I am trying to minimise the extent to which I speak of current affairs but some itches have to be addressed. On the subject of the Rotherham abuse scandal one can read some people talking about ethnicity and political correctness and some people talking about incompetent officials and social isolation. The former do not mention the cynical policing, inept managerialism and indifference to “undesirable” young women that enabled these crimes, and the latter avoid discussion of the nature of the criminals themselves. You would think that a sincere attempt to help these victims would involve understanding how they became vulnerable, how they were targeted and how they were ignored but it appears that doing one if not two of these would be ideologically inconvenient for many. The best thing that one can say about humans involved in politics is that we are subconsciously biased and not deliberately obscurantist but, either way, beyond our blinkers enormous suffering has been and is being perpetrated.
August 27, 2014
A symptom and a cause of the decline of British conservatism has been the absence of philosophical voices. That the publication of Michael Oakeshott’s notebooks occasioned interest, then, is welcome; if only as it might inspire more interesting conversations.
Oakeshott was an interesting man: sober and cautious in his thought and somewhat epicurean in his behaviour. In his work, he was both lucid and allusive; toying with ideas like a young man with a sheet of card before revealing a beautifully formed argument.
In Rationalism in Politics - his most accessible book – he offered essays that addressed a broad range of questions. Several of them concerned overambitious rationalism, of totalitarian and liberal forms, which assumed that men and his societies can be understood and altered with reference to abstract analysis and instruction. To his mind, such theories are hubristic in ignoring the need for practical knowledge. “Nobody supposes,” he wrote in the title essay of the book, “That the knowledge that belongs to a good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in a cookery book.”
In Oakeshott’s understanding, then, theorists are at best confined to a narrow understanding of the world. This positioned him against more people than one might imagine. There were the great advocates of the great utopian doctrines of his age, such as the architects whose visions of how people would and should want to live diverged from how they had lived and, in many cases, enjoyed living. The critique is also applicable to more apparently pragmatic thinkers, such as data-driven managerialists whose systematised understanding of people often fails to reflect their complexities. In Rotherham, for example, amid what seems to have been an epidemic of sexual abuse, the council was following a “risk-assessment tool” with a “numerical scoring system” that was tragically inadequate as a means of assessing different situations.
Oakeshott did not restrain himself from criticising the otherwise appreciative neoliberals who would go on to lead the British right…
…while formerly [rationalist politics] was tacitly resisted and retarded by, for example, the informality of British politics…that resistance has now itself been converted into an ideology. This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom – not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.
He was, indeed, openly disparaging of consumerism, and from moral as well as epistemological premises. In “Work and Play”, published elsewhere, he addressed the prioritisation of “human wants”…
A creature composed entirely of wants, who understands the world merely as the means of satisfying those wants and whose satisfactions generate new wants endlessly, is a creature of unavoidable anxieties.
This helps to create, he wrote – in what it Paul Franco observes was an age “before the advent of personal computers, the Internet, email, cell phones, Facebook and Twitter” – “a ceaseless flow of seductive trivialities which invoke neither reflection nor choice but instant participation”. It was a trenchant diagnosis.
This divergence from the ideological trajectory of the right, along with turning down an honour in the ‘80s, might have done Oakeshott’s posthumous reputation few favours. His own conservatism was dispositional. He wrote, in “On Being Conservative”, that…
To be conservative…is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
The trouble with Westerners, the essay continues, is that we are “ready to drop the bone we have for its reflection magnified in the mirror of the future”. One might note that this is so true of the present age that a disposition can be too placid a state of mind to have any effect. It is true that our society has taken shape less through the conscious acceptance of policies and principles than the evolution of arrangements but this does not diminish the value of arrangements that have formed. To return to the cooking metaphor, if I work in the kitchen for long enough I will make especially toothsome and nutritious meals. If I want to reproduce them I should create recipes, and if I want my kids to eat well and not regress to pot noodles I should promote and defend them..
In keeping with his sceptical disposition, Oakeshott’s hoped for political activities to be concerned less with directing the ship of state than keeping it “afloat on an even keel”. In a world where technological and institutional innovation has made such rapid advances, even this demands considerable purposive action. What remains true, however, is that this should be informed by experience. Some environmental measures might have to be innovative, for example, as threats to the natural world have made such progress, but one also thinks of Scruton’s point that if people are going to care about the planet they should be empowered to do what they have always done – tend to their own particular surroundings.
Oakeshott was not only concerned with men as social animals. In his essay “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” he turned to aesthetics. His aim was to distinguish man’s artistic life from his moral and intellectual concerns – to ensure, indeed, that art was not subjected to overmuch rationalistic analysis. It is true, of course, that art has no specific aim, and to suggest otherwise is to open the door to the worst kind of doctrinaire reductionists. Surely it can effect our ideas and behaviour, though? Oakeshott accepts this and makes a more subtle distinction between that which is inherent to art and that which is inferred…
Shakespeare’s “view of life” may appear to us profound, or we may find it as unsatisfactory as Johnson found it…But it is an illusion; we have caught merely what is unpoetic…
I am unconvinced by this as I am unconvinced by Oakeshott’s line between fact and fiction…
…a poetic image can never “lie” because it does not affirm anything. These images – shapes, scenes, movements, characters, verbal constructions – do not belong to a universe of discourse in which “fact” and “non-fact” can be distinguished; they are fictions.
Art does not consist of scientific hypotheses, but what is “contrived”, “sentimental” and “obscure” art except art which misrepresents and muddies life as one experiences it? The written word is, in a sense, the elegant articulation of responses to phenomena, and it affects us as it accords with ideas and impulses we share or, at least, appreciate. Without our particular state of mind King Lear might not seem tragic and A Midsummer Night’s Dream might not amuse. To go into art with the expectation of being instructed is to confuse it with the school, the church or the town hall but to derive inspiration from one’s experience, I think, can be to appreciate and not ignore the power of its artistry. What starts in the spine can travel to the brain.
Oakeshott had little enthusiasm for purposive thought in and outside of politics. Like John Gray, he appeared to value a form of contemplative existence that “aims not to change the world or to understand it”. I have what both might consider to be an unhealthy urge towards seeking the truth – if only to know what value could be placed on life and whether or not it has purpose. This might be futile, but assuming either seems arrogant. Yet men should not do this alone, from the ground up, but where possible continue work that has been done on half-completed structures, if not just repair those which time has degraded. Experience gives one little excuse for immaturity.
August 26, 2014
One of my favourite little books is A Month in the Country, by the unassuming English novelist J.L. Carr. Carr was a late starter in literature, publishing his first novel at the age of 48 after working in education. Once he had devoted himself to words, he also published a series of short books intended to be slipped into trouser pockets across the land. I was pleased to find his Dictionary of extra-ordinary English Cricketers on my shelves, and have copied a few extracts…
Captain Adamson, c. 1844, having deserted his place on the boundary at Phoenix Park, Dublin, to converse with a lady, sprang back over a 4 foot spiked fence and, whilst in the air, took a left-handed catch.
Reverend J.C. Crawford was the only objector to a 1902 M.C.C. motion that the bowling crease be increased from 78 to 80 inches but refused to give his reasons.
Horace, c. 1980, a horse of such exquisite sensibility that, when Fred Morley, the invariable Notts last men, left the Trent Bridge pavilion, it sidled unobtrusively towards the roller.
The Revd. Elisha Smith, Towcester, c. 1773, at the age of 19 renounced loose living, dancing and cricket, “the last of which he was particularly fond”.
Jasper Vinall, c. 1624, Horsted Keynes, Sussex, was killed whilst properly preventing an opponent from having two hits at the same ball.
Carr spent much of his last years attempting to restore a local parish church, and evaded charges of ostentatious Englishness by never giving a damn about self-promotion.
August 22, 2014
Utopian Reformism – Utopians tend to be thought of as revolutionaries: violent, clutching flags and copies of Das Kapital, or spiritual, with long hair, acoustic guitars and bongs. Yet a revolution need not be a sudden thing. Utopianism concerns ends more than it does means, and utopians can be gradualists. The important point is that while they are concerned with improvement and not insurrection their faith in its powers is all but boundless. Assuming that man has access to an almost infinite amount of solutions, they come across few dilemmas they think insurmountable. This overstates the powers of human ingenuity and makes it hard to accept the essential problems of existence. Reformists can be more dangerous than outright ideologues as their implications can be harder to spot.
Utopian Resentment – One might expect utopians to be cheerful. In a world beset by suffering and destruction they have hope for better times. This is a happy thought. Yet is often untrue. One reason is that they tend to be hostile towards people and institutions they believe are holding back progress. Another is that they are despairing of the imperfect nature of the present. They might have little faith in their dreams being realised but they cannot forgive the world for failing to meet their standards, and reject it without care for the scale of its flaws. This eliminates distinctions between “better” and “worse”, as one’s choices are between “awesome” and “atrocious”. (Think of discourses concerning societal collapse, in which it is almost invariably seen as a cataclysmic event, not a decline. That which is not wonderful might as well be dystopic.) This helps to explain how much time apparent idealists spend being cynical.
Utopian Presentism – A state in which modernity is assumed to be nice in all aspects. Adherents spend a lot of time being disillusioned.
August 21, 2014
The Great American Novel is the stuff of legend – indeed, the stuff of myth. The Great American Novelist, however – the wordsmith who most symbolises the States – has been and gone. After finishing J. Michael Lennon’s biography of the man I realise that it was Norman Kingsley Mailer. This was not simply because his career stretched from World War 2 to the invasion of Iraq, and took him from Fort Bragg to Zaire, via John F. Kennedy’s office and the Dick Cavett Show, but because of his extraordinary character: cavalier but insecure; generous but combative; deeply religious without fixing on a particular creed; desperate to be brave and honourable and convinced of the power of violence in allowing one to achieve this; prolific and adventuresome; prone to hysteria; obsessed with fame and influence but most affecting on the level of the unknown; ambitious to an extent that dwarfed his common sense yet nonetheless captivating in efforts to fulfill his goals. It is not a perfect comparison but you won’t get closer with Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace.
August 16, 2014
Boredom, and the fear of it, can make one a fearful bore. They can also inspire entertainment, and this was often the case for Kingsley Amis: England’s most amusing novelist since Evelyn Waugh’s grumpiness became all-endarkening. Lucky Jim may not seem as radical as it did but from the scene in which the spectacular bore Professor Welch is interrupted mid-ramble and turns “like a squadron of slow old battleships” it is hilarious.
What is clear from Zachary Leader’s thorough and penetrating biography of Amis is that he was not just amused or irritated by boredom but downright enraged. He based Welch on his father-in-law: a cheerful and eccentric dilettante of whom he wrote to his friend Philip Larkin…
I hate him; I hate him; I HATE the old APE’S BASTARD…I shall swing for the old cockchafer unless I put him in a book, recognizably, so that he will feel hurt and bewildered by being so hated.
Amis was no mere grouch. The Alteration is among the cleverest of alternative history novels and The Old Devils is a gem. Anger, though, was the young author’s energising force – and not towards society or the universe so much as towards people who insisted on talking to him at mealtimes. To have deprived him of this rage might have been to have robbed him of his creative spirit. What sadist could have done so?
Yet is boredom always avoidable? Amis, famously, was a man of the right but was also contemptuous of rituals and taboos – especially when they stood between him and a drink – and had no time for a conservatism based upon ideas. “It’s the pragmatic money-men who interest me,” he said, “Not the philosophers.” Thatcherites agreed. But the maintenance of institutions often demands a tolerance of strange old habits that sustained them, and understanding of their importance and outlook. It can be dull but so can checking your brakes, and it is still preferable to veering off a cliff.
I was also drawn to the closing passage of a poem that Amis wrote for his father after his death…
I’m sorry you had to die
To make me sorry
You’re not here now
I imagine this was in his mind when he described his mother in his Memoirs as…
…the first of the appallingly long line of figures in my life whom I have come to value, to appreciate the uniqueness of, now they are gone.
I cannot diagnose the man’s problems on the basis of eight hundred pages – whatever their thoroughness – but it strikes me that love, which he sought, demands boredom. One must learn to bear the practical demands and emotional needs of others, as well as to resist the temptations that might sabotage a relationship. It can be hard. It can be dull. But, like artistic inspiration, it is a challenge to be endured as much as a gift to be won.
Lest it seem pious to be saying this to a long-dead great, I would like to assure the reader that this is an argument directed at myself.
August 14, 2014
Today I wish merely to celebrate a man who has amused me and could amuse others. Peter Tinniswood grew up in a flat above the dry-cleaners his mother ran. He later said that he would sit beneath the counter and eavesdrop on the people who came in to do their laundry. “It was like live radio,” he said, “It sharpened my ear for dialogue”.
Tinniswood became a journalist and then a television writer; graduating from The Frost Report, along with John Cleese, the Two Ronnies and others, before writing his own sitcom: I Didn’t Know You Cared. Following the life of the fanatically lugubrious old Uncle Mort, it is an exploration of a northern home that manages to be cheerful and morbid, with characters that are endearing in their commitment, either to futile optimism or to proud misanthropy.
At one point, Uncle Mort scoffs at his brother-in-law’s gardening…
“Turnips? Artichokes? why don’t you grow weeds like me?”
“Don’t talk so empty.”
“I’m not! I feel sorry for them. Everyone’s always after their guts. Look at ‘em. Fumitory. Shepherd’s purse. Speedwell. Silverweed. Yarrow. There’s character in names like that. Not like sprouts. Where’s the romance in sprouts?”
Tinniswood should also be remembered for Tales From A Long Room – a series of cricket stories, narrated by The Brigadier, a bombastic curmudgeon who despises all foreigners and most of the English but savours a great devotion to “our dear ‘summer game’”. There are echoes of Wodehouse in their riotous wordplay and O’Brien in their surreal intersections with the cricketing world.
At one point, The Brigadier takes solace in theology…
…these are but trials and tribulations we must all bear to prepare ourselves for the better life to come, when all earthly cares are lifted from our worthless bodies and our souls ascend to heaven in a joyous, upward curve like a mighty six from the noble blade of Mr Ian Botham.
Tinniswood’s comedy was at its best when it concerned people who were striving to avoid the world at large. Sometimes the jokes were at their expense, and sometimes they were delivered with understanding. In both cases, they offer a pleasant break from one’s own duties and demands.