The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg

Can a whole language have a biography? And if a language has a biography will it reveal more about the biographer than the subject? It would appear that the answer to both questions is yes. Nevertheless, there is much more which could be said about this ambitious text. English is used effectively to discuss the evolution of English, but it is the gaps and provocative opinions which make one question whether the project was simply too big in the first instance.

Lord Bragg is at his best when he is being enthusiastic about something or someone. And nobody could question his passion for English. It is a pleasure to read his positive takeaways on Geoffrey Chaucer, William Tyndale, and William Shakespeare. His asides on Robert Burns, Dr Johnson, George Bernard Shaw, and William Wordsworth are also of great interest.

However, English is an unfinished creation of men and women. Lord Bragg gives disproportionate space to men and is disparaging to important female voices. He wrote:

“But even Jane Austen has her limitations. The language of the streets is kept firmly outside the Austen door; the language of bodily parts was not allowed in the Austen parks; in her own way, Jane Austen was every bit as masterful and controlling as the men whom time has seen her surpass. Her own proper and correct use of English has permeated the minds and sensibilities of hundreds of thousands of her readers, a number of whom carried into their own novels the unspoken but clear and rigid rules of what did and did not do in expression as behaviour.”

Clearly, the problems here are twofold. Firstly, the argument is being made that a novelist ‘must’ do ‘x’ and ‘y.’ Secondly, the contention is being advanced that a great artist is responsible for the actions of their admirers. Not all writers have to be explicit in their work: not everyone has to say fuck. Moreover, Austen is not culpable for the thoughts of an ‘Austenite’ any more than Karl Marx is to blame for the deeds of Marxists. Lord Bragg writes movingly about the treatment of heretics by Christians; he does not blame Jesus Christ for the persecutions in question.

In short, if English is to be made the subject of a proper biography it would be best if more than one expert engaged in the heavy work. One cannot imagine a satisfactory encyclopedia being produced by a single author. The fluidity, beauty, functionality, and magic of the language can only be glimpsed in this odd experiment. It is not possible to trust a guide who does not fully respect the remarkable achievements of one of England’s finest novelists.


Memoirs of a Breck Road Buck & other poems by Arthur Adlen

This rich collection of poems is highly accessible and none the worse for that. Getting fucked about is a particularly memorable piece of work. This stanza is worth reading more than once:

“you get dragged in for work tests and you come out cured

they’ve got a better success rate than the waters at Lourdes

declare you fit for work but there’s no work in this city

they tell you you’re fine but you just feel shitty

it’s about as much help as a smack in the mouth

we’re already fucked now we’re getting fucked about”

There are several points which are worthy of note. The poem begins without a capital letter, and the individual verses conform to this ‘rule’. This pattern conveys the apparent endlessness of the suffering in question. Until the final verse, there are no full stops. It is only when the concept of resistance comes into view that the possibility of an ending becomes tangible.

Furthermore, there is a great match between the style and the content. Prosaic language and profanities duplicate the lived experience of the people who go through the processes under discussion.

Despite the grim subject matter, there is a really light touch. The humour makes the poem palatable to the squeamish. When observing the similarity between flawed work tests and miracles, there is a glorious half-rhyme between “cured” and “Lourdes.”

Of course, for those unfortunate enough to go through a genuine test for benefit there may be no jokes to be had. If an individual is given insufficient points to obtain money then they should appeal against the initial decision. Medical evidence is required and help should be sought.

The latest poverty statistics have shown the cost of having a disability in the UK. While contemporary poetry might not be able to address unfairness in its entirety, Mr Adlen shows that it has the capacity to prick the conscience of the complacent.

Many decades ago, it was Bertolt Brecht who reminded us what the role of literature can be when unpleasant politics rules the roost. Brecht wrote:

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”




Blue Radio

Thought for the Day is similar to a blog post or a brief podcast. It is part of the morning which can be edited out. BBC Radio 4 takes pride in its ‘insightful’ journalism, and gives its addicted listeners a break. The typical listener is a creature of routine, habituated to the humdrum pattern of the morning. So, it is a bit surprising if the content of this mundane slot can inspire one to switch off the radio entirely.

However, this is precisely what happened today. The controversial guest quoted Mrs Thatcher on the parable of the Good Samaritan. As a result, the radio was switched off. The former prime minister left office in late November 1990, her extremism having alienated her own party. A believer in the most rugged form of individualism, she articulated her social theory in an interview carried by Woman’s Own. Bluntly, Mrs Thatcher asserted:

“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn around and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

This brand of neoliberalism fails to acknowledge that a collective can achieve positive things through the state. Nor does it allow that democracy should permit social groups to determine the limits of state responsibility for social ills. Instead, Mrs Thatcher postulated that the heroic individual had the capacity to help themselves and help others without being encouraged to do so by the state. Nudge theory would have had no attraction to the fanatical admirer of Friedrich von Hayek. It has been remarked that the Iron Lady was atypically quiet when she encountered the neoliberal fundamentalist at a think-tank. For Mrs Thatcher, setting free market forces would enable people to acquire wealth and contribute to charity if they wished.

It is in this context of economic philosophy, where greed was acknowledged to be good, that the absurdity of repeating the thoughts of Mrs Thatcher on Christian doctrine can be best appreciated.  In a television interview, she argued in favour of increased inequality:

“if opportunity and talent is unequally distributed, then allowing people to exercise that talent and opportunity means more inequality, but it means you drag up the poor people, because there are the resources to do so. No-one would remember the good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”

Clearly, the controversial leader did not believe in the liberal philosophy of John Rawls. If one is poor, it does not mean that one necessarily lacks talent. Nor does wealth correlate with genius. The sensible person will bear in mind that they cannot predict the future in terms of affluence or health. Hence, they will strive for a society where outcomes are not too uneven.

In reality, social scientists have often found that the poor are more generous than the affluent. At the start of the new century, The Guardian discovered that less well-off citizens were statistically more likely to be ‘good Samaritans’ than their rich counterparts. Twelve years later, The Atlantic showed that rich Americans gave a much smaller proportion of their income to charity than the poor did. Mrs Thatcher missed the whole point of charity; it is not a matter of being remembered for philanthropy. A good deed is no more virtuous because it is recorded.

The problems of the state media are becoming clearer by the day. We are being presented with a diet of divisive nonsense. Much of the content is like clickbait, only intended to spark a reaction. However, there is a conservative agenda which is about restoring ‘business as usual.’ A decade after the ideas of Mrs Thatcher were exposed as ridiculous by the international financial crash, there is a concerted effort to bring some of them back to life.

Conservatism in Britain comes in different forms. We can see Boris Johnson MP as an incompetent emulator of President Trump, we can view Dominic Grieve MP as a feeble imitation of Lord Heseltine, and we can perceive the Prime Minister as a tribute act to Mrs Thatcher. Postmodern politics is set in the bubble of the past. The question is not whether this bubble can be maintained in discourse.

In essence, conservatism under capitalism is prone to contradictions because it is a backward-looking ideology. Recycling ideas can work for victims of political amnesia, but the philosophy cannot survive contact with the reality of emergent economic, social and environmental crises. It is one thing to be deceitful about the meanings of Christian parables, it is another task to prepare for the next recession. The Conservative Party might still win the next election, but no thinking person would be surprised if Theresa May was to be remembered as one of the least prudent leaders in recent history.

The Art of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman

“Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature. He later sold his product for £5 and thus became a merchant.”

Karl Marx

If a postmodern Milton was about to write a text, he might think about pleasing a literary agent. This would disturb the theory of Marx, in which the poet becomes an actor in the market after the production of the great poem. One can only imagine the consequences that the new order may have for style and content.

Mr Lukeman has done everyone a favour by highlighting how literary analysis can be manipulated to produce banal goods. By establishing rules for the proper use of punctuation, he has done his bit to make literature into an arid science. His view of prose neglects the hybridity which makes encountering different artists so special. It is difficult to breathe after digesting his opinions on the full stop. This is because Henry James would have fallen foul of Mr Lukeman’s lack of appreciation for long sentences. If “pretentiousness” is a crime, then those who appreciate literary complexity can understand that they are co-conspirators.

The fact that Mr Lukeman is also disparaging of short sentences is of little consolation. His opinion that “Punctuation…never lies” flies in the face of what we know about truth. After all, Mr Lukeman confesses an affection for the regular full stops in the early work of Albert Camus. It is hard to believe that the poet of the absurd made a massive impact on his readers because he did not tire them with too many commas.

Nonetheless, it may be that ordinary writers glean something from this stilted nonsense. They could learn to pay attention to all the marks they leave on the page. And they may grow to appreciate that readers have more needs than they think. Readers do enjoy a beverage; a pause can allow for the use of a kettle.

Unfortunately, it is hard to take seriously a writer who opines that Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is marred by an excess of semicolons. A fair reader appreciates difference. Mr Lukeman seems intolerant, closed to the magic of the past. He is a prisoner of prejudice, a miniature Trump looking here and there to be upset. A writer who follows the logic of Mr Lukeman might be published, but he or she would have made a bargain with a Philistine.

 Punctuation may be an art. And art changes over time. But as art changes, humans have a large responsibility. They must be sincere in their creations. And they should be fair in their judgements. Sincerity and justice may well be contested concepts, but there is nothing to stop them having meaning. If one thinks about art as a commodity in the first instance, one might as well sell sardines. Monetising punctuation is verging on the obscene.   

Psychotherapy and Existentialism by Viktor E. Frankl

FFS- no, I’m not swearing. I’m thinking about the uplifting thought of Professor Viktor Frankl. This remarkable figure worked out that we all encounter finitude, failure, and suffering. He contended that existentialism required a positive content to take it beyond the void. Not accepting that individuals could be satisfied without other-directed meaning, he argued that everyone should find a cause beyond self-expression. Opposed to political fanaticism, Frankl postulated that the end does not justify the means.

For Frankl, Freudian orthodoxy had gone a little too far. Whilst acknowledging that humans were animals, Frankl hoped that we could all search for meaning. Neither the pleasure principle nor the will to power were sufficient guides to human motivation. In other words, Freud had helped to identify drives that did not determine the extent of human possibility. According to Frankl, individuals could choose their attitudes in the least promising situations imaginable. Stoicism was a philosophy that did not quite go far enough.

While an acolyte of Freud might well be sceptical of religion, viewing it as an illusion, Frankl was less critical of belief. A staunch critic of nihilism, Frankl asserted that faith could help people to be responsible. According to Frankl, prestige consumption and a love of speed were symptomatic of societies which lost authentic goals.

Many people believe in love without conditions. But they find this very hard to sustain. The genius of Frankl was that he thought that life had a meaning without conditions. He valued the life of the collective, without being a conformist collectivist.

This text is composed of several papers. One of the essays in particular has a resonance with the reality of labour in contemporary society. The point is that many workers still feel that they are “a cogwheel that has a function to carry out but no opportunity to choose it.” While political activity can help to address this terrible dilemma, Frankl was astute enough to recommend humour as a coping mechanism.

Should the Orwell Prize be scrapped?

Contemporary British political culture is a strange thing. Labour MPs who support war are described as “moderates”, while elitist Conservative MPs make a fetish of “respecting the will of the people.” In such times, the legacy of George Orwell is held in high regard. The public is entertained by Room 101 on the television, whilst top journalists like Jonathan Freedland have been proud to obtain the Orwell Prize.

Not many individuals would dispute that George Orwell was a fine writer. His essays on the common toad and the cup of tea are a pleasure to read, while Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia are simply classics of political literature. Furthermore, there are those who believe that the poverty illuminated by The Road to Wigan Pier has resonance with the austere way too many people are obliged to live today.

The argument in favour of the Orwell Prize is not simply based on an appreciation of the life and work of a remarkable person. It is also an acknowledgement of the transparent prose which the writer perfected. An opponent of literary pretentiousness, Orwell was sometimes eager to avoid flashy punctuation; in the novel Coming Up for Air he never deployed a semi-colon. He was not so fastidious about the issue in his other work, but the underlying attitude indicates that he was a purist at heart.

Specific problems with being a purist have been documented. Professor Jonathan Haidt has explored how disgust can have a political impact. People without a socialist mindset often have strong emotions about ‘the other.’ It is often the case that conservatives and fascists believe in an imaginary moral world.  Professor Haidt elaborates:

“Human beings feel revolted by moral depravity, and this revulsion is akin to the revulsion they feel toward rotten food and cockroaches. In this way, dis­gust helps us form groups, reject devi­ants, and build a moral community.”

While some critics would categorise Orwell as a democratic socialist, in practice the great writer engaged in sinister McCarthyism because of his fears about totalitarianism. Driven by a righteousness associated with purity, he collaborated with the British authorities. He made a list of alleged ‘fellow travellers’ and communists. Superb writers like Isaac Deutscher, mainstream politicians such as Bessie Braddock MP and original philosophers such as John Macmurray were viewed with great suspicion by Orwell. Some details of innocent figures were passed to the intelligence services. If totalitarianism means anything specific in philosophical terms, clamping down on freethinkers is not the way to defeat it. A pluralist society can only be maintained through vigorous and open debate.

However, the case for the abolition of the Orwell Prize is not based on the betrayal of left-wing thinkers by Orwell. His apologists take his illness into account when assessing the behaviour which led to the list. It is the anti-Semitism of Orwell which should make those shortlisted for the Orwell Prize think twice. Freedland is a distinguished journalist who regularly attacks Jeremy Corbyn for alleged anti-Semitism. Several of these numerous allegations are based on guilt by association. There is no denying that Corbyn has mixed with campaigners who have dubious opinions. However, Freedland was happy enough to accept the Orwell Prize. And literary analysis of the copious work of Orwell clearly shows that he was anti-Semitic. If anti-Corbyn journalists are to avoid charges of hypocrisy, they should examine their own connections with anti-Semitism.

Any reader of Orwell can encounter examples of explicit anti-Semitism. Although literary critics could claim that some of the unpleasant opinions do not reflect the views of Orwell, but represent the beliefs of his characters, this argument does not seem to hold water. In Burmese Days, the author made one of his creations assert:

“The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to…gangs of Jews and Scotchmen.”

Non-Marxist critics of the British Empire often were prejudiced against influential Jews. J.A. Hobson contended that the Boer War was partly the consequence of covert Jewish manoeuvres. Hobson stressed the importance of:

“a small group of international financiers, chiefly German in origin and Jewish in race.”

With his strong antipathy to Marxism, Orwell arguably belongs to the liberal tradition of Hobson. Orwell reflected on anti-Semitism in revealing terms:

“The starting point for any investigation of anti-Semitism should not be ‘why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’ But ‘why does anti-Semitism appeal to me?'”

Obviously, the trouble with this odd perspective is that it assumes one is anti-Semitic in the first instance. Many of us may have prejudices of different types, but not everybody is anti-Semitic. One does not have to be a Jew to recognise that Jews are simply not responsible for the problems of the world. Orwell was preoccupied with Jews and their behaviour. In his first book, he noted:

“in a corner by himself a Jew, muzzle down in the plate, was guiltily wolfing bacon.”

This image is a remarkable one because previous Labour leader Ed Miliband was the victim of a media onslaught. The Jewish politician was remorselessly mocked for his consumption of a bacon sandwich. But it seems that the British press were simply following in the footsteps of Orwell. Orwell was interested in usury and also in Down and Out in Paris and London observed ‘offensive’ behaviour connected with:

“[a]red-haired Jew, an extraordinarily disagreeable man.”

It seems unlikely that the British media will turn their backs on Orwell. If they acknowledge his flaws at all, the errors will be dismissed as being symptomatic of his times. Nevertheless, those liberal journalists who are keen to throw the label of anti-Semite around should think about how much they want to admire Orwell. It is possible to admire sections of somebody’s work, without being blind to their toxic blindness.

Emma by Jane Austen

Superficially, rereading is a strange activity. We may return to a book for a diversity of reasons. It could be that we view it as an old friend. But it might be that we are looking back at a tale from a new position. When it comes to a classic like Emma, our motivations are unlikely to be clear-cut.

I decided to go back to this text due to a series of coincidences. A few weeks ago, I participated in a course on Jane Austen. This online offering focused its energy on the identity of the author and how she has become an international brand. Whilst sections of her novels were interrogated, I was left wanting more. And then I read a blog post which asserted that Emma was asexual. This had not occurred to me when I had read the novel way back when, but the verdict was framed in a positive light. As I do tend to read for character rather than plot, I was surprised by a fresh way of looking at the key individual in the book. I read a newspaper article by an interpreter of Austen which also drew attention to the alleged asexuality in question. This slightly pejorative perspective on Emma was not couched in serious terms.

Hence it would appear that every reader of the book constructs their own Emma. If we have a conversation about the novel we are not necessarily talking about the same narrative. This is not just because we fill in the lacunae in narratives in different ways. It is also because we bring something of ourselves to the dance. Austen herself opined that people would not like Emma, but this view shows that authors cannot tell how their works will be received.

If a character is to be analysed, one needs three things. Firstly, one must be aware of genre. Secondly, one requires an appreciation of the context. Thirdly, one must have a toolbox to deploy. Austen constructed her novel using a great deal of irony. This means that we should not view Emma with a great deal of seriousness. It is also important to acknowledge that relations between English men and women have changed a lot since the book was written. It could be an error to reinvent Austen as a feminist who is familiar with all the different aspects of human sexuality. If Emma is examined though a Freudian lens one can see that she is drawn to a man who is something of a father figure. Mr Knightley often finds fault with her, but he loves her anyway. Emma often does not take their quarrels as evidence of anything being amiss. While not enjoying the disapproval of the older person, she continues to behave much as before. This pattern of behaviour is like that of an affectionate and rebellious daughter. There is an awkward moment of diplomacy when Emma has to seek the approval of her real father for her marriage.

For these reasons, it would be a simplistic error to think of Emma as asexual. The asexual identity has been a recent political creation. Of course, it should be viewed as a positive that postmodern people are not obliged to seek out things they do not want, but it seems apparent that Emma does evidence ordinary desire. However, she is slightly immature. Slow to understand her own drives because of her upbringing and her social group, she does have basic instincts.

While these points are central to my personal understanding of the development of the major character, they shed little light on why the novel is so compelling. This is because the story is much more colourful and amusing than any exercise in character analysis. The light touch of the author enables her to construct a small society that is slightly absurd but fascinating and familiar nonetheless.