News from Norfolk

On May’s Brexit deal

[This article also appears as a guest post at the excellent Paul Burgin’s Mars Hill blog.]

Brexit, even after all these months, is still capable of surprises. A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a couple of old friends. They’re both Leave supporters. I’m a Remainer, as was my companion. We had met each other — all four of us, actually — through the student politics of the late 1980s. None of us is shy about expressing a point of view. And yet this dinner, which by rights ought to have ended either with a flaming row or, perhaps worse, with a display of ever-more-icy contempt for each others’ abject wrongness, was — from my point of view, at least — an extremely happy occasion.

It says something sad about today’s politics that I found myself, afterwards, picking apart why this conversation — unlike so many conversations about Brexit, both online and in real life — had been so interesting, constructive and friendly. For one thing, as we had all known each other for so long, it was possible to appeal to a corpus of common assumptions. It probably also helped that, as we all genuinely like each other, none of us immediately assumed, the minute someone said something with which we disagreed, that the speaker was either a monster or an idiot — that there was quite a lot of good faith on show. Indeed, the climate of mutual respect was powerful enough that I found myself thinking, at various points, ‘that’s not the way I see things, but if X sees things that way, maybe it’s worth considering’. Finally, there was a pervasive sense, hard to pin down but expressed at all sorts of points, that it wasn’t worth falling out over this.

Did the conversation change my mind? No, but it probably did help to remind me that conversations about Brexit are not only possible, but perhaps also necessary. Read the rest of this entry »

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On Sir Roger Scruton

Were our present government marginally less aimless, abject and impotent, it might almost be possible to believe that the appointment of Sir Roger Scruton to chair the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ commission — a public body which, according to this Guardian piece, ‘aims to expand on the ways in which the planning system can encourage and incentivise a greater emphasis on design, style and community consent’ — was an amusingly cynical attempt to pick some sort of culture war scrap, just as all of us are coming down off our various Vegangate high horses, if only to distract us from the national howl of puzzled existential despair that is May’s Brexit. As it is, however, it’s probably just a fascinating, entirely avoidable and indeed rather tragic mistake.

The attempted appointment of Toby Young to the board of a new university regulatory body, followed swiftly by his resignation once our ever-helpful Twitter had unearthed his considered views regarding breasts, has set a precedent. Perhaps, as with many precedents set in the course of the development of our unwritten constitution, not everyone wanted this to become a precedent. But that isn’t how unwritten constitutions work, is it? At present, Twitter represents the review body for HMG’s own internal due diligence procedures. Based on that insight, I am by no means certain that Sir Roger’s appointment will end happily, either for the man himself or for those who appointed him — certainly not for the built environment. Twitter, on the other hand, may enjoy it all enormously. Guido Fawkes, Tom Holland, Niall Ferguson, David Icke and, err, Toby Young have already piled in, supporting Sir Roger.

As often happens, the first salvo in this spat is possibly better as tracer-fire than meaningful attack. Is Sir Roger a friend of the deeply unsavoury Viktor Orbán? Read the rest of this entry »

On the Ben Uri Gallery

There is something distinctive and, yes, slightly thrilling about the sound made by an auction house catalogue being pushed awkwardly through the letter-box then falling, cushioned by its soft plastic envelope, onto the worn-out coir matting beneath. And indeed, this morning I was glad to discover a Sotheby’s catalogue arriving in just such a way.

It was only when I extracted the pleasingly bulky softback catalogue from its plastic that I felt a lurch of alarm.

The cover image was, surely, David Bomberg’s great [Woman] At The Window (1919). It’s a work that’s been in the Ben Uri collection since 1920. I last encountered it in the brilliant Bomberg show that took place earlier this year at Pallant House in Chichester, organised in conjunction with the Ben Uri Gallery. Read the rest of this entry »

Old Tom: a ghost story

When I was a little child, not more than four winters old, my mother used to sit up with Parson Poynter, when he was dying, in his chamber upstairs at the parsonage. Sometimes, she would take me with her. This was in the year before the old king died. I mean King James.

My father didn’t like it. He knew what everyone said about Parson Poynter and, more to the point, what everyone was likely to say about a young woman — for my mother was still young then, better-looking than some, and sharp-witted, too — who sat alone with Parson Poynter, in his chamber, even though he was almost dead by then, or at any rate so feeble and diminished in his powers as to be past much mischief. But in any event, my mother, who in many matters would defer to my father, would simply take up her things, grab me by the hand and set off up the hill toward the parsonage, as if my father had said nothing at all.

Be quiet, said my mother. We were in the kitchen. It was a long, low room. Two massive oak beams ran the length of it. On one of the long walls there was a huge brick hearth, surrounded with pots and cooking irons and so forth, with a bread oven in the wall to the right it. The kitchen smelled of smoke, meat, fat, spices, ale, cats and warm bodies. Be quiet. Just sit down and don’t bother Gartreud and for heaven’s sake don’t bother anyone else, either. Just sit down and be quiet.

There was a bench along one of the short walls, near enough to the fire to be very warm, so I sat there. Don’t you worry, little one, said Gartreud, once my mother had gone up the kitchen stairs. Read the rest of this entry »

Incomers: a ghost story

Of course, when an ‘incomer’ arrives from London and moves into the big, old, rambling, tumbledown house sitting deep in its grounds on the landward edge of a Norfolk coastal village, the first thing that local people do is to make sure that she’s fully informed about all her neighbours — in particular, the resident ghosts.

‘Oh yes, Peggy’s round here all the time,’ said the lugubrious handyman who used to look after the house back before we made our offer for it, when the developer was seeking planning permission to turn it into a boutique hotel. ‘Often I’m in the kitchen here’ — to be fair, at the time it was one of the two dry rooms in the house — ‘and I see her looking in at me from across the way’. He gestured vaguely in the direction of an acrid-smelling room across the corridor, all peeling lurid wallpaper and abandoned plastic garden chairs, that used to be the old servants’ parlour. ‘Trouble is, ma’am’ — and here I could see where the conversation was going — ‘Peggy’s been lyin’ in the churchyard twenty-odd years now. But I know it were her, because I see’d her as good as I see you now.’

Perhaps I ought to have shivered, but instead I smiled politely, and turned the conversation back to the return of some keys, because even by then I had learned all there was to know — or so I thought — about the tales that local people tell just to frighten the incomers.

Read the rest of this entry »

On reading about Nazis

For a long time, I had no particular interest in reading about the Second World War.

History, per se, always mattered a lot, which is how I ended up with a doctoral degree from Cambridge University, the odd insight into how the Tudor reformations did or didn’t play out in the flatter parts of west Norfolk, and a lasting aversion to academic infighting.

But because I was born in the mid 1960s, WW2 somehow never registered as ‘history’. Like my parents’ dated taste in music, their books, indeed the blind-spots of their politics, WW2 was simply a generational experience which I could regard with a sort of semi-detached bemusement. It wasn’t my own experience, true, but it never really seemed like ‘history’ either, if only because when I was growing up, every middle-aged person I met spoke of those wartime years with absolute familiarity. ‘The war’, as everyone called it, was both too far and to near to me to come into easy focus. Hence I ignored it.

Of course, like the rest of my generation, both in the USA where I grew up, and in the UK which is now my home, I also grew up in a world where ‘the war’ was omnipresent. Read the rest of this entry »

Why I’m voting Liberal Democrat tomorrow

On Thursday, 3 May — tomorrow — I am planning to vote in the local elections. As a resident of West End Ward, Westminster, I’ll be voting for the Liberal Democrat candidates. I will be doing this in order to make the strongest statement I possibly can against the self-induced disaster that is Brexit.

In the unlikely event that anyone wants to follow my thought process in doing so, my reasoning is explained below.

For many decades, I was a Tory. I am no longer a Tory, though, for reasons mostly if not entirely related to Brexit, set out at absolutely shocking length here.

There are many reasons, of course, not to vote Tory in these local elections. In Westminster, specifically, there are almost countless reasons to challenge the Tories’ hegemonic and apparently eternal control of the local council. Read the rest of this entry »

The Old Road: a ghost story

Some things just aren’t meant to be. And other things are, basically, inevitable.

He’d had doubts about re-locating to Norfolk. It had been his wife’s idea, because her parents still lived there, and also it would be cheaper for the kids to go to a good school in Norfolk than it was in London. Before long, they all had friends there, who liked exactly the same things as they did. So it seemed reasonable to stop renting the little cottage and to buy a house instead. And because he’d made some money along the way, he not unreasonably wanted a house that said everything there was to say about himself and his family.

They looked for a house but couldn’t find what they wanted. In case you don’t know this already, the houses in Norfolk are terrible. Most are old and dark, with small kitchens and no room for a gym or a home entertainment centre. Soon, they realised they’d have to build something. And eventually, they thought they’d found the perfect spot. Read the rest of this entry »

On Memorials

This article first appeared as a guest post at Mars Hill, Paul Burgin’s excellent blog.

Although I’m British now, I was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the American South, and I lived there until I went off to college in 1984.

Raleigh wasn’t a bad place to grow up, at least for someone like me. Still a slightly sleepy, genteel place then, its wide streets shaded by mature trees and, downtown at least, blessed with plenty of handsome antebellum houses, the old-fashioned southern charm was constantly undercut, before it had the chance to grow cloying, by more bracing influences: three first-rate universities all within a short distance of each other, for instance, and the presence of something called the Research Triangle Park, home to forward-looking enterprises such as IBM and various pharmaceutical companies. As a result, the Raleigh of my childhood attracted intelligent, hard-working people not only from around the USA, but also much further afield. My tiny, Episcopal Church-run school placed me side by side with children whose parents had come from Egypt, Iran, Vietnam. Although it was a church school, I grew up with Muslims, Jews, Catholics, protestants of every possible persuasion and even the odd out-and-proud atheist. The universities also ensured that we had more than our fair share of high culture: a very good art museum, as well as concerts and theatre performances from world-famous groups. A thriving farmers’ market co-existed with shops where it was possible to buy Thai shrimp paste.

The reason I am spelling this out is that I don’t want you to get the notion that the Raleigh of the 1970s and early 80s was some sort of redneck backwater wherein good ole boys sat around pickin’ their banjos and swilling moonshine on the front porch all day. In our household, anyway, a recording of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony and a glass of reasonable chablis would have been more like it. And we didn’t even have a proper front porch. Read the rest of this entry »

On GE2017

I have only ever heard one story that makes Theresa May sound like a genuinely good person. The source for it is an old friend from university days. We met through CUCA, the Cambridge University Conservative Association. My friend is still a Tory, whereas I gave up on the party roughly thirty years later during the course of May’s 2016 conference speech — a bumpy journey recalled at some length here.

Anyway, the story involves a visit by my friend to a speaker meeting organised by her local Conservative association. At the time, my friend was trying to balance a career as a corporate lawyer with her demanding role as the mother of an infant and a degree of continued political engagement, and in a slightly desperate moment of multi-tasking, brought her baby along to the meeting with her. In the normal way of these things, as soon as the distinguished guest began speaking, the baby kicked off. My friend tried to calm the baby by breastfeeding him/her, as discreetly as possible. For this, she was rewarded with a range of disapproving looks from the mostly elderly, entirely disapproving audience. In the car-park afterwards, preparing to leave, my friend was feeling as many of us may have felt under similar circumstances — angry, defensive, embarrassed — maybe even a bit tearful. Getting into her car, then, she noticed the speaker hurrying out towards her, apparently anxious for a word. Rather to my friend’s surprise, the speaker could not have been more supportive — praising the qualities of the baby, talking about how hard it must be to balance work and family, unhappy at the audience reaction and passionately defending my friend’s decision to breastfeed in a public place.

The speaker was, of course, Theresa May. I am repeating this story in the interest of scrupulous fairness. Having said that, though, let’s remember that after my thirty years in the party, this is literally the only positive story I have ever heard about Theresa May. The other stories mostly revolve around tone-deafness, rigidity, humourlessness. Often there is a degree of intellectual limitation in the mix as well. Not one of these stories suggests that May got where she is through anything other than a dogged, principle-free, vindictive, deeply joyless strand of personal ambition. Nor do any of them imply that she has much to offer either the Tory party or the United Kingdom.

Thus it is surprising that the Tories somehow ended up with a general election campaign designed to rely primarily on May’s personal appeal coupled with the perceived unattractiveness of her opponents — a campaign contrived without much input from other senior party figures, defensive where not painfully robotic in the face of media interest, producing an appearance of extreme arrogance coupled with reflexive paranoia. Read the rest of this entry »