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Political Awakenings

How family, feelings and unlikely accidents can shape a lifetime of politics…

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October 21, 2019

Jonathan Swift said you couldn’t reason a man out of a position he hadn’t been reasoned into in the first place, and this is why most politics is tribal, not rational.

So it is with me, though I have built a reasonably sound superstructure of reason on the bedrock of my immovable love of certain, unchanging things. What has always, ultimately, been my politics was absorbed like the lore of a tribe, not taught to me or even suggested to me, or much discussed — just known, very deep down, as essential and desirable. Every political organisation I have ever joined has been, by comparison, cardboard, fraudulent and unsatisfactory, like a cheap hamburger.

For me, my politics came as a succession of heavy, deeply moving images of what sort of country I lived in — serious, warlike, chilly, full of the potential of power or even violence but, in reality, often almost silent. The sleek, fierce warships I saw at Rosyth aged, perhaps, three; the heroic engineering of the Forth Railway Bridge; the compact, hissing power of steam locomotives, all under dark skies, and all in a cold climate.

And then, I piled on top of that the world I met in various preparatory schools, one of them a choir school: the chilly beauty of the choir at evensong, the potent silence of a cathedral holding its breath between prayers, the arches reaching upwards into shadow, the strange and alluring mixture of magnificence and austerity that Protestantism brought. “Father, hear the prayer we offer. Not for ease, that prayer shall be, but for strength, that we may ever live our lives courageously.”

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And, from there to Tennyson and Newbolt. Once I knew, almost by heart, Tennyson’s long poem about Sir Richard Grenville’s little ‘Revenge’ sailing into the midst of a Spanish fleet which towered over her, and fighting to the very end, against appalling odds, to destroy those “Inquisition dogs and the devildoms of Spain”. And Newbolt’s Drake’s Drum — with its legend that in England’s peril the drum would sound and Sir Francis would rise from his salty sea grave, his hammock his shroud, “slung atween the roundshot in Nombre Dios Bay” and return to “drum them up the Channel, as we drummed them long ago” — made more real to me by living in deep Devon lanes a short walk from Buckland Abbey, where the alleged drum still hung.

A little later, I was allowed to stand on the very spot where Nelson had fallen on the deck of HMS Victory, at Trafalgar in 1805, and was not spared a visit to the dark place far below, where he had died, as the surgeons did their savage work on wounded seamen all around him, on a deck painted red so the blood would not show so much.

Then along came Macaulay, and Horatius at the Bridge and “How can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods?” How indeed? It remains a good question, though I no longer hope at all for the chance to see if it is true.

“Britons sing!” I and my schoolfellows on our West Country hilltop would pipe to the tune of Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, as the Atlantic rains dashed against the windowpanes. “Britons, sing, that all the world shall know we are free! Trumpets! Fling the Challenge over the boundless sea!”

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Note that part about freedom. We really were brought up to believe we were the freest people on earth. We were proud of that, proud that our police were unarmed and our courts were fair, even when we had only a faint idea of what these things really meant. There was something after that about “Christian service and true chivalry”, but in many searches since I have never been able to find the original words of this song, which I may well have been one of the very last people to sing, and which may well now be illegal.

We were not in the least embarrassed by these sentiments. The dormitories in which we slept were named after seadogs, the more senior, the more majestic. I can still remember the order of them, from Blake through to Nelson. We had not heard the word “Profumo”, not yet, and we had been mostly protected from the implications of Suez, though I sensed a weakening in authority, of which I was quick to take advantage in a thoroughly Leninist way (“Insert the bayonet. If you meet steel, withdraw and try elsewhere. If you meet mush, push harder.”).

I remember also, for the first time, holding a golden Sovereign in my hand and being troubled by the thought that a society in which such coins had (almost unbelievably) been normal daily currency might have been better in some ways than one which relied on scruffy rectangles of paper. I longed for the solidity which my tribal upbringing seemed to rely on, but which was visibly crumbling around me.

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Cuba killed my communism

By James Bloodworth

Avoiding my headmaster’s incessant and urgent suggestions that I should expose myself to fresh air and exercise, of which I already had quite enough in my view, I hid from sight in the unfrequented school library, where nobody ever looked for anyone (we were expected to grow up to be naval officers or gentleman farmers, not intellectuals). And so I absorbed a whole version of history through the unequalled cartoons of Sir Bernard Partridge.

It was then that I became quite sure that we had lost a world of immense stability and peace in 1914, and that what had come after (and what I now lived in) was a shabby, gimcrack imitation of it, lit by a harsh and glaring light, and invaded by tinkling music and braying voices. And I have spent much of my life being told I think the 1950s were a golden age. The 1950s? That tatty, threadbare, apologetic, smelly era — golden?

So I was not a Tory, or even a conservative: I was by nature and upbringing an actual reactionary — as it happened, the perfect preparation for my long later years as a homicidal Bolshevik. The same almost berserk passions were engaged (Bolshevism is thoroughly Edwardian in so many ways) in pursuit of a distant, supposedly beautiful ideal. Since the end of that, I have never really been able to stomach the insipid potions of supposed ‘mainstream’ politics, which, set beside the deep passions of my reactionary and revolutionary phases, are much as non-alcoholic lager would be after a generous measure of Calvados. Why even bother?

Someone should have taken me in hand, I suppose, and given me a normal modern upbringing, all about shiny new hospitals, equality, and the United Nations. But they came too late. I had already heard the distant trumpet call of a much more seductive, much older world view. And I am glad of that. I wouldn’t have missed any of it, and if now I can laugh cheerfully at the absurdities of our politics, tiny figures scuttling through cavernous halls built for much greater men, it is because for a few short, dreamy years I was given a glimpse of a lost past, just before it vanished forever. And from then on I knew what I liked.