Grim fact of the week

I recently read that during the Napoleonic wars attempts were made in parts of Continental Europe – then under a British naval blockade which restricted (amongst other things) the supply of sugar from the West Indies – to extract sugar from Sycamore trees on the basis that the Sycamore is, after all, a form of maple. Horrifying.


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.

“Thou dead Elme”

In the late 18th century the elm – a tree historically associated with mortality* – acquired a new symbolic significance as the tree of revolution. As is often the way with such things this largely occurred via a historical accident (it happened that the great tree on Boston Common that was the focus for much political radicalism in the 1760s and 1770s was an elm), but in this instance there was another factor as well: many species of elm clone themselves via suckers and grow with great speed. Thus not only would propagation have been unusually easy, but it came with an added dose of symbolism for free: see how fast this Tree of Liberty grows, see how it ever works to replenish itself, so shall it also be for the revolutionary cause. The association between the elm and revolutionary politics was particularly strong in France, where arbres de la liberté were planted with great enthusiasm across the country and where these defiant acts of public gardening were frequently depicted in revolutionary propaganda.

Of course as everyone knows, the elm’s association with mortality returned with a tragic vengeance in the 1970s as a new and unusually virulent strain of Dutch Elm Disease – Ophiostoma novo-ulmi – appeared. This strain of DED was (is) particularly lethal to those elm species that clone themselves via suckers, and so large field elms of all kinds have largely vanished from the European landscape. What strikes me as curious is that this strain of DED emerged at more or less the same time at which many of the political traditions that venerated late 18th century radicalism began to fall into difficulties (to the point of outright decay and eventual collapse in the case of Marxism) from which, like the elms, they have not yet emerged. This is, of course, all entirely coincidental, but then such is often the way with symbolism. With this in mind, it may be useful to remember two things. The first is that the ancient relationship between mankind and the evolution of the elm continues to this day as attempts are made to create disease resistant cultivars. The second is that while DED kills mature trees with a merciless efficiency, it does not actually kill the roots and so the suckers continue to rise.

*A point made by the much missed Oliver Rackham, who used it as evidence for his (now widely accepted) claim that Dutch Elm Disease was not new:

“And for many centuries elm has been the tree of death – not merely as a hackneyed symbol like coffin-boards or funerary cypresses. Dead trees in literature are surprisingly often elms. The other diseases of elm rarely kill it; indeed from 1300 to 1850, when trees were more systemically used than they are now and there were fewer road-works and no agricultural chemicals, any dead tree would have been unusual. Why did St Martin and St Zenobius work the miracles of bringing dead elms back to life? Why was Falstaff addressed as “though dead Elme?” The young dead trees common in Italian paintings and drawings from 1450 to 1530 – what are they if not elms blasted with Elm Disease? Why was it possible in the eighteenth century to insure one’s elms against death? Elm was evidently well known to be the tree that specially shared man’s fragile tenure of life, and it is difficult to suggest any other explanation other than Elm Disease.”

Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside, (London, 1986), p. 243.

The answer was ‘no’

At the General Election of 1959 the Labour Party suffered an unexpectedly emphatic defeat: it had been hoped that the election might be won, but instead the Conservatives were returned with a majority of one hundred seats. The mood in the Party afterwards was dark. In 1960 a market research specialist and an academic joined forces to write a book with the provocative title Must Labour Lose? It would not be unfair to summarise its conclusions as ‘yes – unless the Party changes radically’. The next General Election was that of 1964, which Labour under Harold Wilson narrowly won. About the only way in which Wilson could be reasonably accused of changing the Labour Party at all (let alone radically) was to introduce to it a (regrettably temporary) enthusiasm for sophisticated Madison Avenue style advertising, which is presumably not exactly what the authors of Must Labour Lose had in mind.


Once, he slept
Down by the Neva dockside. Rough
Breathed out the wind, as summer crept
To autumn. Sombre billows leapt
And foamed and moaned upon the docks
On velvet steps, like one who knocks
At judges’ doors to press his case,
Ignored by them in every place.
He woke, poor creature, to the dark
And drizzle; a sad wind howled, and hark!
The watchmen’s cry out yonder might
Be an echo called across the night…

From Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman.


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.”


‘The place in feudal courts where the lords kept their precious objects, jewellery and valuable garments. With the establishment of feudal monarchies in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Wardrobe became part of the treasury. In England it was controlled by the exchequer until the 13th century. During the minority of Henry III it was organized as an independent body, becoming the king’s private treasury; thus its revenues and expenditures were not controlled by the exchequer nor the baronage. The Wardrobe, however, lost its importance in the 14th century.’

From Aryeh Grabois’s eternally delightful and absurdly quotable The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Medieval Civilization. Anyway, this puts a whole new spin on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, right?

Why anyone suggesting a possible Grand Coalition in the UK needs their head examined

There has been a lot of very silly speculation in the media and across the internet about possible post-election political wrangling in the UK, much of it predicated on the assumption that as no party can possibly win a majority, another coalition will have to be formed. This assumption is dubious* but my focus is elsewhere. Because an especially silly suggestion has been floating around, and it is one that needs to be shown as the absurdity that it actually is. That suggestion is that Labour and the Tories may decide, in the interests of stability and preserving the Union, to form a coalition. Unless World War Three breaks out between now and May, this idea is complete trash for the following reasons:

1. Both parties loathe and detest each other. Loathe and detest. Maybe not at an individual level, you understand (although even then…), but collectively. As organisations. As institutions. As subcultures. Deep down the Tories believe that Labour are a disgusting rabble of unpatrotic state worshipers, while deep down Labour know that the Tories are the objective class enemy. Labour’s rank and file in particular would regard a grand coalition as nothing other than treason; any Labour leader foolish enough to propose such an arrangement would be immediately castigated as the second coming of Ramsay MacDonald and would likely suffer the political equivalent of a public stoning.

2. And with all of this in mind, note that the Labour Party is nothing if not bureaucratic. It was founded by Trade Unions and operates accordingly. The Rules matter. And on this matter, The Rules are not silent. I will not bore you with the details, other than to suggest that the words ‘Special Conference’ are not unimportant and that Labour’s ordinary members, the backbench of the PLP and also its affiliated Unions would not be irrelevant to proceedings.

3. It must also be noted that even were all of the above not the case, that a grand coalition would not be in the electoral  best interest of either party. Why present to the SNP, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid, and Lord knows who else such a yawningly open goal? Why allow the LibDems such a felicitous opportunity to recover?

4. It would be a bugger to run anyway. Given that Labour and the Tories represent such fundamentally different interest groups, matters would quickly turn into the stuff of nightmares. Even setting a budget would be difficult. There would also be an epidemic of splinter groups and defections. The monstrously high government majority (we would likely be dealing with a government with around 80% of seats in the House of Commons) would be a positive invitation for rebellion, and it is likely that party discipline would crumble within a few years.

5. Finally, it is hard not to notice that much of the justification for this absurd suggestion is based on pointing abroad (particularly to Germany) and observing that grand coalitions seem to work out alright there,** thus surely they would in Britain. Given that different countries have different political cultures this ‘justification’ is entirely ridiculous. As a general rule, grand coalitions are only seen in political cultures with a marked bias towards consensus (this is why they are the norm in Austria and not uncommon in Germany), or in political cultures that are notably fractured (and this is why they are quite common in Israel and the Netherlands). As you might expect given the first observation, they are essentially non-existent wherever the Westminster system has been adopted. Note, for instance, that between the 1996 and 2014 elections India had a long series of extremely fragmented parliaments, yet a coalition between the BJP and Congress was never seriously entertained. It may also be useful to observe that the idea of a grand coalition tends (I must stress that word) to be less toxic when questions of class are not absolutely paramount to political competition between the two parties in question.

*Not only because minority governments not exactly uncommon in British political history (some have even managed to be comparatively functional), but also as there is no reason to assume that the Commons will not have a single party majority after the election. People forget, for instance, that in England alone Labour won a majority of seats in 2005 despite polling fewer votes than the Conservatives. There is also the cautionary tale of the last General Election in India to consider: no party had won a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha for thirty years, and so it was widely (and quite understandably) assumed that the fragmentation of Indian political life since then made a single party majority impossible. Things did not work out that way.

**There are Germans who would disagree with this, but I digress.