October 11, 2017

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All alone: even when I was a child, I’ve always known there was something to be frightened of … I can see it coming from the edge of the room, creeping in the streetlight. Holding my head in the pale gloom: can you see it coming now?

Florence Welch won’t be happy: not only was one of her songs used at the Tory conference, but the hoo-hah about her displeasure reminded me how much I love her work; so here she is again, being discussed (used) by a Conservative, quite without her consent. 

The opening lines are from Breaking Down, which would have been more appropriate for the conference, perhaps. It’s a song about the terror of losing control; the thin, thin line that separates reason from insanity. It captures me entirely while I listen to it, plucking my psychic awareness loose from its concrete suburban solidity, and tossing it into the eerie, frightening world that Florence describes, and which I find uncomfortably familiar. 

As a teenager I had a conscious discussion with myself: how simple it would be to stop the pretence of normality; give up the Robot Boy act (the carapace designed and worn as protection), and indulge myself in (what I saw as) the weakness of a breakdown. Stop not screaming, I thought, give it up and let go. This unkind world you didn’t ask to inhabit: you don’t owe it the cost of your sanity. 

These thoughts passed (of course) and I imagine are fairly standard for the adolescent. But surely Florence had a similar… experience. Her genius allowed her to transmute the fear (“I can see it coming from the edge of the room”) into a song of great beauty. 

“Tories have lost control of the upstream to the extent that there’s barely an artist, an academic, an actor, a playwright, a television producer, a singer, a musician, a novelist who would be willing to stand up and say “I am frightened of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. The Conservatives have a vision for the country that is not only practical, it’s human-shaped.”
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You know the famous scene in Six Degrees of Separation, when Stockard Channing flips the double-sided canvas round and round: chaos/control. Chaos/control. The grip we have on the one depends on our ability to spin the other. 

And that “other”, that creature… “creeping in the streetlight”, as Florence sees it, or manifest as a demon, as Iris Murdoch might suggest, or “just” a psychic artefact, as a psychiatrist would put it, or even a sociological construct of structural inequality: of whatever matter it consists, it is, regardless, quite, quite real. We all have our demons, and spend our lives casting around for angels to save us. 

But some of us turn our back on the very concept (I can quite easily imagine a reader harrumphing at this piece). I would always argue that it’s psychologically unhealthy to ignore the creatures that live at the edge of your consciousness. But the political consequences disturb me as much. 

A foodbank in Glasgow: Tories are unlikely to face up to the emotional consequences of poverty. Credit: Danny Lawson/PA Images

Whether you notice the demons that stalk your wellbeing is quite independent of how you vote, of course. Demons don’t care whether their targets are Tories or socialists (yes, I give the demons agency. So what?). But perhaps the manner in which we respond to the movement at the corner of our vision, the flicker that’s never quite in focus… perhaps this is Conservatism’s greatest failure. 

I mean our failure to provide an artistic response to the difficulty of being human. Is there — I’m making a theory here, not attempting to prove it — is there some element in the Tory disposition which shies away from any lyrical expression of fear, something which renders our approach to life — including politics — too literal, anti-artistic? Which is to say: inauthentic? 

That we are heartless is our critics’ greatest lie, but it’s a lie which has stuck. Why? My theory is that our empiricism has become too strong, our distrust of imagination too great. That we have prioritised “common sense” over the terrors which haunt human existence. If we insist on the lack of an inner life, how to fight opponents who claim we don’t have one?

Imagine a Tory minister saying: ‘It’s because of a neighbour of mine who died that I understand the terror of joblessness. We are all so close to oblivion’
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Consider the standard Tory response to food banks — what a shame people have to use them; of course there are many reasons for their growth, not all of them negative; the important role for government is to grow the economy and create more jobs. All of that is true, of course, but it’s almost inhuman in its incompleteness. 

But imagine a minister who said this:

“When I was a child, a neighbour died alone and lay, unnoticed, for a fortnight. I’ve never forgotten the guilt I felt when he was finally buried, though I was in no way at fault; my parents couldn’t meet one another’s eyes. In an odd way — forgive me, I know the reasoning isn’t obvious — it’s because of that neighbour that I understand the terror of joblessness. We are all so close to oblivion.” 

That our perceived lack of empathy is a problem for the movement seems incontrovertible. Tories have lost control of the upstream to the extent that there’s barely an artist, an academic, an actor, a playwright, a television producer, a singer, a musician, a novelist who would be willing to stand up and say “I am frightened of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. The Conservatives have a vision for the country that is not only practical, it’s human-shaped.” 

For decades we’ve acted as though this doesn’t matter, that somehow artistic vision and socialism are related expressions of the same subconscious instinct. “Of course, she [an actor or writer of genius] is a terrible lefty.” An infantilising indulgence that can no longer be afforded, not when that entire “terrible lefty” culture is the principal medium in which our fellow citizens swim, breathe, love, and talk about their fear of demons. 

Impossible to push against the tide of an entire culture… and when that culture is intent on promoting, normalising and empowering characters as sinister as John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, then the lack of Conservative cultural traction is electorally dangerous. Remember Stockard Channing and the chaos/control canvas: every suburban bourgeois norm we hold dear is now at risk, because you don’t get (support for) stability without admitting the (fear and presence of) chaos. 

Think about what Corbyn wants to do to the country. There is danger lurking, still just out of view, but it’s close. The armour of efficient “common sense”, fervently strapped on in youth, dismissive of the terror that jolts you awake at night, won’t protect you for an instant. The danger creeps closer, closer, closer by the day: can you see it coming now?