Monday 18 May 2020

'Unhappy the land that needs heroes'

Re-boot the economy or save more lives? If you find yourself having to ask that question, you know you’ve got something very, very wrong.

The way this economy is currently run – and the Tory party’s deep investment in this way of running it – deems some lives more worth saving than others. Coming to the UK with a spare £200K? Or just £50K accessible from a registered venture capital firm? Here’s your visa and we can fast-track citizenship. Coming to the UK with no savings but a strong desire for work and security? Sorry, no vacancies. As for animals (unless they happen to be champion race-horses), forget it.

The UK has more Covid-19 deaths than any other country in Europe. Incompetence on the part of government, or the result of deliberate policy?

Both. You don’t need to be particularly competent if you have power – just the minimal amount required to hold on to power will do. The system is designed to promote idiots. Every parent, carer, scientist, doctor, nurse, shop assistant and delivery guy that I’ve listened to in the past weeks has been more intelligent than Johnson, Raab, Hancock, Patel. And better at the jobs they are doing. Which is not to say every person in those jobs is a ‘hero’ – there are doubtless idiots in the NHS just as there are in politics or farming or small-press publishing, obviously. The cult of heroism is a problem. Brecht: ‘Unhappy the land that needs heroes.’

The spirit-of-Blitz is looking threadbare – it was always a bit wispy: Churchill was booed on the streets of London as well as cheered in the 1940s – and Johnson’s ‘personal magnetism’ too (attributed to him by a host of journalists, not all of them from the Daily Mail). Can magnets be threadbare? Probably not, but magnets can repel as strongly as they can attract, and ‘personal magnetism’ has been another problem. ‘First impression: restless, almost intolerably so … egotistical, bumptious, shallow minded and reactionary but with a certain personal magnetism.’ Johnson? No: Beatrice Webb on Churchill. ‘Those who have met [X] face to face in public business or on social terms have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.’ – Churchill on Hitler, 1937.

Meanwhile, on the doorstep … A couple of new CBe books. Stephen Knight’s Drizzle Mizzle Downpour Deluge, which swipes at any idea that what poetry is for is to offer comfort or consolation, is officially published on Thursday this week, 21 May – which happens to be the third anniversary (I didn’t plan it this way) of one of the very best days in CBe’s history, and possibly mine too – and this a not a bad time to be publishing because neither author nor I are hung up on launch parties. It’s simply out there, and good.

And Todd McEwen’s Who Sleeps with Katz (originally from Granta in 2003), a novel that pitches perfectly the elegaic against the celebratory and which is officially published in June but available now. (Official publication dates are just numbers filled in on a form, not unlike the government’s Covid numbers: so precise that they are almost persuasive.) Touch, laughter, exasperation, seafood, interesting strangers, fast wit, flirting, surly waiters and others who are great – remember those? In this era of enforced puritanism, MacK and Isidor would be 2 metres apart and having to talk louder, or stage-whisper. Who Sleeps with Katz honours the city at its best, the mingling and mess of it, how lives get lived and learned. I think McEwen felt that the New York he was writing about was already historical; boy does it feel historical now.

The CBe Lockdown Subscription – see the website Home page: 10 books posted over 10 weeks for £65, you choose which books – is still running. The first subscribers have only a week/book or so to go. I’d like to keep it running.