship again, after 20-odd years; and – moreover – with a new young fast bowling discovery leading the charge, with a typically Essex name. It’s Porter. (We Porters were common around Colchester.) He even shares my granddad’s initials – JA. It was my granddad, in fact, who took me to my very first Essex games in the 1950s, at the Chelmsford ‘Rec’. Bonds like that are not easily undone.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Process

(Republished. A version of this appeared on the LRB Blog, 14 September.)

The Commons vote last night to give the Tories majorities on all the committees that are supposed to scrutinise legislation, including the Brexit legislation, despite their not having a majority of seats in the Commons, has been described as a ‘power grab’. It’s also deeply unconstitutional, in spirit at least. Remember, Britain is a Parliamentary democracy, not a plebiscitary one. Parliamentary democracy is no less ‘democratic’, essentially, than more ‘direct’ kinds. What it does is to express and put into practice the ‘will of the people’, but only once that will has been scrutinised, debated and tested over a (fairly short) period of time.

The idea that the ‘will of the people’ as expressed on a single day in June 2016 should be set in stone, never to be amended, runs right against this; especially in view of the existential importance of the decision taken on that day, and the unreliable nature (to say the least) of the debate leading up to it. The British constitution deliberately sets up a process to avoid that, and to produce more considered – but equally ‘democratic’ – verdicts. That’s important. But it’s exactly what the tabloid press, together with the Daily Telegraph, are objecting to, in this and in other cases surrounding Brexit. They were surprised by the Brexit vote, as was virtually everyone, including the Brexiteers themselves, which suggests that they were aware of the fragility of it; and were consequently nervous that it might be countermanded after fuller and more mature popular consideration, on the basis of the solider knowledge that the last few months of ‘negotiation’ (so-called) have revealed to all of us – knocking some wind out of the more optimistic Brexiteers’ sails. Put bluntly, they’d prefer a knee-jerk reaction to be implemented, rather than a calmer one.

Those who insist on Parliament’s even discussing these matters, and insist on a vote at the end of the process, when we’ll know what we’re voting for, are traduced as trying to undermine democracy, and even as ‘enemies of the people’ (the Daily Mail). The Daily Telegraph over the last week has been dismissing the debates about Parliamentary accountability as being abstruse, technical, a waste of time, intended simply to delay, and ‘merely about process’. But that’s the thing.  Process is vital to all constitutional democracies. (It’s what ‘constitutional’ means.) Theresa May’s gerrymandering of the Commons Committee system, and her invoking of ‘Henry VIII’ rules (allowing the executive to pass laws without legislative agreement), will gravely hinder our (British) process, and hence damage our kind of democracy.

Brexiteers claimed they wanted to repatriate British laws. This shows how much they understand them. And confirms May’s authoritarian tendencies; which were there for all to see during her stint as Home Secretary. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2017/05/04/may-and-history/. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Not a nice woman, our Theresa.

Even if there were a second referendum, after a vote in Parliament on the Brexit terms, I fully accept that it might well go the same way as the first. But at least in that case our exit from the EU would have been effected constitutionally. Which hopefully would be accepted by the Remainers with a better grace than we are bound to accept the result of the verdict of 23 June last year with, based as it was on the blatant and deliberate lies of Farage, Boris and Gove, and robbing so many of us of one of our prized identities. (I’m still waiting for my Swedish – and hence EU – passport.) Otherwise the political and social wounds of this divisive and ill-tempered contest will fester for decades to come.

Posted in Brexit, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Power Grabs and Process

(Temporarily withdrawn, while the LRB Blog takes it up. Back again shortly.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment