Monday, 9 January 2012

In which displacement activity takes the form of political pondering

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The Co-Writer calls. ‘How are you?’ she says.

‘Quite grumpy,’ I say.

‘Ah well,’ she says. ‘It is scientifically proven that this is the most depressing week of the year.’

The weather is in a gloom too, flat and low and grey. But then a miracle occurs. As I take The Pigeon out, the sun puts in a late appearance, and suddenly the landscape is transformed, lit with amber light, bright and new and clean.

Perhaps it’s not so bad, I think. I start to contemplate a way through the maze of my next bit of work. This is the graft part. There was all the giddy excitement of first draft time, when I was inventing something out of nothing. There is a headiness to that first deadline. Then, the editorial notes come back, and life is earnest, life is real, and I have to remind myself that I am a professional, not just someone doing this for a whim or a bet.

Restructuring is called for; cutting, shaping, the filling in of gaping holes. It is where indulgence ends, and seriousness begins. ‘We are pros,’ I say, rather plaintively, to The Man of Letters, trying to convince myself. ‘This is what we do.’

Of course, my irrational mind is not so biddable. It casts about frantically for diversion tactics. Oh yes, it thinks, cunningly, let’s do a really long and convoluted blog about the nature of conservatism. That will use up an hour, so you don’t have to think about the weaknesses in Chapter Three.

It is such an evil genius, my irrational mind, because it knows that when I spend time doing the blog, it feels a bit like work. I am typing and thinking, at least. I'm not looking at videos of children doing comical things on the internets, or blatantly checking my Twitter feed. Even cleverer, it knows that if I choose a serious subject, then there is a closer correlation to actual achievement.

I did wake up thinking about conservatism this morning. The naughty Stepfather, who is an old school One Nation Tory, with a libertarian, slightly contrarian streak, which I think comes from his Canadian blood, likes to tease me by cutting out articles from The Telegraph and dropping them round in serious white envelopes. His latest is a piece which contains the line: ‘the facts of life are conservative’.

The old liberal lefty in me is a little gentled by time; I lean more to pragmatism as I get older. I am less shouty and ideological; I even have a bit of a utilitarian streak. Despite my love for theory, I have a growing fondness for things that work. Even so, when I read a sentence like that, all my ancient instincts rise up in revolt. No, no, I think; that really can’t be true.

I start arguing it in my head. The very tiring thing about this is that I have the fatal liberal disease of insisting on seeing both sides of an argument. I can’t just go into a tribal crouch. The criticism of the leftist belief in the state, which can sometimes veer towards blind faith, is that it leads to inefficiencies, unintended consequences, and muddled bureaucracy. There is absolute merit in this argument. On the other hand, the hard belief of the right wing in the diamond brilliance of the free market is equally flawed. I give you: Enron, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers.

Then, as I am batting this back and forth, I think: but what does conservative mean, anyway? I’m not sure that Left and Right tell us very much any more. It’s all fractured, and relative. I have heard a perfectly nice, intelligent woman tell me, with horror on her face: ‘But Barack Obama is a socialist’. I have seen absolutely no signs that he wants to nationalise the means of production. In this country, he would probably be on the wet side of the Tory party. ‘But he’s a pragmatic centrist,’ I cry, to no avail.

The right in America has very little relation to the right here; there is no equivalent of God and guns in British politics. British conservatism can mean ten different things. There are the old guard small-C conservatives, who want traditions preserved, the countryside cherished, children to learn Latin; who take the word seriously, and wish to conserve all they see as true and good. There are purist free marketeers, who believe that Keynes is bad and mad. Social conservatism is a dying breed, but does still exist, and worries about ladies and gays.

Social conservatism always strikes me as a complete contradiction. The defining thing of the right is supposedly its distrust of government. People know better how to run their lives than the state, except when it comes to Elton John and unmarried mothers and a lesbian couple with 2.2 children. In that case, government must loom very big indeed, and instruct people to get married at once, to someone of the opposite gender.

There is laissez-faire conservatism, and paternalist conservatism, with its old Whiggish dash of noblesse oblige. (It is often forgotten that Burke, now considered the founder of modern Conservatism, was a Whig.) There are the big business Conservatives, and the small battalions Conservatives. There is the libertarian wing, which blames all ills on regulation, and the little England wing, which blames all ills on pesky foreign workers, coming here to take our jobs and steal our women. (I exaggerate for effect, but only slightly.)

There is the tendency which believes that global warming is a scam thought up by scientists to stop Ordinary Decent Britons flying abroad on their holidays. There is still the occasional whiff of social Darwinism. 

Just as the left has its strengths and failings, so does the right. At its best, it has faith in the individual, distrusts unaccountable authority, believes in Burke's liberty under law. At its worst, it can lack empathy, pander to vested interests, show a narrow, moralising tendency. It can also have an oddly conspiratorial streak. It always accuses the left of being victimish, but then insists it is assailed by liberal bias in the media, particularly from the irredeemable pinkos at the BBC.

I should now draw myself up, take a deep breath, and come to my magisterial conclusion. Always go for the big finish, my writer’s instinct tells me. Except there isn’t really one. I just think it is interesting.

And even as I make my thesis, I wonder if anything really changes. I think Left and Right might not mean much now, that we can no longer divide politics neatly into a game of two halves. But then I remember my history, and the rage and fury that Peel inspired in his own party when he repealed the Corn Laws in 1846. He managed to split the Tories for twenty years.

Conservatism meant ten different things, even then. Tories in the 19th century saw the world in such radically different ways that they could not even manage to hold themselves together for political advantage. It was like some crazed family argument, where drunk Uncle Bernie does something unforgivable at Christmas.

Even if one could work out exactly what conservatism is, I’m not sure the facts of life are it. I admit, I believe in government. For all its flaws, it is a part of what stitches a society together. I don’t want that atomised, libertarian dream, with the free market galloping away over the Steppes like an unbroken bronco. You might say this is my sentimental, bleeding heart self gone amok, but in every list of success – national well-being, low corruption, literacy – the Scandinavian countries come out on top, year after year, with their social contracts and their sturdy governments. I can’t help it. I dream of the Danes.

And now for some pictures of the lovely light, on the morning walk:

9 Dec 1 09-01-2012 11-00-25

9 Dec 2 09-01-2012 11-01-49

9 Dec 3 09-01-2012 11-02-48

9 Dec 4 09-01-2012 11-03-16

9 Dec 5 09-01-2012 11-04-45

9 Dec 6 09-01-2012 11-04-52

Off goes The Pigeon, completely out of focus, but rather delightful for all that:

9 Dec 14 09-01-2012 11-01-13

And, sitting for her close-up:
9 Dec 10 09-01-2012 13-33-54

9 Dec 12 09-01-2012 13-34-02

One of the Dear Readers asked how old The Pigeon was, on a hopeless day when I did not get round to replying to comments. The answer is: thirteen. Not bad for an old girl, is she?

The hill, almost lost in the glimmering:

9 Dec 15 09-01-2012 13-33-34


  1. it's not entirely relevant to your post but i thought this was a beautiful letter about hope (i especially loved the final 3 sentences): In March of 1973, E. B. White — the author responsible for such books as Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web — received a letter from a Mr. Nadeau, who sought his opinion on what he saw as a bleak future for the human race. White responded with the following, beautifully written letter.

    North Brooklin, Maine

    30 March 1973

    Dear Mr. Nadeau:

    As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

    Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man's curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

    Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.


    (Signed, 'E. B. White')

    Source: Letters of E. B. White, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth.

  2. A double pleasure today ~ your blog and Anon's E.B. White letter.

    In the face of such intelligence (yours and White's), I am continually astonished that yes, humans can make such a mess of things. One thing seems clear these days: as you say, 'we can no longer divide politics neatly into a game of two halves.'

    Thank you for many things to consider . . . and the thirteen-year-old dog. Life ain't over yet.


  3. I too have that liberal disease of seeing things from both sides. Which makes for some long debates!
    And my shouty, possibly slightly over-opinionated, lefty self of the past is now tempered with wanting some sort of order.I think I want the best of all worlds sprinkled with kindness and good sense. Like you, I've always been intrigued by the Scandanavian countries. They seem to have so much right.

    The E.B. White letter is wonderful. As is the beauty of the 13-year-old lady. xx

  4. Personally, I find January cheerful, as it's so very close to the end of December. For me, the bummer of the year is February. February is the Tuesday of months. Entirely pointless, dull, and dreary. Not close enough to anything warm and cheerful to be any help at all. So I'm hanging on to my sunny January days with all I have, and enjoying your walks with Pigeon!

  5. am loving the "tuesday of months", superb!

  6. Too frazzled from oversleeping & the distinct LACK OF SUNSHINE (& I AM shouting here...sorry) to dive into the pith. For now. (A lot of it has to do with the differences in language -- all in English, and lower or upper case...)

    Will simply say that I, too, have dreamt of the Danes, but for a much more "mundane" reason. Some of the most beautiful men I have ever seen in my life were all over Copenhagen (OK, it was in the 1980s but I assume they still are tall, blond OR dark, and incredibly handsome). (Sigh)

  7. Jonathan, Warwickshire10 January 2012 at 13:43

    To chase away The January Blues, I still follow your chicken soup recipe from years ago. It's still delicious. I add finely diced carrots because I can't help myself. I can't tell you how lovely it is to cook with you and the blog and the Dear Readers in mind.

  8. Anon - oh, oh, the EB White letter. Thank you.

    Bird - you are so right; it ain't over. :)

    Em - I do put great store by kindness and good sense. Particularly kindness, which I think is more and more important, the older I get.

    Marcheline - I think you are quite right and am going to appreciate lovely January from now on.

    Anon - Tuesday of months is marvellous.

    Pat - love the thought of the beautiful Danish fellows.

    Jonathan - so lovely to hear from you. It's been a while, and I often wonder about The Dear Readers, so I could not be happier to hear you are making the special chicken soup. Also love the idea of additions. My feelings about all recipes is that one should make them one's own, by putting in a little something here, and taking out a little something there.


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