Saturday, September 24, 2022

About symbolic gestures

The new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has told police they’ve been spending too much time on symbolic gestures and, oddly enough, I agree with her. I was pretty sceptical about the whole taking the knee business, not so much because of what it represents, but because any such action or display that becomes an expected behaviour – to the extent that you draw more attention to yourself by not doing it than by taking part – loses any kind of moral authority. On the other hand, I extend my scepticism to Remembrance poppies, standing for the national anthem and the recently concluded near-fortnight of choreographed deference to mark the death of the Queen. I wonder whether the police will be encouraged to spurn that sort of symbolism.

PS: Good Lord, I was blathering on about this 15 years ago. The slightly awkward example I used was that if a German wore a swastika in the 1920s, he was definitely a Nazi. If he wore one after 1933, all you could be certain of was that he was keen to be seen as a Nazi.

Monday, September 19, 2022

About the queue

The queue to view the Queen’s coffin will live on, in sociology theses if not in blessed memory, mainly because the end point was a bit of a disappointment. A few people, especially those with some kind of military background, had prepared some sort of ritual (a salute, a curtsey, just a brisk nod) but many, even after all those hours living off sandwiches and some warped folk memory of the Blitz spirit, spent their 10 seconds of communion with the late monarch frozen in the headlights, so afraid of committing some arcane faux pas that they just stared, then waddled off.

An analogy with Brexit seems apt. People definitely wanted Brexit, but many of them weren’t sure why, and even more had no idea what to do after it had happened. Endless iterations of “we’ve got our country back” aren’t really a basis for operating a major, if declining, 21st-century economy. And gawping mutely at a wooden box under a flag for a fraction of a minute is no substitute for a functioning constitution.

I’ve consumed the events of the past week and a half with a sort of baffled scepticism. As I’ve said before, I wish no ill on the Queen, and I hope her family and friends have had a chance to grieve properly. And I don’t really have anything against the people in the queue; they simply have a hobby that doesn’t ring my particular bell, like golf or potholing or light opera. But this morning I discovered that two people I vaguely know through social media have had medical appointments cancelled at the last moment, because it was thought to be more important that NHS staff get a chance to watch the funeral. My scepticism is hardening into anger; to mangle Elvis Costello, I used to be amused, now I fully intend to be disgusted.

PS: Will the sentimental Stalinism never end? Corgi owners throughout the land claim their dogs are in mourning too...

PPS: From Mic Wright, a trilogy of invective that goes into more detail. (This is part 3, links to 1 & 2 beneath the pic.)

PPPS: From the new Private Eye:

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Sunday, September 11, 2022

About the Queen

And so the Queen finally enters Valhalla, not lasting quite long enough to tell us what she thought of Cobra Kai season five. Now is not the time or place to cast aspersions on the late monarch. Whatever you think of the institution itself, she clearly discharged her role with commitment and aplomb; and, in any case, she's someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother and so on. That said, we seem to have entered a moment – with uncomfortable similarities to the period following the death of her daughter-in-law – when those who aren’t swept up in the mood of collective melancholy feel uncomfortable about conducting business as usual. We don’t mock the Queen herself, but surely some of the bloody awful poetry and awkward corporate tweets are fair game? And as for faded celebrities trying to get in the act...

As far as big public events go, it seems that the effective shutdown of normal service at the BBC and other broadcasters when Prince Philip died last year is now rightly seen as overkill; but the laissez-faire attitude from the Palace has led to some anomalies and inconsistencies. So there was cricket, but no football. And we were allowed a few daft game shows on Saturday night, even if they were shunted to BBC2, but not the Last Night of Proms. This last cancellation seems particularly odd; wouldn’t a bit of sentimental flag-waving be just the ticket? And there are precedents. In 2001, the Last Night took place four days after the 9/11 attacks, surely a more brutal shock to the collective system than the passing of a 96-year-old? The mood was a bit more sombre than usual, exemplified by Leonard Slatkin conducting Barber’s Adagio for Strings. And it was beautiful and respectful and wholly right.   

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

About classical music

An article in the Telegraph marking the 30th anniversary of Classic FM (inadvertently?) exposes an ideological divergence in the way modern conservatives deal with culture.

Ivan Hewitt takes what one might describe as the market-based approach, arguing that Classic FM gives the punters what they want – “delicious treats of an aural kind” – and by doing so attracts twice as many listeners as Radio 3. So that’s good, then. And there’s a passing dig at the BBC licence fee, always a dog whistle to Telegraph readers, even if radio listeners aren’t obliged to pay it. This is the Thatcherite model of culture, free of both state subsidy and a self-appointed elite telling you what’s good. And it has achieved its apotheosis in recent years with the appointment of the ludicrous Nadine Dorries as Secretary of State.

Simon Heffer, meanwhile, takes what to me is a more authentically conservative (as distinct from classical liberal) attitude, in the tradition of Arnold and Eliot: some things are just better than others, even if not many people like them. He grudgingly acknowledges the popularity of Classic FM but... cheapens classical music by treating it as a commodity; worse, it patronises its audience, lulling them into a sort of cultural Stockholm syndrome where they mistake mediocrity for excellence, and where boundaries are seldom pushed out. 

The example he gives is the poll of listeners' favourite music, which places the Star Wars theme 250 places above Elgar’s First Symphony. But to define this preference as being objectively wrong, as Heffer does, takes him to dangerous ground. “As a measure of the taste of the most gullible element of the British public, it is invaluable,” he argues. But couldn’t that in turn be applied to the antics of the modern Conservative Party, including the way Liz Truss panders to the prejudices of the party members who are probably going to elect her in the next few days, and indeed to Brexit – which Heffer supported?

(Incidentally, the weight of opinion in the comments section seems to favour Hewitt and Classic FM — which, paradoxically, tends to prove Heffer’s point.)

PS: On a vaguely related theme, quiz show contestant turned researcher Lillian Crawford on what knowledge is for (and which knowledge needs to be known). “Competing on University Challenge made me realise that I quiz not to perform knowledge, but to acquire it.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

About pretending to read

Karen Joy Fowler
I made a New Year’s resolution to stop pretending I had read books I hadn’t. This necessitated a crash course in all those I had already pretended to have read.
Except that often the pretence is so deep and wide that I forget whether or not I really have read the book, so I wouldn’t know which ones I need to catch up on, surreptitiously or otherwise. (See my Gatsby confusion; and, as always, wonder whether or not Pierre Bayard was joking.)

Sunday, August 21, 2022

About corrections

Apologies for literary errors often sound defensive, but I think we’ll let him off this time. (Hugues PanissiĆ©, from the 1960 edition of The Real Jazz.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

About Philip Purser

Two gems from the Telegraph obituary of the writer Philip Purser. First, that the first choice for the job of TV critic at the newly-launched Sunday Telegraph in 1961, was the blind journalist TE Utley, because he wouldn’t be distracted by the pictures.

And the conclusion to the obituary he wrote for a colleague: “He is the author, I believe, of my obituary held on file at The Telegraph. I wonder what it says.”