Just as I remember it
From around 12 years ago until 2011, I kept another weblog. It charted my adventures moving a narrow boat around the Midlands of England, and my eventual return to London. It was also laced with politics and culture. Reading it again now, I am stricken with a strange nostalgia. 7/7, the London tube and bus bombings, had happened, but the murder of Lee Rigby had not, and awareness of the threat posed by Islam was definitely on the rise in some quarters. But there were no blocks on the pavements, no armed soldiers, no bouncers outside synagogues. London has changed, even in a few short years.
This is the first in an occasional series of re-runs from that weblog. The first line, and the memory of something else, places it at the very beginning of 2010.
There is a general election looming and so, as one might expect, the news is full of policies, manifestoes, suggestions concerning how our ruptured economy might be put right. Yes, you can barely move for sensible, balanced debate concerning the future running of the res publica, the public thing, our thing.
Oh, forgive me. My mistake. The newspapers and news channels [which are always showing, bizarrely, in banks] are actually full of Gordon Brown and his alleged temper tantrums. Is this mature political debate? Of course not. Maturity just at the moment comes as easily to this country as moderation to the alcoholic. Why has the question of whether Brown - to whom I suspect we should grant autistic licence - manhandled the odd wonk or displaced an errant secretary from a seat and a computer I paid for become the burning issue of the hour? The public sector is going to have to be more or less dismantled, but a charity bullying helpline hogs the spotlight. Our national credit rating is as imperilled as a grouse on the 12th of August, but we read only of lapels and airborne mobile telephones. What remains of our cultural sensibilities is gasping, its head above water for the third time, but we have to listen to Boy Miliband and that preening Nancy-boy Mandelson telling us that Brown is tough but fair.
What disgusts me most is our inability to escape this ideological emptiness, this void in thought and integrity. Like the poor, it seems, politicians will be always with us.
Cameron looks sweatier almost by the day. How would you feel? You watch your nominal rival become as popular as a rubber-Johnny machine in the Vatican city, and still the polls indicate that you may have to horse-trade with the Liberal Democrats. That's why he's entitled to look even more like Captain Pugwash than ever.
What happened to politics? I suspect that John Ralston Saul was right. The Enlightenment was a thoroughly good thing, but the west valorised the wrong aspect of its legacy. Instead of genuine enlightenment, we went for managerial technique, bureaucracy raised to the level of dogma, management of information instead of striving to be genuinely informed.
We've all been bullied by our ruling elites, we've all had our collective heads kicked like footballs by a managerial class who act as though they have slide rules inserted into their rectums.
There’s more to life than books, you know…
…but not much more, to quote the young Morrissey. I’m sure you don’t need me to sell reading to you, especially in our chuckle-headed cultural epoch. Books, however, can carry something of a threat in certain social contexts. Oh, alright then. In certain pubs.
Sit in a pub reading a book in Islington or Chiswick or Hampstead and no one will give you a second glance. Sit in the roughest of my home town boozers with a tome and the local faces will look at you as though you were a sort of cross between Quentin Crisp and Ian Brady. It is empirically verifiable – and might be quite fun to prove – that some pub-goers take to lone male book readers a good deal more affably than others.
I thought I’d picked a wrong ‘un on Saturday night. I was due to attend a party – an excellent party, as it transpired – at a south London hostelry. I had arrived early, having allowed far too much time for the tubes to go wrong.
A word about the tubes in passing. I have no complaints about the early services. I start work at 8am and, because of my peripatetic lifestyle, use a number of different stations and tube lines. I rarely have problems on a weekday morning. The weekends, in bold contradistinction, suddenly become nightmarish. My journey from Holland Park to Tottenham Court Road on Saturday evening does not walk off with the trophy for worst-ever tube journey, but it certainly makes the quarter-finals. What struck me was how well every one took the experience of recreating a cattle truck.
Anyway, I elected to go to another boozer for a pint of the refreshing and nutritional, as well as a quick perusal of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, a book recommended by my brother.
I read The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire about 20 years ago and enjoyed them both, liked the slightly exotic familial dysfunction. I’ve needed something recently to live with for a while in terms of my reading. I’ve been pecking at books again, as the precariously stacked pagoda of books on a shelf on the boat bears witness.
So, there I sat, reading away and making it look easy. An early evening posse was already forming at the bar of this swiller, four men trying hard to out-shout one another. Christ knew what they would be like when they were pissed. I was attracting suspicious, mildly threatening looks, and then one of them finally came over. He looked capable of great violence but, it came to pass, had not come over to pummel me about the ears, but to indulge in a bit of lit. crit.
“What’s the book, mate?”
I showed him the cover. He registered no recognition. I enquired politely,
“Seen The World According to Garp?”
“My favourite book is The Celestine Prophecies.”
“Yeah. The Celestine Prophecies. Know why?”
I did not.
“Because it says ‘Don’t talk to children like they’re children.’”
And he strode back to his fellows, his literary opinions out in the open.
On the non-fiction side, I've been re-reading, not exactly Nietzsche, but Lesley Chamberlain's charming little study, Nietzsche in Turin. Her first line is the following:
"This book is an attempt to befriend Nietzsche."
And you think; Oi oi. Here we go. More post-feminist, post-structuralist old ballocks. But don't be put off. If you have ever read Nietzsche and are interested, this book's a little wonder. At just over 200 pages, it really is little - I wasn't being patronising - and it's as good an intro to the comedically-moustachioed German as I've read. And I've read a lot, including the entirety of the medical notes written by the doctor in the Jena asylum, when Nietzche was already long insane with tertiary syphilis, and in which Friedrich died, after drawing geometrical figures in the sand there with a stick, after insanely declaring his love for Richard Wagner's wife, Cosima, after declaring himself to be Dionysus and expanding on that grandiose theme to sign his correspondence, shortly before his death, with the following:
"I am all the names in history."
If you are, in any way, interested in philosophy, and you haven't read Nietzsche then you are as hobbled as an R 'n' B rhythm guitarist who has avoided Keef Richards all his life. There has long been a ridiculous Anglo-American argument along the lines of; "Was Nietzsche a philosopher?" Could Keef play drop G? Fuck off out of it. Nietzsche was a philosopher in a way that Wittgenstein, for example, was not. Wittgenstein hardly read any other philosophy, although that doesn't detract from the brilliance of, say, the Tractatus, which I also re-read recently. Doesn't the last line, incidentally, remind you of Hamlet?
Wittgenstein: That whereof we canot speak, we must remain silent.
Laertes: And the rest is silence.
Nietzsche read anything he could get his hands on, using the time to read when he wasn't affected by crippling myopia, which at least one critic uses to explain his later, more aphoristic style.
Chamberlain brings a wonderful and important side of Nietzsche to vibrant life; his loneliness. The story of Nietzsche's near-non-existent sex life is well documented. Less observed is how he dealt with his dreadful feeling of being alone, out of time, unseasonal, unheimlich. Every time I read him I mentally raise a glass - although Nietzsche was near-teetotal, believing that in veritas vino rather than vice versa - but I am not comparing myself to the great German. I simply recognise the great need western philosophy has had for the non-systematiser. If you crave your systems, head back to the homely shores of Hegel 'n' Marx, Hume, even Kant. But don't stop off at the stormier ports of, Heidegger and even Sartre. You may not get permission to dock.
From the library to the newspapers. Matthew Parris was genuinely incisive in Saturday's Times, I thought. He was writing about the emptiness of modern political discourse, the fact that 'our politics has become a race towards the perfect vacuum'. He compares the three main parties' election logos and finds them equally vapid. The Lib Dems' logos repeat the mantra 'change that works for you' in all four of its main manifesto points. Parris notes this:
'Yes - you've spotted it. An uber-slogan: "Change that works for you". As opposed to change that doesn't.'
Douglas Murray made this point well in a recent Standpoint. Try reversing a politician's aspirational statement and see if it makes no sense. 'We are against choice', for example. If so, there was no point in making the statement.
However, Parris fails, as far as I can see, to make a more obvious connection. Something which works - particularly for you - must, by definition, be something you can, indeed must, believe in. Change which works for you, then, is change you can believe in which, I think I'm right in saying, was a recent catchphrase during the election campaign in America.
The past. Always with us, particularly if we wrote it down. As John Dewey wrote; Litera scripta manet. That which is written endures. Another trip down Memory Lane soon…