News from Norfolk

Missing persons

We were hinted by the occasion, not catched the opportunity to write of old things, or intrude upon the antiquary. We are coldly drawn unto discourses of antiquities, who have scarce time before us to comprehend new things, or make out learned novelties. But seeing they arose, as they lay almost in silence among us, at least in short account suddenly passed over, we were very unwilling they should die again, and be buried twice among us.

— Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial: a discourse of the sepulchral urns lately found in Norfolk (1658)

It’s strange how people go missing, and how difficult it can be to find them again.

Over recent weeks, I’ve been slightly obsessed with that old six-part BBC miniseries, Smiley’s People. Made it 1982 and based on the 1979 John le Carré novel of the same name, it stars Alec Guinness as George Smiley, a semi-retired MI6 officer called back to investigate the violent death of an Estonian general and sometime MI6 contact. Smiley wears thick glasses and a good suit that doesn’t fit him, is totally non-athletic, has an ironic turn of phrase and a slight air of melancholy. Intelligent but never priggish or showy, he also sees more than others do, and knows more than others realise. For some of his colleagues, especially those who enjoy office politics, he’s an anachronism, a joke, an annoying irrelevance — but to his underlings he’s a legend, inspiring loyalty and adoration in equal measure, not least due to his apparent indifference to either.

Smiley’s People, meanwhile, is rather slow-moving and low-key. My son’s critique was that ‘Smiley drives around, he talks to someone for twenty minutes, he drives around a bit more then talks to someone else for twenty minutes’, and despite being a 12-year old with the signature attention span of his generation, he has a point. Smiley’s People is also rather impenetrable, but all the more addictive for that.

Certainly, lots of people love it, and there are plenty of reasons to do so. For one thing, at this kind of distance, not only the Cold War period colour — if ‘colour’ is the right word for the monochrome gloom of a world where it’s always overcast, everyone looks drained, all cars are either beige or slate except one in Germany’s that’s a rougish eau de nil, and not one single room in the entire series has adequate overhead lighting — but also that sheer lack of haste has a period charm all its own. Smiley’s People reads like a message from a lost world in which no one has yet been distracted by scanning Twitter, googling plot spoilers, grudging the investment of time demanded by evesdropping on a twenty-minute inconclusive conversation between two similar-looking middle-aged white men men wearing suits in a badly-lit dun-coloured room. Read the rest of this entry »

On Brexit

Let me preface what will necessarily be a personal, subjective yet sustained pre-Brexit lament with a slightly alarming confession.

In 2001, I worked for several months on Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership campaign, and then for a few more months in the Leader’s Office at CCO. As a lifelong Tory who voted ‘Remain’ and who parted company with the party in September 2016, part way through Theresa May’s ‘citizen of the world’ speech, I now heartily regret this brief chapter of my life, realise it constituted monumentally bad judgement on my part, and wish it had never happened. Sorry, everyone.

My reason for reminding the world of this embarrassing interlude, however, has less to do with some random masochistic-exhibitionist personal quirk than it does with insisting on a more general historical point regarding Britain’s rupture with the European Union, which Theresa May has announced that she will trigger tomorrow.

Here it is: in 2001, even a famously Eurosceptic, ‘right wing’ campaign conducted first within the parliamentary Conservative Party, then within its grassroots, did not envision prying the UK out of the EU. It did not envision hard Brexit. In its darkest, weirdest, most extreme moments, it did not even begin to imagine the sort of enormity that Ms May will perpetrate on Wednesday. Read the rest of this entry »

On burying Martin McGuinness

There’s a nice irony — ‘nice’, that is, in the older sense of the word — in the fact that the day of Martin McGuinness’ burial is being marked in London with blue flashing lights, bridges closed off with police tape, helicopters circling low overhead and tributes to a brave police constable, murdered while carrying out his job. At least for people of a certain age, it is these things, more than Tuesday morning’s fulsome farewells to a dead peace-maker, that conjure up the man.

McGuinness’ IRA was responsible for killing far more Londoners, far more police constables, far more UK residents and visitors than Islamist terrorists have ever done. Read the rest of this entry »

On James Graham’s ‘This House’

Whatever dark hints 2016 may have provided to the contrary, conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong. Having seen James Graham’s This House at the Garrick Theatre last night, I can confirm what more or less every professional or casual critic, UK politics geek, old Labour hack, veteran theatre-goer, friend or sundry acquaintance will already have told you, which is that This House is a hugely compelling, satisfying play, and that James Graham’s is a voice to be welcomed with unalloyed enthusiasm.

This is all the more remarkable when one considers the play’s apparent modesty of aspiration. This House takes place not on the floor of the House of Commons, that great expansive theatre of parliamentary democracy with its larger-than-life characters and set-piece battles, but rather in what it describes as the ‘engine room’ of the House of Commons — the offices of the government and opposition whips, hidden down in the badly-maintained bowels of the building, wherein much of the real business of politics is carried out by figures who, at least as far as the general public is concerned, are all but nameless and faceless. Its timespan stretches from the February 1974 general election to the 1979 vote of no confidence that brought down Jim Callaghan and ushered in the age of Margaret Thatcher. During these not-quite-five years, the Labour Party struggled to govern with an unfeasibly small, fragile, continually embattled majority. How the Labour whips made this happen — and at what cost — is the central focus of This House.

Modesty? Imagine, perhaps, trying to sell to a West End Theatre the idea that procedural wrangles mostly carried out by men in suits in sparsely-furnished basement rooms during the late 1970s are actually really, really interesting. Or to put it another way, think of what might have happened if Shakespeare, having decided for whatever reason to cut from Henry V not only the king himself but also all the higher nobility, made the whole play centre on Pistol, the captains and the Boy, always speaking in prose, with the battles invariably taking place off-stage, hence seen only through their impact on logistics.

This, more or less, is the challenge that Graham has set himself. That he succeeds so brilliantly is surprising enough that, two day later, I can’t entirely resist the temptation to try to pick apart his achievement, and see how he managed to do it. Why does everyone, correctly, love This House so much?

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this slyly surprising play reposes in its manifest, unabashed and deeply unfashionable lack of cynicism.

Read the rest of this entry »

Trump Agonistes

A month into the Trump era, let’s start with the positives, such as they are.

The past month has produced some memorably good photographs. My three favourites are all dinner-table images. Even the amateur ones are good. This photo …

… was taken by a random member of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, using a camera phone, and yet there’s a great deal in it.

For a start, the composition is as strong as seventeenth century Dutch conversation piece. Look how virtually all the figures turn inwards, towards the central incident. Read the rest of this entry »

On Trump

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way — Lev Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

On the late afternoon of Friday, 20 January 2017, I’ll be in Norfolk, in a village perched on the edge of the North Sea. By 16.30 or so I’ll probably be in my comfortably scruffy kitchen, settled down in the armchair next to the old Aga, watching the BBC news on my laptop computer. Outside in the gathering dusk, the pheasants will shout their usual crepuscular warnings at each other, as the sleek fat farm cats make their regular rounds and night tucks itself in around my 500-year old former parsonage, under a waning quarter moon. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well, as our local St. Julian of Norwich put it. And at the same time, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

This horrifies me. Read the rest of this entry »

Resistance

“At this time the king began to be haunted with sprites by the magic and curious arts of Lady Margaret, who raised up the ghost of Richard Duke of York (second son to King Edward the fourth) to walk and vex the king” – Francis Bacon, The History of the Reign of Henry VII

Robert Poxwell turned in his bed. Or at least we may imagine him turning in his imagined bed, unwilling to rise but unable to sleep.

That surname, Poxwell, tells us that his people came from the West Country. On this particular night, however, he was not in the West Country. He was on the north coast of Norfolk. Under the sea to the north of him — or in front of him, rather, when he turned onto his left side, hoping to find rest there that he could not find on the right — lay that hard long spine of submerged land, still larded in its watery exile with the remnants of human business, that used to connect East Anglia with Denmark. And above that vanished causeway sailed the king’s ships, similarly sleepless, keeping watch against an invasion fleet.

Or at any rate, Parson Poxwell believed that the king’s ships were keeping watch against an invasion fleet. That, after all, was what James Hubbard had told him, or at least implied. And it wouldn’t be like Mr Hubbard to be ill-informed, would it?

Read the rest of this entry »

Remembering Tony Blair

I only ever saw Tony Blair twice.

The second time — less interesting, more easily summarised — took place standing next to the push-chair occupied by my long-suffering two-year old son. We were coming home from the sandpit in St James’s Park, and I needed to get back soon for a Cadogan Tate delivery, but it was the day on which Tony Blair, who as prime minister had won four elections and served ten years, was going to the Palace to resign. How often does it happen that one can elect to be present for a (relatively benign) moment of history, just by delaying a journey back from the sandpit? So I stood in a little huddle of press photographers, bemused tourists and politics geeks. In time we were rewarded by the onrush of the sleek black car, the glimpse of a familiar face, our own tiny crumb snatched from beneath the table of world-historical significance. My son doesn’t remember it, of course, but he claims to be glad that he was there.

The first time mattered more.

The date eludes me, but it must have been quite early in Tony Blair’s premiership. But someone could, I suppose, work it out, because it had to have been a year when 11 November fell on a Saturday. I was down in Westminster and, on a whim, went to take part in what was, at the time, a fairly low-key observance at the Cenotaph. Read the rest of this entry »

On gardening badly

Far and away the most successful thing in my garden is the deer population.

We have at least two types of deer — sturdy little muntjac, rapacious in their strangely shy, apologetic way, plus a tiny herd of roe deer, whose defence strategy when confronted by a human is to flash a pale bottom  in the hope that this spectacle will somehow be so terrifying as to drive all foes away. I suppose we ought to prefer the roe, as they are natives, but the diminutive exoticism of the muntjac, like labrador retrievers with cloven hooves, is not without appeal.

Whatever anyone may tell you to the contrary, deer are fussy eaters.

Consider the roses. Read the rest of this entry »

Norfolk

Here’s a question. What’s the flattest county in England?

Norfolk, you might well answer — but you’d be wrong. The answer is, of course, Cambridgeshire.

What’s the second flattest county in England?

Norfolk, you might answer — but again, you’d be wrong. The answer is Lincolnshire, although before 1974, the answer would have been Huntingdonshire — followed by Lincolnshire.

Norfolk, in other words, isn’t as flat as all that. Nor does Norfolk offer much in the way of fens. Fens, in general, are a Cambridgeshire thing. Norfolk does have some fens — but then it also has some coastal cliff formations, at Hunstanton, Sheringham, Cromer and so forth. It has a lot of coastline, but in places it is not particularly close to the sea. It has rivers, obviously, but in recent years, it has had far fewer serious problems with flooding than some counties one might mention. And if there are no mountains in Norfolk, how many English counties can claim anything approaching a mountain? Unless I’m missing something here, post-1974, only Cumbria has mountains — and not many of those, either.

In short, there is nothing particularly astonishing about the altitude of Norfolk relative to the rest of England. Or to put it another way, Norfolk really isn’t very flat, whatever Noel Coward’s not-very-reliable heroine in Private Lives might have claimed to the contrary.

Yet the canard persists. Read the rest of this entry »