Tolstoy in ironic mode

Most people have not read War and Peace; most that do probably skip Tolstoy’s extended rants about the meaning of History. Which means that relatively few will have read the following amusing parody of 19th century historiography that is contained within one of them, which is a real shame as it is excellent…

‘Louis XIV was a proud and self-confident man: he had such and such mistresses and such and such ministers and he ruled France badly. His descendants were weak men and they too ruled France badly. And they had such and such favourites and such and such mistresses. Moreover certain men wrote some books at that time. At the end of the eighteenth century there were a couple of dozen men in Paris who began to talk about all men being free and equal. This caused people all over France to begin to slash and drown one another. They killed the king and many other people. At that time there was in France a man of genius – Napoleon. He conquered everybody everywhere – that is, he killed many people because he was a great genius. And for some reason he wanted to kill Africans, and killed them so well and was so cunning and wise that when he returned to France he ordered everybody to obey him, and they all obeyed him. Having become an Emperor he again went out to kill people in Italy, Austria and Prussia. And there too he killed a great many. In Russia there was an Emperor, Alexander, who decided to restore order to Europe, and therefore fought against Napoleon. In 1807 he suddenly made friends with him, but in 1811 they again quarrelled and again began killing many people. Napoleon led six hundred thousand men into Russia and captured Moscow; then he suddenly ran away from Moscow, and the Emperor Alexander, helped by the advice of Stein and others, united Europe to arm against the disturber of its peace. All Napoleon’s allies suddenly became his enemies and their forces advanced against the fresh forces he had raised. The Allies defeated Napoleon, entered Paris, forced Napoleon to abdicate, and sent him to the island of Elba, not depriving him of the title of Emperor and showing him every respect, though five years before and one year later they all regarded him as an outlaw and a brigand. Then Louis XVIII, who till then had been the laughing-stock both of the French and the Allies, began to reign. And Napoleon, shedding tears before his Old Guards, renounced the throne and went into exile. Then the skillful statesmen and diplomatists (especially Talleyrand, who managed to sit down in a particular chair before anyone else, and thereby extended the frontiers of France) talked in Vienna, and by these conversations made the nations happy or unhappy. Suddenly the diplomatists and monarchs nearly quarrelled, and were on the point of again ordering their armies to kill one another, but just then Napoleon arrived in France with a battalion, and the French, who had been hating him, immediately submitted to him. But the Allied monarchs were angry at this and went to fight the French once more. And they defeated the genius Napoleon and, suddenly recognizing him as a brigand, sent him to the island of St Helena. And the exile, separated from the beloved France so dear to his heart, died a lingering death on that rock and bequeathed his great deeds to posterity. But in Europe a reaction occurred and the sovereigns once again all began to oppress their subjects.’


Year Zero



We should not just be concerned about the destruction of ancient sites in Syria (both the country and the historic region) because of the loss of cultural heritage and the archaeological record (although these are bloody good reasons in their own right) but because such cultural vandalism* is a clear and terrifying signal of intent. This is because the desire to utterly eliminate the past is always and inevitably linked to the desire to utterly eliminate all those who do not fit in with the new order. We have seen this before, most frequently due to the actions of Asian Communists, and so we know exactly what to expect: no wonder people flee in their hundreds of thousands.

This is a disturbing subject and I’ve thought about it a lot recently (a matter on which I suspect I am not exactly alone). Where does this impulse – the desire for Year Zero – come from? Why was it so frequently associated with Asian Communism and why has it more recently been associated with some of the more extreme versions of Islamism? It is not enough to suggest that it is an inevitable by-product of Utopianism-via-violence: the Soviet Union committed many and terrible acts of cultural vandalism and political murder in the name of Utopia, but never attempted to eliminate all traces of the past. It is not enough to point to mere iconoclasticism (in fact doing so often reeks of desperation) either. There have to be answers to this, but for now I’m drawing as much of a blank (hah) as everyone else.

*Although the use of this term to describe current events is more than a little unkind on the Vandals…

Tiger Cage

There is a moment in The Singing Detective in which Marlow asks Binney whether he visits the zoo. He notes that it is often the case that tigers try to escape through the bars of their cages, and observes that this is a rather sad thing as, “for all their stripes”, the tiger does not realise, will never realise, that “there is no way out – not through the bars.”

Captivity is a continual theme in Dennis Potter’s work; physical captivity,* situational captivity, and most frequently of all, mental and emotional captivity. Invariably he wrote about this captivity from the perspective of the victim: as such his works are suffused with vivid dreams of liberation, of release, of freedom from emotional bondage. It is always clear that these dreams are impossible desires; things that can never be fulfilled in this life, only in the next.

Although Potter’s works were never strictly autobiographical, he often wrote of what he knew** and his body of work thus stands as an incredible outpouring of frustration against his personal captivity; against the medical condition that left him “a prisoner in his own skin”, against his frequent hospitalisations, and above all against the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his uncle as a boy. Yet note again that his works were not strictly autobiographical: Potter was not just writing for himself. He understood well that there is a universality in suffering, and that the aspect of it that can be particularly difficult to deal with is the fact that – unlike the tiger – those who find themselves trapped inside traumas past are well aware that there is no way out through the bars. As such for those who have these problems, the experience of watching the extraordinary fantasies of freedom that Potter wove throughout so much expertly realised pain and darkness can be overwhelming and thoroughly wonderful.

*Although almost always in the sense of being trapped in a hospital, in a house – or even in a paralysed body – rather than within the confines of the criminal justice system. When Potter wrote about the latter at all (as towards the end of Pennies From Heaven) it was to throw barbs at Establishment hypocrisy, rather than to explore the theme of captivity in its most clichéd setting.

**Of course so does everyone else. One of Potters distinctive features as a writer was that he was actually aware of this.


I first encounted the Discworld – via (perhaps inevitably) The Colour of Magic – when I was eight years old. I remember being fascinated and delighted by the descriptions of the city of Ankh Morpork and fell in love immediately (I was a strange eight year old). I have been reading (and, perhaps more to the point, re-reading) the entire series ever since. As such I was one of literally millions of people who were at least mildly put out earlier this month when it was announced that Terry Pratchett had gone for a long walk with one of his best loved characters. What follows are a few disorganised thoughts.

1. The most important and most beguiling thing about the Discworld is that it grew exponentially in its author’s head more or less off its own initiative or at least its own logic. This combined with Pratchett’s skill as a creator of character and a writer of dialogue to make a fantasy world that felt real. The obvious parallel here is with Tolkien,* and this is where things get slightly ironic and very interesting. Early on in the life of the series, Pratchett was convinced that the Discworld was very different to Middle Earth; that that was a fantasy world in which every acre was mapped and every weather system understood by its author, while the Discworld as just a place where stories happened. The ironic bit is that the Discworld subsequently (and very rapidly) developed its own dense web of fact and information and even its own internal laws and logic. The interesting bit is that Middle Earth only appears so perfectly formed in the published version of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s fantasy universe (as we know from the reams of drafts and notes published by his son) was also one of continual expansion and alteration. Anyway, overactive imaginations are wonderful things.

2. The books are seriously, seriously funny. I’m dubious of the idea of analysing humour (remembering Norman Davies’s observation about a hypothetic serious scholar who writes learned tomes on the nature of humour but who never tells a joke himself), so I won’t go much further on this point. But this was an author capable of creating public embarrassment for anyone bold enough to read one of his books in a place of authorised quiet.

3. But they could also be very serious. An autodidact’s autodidact, Pratchett’s interests were extensive and ecclectic, and (particularly as the series developed) these interests found their way into the heart of his work. Often this was (as many obituaries have rightly pointed out) generous and open minded – Pratchett was (amongst other things) a convinced athiest fascinated by belief and religion, a determinedly practical man with an interest in philosophy, a man of the countryside who wrote perceptively about the city, and a tragically less-than-entirely numerate one fascinated by science and technology – but he could also be sharp. And this was not a bad thing: for instance, Jingo (arguably his finest novel) is one of the most brilliantly effective critiques of militarism, xenophobia, nationalism and the insanity of geopolitics that I have ever read, while Going Postal says certain very important things about contemporary business practices and the degradation of the idea of public service in its wake.

4. But, again, the books are seriously funny even when they’re being seriously serious. I remember reading Good Omens (co-written with Neil Gaiman) while seriously ill in hospital. While in some respects this may have been an error given the various tubes attached to me at the time, psychologically it was certainly not.

5. A word about genre perhaps? I’d rather not. A good book is a good book is a good book, no matter whether the hero lives in London or in Lancre. All fiction is fictional, all of it the product of imagination. Pretending otherwise is silly and snobbish. And on that note, this post finishes.**

*Another would be Diana Wynne Jones, who also shared Pratchett’s interest in parodying the genre that she herself tended to write in. If you don’t own a copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland then your bookshelf is, frankly, deficient.

**6. I also love the footnotes. How could anyone not? This (from Thud) is one of my favourites:

“Vimes had never got on with any game more complex than darts. Chess in particular had always annoyed him. It was the dumb way the pawns went off and slaughtered their fellow pawns while the kings lounged about doing nothing that always got to him; if only the pawns united, maybe talked the rooks round, the whole board could have been a republic in a dozen moves.”

Face to Face

John Freeman, who died yesterday at the ripe old age of ninety nine, was a compellingly strange man – multiple accounts testify to a certain remarkable opacity about him; he was not a man to reveal his true self (whatever that was) even to close colleagues, let alone random strangers. Reading some recollections it is hard not to think of matryoshka dolls – with a career so diverse and so varied as to be actively bizarre. He was sucessively a Labour MP (1945-55 for Watford; he ended up as the last survivor of the 1945 Parliament) and a junior minister in the Attlee government (he resigned along with Bevan and Wilson over the introduction of prescription charges), a television journalist notable above all for his interviews, the editor of The New Statesman, a senior diplomat (first as British High Commissioner in India, then as the British Ambassador in the United States), and then as a television executive at LWT in the 1970s and 1980s. The idealistic Socialist who resigned from the most left-wing government in British history because it was not left-wing enough ended his career as an advocate of free markets and corporate managerialism. There may well be a decent film script to be made from that.

I would argue (and this is hardly a controversial opinion) that his primary legacy (so much else was but a reflection – in a well polished surface it shold be acknowledged- of whatever else was going on at the time) are the interviews that he conducted for the BBC programme Face to Face in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many of them are on YouTube and all are worth watching, even if they do not always make for easy viewing. For while Freeman was himself as opaque and impenetrable as obsidian, he had a knack of getting into the heads of others. The results could sometimes be disturbing to witness; most famously in the case of his interview with Tony Hancock:

Infinitely less disturbing is his interview with Carl Jung, which is a thing of surreal and beguiling charm and thus a good note on which to conclude:

The Last Days of Hereford United

This is grassroots football in the Year of Our Lord 2014.

Hopefully something emerges from this (quite literal) wreckage (AFC Hereford United or whatever), but this depressing tale deserves as much attention as possible. What has happened to Hereford United is particularly grotesque, but it is not really unusual. If the highest tiers of the sport attract Arab sheikhs, Russian oligarchs and American financiers, lower down their place is increasingly filled by scum of a different and more directly malign sort. Hereford’s last chairman was literally a convicted fly tipper for God’s sake.

Congratulations to Jonathan Jones

Opening the Grauniad earlier today I noted the inclusion of a full-page profile of Frank Auerbach which I read with interest, if with a degree of trepidation as the Grauniad‘s art critic – Jonathan Jones – is not someone who I have much time for. At first it seemed like a fairly standard piece of arts criticism, focusing particularly on Auerbach’s friendship with Lucien Freud* and on the question of influence, specifically Auerbach’s influence on Freud. Comparisons with other post-war arts are also drawn. So far, so standard. And yet while reading the profile, a strange feeling gripped me. Something important was missing.

What could it be? A quick re-read of the article revealed that the answer was the obvious (and dispiriting) one.

In an article about Frank Auerbach that focused to a significant degree on the question of artistic influence, Jones had somehow failed to mention the most important artistic influence on Auerbach: the great David Bomberg who taught Auerbach (and many others, including Leon Kossoff) at Borough Polytechnic in the late 40’s and early ’50s.

This is an omission of such spectacular magnitude that sarcastic congratulations are not only tempting but essential.

*Published arts criticism is almost always written to coincide with a new exhibition; in this instance it is of an Auerbach retrospective at the Tate comprised of the (large) number of drawings and paintings by Auerbach that used to be owned by Freud.