Saturday, November 29, 2014

England our England

What would an English fascism look like?

I can't see it strutting around in uniforms. Nor would it adopt any of these fancy theoretical doctrines - they are far too European. As for all this modernism and talk of the future, no way would that appeal. Instead, its utopia would be smaller, more modest, rooted in the past. It wouldn't care if that past existed or not, as long as it sounded familiar and cosy. It would be self-effacing and modest. Fascism feeds on the idea that all will be well if one or other of a group of people are removed from our presence. An English version would only seek to get rid of sufficient of them. It wouldn't be one for ambitious, teutonic efficiency. Just enough will do. Others will be able to remain - in their proper place of course. It would be careless with democracy, it never had much time for it. It would expect deference, obedience and, above all, respect for authority. Our rights would be English, not human - whatever that means. It would have some exotic friends who do speak piffle from time to time, but you have to admit old boy, they do have a point. Its language would be uncomplicated. You would be able to call a spade a spade without any of this politically correct circumlocution. It would seek power without the glory. And above all it would be suburban. It would not speak for the cosmopolitan or the rural, but for the semi-detached sprawl, for respectability and convention.

And that is why we should confront UKIP rather than pander to it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Back in Blighty

Greece has its eccentricities, but it would be hard pushed to match the surrealism of politics here. When I got back the news was dominated by the amazing revolt against the political class signified by the, er, reelection of the existing Conservative MP for Rochester. OK he stood for reelection because he had jumped ship from the Tories to UKIP, a party further to the right, but he is still the same former barrister and banker as ever. Then he declared that, "The radical tradition, which has stood and spoken for the working class, has found a new home in Ukip." Oh.

So, how did the Labour Party leadership react? Miliband sacked one of his few remaining allies for tweeting a picture of a house and spoke passionately about respecting white vans.

I give up.

PS. At least Andrew Rawnsley talks some sense here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


I'm off to Greece on Friday for a short trip, but will return for a longer stay in December. I don't think this extra visit was the result of the latest marketing ploy by the Greek National Tourism Organisation (EOT). At first their new video was criticised for being hackneyed, all about mythology and ancient Greece again. Starting it with a picture of New York was odd, but fitted the storyline. Yet then there was the inclusion of a clip from Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Yes, those Olympics. Not brilliant either to show a beautiful night-time beach scene in Australia (!?!). This was followed by accusations of plagiarism too with the use of unlicensed and unaccredited photos. Oh dear.

All has been put right and EOT has issued a statement. It didn't help much and is savagely demolished here. You can see why Greeks despair sometimes. Even so, its a great place in its own way. Go there and spend your money. Greece needs it and you won't regret it.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Memory and history

I wasn't impressed by the original article about the First World War commemorative installation at the Tower of London, but all the indignant moralising about it didn't do much for me either. However, it did provoke a response and Jonathan Jones replied to his critics here. I liked it when he wrote,
What can make a difference is our historical understanding of the Great War, its causes and consequence. History is worth far more than the illusion of memory, when none of us today actually have a memory of being soldiers in 1914-18.
History is a collective memory, but is just as fallible and contested as an individual one. And that is where Jones goes wrong. He sees the history of the First World War as unproblematic.
Popular history has been invaded by revisionists who tell us that far from being lions led by donkeys in a futile bloodbath, the British soldiers who fought from 1914-18 were fighting, as the propaganda at the time claimed, to defend democracy from militarist authoritarian Germany. 
I believe this fashionable view of the first world war to be historically unjustified. I’ve been interested in its history ever since I spent too many hours as an 18-year-old reading up to win a history entrance scholarship at Cambridge – no, before that, since seeing that photo of an unburied corpse on the cover of Taylor’s book. The best current work on the origins of the first world war, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, is a 562-page analysis that does not pander to instant explanations. He demonstrates the absurdity of seeing Germany as the unique culprit and reveals the complex process of diplomatic folly that started the war.
I have not read Clark's book, but I doubt if it is the last word. So let's take apart that revisionist jibe.

The historiography of the war is a topic in itself. It started in the immediate post-war period with an account based on German guilt. The war had begun when Germany invaded Belgium and France as part of a co-ordinated attack on Russia. German culpability seemed clear. But then the emphasis on pre-war diplomacy was given a boost by the publication of diplomatic papers as a revisionist process set in. Socialists had always seen the origins of the war as lying in imperialism in general rather than the act of a single guilty power, whilst the idea of the war as a "futile bloodbath" was first propagated by the inter-war peace movement. It also had the unintended consequence of encouraging the appeasement of Hitler. The notion of the war being a catastrophic blunder by the great powers, an accidental war, was encouraged by Albertini's major study of its origins, published in English in 1953. However, it wasn't long before the debate was opened up again. An odd combination of the very right wing historian, Alan Clark (who admitted to, at best, misattributing the lions led by donkeys quote), with the pacifist left popularised the "futile bloodbath" argument once more and gave us Joan Littlewood's "O What a Lovely War" in 1963. But in 1961 the case for German culpability had been restated as well, this time in Germany itself, by Fritz Fischer. And the debate has raged on to this day.

Revisionism has succeeded revisionism from 1914 onwards. For instance, I have just written about the anarcho-communist revolutionary Peter Kropotkin's position in the First World War. He supported it, to the horror of many of his comrades. He had warned about the dangers posed by a German state unified under the principles of Prussian militarism for more than a decade before the war began and fully expected Germany to start a European war. Once France had been invaded he called for solidarity with their right of self-defence and military action to destroy German militarism. The idea that this was a just war wasn't "propaganda," it was a ferocious controversy, even taking place within the the revolutionary left!

So, this is no recent invasion by propagandists, but a continuation of an unresolved debate about the war. That there is no consensus suggests that we are faced with ambiguity rather than a definitive history that should be propagated by works of art.

Secondly, Jones makes a common error when he elides between the causes of the war and the experience of it. And what was that experience? Horrific, certainly. We have plenty of evidence for that. But the social history of the trenches is not straightforward at all. With all the correspondence and memoirs of participants we have a huge archive of material and it too is ambiguous. I am uneasy with any account that treats participants as unthinking victims, simply because so many of them weren't. They were driven by propaganda, certainly, but also by duty, family and a belief in a cause, particularly the defence of Belgium. So what was it that made people (including Wilfred Owen) return to the trenches willingly, even if they could have been invalided out? Was it duty or the intensity of the experience and the deep comradeship with their fellow soldier, a profound love that could be found nowhere else? There is evidence for this as well.

Again, there is no single answer. The war, especially on the western front, was terrible. But then war is not good, war is horror, but sometimes it is necessary. And if it was necessary, shouldn't we honour those who experienced that horror?

In the end, we don't have a single objective truth about the war and its participants. Victims or heroes? A necessary war or a crime against humanity? Cases can be made for both. So is it right that a "true work of art about the first world war would need to be as obscene as cancer," a kind of pacifist realism, or should it reflect that ambiguity, try not to be didactic, and provoke reflection and debate? Do the poppies do that? I haven't seen them so I can't say.

I want to end on a note of semi-agreement. The centenary of 1914 does not need politicised sentimentality, it does need history. The ongoing debate is its real memorial, the archives and library shelves a living memory. As for art, my personal view is that ambiguity and dialectics, informed by respect, should win out over certainty.