Having been wrong about the Brexit vote, and then wrong about Trump, I went into last week’s election with a sense of optimism that I knew full well verged on the perverse. I’m now trying to sort out what I based that optimism on, so here are some disjointed thoughts. Continue reading
One of the interesting moments – I wouldn’t call it a highlight – of Wednesday’s debate was when Nuttall threw the “taking us back to the Seventies” canard at Corbyn and a large part of the audience responded with immediate vocal contempt. I don’t know if it was simply a recognition of that line as part of lazy and condescending scaremongering – see also “magic money tree” and Amber Rudd’s bizarre idea of what a game of Monopoly entails – or if it means the recent questioning and debunking of several myths of “the Seventies” are gaining traction, or if the audience was just young enough that the Seventies mean little to them, or if we’re at a point where the changes in geopolitical context since “the Seventies” are so glaring as to render such a reference to them absurd.
Ferrante’s steadfast artistic choice to be anonymous can only be that: an artistic choice, made at the beginning of her writing career for private reasons that she deemed essential. The cost of anonymity is high; she told her publisher that she would do nothing to promote her books, and, indeed, they could well have sunk to the bottom of the literary river without a trace. That they succeeded, and reached the kind of audience they have, has happened, if anything, in spite of Ferrante’s anonymity, not because of it. Its costs continue. One particularly bizarre and offensive claim of Gatti’s is that his “exposure” of Anita Raja as Ferrante leaves “open the possibility of some kind of unofficial collaboration with her husband, the writer Starnone.” Ferrante’s anonymity has apparently now made her vulnerable to the accusation that she has not been able to write her books without leaning creatively on a man.
I can’t get over what – in all applicable senses – a dick move this sort of thing is. Elena Ferrante’s pseudonymity was harming no one, and anon/pseudonymity has historically been an acceptable and sometimes a necessary option for writers – especially for women. The Neapolitan novels have never been presented as strict autobiography. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a pseudonymous male author whose identity has attracted so much intrusive interest edged with a certain sense of pique. The preoccupation with “unmasking” her seems to be tied up with the idea, the demand, that every aspect of a woman must be publicly accessible and available for scrutiny and evaluation. It seems as if her choice to be anonymous was a provocation, for which she’s being punished through public exposure. This as one example of the general overriding of a woman’s stated desires, the insistence that the way she wants to do things can’t be done and must be interrupted, breached, brought back around to the accepted path, is unsettling at the least.
I found this article, if nothing else, useful for helping piece together the years when I’d more or less abandoned any interest in British parliamentary politics, from about 2004 (post-Iraq throwing in the towel) to the 2010 election (gloomy slow return to consciousness at having to countenance, once more, the 80s demonologies). I voted – usually for Labour – throughout that time, but that was mostly all I did.
What happened in those missing years to a seemingly moribund party? The process described repeatedly here is the ‘hollowing out’ of Labour, the widening gap between voters and leadership, and the narrowing of strategy and vision down to personal ambition and a short-sighted obsession with ‘keeping the machine going’. Okay. God knows that’s what it looked like from the outside too.
The other striking thing about this is that Cowley’s subjects – young bright 90s-vintage graduates offered immediate paths to the top – describe themselves and are described as never having had to fight politically. Which again confirms suspicions and explains some things. I’ve been looking on this past year and almost marvelling – the oatmeal blandness of Burnham and Cooper, the disconnected coups and counter-coups, the lurching pound-shop-Kinnock catastrophe that is the Owen Smith campaign – just wondering why they couldn’t seem to get it together, couldn’t structure a coherent alternative, couldn’t organise across factions, just how come they were so bad at this. “The Golden Generation never had to fight.” Well, there we go.
This is old news by now of course, but one thing I found striking about Andrea Leadsom’s inane “Let’s banish pessimism!” line was how worryingly neatly it tied into the amount of magical thinking there was around the referendum. I am now seeing a notable amount of responses from Leave voters – exclusively on the right, NB – along the barely paraphrased lines of “accept you lost, stop sulking, start talking up this great country of ours unless you want to drive us into recession”.
This is how (one aspect of all) this is going to play out, isn’t it? Rather than accept that there were justified economic and social anxieties around leaving, when things go down the pan post-Brexit it’s going to be rationalised as the fault of opponents of Leave for not throwing themselves into national promotion wholeheartedly enough. This will be spun as an opportunity that could have been amazing if only ~self-loathing elitist refuseniks~ had had a bit more gumption and been a bit more forward-thinking.
So, we reach one logical conclusion of the 90s focus on individual drive, rather than anything political or economic, as the root cause of one’s personal circumstances. As well as a response to a thirty-year slide into the abyss that now seems unfixable other than by, you know, really wishing really hard.
Originally written for Wales Arts Review 13.11.15
Part of the pleasure of studying history is its ability to throw as much light on the present as the past. Long-term perspectives can make the short-term easier to understand. For me, having an interest in history was a function of growing up in a place which often seemed to consist, as the poet observed, of nothing but the past. History in Wales is not so much submerged as sedimentary, with much of it seeming to commemorate only struggle, failure, loss, and things which might have been. In school and out of it, I learnt about the Valleys’ radical tradition: the Scotch Cattle’s nascent trade union agitation, the raising of a red flag in the 1831 Merthyr Rising, and Welsh Chartism’s mass drive for popular democracy and parliamentary reform. Intrinsically tied to the progress of industrial capitalism, the grand narrative of the south Welsh coalfield presented instance after instance of the clash between workers trying to improve their conditions and local employers and authorities. In this context, things like the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, which still casts its shadow over post-industrial parts of the country, slotted more comprehensibly into place. The history of my part of Wales, it seemed, was full of conflict, resistance, opposition – and, apparently, inevitable defeat. While this knowledge helped me to make historical and political sense of myself and my surroundings, it became at the same time a source of fatalism and of pique. However inspiring and heroic figures like the Merthyr Rising’s Lewsyn yr Heliwr or the Chartist leader John Frost seemed to me, they were also undeniably tragedies, martyrs, their stories bleak and their endings unhappy.
When I looked at the gloomy chronicles of Welsh protest, its single bright spot seemed to originate further afield, not from my own bleak and militant south-east coal and iron belt but from the country’s apparently placid south-west muzzle of Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire. The 1840s agricultural unrest known as the Rebecca riots is remembered as having been an unqualified success and, most famously, as having been carried out on horseback at night by men dressed, for some reason, like our grandmothers. The Rebecca riots capture the retrospective imagination, much as they did at the time, by their colourful and spectacular qualities – not least the fantastical images of stout Welsh farmers sporting bonnets and petticoats – and by their appearing to be a textbook example of righteous community uprising against unfair financial penalties, a bit like a nineteenth-century incarnation of the Poll Tax Riots. I spent a chunk of my postgraduate years examining how true this impression was, and discovered a complex but still inspiring picture. Having maintained my interest in the Rebecca movement through years of incremental independent study. I now find myself in the vaguely surreal position of bringing out my own book on it.
Rebeccaism, then: what happened, and why? For south-west Wales, the early 1840s were years of population growth, increasing poverty and unemployment, and deepening social and economic division between landowning gentry and their tenant-farmers and labourers. The latter group, facing a fall in income due to bad harvests and low prices for their produce, saw no such fall in the money they had to spend, as church tithes and poor rates remained constant or increased and landlords refused to lower their rents. This material pressure intersected with a developing sense of cultural conflict between largely Welsh-speaking, chapel-going tenants and Anglicised, Church-going landowners. Additionally, the effects of the 1834 New Poor Law were also restricting the support that poverty-stricken individuals could expect from their local authorities. Those asking for help risked being committed to one of the multiplying number of workhouses, in which families were separated and conditions frequently made deliberately harsh in order to discourage applicants from seeking further relief. In 1843, the Welshman newspaper described the region’s rising sense of economic and social crisis: Continue reading