On accidents of perspective

flowers

As if in some oblique gesture of compensation for the fact that his school’s Easter holidays had prevented me from getting anything at all done over these past three weeks, my son told me that I could post the photo you see above — flowers blooming on Monday afternoon at Hampton Court Palace — on my blog, for which he shows a touching solicitude, no doubt much nurtured by his currently limited, if swiftly advancing state of literacy.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s a good photo, too. Would I have had the strength of nerve, myself, to leave those green leaves at the left of the image so assertively out of focus? Almost certainly not — and yet the intensity of that recession, the sheer unabashed superabundance of colour and incident apparently stretching on towards eternity, would never have worked without it. One might be tempted to parse this as something to do with a child’s cheerful greed, a willingness to be overwhelmed by pleasing sensation, were it not so powerfully reminiscent of just how the sun-flooded gardens looked, felt and indeed smelled at Hampton Court Palace on Monday afternoon, the sudden appearance of spring somehow every bit as magical for grownups as it was for their offspring. In any event, the photo now signifies, to me anyway, that near-miraculous thing, a little shard of joy somehow gathered up and preserved, perchance to be enjoyed again on days not quite so sunny. Not bad going, anyway, for a four year old.

Unsurprisingly, the unfailing proximity of my youthful, incessantly talkative boon companion over recent weeks means that I’ve experienced everything that’s taken place during that time — the G20 protests, Smeargate, the very loud whining of a smallish clique of architects — through the prism of a four year old child’s queries, critiques and considered analysis. On 1 April, for instance, lunchtime recourse to the BBC News provided us with live footage of the ‘peaceful protests’ then underway in the City. ‘Mummy, why has that man got a hammer?’ was the first of various trenchant questions, before we moved on to discussing why other ‘peaceful protesters’ were brandishing scaffolding poles, waving broken bottles and subsequently smashing in the windows of an office-building. ‘Why don’t the police just shoot the demonstrators?’ There followed a swift, perhaps marginally belated (re)introduction to the basics of civil rights, although of course the realisation that the police could indeed have been quite a lot more aggressive — one thinks of the culture of water cannons, plastic bullets and heavy-duty baton-charging that flourishes in countries where rioting is a far more warmly cherished national pastime, notably in continental Europe — has been lost on plenty of older, allegedly wiser commentators.

I’m still not sure, by the way, that my son believed me when I tried to convince him that policemen could actually be sent to trial, perhaps even put in prison, if they’d done something seriously illegal. Well, most people who’ve ever lived might well have agreed that this is a counter-intuitive proposition. We didn’t start on the concept of English exceptionalism that day, but that was mostly because lunch was almost finished, and, well, we’d have had to move right on to thinking about the nature and limits of liberalism. Frankly, both of us could think of better things to do.

Smeargate, similarly, fell victim to this holiday spirit. While the rest of the right-of-centre blogosphere depleted its vigour in what looked like quite a remarkably jolly if marginally messy orgy of self-congratulation, there we were, singing our Easter hymns, contemplating the wonders of an ‘Easter Rabbit’ who could hide eggs inside a house if the garden was somehow silvery-slick with springtime rain, and on Tuesday morning, decamping to the Tower of London.

The Tower of London remains one of my favourite places on earth, for reasons I don’t find entirely easy to explain. Like Hampton Court, it somehow manages, no matter how many tourists flock to its sunny spots and darker passages, to

tower1

project the sense that it’s actually not a tourist attraction at all, but rather something else entirely, incidentally beset by tourists.

What is it, though? Hampton Court, all too clearly, is the perfect Oxbridge college, which is to say, a place that includes all the good things about some Oxbridge colleges — courts confected out of soft red brick and cobblestones and chiming clocks, grumpily amiable college servants, high-ceilinged old kitchens smelling of soot and whitewash, screens passages ringing with trays dropped by giggling underwaged East Europeans, the frankly intoxicating perfume of stock warmed by sudden sunshine, old episcopal and regal associations, long galleries, panelling, a gilt-wood chapel smelling of camphor and lilies, the slow and weedy river, gardeners always bent double over something important yet difficult to discern, a real tennis court, good yet over-varnished seventeenth century pictures, cellars, the possibility of getting lost, that sense of a teeming irrepressible collegiate life somehow always just out of reach — without any of their defects, which is to say, fellows and students.

The Tower of London, however, is a different story. It has, as I’ve said previously, its Oxbridge college out of term-time moments, especially for anyone with the wit to turn up at 9.05 am, before the tourists arrive. Oxbridge colleges, however, even royal foundations, lack a sovereign’s guard. They lack, as far as I know, mystically significant birdlife. They lack a White Tower, the Crown Jewels, and enough high political drama to have kept a Shakespeare or two busy for at least a hard-working lifetime.

The Tower, on the other hand, has all these things, and many more besides. So, in short, if you like your history bloodless, rationalist and distant, there are plenty of other places to go to think about it, and you shouldn’t clutter up the Tower. If, alternatively, you’re a bit of a romantic really — unable to pass a Waterloo field gun without patting it in the same sub-sexual yet proprietary way in which Kenneth Clark used to encourage his favourite sculptures, unable to pass the terrible ticketing-space all decked out in cheap un-idiomatic granite without shedding a tear over Strafford’s murder, unable to pass a bit of boring grass without sparing a thought for whether a relatively sophisticated French education had simply confused a nice East Anglian lass, latterly returned to London, about whether it was a good idea to sing songs with someone who wasn’t actually her husband — then the Tower’s promise is all but irresistible, its fascination limitless.

But what does this make it? Slightly haunted, I suppose, if only because so few of the issues raised by its history are even now entirely resolved. In any event, visits there produce their own strange distortions of perspective. Those thick walls both shield those inside from current affairs, while at the same time somehow intensifying their significance.

This time, the quincentennial of Henry VIII’s accession decreed that the normal White Tower displays should be supplanted by an exhibition of Henry VIII’s armour — jousting armour, fighting armour, gift armour. My son and I both enjoyed this. He’s enthusiastic about armour in general, but particularly liked the chance to try on a proper pikeman’s helmet, whereas I warmed to the sheer weirdness of a helmet Maximilian I gave to Henry VIII, just as I’ve also always liked the samuri armour given to James I & VI. The samuri armour produces the requisite Orland0-esque weaving of timelines, wherein we’re confronted with the fact that the King James Bible was going to print, America being invaded and and plenty of masques being composed at more or less the same time as the Edo period was setting in place some ancestral shadow of the Japan we know now; Maximilian’s gift reminds us of one strand of humour existing within a court culture that also encompassed bear-baiting, judicial torture, patronage for artists as subtle and skilled as Holbein and Durer, some fine music for the lute, very public executions, the sanguinary prosecution of the Peasants’ Wars as well as the rather less dramatic suppression of the Pilgrimage of Grace, stag-hunting, scheming, jousting, composing pasquinades and making pets of amenable dwarves and the more entertaining sort of madmen.

All of which leads us, only slightly indirectly, to Guido Fawkes, both this one and this one. On that Tuesday morning, much of centre-right London was blogging; I was standing in the Beauchamp Tower, looking out through the mildly distorting glass at green lawns, polite clusters of tourists surrounding what must once have been a place of execution. Although the torture side of the Tower has never particularly interested me, this was more or less where the historical Guido Fawkes was interrogated, albeit not very successfully — as is often the way of such things, the torture revealed nothing the authorities didn’t know already — before being sent back to Westminster for his trial and execution. Here, too, as the monograms and signatures scratched into the soft stone attest, were imprisoned all sorts of other conspirators, or maybe just unlucky innocents, implicated in heterodoxies, plots or treasons variously famous, fantastic and long-forgotten.

For indeed, was there ever a time when people — congenitally political creatures — didn’t tell nasty tales about each other — if necessary, in cases where demand outran supply, quite happily inventing nasty tales? And was there ever a time when catching someone out in a nasty fiction didn’t, in itself, generate a nasty tale of considerable rhetorical value?

The cyber-aspect of Smeargate constitutes, in other words, its least interesting aspect. Whatever may have been said to the contrary, the bloggishness of blogging — the inherent and distinctive qualities of the medium — didn’t feature at all. In truth, what seems to have happened is that Paul Staines got hold of some embarrassing emails and leaked them to the nice folks at News International, at which point their impending publication set off the scandal which so enlivened the mainstream media’s Easter holiday. If the blogs hadn’t been invented, how would the tale have played out? Presumably, the source for the emails would simply have leaked them the good old-fashioned way, with no measurable difference in impact. Rather than signalling the terminal decrepitude of the lobby system, Smeargate in fact underscored the somewhat unremarkable truth that the mainstream media, for all the defects, still has its uses.

None of which should detract from my pleasure at what must have been a very entertaining week for an old friend. Having known Paul Staines for almost twenty years now, it was fun to watch as the rest of the world struggled to systematise him. He attacks Labour — does that mean he’s a Conservative? He’s spent an energetic lifetime causing trouble of one sort or another, including (as he happily admits) making up more than one highly successful fibs (pdf) — so does that mean he’s a hypocrite? Is he after money, or fame, or what?

Yet at least from what I’ve seen, Paul’s nothing if not consistent. He’s a libertarian, all right — but a distinctive 1980s FCS vintage libertarian, robust yet flexible, not easily confused with other libertarians whom I like, e.g. this earlier one or this more recent one. More to the point, though, Paul not only likes making trouble, but has spent decades burnishing what must have once been a natural gift to the level of high art. He’s not a hypocrite, both because he’s perfectly open about the highly personal set of rules by which he plays, and because he sticks to them. But neither is he a natural friend to those in power. In the language of Dungeons and Dragons, his alignment is, all too clearly, chaotic neutral, with an emphasis on ‘chaotic’.

And this, in turn, is one of several reasons why Conservatives would be wise not to feel too smug about Smeargate. For one thing, can it really be true that Dave and his mates have never briefed against their enemies, whether in the Labour Party or indeed closer to home? Really? That they’ve never said anything about anyone’s mental health, anyone’s relationships, anyone’s sexuality? That they’re never leaned on parts of the centre-right blogosphere, however ‘independent’ it may claim to be, to do the leadership’s urgent bidding?

Conversely, the other reason to avoid complacency is that telling unpleasant stories is, self-evidently, a legitimate political tactic. It’s the basis, after all, of normative gossip, informative journalism and indeed much entertaining blogging. People do, sometimes, do nasty things. Occasionally, their sins find them out. What, then, if one or two of the rumours Mr McBride sought to retail had some basis in fact? Is anyone really going to suggest that the truth shouldn’t, or at any rate won’t, some day, come to light? A smarter government might encourage this process with rather more subtlety, admittedly, but the logic of participatory democracy and the mass media means mandates that governments can no longer be elegantly casual regarding public opinion. And that, in turn, means media management, whether done well or badly, as it certainly was in the case of McBride and Draper.

No, some unfortunate blend of stupidity and moral staleness did for McBride and Draper in the end, amplified by the long list of enemies both had acquired within the Labour Party — certainly not some claim to novel, unparallelled wickedness. For while the mechanics of ‘spin’ and ‘smear’ may have evolved, at heart their basic logic is as old as human interaction. Having stumbled into starting John Adamson’s brilliant The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I just as I was finishing Alistair Campbell’s weirdly underrated Blair Years, the shock was always in the parallels, never the differences.

So while it’s both pleasing and marginally amusing to see an old pal making the political weather, the more herbivorous and ‘loyal’ sorts of Tories are frankly mad to see Paul, for all his qualities, as a blandly reliable ally. He’s no such thing. Someday he’ll turn on them at a whim, entirely consistently with everything he’s done before. That, in turn, will be not only be fair and rather fitting, but also a turn of events that would perhaps have surprised very few of the sometime denizens of the Beauchamp Tower.

What else is there to say? My son always asks interesting questions when visiting the Tower of London. ‘Was it good that the kings cut people’s heads off?’ He’s never lost for small talk, my little companion, although his questions are just as likely to include ‘why do mice have tails?, ‘why did God make moths?’ or ‘what’s the last number in the world, plus one half?’ Meanwhile, he continues to argue powerfully that the moat should be re-flooded. As he rightly points out, now that the Tower loos don’t actually empty into the moat, the water there would no longer be smelly. At the same time, the re-enactors who do such a marvellous job of introducing visitors to the mysteries of the long-bow and various siege weapons can’t use the moat when it rains and have to come inside instead, ‘and it rains a lot, doesn’t it?’ Sometimes I do worry, in those rare interludes where he gives me the time to do so, that with persuasive skills like that, he might just grow up to be a politician.

Those, in any event, are the sorts of accidental shift in perspective I’ve experienced over the past few weeks. It was easy, strolling round the walls at the Tower as the rain came and went, to reflect on Mr Obama’s decision to declassify those Bush era torture memos, just as it was easy, basking in the sun at Hampton Court Palace after eating far too many scones, to muse about the various Tudor religious settlements against the background of our own era’s nervous mix of secularising liberalism and semi-hysterical Islamophobia. And it was also strangely bracing to have my views on all sorts of things — faith, politics, history — stripped down to first principles by the unflagging curiosity of a lively-minded four year old.

Anyway, now he’s back at school, immersed once again that mysterious other life that’s all his own, enjoying the company of his own kind and absorbed in another set of narratives, broadly based around Legoland, Star Wars and the politics of play-dates. And so my other life creaks back into functionality. Which is to say, there are all sorts of thing I hope to write about here, in the next few weeks — the National Gallery’s Picasso exhibition, Tate Britain’s Van Dyck exhibition, Blair Worden’s new Civil War book, some scattered thoughts about Mussolini’s impact on Rome — as well as my wholly predictable amazement at a government, and indeed an opposition, that doesn’t seem to have learned any of the obvious economic lessons of the past half century. Indeed, there are moments where I dabble in dreams of doing the sort of blogging that other people do, posting single paragraphs of trenchant commentary daily rather than a few thousand words every few weeks — all very well until experience reminds me how ill-suited I am to that sort of enterprise, done so much more elegantly elsewhere. Time will tell, I guess.

First, though, there’s one more point to be made by way of conclusion. Please forgive its superficial obviousness.

Returning to my desk in a study now so quiet that it’s possible to hear a cat padding up the stairs or some finches squabbling in the garden, contemplating the events of the past few weeks — the G20 protests and the way the police handled them, Smeargate, unrest in Thailand or the sudden enthusiasm for publicising Somali piracy — and the blogosphere’s treatment of them, it occurs to me anew both how visceral is the normal human response to the news item of the moment — which is to say, how powerfully instinctive, how immediate and intuitive — and at the same time, how varied, even amongst people of broadly similar background and education who, most of the time, end up more or less agreeing with each other.

For instance, it came as something of a shock to me to find one of my favourite self-described libertarians so swift to take up the ‘police brutality’ line regarding the death of Ian Tomlinson, if only because it seemed so manifestly obvious to me that the police, for all their imperfections, are better guardians of ‘liberty’ than the violent, unprincipled mob whose worst impulses they so successfully held in check and in whose irresponsible behaviour surely lies much of the blame for the sequence of events that led to Tomlinson’s sad ending. It also came as a shock to me that anyone who presumably believes in the basic concept of legally binding contracts would seek to defend that nurse who spent her time filming old people who weren’t receiving proper care rather than, as she was being paid to do, caring for them. And — moving on from the companionable world of nice libertarians to regions further left — let’s not even start on what I feel about people who side with Lord Rogers against our stalwart defender, the Prince of Wales.

Oh, there are plenty of ways in which one can parse these differences, but the thing that really struck me was less the nature of the difference than its nakedly essential basis. Faced with something problematic, I suspect most of us arrive instantly at judgement, then backtrack gingerly as we try to explain how we got there. Are those explanations always honest ones? Probably not. More often I suspect they’re a polite social fiction, building bridges of shared language as if in some act of compensation for the lack of genuine common ground connecting us with people we nevertheless like and respect. What we feel ends up curbed by what we suppose we ought to feel. All of which is civilised, and doubtless to be welcomed — but sometimes oddly stilted all the same.

And this, in turn, is why the Tower of London always seems to me a place still pulsating with enlivening moral choices — because our instant reactions to its history reveal so much about the basic psychological makeup that also informs our reactions to current affairs, however much we seek to hide it in the interests of a quiet yet sociable life. Do we side with Wat Tyler or the young Richard II? Faced with that sad patch of green grass, do we regretfully think that while Henry VIII was almost certainly wrong about Anne Boleyn’s guilt, he probably had quite a good point about Katherine Howard, because after decades of civil war, preserving the legitimate succession mattered more than the life of one spectacularly silly young woman? Contemplating Strafford’s fall, do we find ourselves standing out there amongst the ever-swelling crowd — many thousands of London’s people, most of them not rabble at all but decent, God-fearing, law-abiding subjects — nevertheless baying for the head, heart and vitals of the King’s adviser, or do we find ourselves in the relative quiet of some tapestry-hung room, watching as the condemned man washes his face and changes his shirt, calmly preparing himself for death? Do we find ourselves sweating on the rack with the loose-limbed broken heretic, or sighing over Laud’s last hours? There’s something unguarded about our responses to these emblematic tales that cuts to the quick of who we are. Perhaps it’s our relative distance from them that gives us this sort of sympathetic freedom.

Of course, the fact that these questions invariably become tangled up in other questions, some ancient and some more urgent, in no way detracts from their significance. As a conservative, I’ve long since grown used to the patterns my own responses make, accepting what this says about me. But there’s something new and indeed rather marvellous in watching my son encounter these narratives for the first time, picking his way through the detail, making his choices — even more marvellous, perhaps, than admiring the progress of his aesthetic sensibilities, his enthusiasm for sun-filled palace gardens, his willingness to second-guess the first Duke of Wellington, his kindness to cats, even his bemused toleration of occasional politics-related maternal blogging.

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9 Comments

Filed under history, London, politics, Tory things

9 responses to “On accidents of perspective

  1. They should definitely re-flood the moat. This would probably happen if the market was allowed to function.

  2. Hmm having been referenced 3 times in this I really must reply, mustn’t I?

    With the police brutality, I was writing about how police brutality was, literally, back on the agenda thanks to the video, but I tried to frame my own opinion as: There’s no possible justification for this *level* of violence but clearly we can’t know everything.

    Or perhaps I’m re-writing history in my own mind again. I hope not.

    The nurse, along with the civil servant sacked today… I suppose I just feel that whistle-blowers deserve protection, that people should not be expected to sacrifice their own careers in order to throw a spotlight on something like this.

    Your analysis that we rush to a judgement then justify it later, in retrospect, certainly rings true – blogging probably exacerbates this with the constant drive to find content and react in a timely manner to events.

    One of the huge benefits of blogging for me is the feedback that comes in the comments, where it’s obvious finer minds than my own can point out where I’ve gone wrong, or help refine and sharpen up some of these ideas. The danger is being lazy and relying on it, I suspect.

    People often believe me to be an ideological absolutist but I suspect my world-view is something that’s ever changing, subject to a process of constant improvement. At least, that’s the intention.

    Also, you referenced Dungeons and Dragons… this tickled me. I had to mention that 🙂

  3. ‘Ideological absolutist’?! On the contrary, one of my very favourite things about your blog is the combination of engagement with manifest open-mindedness — that, coupled with the fact that you generally seem to be involved in a quest to discover what it is that you believe about liberty, and why it is that you believe it. That’s really much of what inspired my rather meandering post, and the reason why you seem to surface so often in it. I hope you don’t mind — please consider it a tribute, albeit perhaps not a very useful or interesting one!

    And as for the police, the nurse and the civil servant, more than anything else, I was trying to emphasise my own visceral reaction to what were, in every case, perfectly reasonable posts from you. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I suspect that when it comes to quite basic questions about what the world should be like and what’s wrong with it at present, you and I agree much more often than not. And yet in each of those specific cases, my instant reaction was clearly something different. That seemed worthy of investigation, if perhaps somewhat resistant to easy analysis. The language of D&D clearly has its limits!

    Thanks, anyway, for responding — and for your excellent site, as remarkable for its civility and good humour as for its libertarian rigour.

  4. JL

    I would need to read this post again before being able to comment properly (something I say to myself frequently), but I must say that it has consoled me somewhat for the fact that a good part of the one day I spent in London, some 25 years ago, was spent at the Tower. Not that I didn’t enjoy it at the time, but in the years since I’ve had too many opportunities to think of what other things might have been done. I’m also suddenly reminded that on that day I bought in some London bookshop a cheap paperback of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, no doubt in part because it seemed so daring and worldly, and so appropriate to buy under the circumstances. Forget the fact that I could hardly have picked a more American choice if I had tried.

  5. Maybe there’s scope for arguing that it’s better to visit places than things, if only because while things travel — surely most of the London-domiciled pictures you’d ever want to see end up in New York or Boston if you wait long enough — places don’t. And for what it’s worth, my copy of Cleveland Amory’s Proper Bostonians was the fruit, not of my four years in New England, but rather my first-ever visit to Charing Cross Road.

    I’m slightly suspicious, though, oft your claim that you enjoyed Britain — if it was that much fun, isn’t a day once every quarter century spreading the fun a little thin?

  6. JL

    Oh, I did enjoy Britain–just that most of what I saw was in and around Oxford. I honestly don’t remember all that much, except that we had wonderful weather for the whole week, which struck everyone we met as utterly improbable.

    Your point about places versus things is well-taken, though I’d bet the moveable things in London that don’t travel are more interesting (or at least, less like what I can already see) than those that do. For what it’s worth, the other lasting memory I have of that day, no doubt much changed from whatever actually happened, is of running through some square to make our connection, looking up across the way and thinking, “Nelson!”, then sprinting on.

  7. Hmm, a happy interlude in a long-ago early 80s Oxford where it was always sunny — are you sure you didn’t just stumble into the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited?

    Actually, for reasons not unrelated to a terminal lack of patience with present-day television, I saw a few episodes of Brideshead recently. It’s held up well — the period detail is luscious, the script almost self-destructively true to the original text, the young Anthony Andrews admirable in, ahem, all sorts of ways — although, heavens, how much sadder it seems than when I first watched it c. 1981.

    My first memories of Trafalgar Square, similarly dating from c. 1981, mostly involve being mesmerised by the rowdiness of the protests in front of the South African embassy as viewed from the portico of the National Gallery — as spectacle goes, almost, if not quite, as striking as The Battle of San Romano, although not even approaching the better Van Eycks in terms of gut-level impact. In other words, maybe you have a point about places versus things ….

  8. Gaw

    Your mention of The Noble Revolt in this post tipped me over into buying it (you may have mentioned it again somewhere). Read it on hols and thoroughly enjoyed it (more here). Thanks!

  9. So glad you liked The Noble Revolt, Gareth!

    Oddly, the only other place I think I mentioned this rather under-appreciated book is in a review of Tate Britain’s Van Dyck exhibition this spring, which for some reason kept going wrong — probably that magnificient portrait of Strafford was just slightly too exciting for me — and hence was never published. But I’m not sure I’d put it past you to have intuited it somehow … 😉