Shades of the Prison House

by David Wemyss (August 2011)

Back in 1979 when I was twenty-five years old, I would barely have known whether the government here in the UK was a Conservative one or a Labour one. Really, I suppose I was just very unworldly. I was moderately well-read and cultured, but in a very lopsided and narrow way. A lifelong susceptibility to literary elegance had been awakened at school, where I resolved to study Latin at university. I was pressurised into doing law instead, but, in itself, that was only a small mishap. I graduated in 1977.

And everything looked as though it would turn out fine. Between 1978 and 1982 I came to know the story of western classical music from Bach to Stravinsky, and to be familiar with the symphonic and chamber canon. I read the biographies of composers and associated literature (e.g. Wagner led to Schopenhauer) and acquired for the first time a strand of cultural literacy that wasn’t lopsided. A lot of people over the years assumed that this was one of the ways in which university had shaped my personality, but in fact university shaped my personality very little compared with what came before and after it.

Anyway, by the early eighties, I was fairly confident that I was good with words, and, looking back on it all now, I should probably have tried writing short stories about middle-class people in the world of classical music – composers, musicians, impresarios and audiences – and then moved on to detective stories or Oxbridge tales or children’s novels. But I didn’t. I lost my innocence instead.

I lost my innocence to the pleasure of reading newspapers with a cup of coffee. In particular, I loved spending an hour every day with The (London) Times under Harold Evans’ editorship in 1981-1982 – its last “great” period. The arts and book reviews were the most attractive items but inevitably I got drawn into the news pages and current affairs. The rest was not silence. I became left-wing, which was a mistake that would muddle up my emotions for more than twenty years.

But, moving in the circles I was moving in – educated, clever, pseudo-bohemian – I had little chance of avoiding it. Although I blame my intellectual limitations too, the spirit of the times was not propitious.

Margaret Thatcher was the dominant presence in British politics back then, and you just weren’t a nice person if you voted for her or supported her. Her supporters were indubitably out there – after all, she won elections and changed the political landscape – but in universities you’d have been a brave person to drop into the conversation that you thought she was right about anything. In Scotland – where I still live – the mantra was that “that woman” didn’t speak for the Scottish people, and the same message remains an article of faith for Scottish devolution right up to the present day. A country significantly defined by its dependency culture is drifting absurdly towards independence.

But people are susceptible to sentimentality. The hatred of Mrs Thatcher in Britain in the eighties was largely predicated on the assumption that no kindly person could hold her opinions, as if human freedom and dignity depended on the intended ameliorations of the socially progressive state, and that espousing such beliefs – or working to realise their objectives – was quite simply what kindliness meant.

How did I come to spend more than twenty years of my life believing something so absurd? The answer is that I didn’t believe it, not really – thank goodness – but that I got into the habit of espousing views I didn’t really hold because my deeper insights seemed a bit too spiky and angular to fit with how I felt about myself.

I’ll give some examples of this, in the hope of showing how it worked, but first of all it’s important to say that I was never inwardly political – in my temperament, as it were. I lived for music and literature, and my favourite writers were hardly likely to encourage left-wing attitudes. Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein can hardly be recruited as socialists – although academics do try (as I shall go on to discuss). Knut Hamsun and Heidegger were Nazis. T S Eliot was an avowed conservative and Virginia Woolf seemed to me to be a quietist as much as a prototype feminist (although it was easy to see why she would be a prototype feminist for her most superficial readers).

As for composers on the other hand, Britten was very left-wing and Beethoven and Mahler were maybe recruitable – although I never thought much about it since it clearly added nothing to the late quartets or the Resurrection Symphony.

But Shostakovich was made wretched by Soviet communism. And Stravinsky – a man with a compelling sense of the sacred, an unsurpassable refinement, one of the ten greatest composers in the history of western music, and an enormous presence in the twentieth century – got out of Russia just in time. He then went on to be notoriously expedient and opportunistic when it came to financial and political considerations, all through his life. He was a human being, a genius, an artist, a husband and lover and father and friend, but he didn’t really “do” social conscience and humanitarian concern.

And that’s OK. It’s a possibility. It’s not that I think cynicism or quietism are deeper or more realistic positions. In fact I think big humanitarian efforts are attractive and admirable as long as you don’t have to listen to their proponents. But such things are just possibilities. A sound human understanding doesn’t depend on being politically literate.

I can remember thinking along these lines almost thirty years ago, but I went on espousing socialist beliefs nonetheless – almost like a kind of courtesy or civility. Such beliefs were the glue of polite society in those days.

Here’s a little story to illustrate. Back in 1975, six men in the UK had been dismissed from their jobs because of a closed shop agreement (i.e. you had to be in the trades union or you couldn’t be in the job). Because of the circumstances of their dismissal, they were also denied unemployment benefit. The then Secretary of State for Employment Michael Foot said that a person who had declined to fall in with the conditions of employment arising from a closed shop could be considered to have brought about his own dismissal. The Conservative MP Norman Tebbit (later a prominent Minister in Mrs Thatcher’s government) accused Mr Foot of fascism, which caused great controversy. However The Times defended Mr Tebbit in a famous editorial, declaring that the word fascism had been used correctly and insisting that the question was not whether Michael Foot was a fascist but whether he knew he was.

This was still discussed in the eighties because Mr Foot’s response – he called Mr Tebbit a semi-house trained polecat – had by then entered the political vernacular.  Of course I took Mr Foot’s side – even though Mr Tebbit was manifestly right. Mr Foot was a kindly literary type whereas Mr Tebbit was an unkind man with no discernible literary or artistic bent who also didn’t care about the poor. What could be more obvious than be with Mr Foot? Trades unionism was admittedly marred by ugliness of language and in-group assumption, but then weren’t the unions caught up in a struggle for the soul of society? And you had to pick the right side.

In November 1984, at the height of the miners’ strike, two striking miners threw a slab of concrete off a motorway footbridge and killed a taxi driver who was taking a working miner (a “scab”) to his pit in South Wales. Left-wing orthodoxy was that this was the fault of Mrs Thatcher. I spoke out against the violence – saying that it was a betrayal of the moral case for the strike. But deep down I was becoming more and more aware that I hated the whole mentality of strikes and pickets and “them and us”, and that these idioms were probably not betrayals of unionism but defining characteristics.

A vivid landmark in my shifting opinions had come just a few weeks earlier on 12 October, when an IRA bomb exploded at the Conservative party conference in Brighton. The blast went off at the Grand Hotel, where many conference delegates – including members of the Cabinet – were staying. Mrs Thatcher and her husband narrowly escaped injury. Several others were not so lucky.

Among the injured was Norman Tebbit, by now a senior cabinet minister. Firemen cut him from the rubble in a painstaking operation that took several hours. Breakfast television showed him being stretchered to safety, conscious and clearly in pain. His wife had been grievously (although not fatally) injured. I remember thinking he was particularly courageous – even though I was also used to thinking that he was an unkind man. I felt sorry for him and his wife – much more so than for striking miners, in fact – but I brushed aside this uneasy feeling.

Later the same morning I was at work. Soft-left colleagues were busy saying how terrible the bombing had been, while clearly nursing the vague feeling that they wished it had been worse. I was struck by the thought that, sympathetic as I was to psychological noir, I definitely didn’t share this feeling – even though, by afternoon coffee, people were owning up to it quite openly – although “obviously not really”.

But it was our one hard-left colleague who really made an impression. Predictably, he had no hesitation in saying he wished that Mrs Thatcher and many others had been killed, but – rather less predictably – his sense of disappointment centred on the plight of Mr Tebbit.

In Scotland, the word greetin’ means weeping, and our hard-liner (an apologist for Stalin) told us he wished the BBC news coverage had shown Mr Tebbit greetin’ as he was being pulled out of the wreckage. I was amazed that the sense of class hatred in this person was so poisonous that he wanted a high-profile “enemy” to be seen on television injured and in tears. Just what that would have shown was unclear, but Mr Tebbit was not in tears.

Someone said something along the lines of “for goodness sake he’s still a person – his wife is seriously hurt, and several people are dead.” The response was that that was easy to say if your nice middle-class father had died peacefully in old age, not early from an industrially-related illness attributable to the evil of capitalism. I remember thinking to myself that this was not an answer I accepted. Commerce was always going to involve winners and losers, and winners would often win well and losers lose badly, but the alternative was soulless dogmatic collectivist ideology.

Better to try to improve things gently and realistically (Norman Tebbit was actually a very staunch defender of the National Health Service) but to remember always that you could never legislate to make people good. Social engineering by statute would foster ideological conformity but not goodness. Deep down I knew by now that socialism wasn’t on the side of the angels at all, and the killing of the taxi driver the following month would push me closer to the brink. There was little left apart from the nominal, so why was it proving to be so difficult to make the break?

Couldn’t I just alarm my social circle and announce that I was some kind of small-c conservative? Someone who would have been a “wet” in Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet? Or maybe more of a quietist. It wasn’t as if I was a shrinking violet. Clearly something must still have been bothering me in myself.

At the time in question – the end of 1984 and the beginning of 1985 – I was in the first flush of my love affair with Kierkegaard, for whom only individuals could be reformed, not societies. More grist to my mill, you’d have thought. Of course you can’t summarise someone like Kierkegaard in a little essay like this, but I’ve pondered the difficulty over the years and come to the conclusion that an effective opening gambit is to say that you can catch a whiff of his meaning in his fondness for the Biblical story about the pool of Bethesda, where the waters had miraculous properties only when an angel descended to stir them.

Kierkegaard took from this the particular thought that everyday language needed to be stirred by something extrinsic in order to dislodge the routine theatricality and affectation that had overtaken it. Of course his presuppositions were religious, which might have put me off, but I could still appreciate his keen sense that words were being overcome by instrumental and calculative humanism. In particular, he foresaw the day when people would be taken to be good or kindly only if they espoused the correct political views.

And so – a bit intemperately, you have to say – he mocked the obsession with temporal differences that marked the democratic movements of his time, and called attention to existential categories that transcended those differences. A charwoman should not complain about a slum landlord – but that was not to say that the slum landlord was excused his unkindness.

That’s indefensibly extreme, but it’s also disquietingly apolitical and not a little edifying. With status and power comes responsibility, but responsibility comes with poverty and weakness too. Early twentieth-century Marxist readers of Kierkegaard like Lukacs and Adorno were apoplectic at the thought that this privileged young man – who had never done a day’s work in his life and lived off his father’s inheritance until his early death at 42 – had had the temerity to suggest that Christian love included knowing your place and not complaining about it, because there was no eternal difference between the King of Denmark and a smelly vagrant.

But there isn’t much difference if they’re both going to die an hour later. This night thy soul is required of thee. Temporal differences seem momentous because of time; eternal resemblance is noticed when you remember how little time you have.

And, as an aside, it’s worth saying that this insight can easily be seen as being on the side of the poor – just not on the side of socialism – although, quite clearly, it can also be seen as a hiding-place for aristocratic disdain or bourgeois distaste. There are big questions here, questions ill-served by sanctimony.

But, all in all, it would be easy to imagine that by the time I was lapping up this kind of thing (still in the mid-eighties) I would surely have been long-finished with the left. However another snare had been set. A new wave of Kierkegaard scholars was emerging in universities throughout Europe and America at that time, which was very exciting for me. The problem was that these people almost immediately plunged into a kind of collective repression on the subject of Kierkegaard’s apolitical temperament, and set about rewriting it to make it more congenial to the leftward scholarly community.

Now I always felt there was something wrong about this, and that Kierkegaard was not really amenable to hijacking by the left, although I was also clear that he offered the right little more than an absence of loathing. He was a Christian quietist who raised his voice against temporal egalitarianism because he knew what would happen in time.    

But he also knew that (to paraphrase Auden) he was destined to become his admirers. Time and again in the voluminous journals he warned that his life and work would fall into the hands of the “assistant professors”, and it certainly did. Not that it worried them, of course. They knew the question was bound to be asked, and they answered it by saying they did what they did “in fear and trembling.” But they did it all the same. And in my keenness to imagine myself a scholar – I was an amateur but I managed to get published four times in a peer-reviewed academic journal – I turned a blind eye to the mounting preposterousness of the “Kierkegaard industry”.

Yet this still falls a long way short of explaining how for the next twenty years I could continue to act according to an implicit assumption that the left was the better of two poor choices. At least the breakthrough – when it finally came – seemed fairly explicable.  

It didn’t come until 2005. I was working in local government in the UK at the time and knew at first hand the politically correct pieties of the “New Labour” managerial state. I was staggered by what was going on. And the most alarming thing about it was that it couldn’t be dismissed as mere fad or fashion. It was at the heart of primary legislation.  

An Alice-in-Wonderland dream world had usurped the vocabulary of central and local government, schools and universities, hospitals and medical agencies, and even the judiciary. All in all, the public sector had become hopelessly ensnared by symptoms pretending to be cures: the pseudo-professionalisation of bureaucrats and the bureaucratisation of professionals, the ubiquity of plans and strategies, the craven acceptance of managerialism and performance indicators, and the banality of mission statements and “visions”.

The sad thing was that there were a lot of respectable things in the public sector that were well-worth doing, and a lot of real jobs and real services to be protected, but socialism – having lost the economic argument in Mrs Thatcher’s time – was now being allowed to win the cultural argument by infusing public and private language with lethal doses of humbug and doctrinal absurdity.

And, contrary to common assumption on the right, I didn’t think it was just laughable. There was something abysmal about what might otherwise have seemed like a faintly comical mania for trying to make people nicer by the management of language, or by turning education into social engineering. Managing language worked- that much was obvious – but it didn’t make people nicer. It just changed the meaning of nice, and drained the word sanctimony of any meaning at all.

My instinct was very different. It seemed to me that our words had been limited perfectly well over the centuries by good manners, rightly contingent upon each person’s gifts of education and reserve. Easeful conversation tugged at the formative tissues of liberty. Rich speakers were simply comfortable with their upbringing. Deeply immured in a genuine tradition, they were uniquely confident about improvising and innovating. They might go wrong sometimes, but that could never justify the revision of good manners by committees of political activists playing third-rate linguistic parlour games.  

For a year or two previously, I had convinced myself that the problem was a philosophical one – a problem about language that would be amenable to correctives drawn from Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Then the scales dropped from my eyes and I saw beyond all doubt that it wasn’t a problem with language but an attack on it. An attack on it by socialism. But not the socialism of closed shops and flying pickets.  

This was a softer version armed with sentimentality. Social inclusion, they called it. Equality and diversity training, they said. Community planning. Evidence-led outcomes. We could all be socialists now, except for people who just weren’t very nice. Daily Mail readers. And it would create jobs too – thousands of useless jobs to be repackaged as frontline services by the Mad Hatters of management.

It was ingenious stuff. But now I knew. I had had enormous difficulty in picturing myself on the right – after all it was the mercantile right to such a significant extent, and trade and commerce tended to bore me – but that seemed like a nicety now. Soft-right, yes – I’d have been the wettest of wets in Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet – but it felt good to take the deep breath of saying I was on the right. Or rather that I felt more like some sort of quietist, really – but that it had to be soft right if a more definitive category were to be insisted upon. And that remains my position today.

In an overcast and sunless world, ice has covered the fields, but few see anything wrong. Sometimes in the past communities have moved across rougher ground, sure-footed in their sharing of richer traditions. Of course the fear is that, in a sunlit world refreshed by great gales blowing down the centuries, the shadow may turn out to be that of an authoritarian polis. Nothing could be further from my intentions.

But I do warm to G.K. Chesterton’s remark that real democracy gives a vote to the ancestral dead, not just to the men and women who happen to be walking about at the time.

Shades of the prison house have fallen across western civilisation, but the sunlight is still there. We should be careful we don’t shut out more of the sun by means of our own vexation. A Beethoven quartet is for all time.


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