A Norwegian short story – about gym socks and strict teachers

This is a recent short story, written for once in my native tongue Norwegian. It was my friend and former translator colleague, K.R. Castle, who posted a question about plimsolls on Facebook, which in turn inspired me to write it. It reminded me of my schooldays in Norway, where we were all made to wear special socks with rubber underneath for our PE-lessons. They were called “gym socks”, and the story also draws on an episode of bullying that the teacher dealt with exactly as described in this short story.

Gymsokkene

Nei! Krise! Fullstendig, total og absolutt krise. Jørgen så seg rundt med raskt og vaktsomt blikk. Det var ingen som hadde lagt merke til at nederst i Rema-posen med gymtøyet hans, lå der et par røde gymsokker. At det går an! Hvorfor hadde Jørgen latt moren pakke gymtøyet hans? Den dumme kua hadde pakket nedi storesøsterens gymsokker. Det var kun jenter som hadde røde gymsokker. Ikke sjans at han kom til å ha gym i røde gymsokker. Nei, nei, nei. Faen for en krise.

Gymsokker Jorgen
Drawing by W. Hagerup

Det var ikke det at han stod så sterkt på gymsokkfronten i utgangspunktet. Frode, den fregnete fyren med krøller, som drev med boksing og som hadde store muskler og … andre ting (ikke hjerne altså), Ole, den lyslyggede lusa som ustanselig skrøt av sydenturen foreldrene hadde hatt råd til den sommeren, og den rødhårede, røffe, rabbagasten Ronny, som hadde banket opp en syvendeklassing – alle de tre tøffeste guttene i klassen – de hadde alle sammen mørkeblå gymsokker.

Jørgen, han hadde hvite. En skjebne han delte med Arne-Per (for et navn!), som snakket med bonedialekt og sa “bærre” istedenfor “bare”, og Lars, som arvet dongeribuksene sine og alltid hadde for langt hår (har de ikke råd til saks engang i den familien?) samt Leif Johan, klassens tjukkas som forøvrig var Jehovas Vitne og hverken feiret bursdager eller jul. De teitingene hadde alle som én hvite gymsokker (Jørgen trodde kanskje Lars hadde arvet sine, for de var litt annerledes enn de han og de andre hadde).

Men når Jørgen ikke ble slått i hartkorn med teitingene, hadde det å gjøre med at han var god i sport. Han løp fort og var rimelig sterk; han hadde vunnet to nevekamper i skolegården det siste året, og ville unektelig vunnet den tredje, hadde de ikke blitt stoppet av den dumme kjærringa Grethe Bjerklo, som alltid gikk i lilla og underviste i håndarbeid. Hun holdt visst på med noe politikkgreier også. Jørgen husker at moren hadde hvisket “rødstrømpe” til mannen sin, mens Jørgens far hadde spyttet ut “kommunist”, som om han kastet en forbannelse over den lillakledde heksen, motivert av prinsippet “angrep er det beste forsvar”. Dette var i fjor på vei til foreldremøte med klasseforstanderen, Hansen.

Hansen var i grunnen en grei lærer, men han kunne være streng. Jørgen hadde ønsket at det ikke var akkurat ham de hadde i gym i dag. Kunne de ikke hatt Torgesen da? Han de hadde fått lov å kalle Roger. Ja, for han het det. Han var så grei. Hadde han kommet gymsokkeløs inn i salen til Torgesen, Roger altså, ville han bare sagt, “nei, hekje du gymsokka i dag da Jørgen, far?” (Torgesen var også fra bonelandet, men de så bort i fra det siden han var så grei). “Ja, ja, du lyt ha gym uten gymsokka du då, Jørgen. Kan ikkje gli rundt i sokkelesten veit du, de e’ farli’ det, veit du”.

Jada, Jørgen visste det. Og han visste også at Hansen ikke ville la saken gå så uaktet hen. Han bestemte seg for å trykke plastposen godt ned i ranselen, legge håndduken på benken og ta av seg strømpene.

Jeg får bare si at jeg har glemt dem, tenkte han med seg selv. Men ville han bli trodd? Hansen var ikke dum.

I fjor hadde Trine blitt mobbet. (Og la det være nevnt med en gang, Trine har røde gymsokker, bare så du vet det). Jørgen hadde tatt del i mobbingen han óg, klart det. Han var jo nesten en av de kule. Han var i en slags mellomstatus, Jørgen. Tøffingene respekterte ham fordi han hadde vunnet de slåsskampene. Teitingene var litt redd for ham av samme grunn. Men han hadde alltid vært grei med dem, inkludert jenteteitingene. Bortsett fra den ene gangen da de alle mobbet Trine. Han hadde tenkt at det bare var terging. Erting. Og hun var lett å erte. Hun var litt dum, tilbakestående, med utstikkende tenner og briller. Hun drev og lekte med tredjeklassingene, for faen! Også lespet hun, så det var veldig enkelt å efterligne snakkemåten hennes.

En gang i historietimen hadde hun sagt at første verdenskrig begynte i 1812. Alle vet jo at det var slaget ved Waterloo! Herregud! Så da hadde Ronny sagt “Nei Thrine, føshte verdenshkrig shtartet ikke i 1812!” Det var nok til at hele klassen brøt ut i latter. De hadde hatt en vikar, en lærerinne som var like ung og pen som de damene som var avbildet i pornobladet han hadde funnet i farens nattbordsskuffe. Ikke visste han at slike pene damer kunne bli lærere. De var tydeligvis ikke alle som Bjerklo og de andre tørre skrukkekjerringene de hadde der på skolen. Eller kanskje hun også ble slik en dag. Grøss og gru! I alle fall, hun hadde også trukket på smilebåndet. Nesten umerkelig, men ikke helt. Det hadde på sett og vis gitt dem grønt lys, lisens til å terge. Og det gjorde de til gangs. Til og med de teite guttene klarte å klatre seg noen hakk opp og redusere teithetsnivået sitt en smule, ved å være på det tergende laget. Og slik holdt de på, helt til Hansen la merke til hva som foregikk.

En dag, uten forvarsel, ble de varslet om at de skulle komme til kjemirommet i andre etage. Det var et rom som Jørgen aldri hadde blitt helt fortrolig med. De hadde et skjelett av et menneske der. Ikke ekte, visstnok, men ekkelt nok for det. Joda, han pleide å tøffe seg og ta skjelettet i dets kalde arm og late som om han håndhilste på det. ‘Goddag herr Nilsen’ (de hadde en gretten eldre sløydlærer som het Nilsen. Han var ekstremt tynn, og drakk. Han hadde en gammel melkeflaske som han hadde malt hvit, for å skjule dens egentlige innhold. De var redde for Nilsen, og derfor var det fritt frem å harselere med ham. ‘Hyggelig å se Dem, Nilsen. De ser meget bedre ut i dag, ja, Nilsen,’ ville Jørgen si til benrangelet, og alle fliret (Jørgens moromanntalent var en annen grunn til at han fant aksept hos de tøffe guttene og de penere jentene i klassen). Men på tross av denne skøyingen, fant han ikke skjelettets hysteriske hånsmil noe mer betryggende. Det var som om det lo fordi det visste, at en dag blir også vi slik som det. Og i skapene med glassdør langs ene veggen var et utvalg utstoppede dyr. Rommet var også kaldere enn andre klasserom, så man fikk grøssen uansett, på den ene eller den andre måten.

Dit kalte Hansen hele klassen. De satt seg ned stille. Merket at dette var noe spesielt, noe alvorlig, selv om de ennå ikke visste hva det var. Hansen så ut som de gjør i tegneserier når de er sinte; det var som om en mørk sky hang over ham. Det minte Jørgen også om noe de hadde hatt om i kristendommen: Da Moses kom ned fra fjellet med de ti bud på to stentavler, og fant at folket hadde begynt å tilbe avguder. Da hadde han visstnok blitt så sint at han knuste tavlene.

Hansen begynte å snakke rolig. Han forklarte hva han hadde hørt, hva han hadde sett og hva dette var for noe. Efter hvert som han snakket hevet han røsten. Mobbing blev nevnt og noe om hvor absolutt, totalt uakseptabelt og skuffende dette var. Han ropte nå. Jørgen husket ikke akkurat hva som hadde blitt sagt. Men han husker Hansen, den rolige, dog strenge læreren, med et ansikt som strålte sinne på vegne av den svake og forsvarsløse. Som tok tak i en meterstokk – det lå en slik meterstokk av tre ved alle tavlene – og så brukte han den til å denge i pulten så det smalt gjennom rommet. For hvert. Punkt. Han. Ville. De. Skulle. Forstå. Smalt han stokken i pulten så det sang gjennom rommet og slo inn i Jørgen og de andre som tordenslag. De skjønte at han var sint. Og de skjønte at de hadde gjort noe galt. Og de visste alle, at ingen kom noensinne til å mobbe Trine, eller noen andre, igjen. Den tiden var forbi.

Idet han hamret hjem sitt siste poeng, slo han meterstokken så hardt i pulten at stokken knakk i to, og den løse biten fløy gjennom luften og landet hjelpeløst på gulvet.

Det satt et naturlig punktum for det hele.

Hansen, allerede godt likt av guttene i klassen, hadde fått en helteaktig status efter dette. Og nå var det denne læreren Jørgen måtte forsøke å overbevise om at han ikke hadde med seg gymsokker.

I samme øyeblikk som Jørgen stappet gymtøyposen ned i ranselen kom Hansen inn i garderoben.

“Nå, er dere ferdige, gutter? Jørgen, har du ikke gymsokker på i dag? Hvor er de?”

“Eh…glemt dem”.

“Glemt? Du pleier ikke å glemme ting. Mor din fortalte meg at hun pleier å pakke sekken din og gymtøyet. Mener du å si at hun er glemsk?” Det var et glimt i Hansens øyne, men Jørgen så ikke dette.

“Nei, hun er ikke det, vanligvis. Av og til, kanskje.”

“Hvor er gymposen din da?

Det var dette Jørgen hadde fryktet. Hvordan kunne han vite? Hadde han sett? Nå kom han i hvert fall til å se at han hadde gymsokker, kom ikke til å forstå hvor absolutt forferdelig, grusomt, umulig det var for ham å ha på seg røde gymsokker. Han kom til å tvinge ham til å ta dem på og bruke dem, for det ‘er jo bare en farge’. Bare en farge, liksom.

“Eh…den er i ranselen min.”

“Jasså, hvorfor det da? Ta den opp, er du snill”.

Alle guttenes øyner var på Jørgen nå. Til og med teitingene tillott seg å halvsmile.

Jørgens humor kom ham igjen til hjelp.

I stedet for å løfte opp gymtøyposen, gjorde han bokstavelig som Hansen sa, og løftet hele ranselen.

Alle lo. Læreren også.

“Nå, jeg tror du vet hva jeg mente, Jørgen.”

Jørgen løftet posen sakte og delvis opp.

Hansen tok posen og fullførte løftet, hvorpå han snudde den opp ned. Ut falt et par velbrukte, røde gymsokker.

“Synes du sa at du hadde glemt gymsokker, jeg?”

Oj, tenkte Jørgen. Her var gode råd ekstremt kostbare.

“Jo, men jeg har jo det. Jeg har glemt mine gymsokker. De der er ikke mine.”

Det samme glimtet i Hansens øyne som hadde vært der tidligere, var flyktig innom på nytt.

“Å, sånn ja. Skjønner. Så et par gymsokker som ikke er dine, har på mystisk vis havnet i din gympose? Er det så?”

“Ja…”

“Akkurat. Vel, da får du heller ha gym barfot i dag, da. Ikke noe annet å gjøre med det. Eller hva tror du?”

Jørgen nikket. “Nei, det er vel ikke det.”

“Og Jørgen?”

“Ja?”

“Kanskje det er på tide at du begynner å ta ansvar for å pakke ditt eget gymtøy?”

Han nikket igjen. “Jo, skal det”.

Hansen smilte og gikk inn i gymsalen.

Alle guttenes blikk, som  hadde vært festet på Jørgen gjennom hele denne dialogen, slapp taket. De hadde stått klar, helt på randen, sprekkeferdige til å hånflire av lærerens offer. Men Jørgen hadde svart bra for seg, han hadde gjort det med ranselen, som var litt tøft og ganske morsomt, og holdt verdigheten. Og Hansen hadde som vanlig vært streng, men grei. Så guttene gjorde seg ferdig med å skifte, og så løp de til neste gjøremål uten det minste minne om det som nettopp hadde skjedd (nettopp fordi ingenting hadde skjedd – kanskje med unntak av det med ranselen).

Jørgen satt et lite øyeblikk efter de andre. Når han kom hjem skulle han forlange – FORLANGE – å få mørkeblå gymsokker.
Gymsokker

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Lots to remember – the Imperial War Museum, London

Sunday, 11th November, was Remembrance Sunday, which, on this the centenary of the end of the first world war – the Great War – fell neatly on Armistice Day itself. What better way to commemorate this sombre occasion than to take the younger generation on an educational trip to the Imperial War Museum in London?

We arrived just in time to take part in the 2 minutes of silence, lined up in a long double queue outside the main entrance. From a distance we could hear the trumpeting of the Last Post being carried on the wind, then the distant boom of the cannons, and the peel of church bells. It was an affecting moment.

More than 18 million people died in this, the deadliest conflict in human history; we shall not forget. Museums like the IWM help us not to do just that.

Imerial
Imperial War Museum, London, welcomes you

Trusting The Exhibits

I don’t know about you, but I do not go to a museum to read a book. Too many times in recent years have I gone to a museum, only to be met by big pictures on the wall and masses and masses of text, printed out on huge poster-like blocks. It all looks very fancy and modern and is written in the sort of “horrible history” mock chumminess and dumbing down style that so plagues our declining civilisation. I hate it.

The exhibition on WWI was not like that, I am glad to say. It was, in fact, excellent. The museum really trusted their exhibits. And that is one of the main reasons you come to a museum: to look at the old things.

You want to see what they actually look like, and if allowed, to touch them and see what they feel like. Obviously, with literally thousands passing by only on this Sunday, the IWM could not let people touch too many objects (or they would probably wear away by 4pm), but some things could be touched, and all of the things could be seen in close proximity.

One thing you were supposed to touch was a sound installation where you put your elbows on a wooden bar and held your hands over your ears. The bar had been designed to transport vibrations based on the sounds of shells and munition exploding, as it may have sounded on the battlefield of the Somme or the Ypres. It goes on for a couple of minutes and then falls silent, like it did at 11 o’clock, the 11th November 1918.

They have also for the centenary created a set of rooms based on darkness and light (and in the light room the writings on the wall actually works – I will say no more), and another set of rooms with sound recordings of people telling about their experiences around the armistice.

Verdict? Well worth the visit, and probably a re-visit for my part, on a day when the entire population of a small European nation is not visiting at the same time.

20181111_142737
An real aeroplane – NOT a model – hanging from the ceiling, just by a huge Mark V tank.

Not trusting their exhibits

Spending the day at the museum meant that we not only visited the specific WWI exhibition, but also had a look at both their general exhibitions and another specific and permanent installation, on the Holocaust.

I am sad to say that this exhibition suffered from the plaster a text book on the wall-syndrome. The video installations I think worked fairly well, and they had tried to make room for presenting and explaining the role of propaganda – with special reference to Goebbels – in preparing the ground for the extermination of the Jews. This was an intelligent thing to do, and could have been done more distinctly.

They also had some exhibits: artefacts that Jewish prisoners had owned; worn tin mugs, twisted forks, all the little, mundane things that humans need for their daily life. They also had a huge number of shoes that once belonged to victims of the extermination, and some prison suits worn by the concentration camp inmates. Oh, and I will mention that the model of a concentration camp was really rather good: top marks for that one.

But throughout the expansive area they have given over to this presentation, it sometimes felt as if they were just filling in wall space. That is truly disheartening. Along with the atrocities of the communists of the world (which in numbers killed far exceeds the slaughtering done by the National Socialists) the Holocaust was one of the most evil acts of atrocity carried out in human history. The role of a museum is to make us feel a closeness to the event or time period by bringing us up close to the artefacts belonging to it. But in this exhibition this did not happen: instead the huge area, spread out, with large walls with prints and pictures, and then the odd exhibit here and there, made it feel as if they had tried to make a lot out of very little. That is the very opposite of the truth, and it is truly worrying that the curators have got away with it.

Even the aforementioned shoes failed to make the impact they ought to have: they were stacked up in a sort of bookshelf with Plexiglas, and this shelf was used as a partitioning wall between one area and the next. That is simply wrong: it should be a centrepiece.

The area seems to have been designed to herd school classes through, not a bad idea in and of itself, of course, but it really needs a rethink and a redesign: trust your artefacts, let people do the reading at the library.

 

On that bombshell…

Seeing Little Boy – the sort of bomb that was used to carry the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima – was both fascinating and terrifying: so much destruction from such a relatively small object. There was also a piece of the twisted wreckage of the Twin Towers, destroyed in the attack by Islamist terrorists on New York 11th September 2001.

Hannah Arendt came up with the phrase “The Banality of Evil”. The artefacts made me think of the mundanity of warfare: you need special cars, special aeroplanes, metal compartments with funny, little instruments, machines that spew bullets, binoculars, special shoes and special clothes. It is all so mundane because although different to our everyday clothes, shoes, cars, machines, etc., the equipment of war is also just another version of these things.

War is not evil in itself. It is justified and good in defence of justice and good values. But it is extremely destructive, and never desirable. The Imperial War Museum balances nicely the fascination that machines and events of destruction hold to us and the need to remind us of the suffering that such destruction wreaks.

20181111_142451.jpg

 

Dishonourable treatment of honourable man – the shocking attacks on Roger Scruton

This article’s opening words should say it all:

Back in 1985, when Roger Scruton was caught smuggling blacklisted books into communist Czechoslovakia, he was expelled from the country and placed on the government’s Index of Undesirable Persons. In supposedly liberal Britain, in 2018, the renowned conservative philosopher has become ‘undesirable’ once more.

The way intellectual pygmies of the far left have attacked this great man of letters these last few days is absolutely disgraceful.

roger-scruton-2015

In this article in the Spectator Toby Young explains that for example the disgraceful attempt to slur Scruton with “anti-antisemitism” because of some comment about Jews in Hungary supporting George Soros, is a complete confection:

The reason he brings up the fact that some of the pro-EU Hungarian intelligentsia are Jewish is because he goes on to explain that they, along with George Soros, are ‘rightly suspicious of nationalism’ since they see it as being ‘the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th century’. He then makes it clear that this isn’t the sort of nationalism he is defending.

The philosopher, with more than 40 acclaimed books to his name in addition to articles, television programmes, fiction and even operas, are told by some completely unknown Labour MP that he has not got a  “…place in modern democracy”. What sort of democracy would that be, I wonder? One where only those who agree with the far-left loonies in Labour have a place? I would rather not have a place myself in that sort of democracy, thank you very much. Sounds more like mob-ocracy to me.

I do not agree with Scruton on everything. I am a classic liberal, he is a traditional conservative. I am an Atheist, he a Christian. He emphasises the Christian heritage to European civilisation, I would more strongly emphasise the Greek and Roman legacy. But Scruton is humble, honourable, well spoken, highly intelligent, extremely well-informed, exceedingly reasoned and reflected, and a supremely valuable contributor to the public conversation. He most certainly has a place in any democracy, old fashion or modern.

 

Spell chekk

Not sure if it’s just the Word Processor I use, but it was suggested that “seldomly” was a misspelling. Now, it is, perhaps, an unusual form of “seldom”, turning it into an adjective. But those of you with a UK library card or subscription can look here to see that it is a bona fide entry in the English Oxford Dictionary.

What worries me more than a red squiggle under “seldomly” is the suggestion from the Spell Checker as to what to replace the word with. “Seldom” would perhaps have been what sprang to mind. No, my dear automatic Spell Check suggested that instead of “seldomly” I should put “Düsseldorf”.

 

IMG_6087
From a time when spell check was done by someone who could spell “cheque”.

Kippering and verbing – lost in translation?

Been working on a translation of Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson into Norwegian this morning. Finding that it very necessary to cut some of his flowering language in order to make it flow in the scarcer linguistic style of the Nordic tongue.

Another problem is the other way. When the source text uses a word in a cleverly economical way that says in one word what normally requires several, and there is no such equivalent term in the target language.

Benson for instance called, quite brilliantly, sitting in the smoke of a fire-place as “kippering” oneself. Such verbing of nouns, or using them as adjectives, is common in English, and makes English a wonderfully flexible language, but it s\is often rather problematic to turn that into Norwegian in a straigh forward way.

I had to find a wording that ended up being something along the line of “turning oneself into a smoked herring”, which is not as snappy and economical, but I felt the image was worth retaining.

 

Queen Lucia_Benson

Where Are We Then?

roger-scruton-2015
British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton

The search for identity, and the valuing of identity against the demands of global commerce, is likely to become the critical factor in national elections.

Roger Scruton, Where We Are, p. 177

In May we saw something rather wonderful in Britain: the coming together of the nation around an ancient institution, seemingly made young and fresh by its most recent addition. No, not Love Island on ITV2, but the wedding of Prince Harry and the American divorcee Megan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex.

I mention this because it is interesting to note that whilst democratic politics have been extraordinarily divisive these last couple of years, a Royal event has brought a degree of, if not harmony, then at least accord.

Even those joyless naysayers who repeatedly profess not to take an interest, do so with a resigned smile saying that, as it is just a prince some steps down the pecking order of heir to the throne, the event wasn’t all that important, showing that they have, after all, been paying attention in class (albeit from the back and chewing gum).

Keep that in mind along with an article in the Sunday Times entitled ‘Heil Hipsters’, where Andrew Gillingham wrote about the new phenomenon of mainly young people uniting under the banner of ‘Generation Identity’ (GI). A Guardian article took umbrage at the article not presenting the group in a way the Guardian writer agreed with, pulling out the usual left-wing incantations of denouncement: “racist” and “fascist”, comparing the GI-ers to ISIS, without actually criticising any specific standpoint the group purports to favour, and fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of ISIS: a “nation” built on religious creed, not blood relations.

I think calling the Identitarian movement ‘fascist’ is slightly off the mark, and risk making the same mistake as it is calling everyone ‘racist’ who wants a sensible immigration policy. Whether we like it or not, we must, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, engage with the ideas we don’t like, and argue in favour of something else. Those calling for a sensible immigration policy do of course have the advantage that they may be right, but the GI-ers most definitely do not. What the Identitarians have done, is embrace a collectivist narrative. On their website they talk of the rights of “peoples” (not individual people but groups of people) and the right to maintain “group identity”. Well, well, well, where have they learned to think like that, I wonder? Perhaps by reading the Guardian?

Group identity – and indeed identity politics – has been a growing phenomenon in our neck of the woods (the Western word, US and UK in particular) for the past few decades. It reached fever pitch with the two phenomena that superficially seem to have so much in common that they are nearly always mentioned in one breath: TrumpAndBrexit.

In Britain, much has been made of David Goodhart’s claim that those who voted in favour of leaving the European Union were the Somewheres, pitted in existential battle against the Anywheres, who voted to stay within the multi-national organisation. In his latest book, Where We Are, the English philosopher Roger Scruton points to polling that, in contrast to this narrative, shows that “[…]both sides of the Brexit debate – the leavers and the remainers – identify what matters most to them as job, family and place, in other words, as the three normal ways of being rooted.” (P. 88).

It is far less about Brexit vs. Remain than Young vs. Old. Younger people tend to be less tied to place than the older generations, and more geographically mobile, connected through networks and virtual communication on social media, rather than physical proximity.

This lack of belonging could be a democratic problem. Scruton, a mainly Conservative philosopher, highlights a point that is very similar to the socialist Yanis Varoufakis, that for genuine democracy to be possible, there must first be a “demos”. As Scruton puts it “[…] we are in need of an inclusive first-person plural, one that unites both the mobile elite and the settled people.” (P. 54).

For Varoufakis this idea leads him down the dangerously Utopian idea that it is possible to develop a Europe-wide sense of “we”, a European demos that can lend democratic legitimacy to the patently Napoleonic institutions of the current EU set-up.  Scruton takes in my view a more realistic line, building on the history of nationhood, as developed since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and claims that in order to move forward after the Brexit vote, it is crucial that we now succeed in building a new common understanding.

Now, recall the points mentioned initially: a royal wedding that brought us together, a new youth-led movement that talks of the need for nations to maintain its nature (its identity) as a network of families, actually related by blood. I used to be a republican (i.e. against Monarchy) but I have been cured of this particular malady. The Monarchy is a super-political (in the original meaning of “super”, meaning “over” or “above”) institution through which a family generally, and the Monarch specifically, represents the nation. But a nation isn’t literally a family. It is a set of unifying institutions, values and traditions, which gives us a sense of belonging to the degree with which we subscribe to them. Of course, being born in a nation gives you belonging, but as the many cases of young Muslims who choose to turn their back on belonging to Britain (or other nation states in which they were born) show, it is possible to lose your sense of belonging, by turning your back on the unifying institutions, values and traditions of that nation. Scruton writes: “The first-person plural of nationhood, unlike those of tribe or religion, in intrinsically tolerant of difference.” (p. 69).

Which is true, but at this point I would have liked to see Scruton discuss the Cambridge spies, some of whom turned their backs on their country in favour of internationalist Communism in part due to a feeling that as homosexuals their country had turned its back on them. Not to mention how the actual disenfranchisement of Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries led to several terrorist attacks perpetrated by English Catholics, most famously the plot to blow up Parliament during session in November 1605 – still commemorated to this day on the 5th November with Bonfire Night and the recitation of the famous children’s verse: Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot. The greater inclusivity of Catholics, along with Catholics’ own willingness to moderate their religious allegiance (putting King before Pope in matters temporal) is, I think, a relevant historical parallel to the present day problem with radical Islam. The acceptance of homosexuality is also important, as it shows how, once people feel accepted, they also embrace the establishment back. Gay activists like Peter Tatchell used their activism for equal rights as a spearhead in a broader neo-Marxist fight against the family as a bourgeois, patriarchal institution, and many of the early activist didn’t want gay marriage at all. But for most ordinary gay people, all they wanted was to take part in normal, civil society like anybody else. So Scruton is right that the nation-state has the potential for an inclusive first person plural, but it is one that must be worked on, and the accommodation must go both ways: today, as society strives to be inclusive towards Muslims, they must in turn embrace British values and, like Catholics of old, pledge true allegiance to the Monarch and the institutions she represents, in all things temporal. (Whether this is possible for a religion that it is claimed has no distinction between things temporal and spiritual is of course another matter, and something Muslims, across the different schools of Islam, must work out).

But it is not only religion, or a religious identity defining itself in opposition to a secular state and society, that is problematically exclusive according to Scruton. Exaggerated family loyalties can displace the culture of trusting the stranger, so crucial in building a sense of national togetherness, and the mass immigration of communities that depend on such loyalties, can therefore be problematic (p. 131).

At best, a family thrives when it is open to new members, as the Royal Family itself has shown itself eminently to be. At worse, family loyalties can descend into tribalism. The views put forward by the Identitarians are pure tribalism – locking out from membership anyone who does not have a blood connection to the land. As Scruton points out:

“It is in contrast with the tribal and religious forms of membership that the nation should be understood.” (P. 61).

He goes on to say: “Members of tribes see each other as a family; members of creed communities see each other as the faithful; members of nations see each other as neighbours.” (P. 62).

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The fanatical anti-nation attitudes, peddled for decades by Neo-Marxist who impertinently has sometimes been called or call themselves “liberals” (they are of course no such thing, read this article by F.A. Hayek to get a proper understanding of what Liberalism really is), an attitude Scruton cleverly calls “oikophobia” (from the Greek words for “home” and “fear”), have undermined the nation-state as the proper entity for identity and political discourse, in favour of the multi- or supranational institutions, of which the EU is the most striking example.

Those who have wanted to protect and restore the centrality of the nation-state have been denounced as “racists”, whilst identity politics – the rights of groups of people rather than the individual – have dominated the discourse. A recent survey by YouGov for the BBC showed that fewer than half of 18-24 year olds felt proud to be English. They have never been allowed to be, and have constantly been fed a narrative of how horrid Britain’s and England’s imperial past is.

These are some of the reasons for the rise of the Generation Identitarians. They have grown up in this way of thinking. They have no memory of the Berlin Wall, no experience of growing up under the shadow of the Cold War with the Communist regime of the Soviet Union as a constant threat not only to liberty, but to life itself.

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Learning from their left-wing counterparts: identity politics of the collectivist right.

What they have grown up with is a sense that it is illegitimate to be fond of your country. That it is racist to appreciate the culture of your own people. That internationalism is the only way forward. And that individuals’ rights are trumped by the rights of groups of different identities. But if the research that Scruton refers to is correct, what matters most to all of us are those things that are closest to us: our jobs, families and places. The only way this young, post-Cold War generation knows for asserting this legitimate need for belonging is through group identity, and so they reach for the tribal language of family ties and blood relations.

Although Scruton in this book specifically set out to address the troubling schism between Remainers and Brexiteers, and to point to a way forward together, and did not set out specifically to address the Identitarian movement, I think the issues he discusses do that as well. The Generation Identity has emerged as the bastard child of Identity Politics and Multiculturalist internationalism. Scruton points out “…that a large number of young people voted for Marine LePen in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections, on the grounds that she spoke for France against the dilutions of the global market”. (P. 172). Varoufakis warned against the rise of extreme nationalism in Greece and other nations, if the people feel powerless against a supranational cabal making political decisions that the people – and not the rulers – had to pay the high price for. The claim is that the extreme internationalism of the EU – leaving national institutions impotent to deal with the grievances of the people – is directly responsible for a rise in extreme nationalism. But where his solution is an ideologically motivated call for more internationalism, Scruton, I think, has a more level-headed, pragmatic approach.

Where We Are by Roger Scruton explains how we can inoculate against nationalist extremism, by reasserting the proper place of the nation-state, both as a clearly identifiable and non-sectarian entity to unify within, and as a place where decisions can be made close to those affected by them, with transparency and accountability.

The book furthermore provides the arguments to refute – but in a sympathetic and understanding way – the erroneous claims made by extremists on both sides of the argument: the tribalist Identitarians and the anti-national Remainers.

Scruton has, I think, made an extremely important contribution to the debate on the way forward from where we are now.

I bought my copy from my local bookshop, Red Lion Books of Colchester.

Where we are
Well written and well argued, could have been much longer.

 

 

 

 

 

The Joys of the Dystopian Novel

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Artwork by Norwegian artist Pushwagner – inspired by Brave New World?

“Utopia” is a word derived from the ancient Greek: “eu” meaning “good” (as in “euphoric”) and “topos” meaning “land” (as in topography). Its antonym is “dystopia”, a word first used (at least according to the OED) by John Stuart Mill in Parliament in 1868. Hansard quotes him as saying, “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.”

 

The “caco” there is the Greek “kakos”, same as in “cacophony”, meaning “bad” or “evil”. “Cacotopian” somehow didn’t catch on, but dystopian did (the “dys-“there, by the way, meaning “bad”, “abnormal” – also from Greek, who would’ve guessed?).

Although many of the texts we call Utopian have elements in them that are problematic, not to say downright sinister (see the story of El Dorado in Candide as a wonderful example), the term dystopian later became the label for those literary stories that unashamedly presented a singularly negative, bad, evil scenario, most often at some point in the distant future, when those you most disagree with have taken over the running of the show.

I want to highlight three such delights of negativity, two of which you may not have read, perhaps not even heard of (you could test your friends at dinner parties to see who are the most literary of them, by asking who have read which of these).

  1. Brave New World – this you have heard of, and perhaps even read. (At least you started it at university). George Orwell was inspired by it when writing his dystopian novel, 1984.
  2. Anthem – you may or may not have not heard of it (if you were born in, or  have ever lived the USA you are 300% more likely to), but even if you have, you have probably not read it.
  3. We – I would wager my second gin and tonic that you have not heard of it, nor read it, yet this story is said to have inspired the two mentioned above (it definitely also inspired Orwell).

Quite apart from the fact that I happen to have read them and feel pretty smug about it, there are some interesting commonalities to these works of literature:

Firstly, they are all rather short novels. More like novellas, or long short stories. So the format is similar.

Secondly they have a male protagonist who, for some reason or other, do not quite fit in to the society of the future.

Thirdly, they all raise the issue of sex, some more than others, and one more obsessively than the other two.

Fourthly, two are similar in their presentation of the technology of the future, and offer little hope of redemption, one presents a radically different view of technology, and offers some redemption.

(I will attempt not to reveal the plot in the following).

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Aldous Huxley – like yours truly, he also favoured round glasses.

Brave New World is, as you know, (as EVERYBODY knows),  written by Aldous Huxley, the upper-class English writer, credited with inspiring the band name The Doors, by his later novel The Doors of Consciousness (all about taking drugs, apparently, and very popular with hippies). Brave New World was written in 1932, and I believe only 1984 is referred to more in political and popular debates, and very often by people who have read neither.

 

 

There are several similarities between Brave New World and We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the earliest of the three works, written in 1921: both are set in a highly technologically advanced society of the future, a society that has arisen after some cataclysmic global conflict. The ruling regime in both is highly collectivist, they view the past (our present times) as uncivilised, almost barbaric, not least because people were in a state of very irrational freedom (all freedom is irrational).

Sex is very much a concern of the state; in Brave New World the state wants people

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Yevgeny Zamyatin in a relaxed moment

to have it all the time with everyone, as a means to induce pleasure and happiness (the guiding principle of the World State), whilst in We people are assigned to one another, but not on an exclusive basis, so a girl may have several males swarming about her. In We “mathematically faultless happiness” as they put it, is also the stated goal of the regime. In both stories there are geographical areas outside of civilised control, and in some of these there are uncivilised people, and carefully managed places one can visit to see how backwards people used to be before the new civilisation dawned. The geographical areas are also symbolic of the innermost areas of the individual that we sense through the protagonists the state cannot reach, despite all its brainwashing, conditioning and outside control.

Anthem, by Ayn Rand, is the odd one out in certain respects. Written in 1937, it also describes a totalitarian collectivist future, but one where technology has evaporated from the knowledge of man; not only has society stood still, it has regressed to a medieval state, having lost even the ability to produce electricity. One of the ways the regime in Anthem holds the populace suppressed, is by having eradicated the personal first person pronoun.

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Ayn Rand – “knows nothing about socialism”

Where in We and Brave New World the rulers keep individuals in their places by happiness, in Anthem there are no individuals to keep happy, because “I” do not exist. This is both symbolic as well as a profoundly philosophical point. If the word describing a concept does not exist, does the concept exist? I will not give away the plot, but I think it can be mentioned that the greater sense of hope offered by this story, does involve the rediscovery of the first person personal pronoun. As a linguist, I find the critical importance of a grammatical entity very satisfying.

In Anthem as in the other two, relationships are highly regulated. In Anthem sex is strictly for procreation, and as in We and Brave New World, the discovery of exclusive feelings of love for one other person stirs the protagonist’s latent sense of individual identity.

We was banned by the Soviet state (giving us an example of the fact that communism was not corrupted by Stalin, but was utterly corrupt and oppressive from day one). As in Brave New World, the evils of the regime stems precisely from its desire to make people happy – in a version of the Kantian morality of intentions, the virtuous intent is what gives these futuristic governments the right to do whatever it takes to achieve the good goals they have, and that any means are justified by their end. It reminds me of the quote by Henry David Thoreau: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”  One can also with a shudder recall video footage of left-wing students at universities, who these days seem to have such a confidence in the virtue of their own stances, that they think it is fine to shout down and even physically intimidate those who hold different views.

In Anthem the ruling regime appears to have forgotten what good intentions there once may have been. Fear is now the ruling principle, exemplifying how the inherent paranoia of a totalitarian state reaches a natural and inevitable suffocating stage, just like the Soviet Union did under Stalin. The regime in Anthem is clinging to what they know, clinging to their ignorance, their power and their prejudices. I find this a more compelling vision of the future than the other two. Zamyatin and Huxley seem to both find knowledge and science scary, they present knowledge and rationality as the enemies of mankind. Rand presents the opposite perspective: it is ignorance that is dangerous, science and knowledge are our liberators, not our captors. Unlike the other two, she did not believe that a totalitarian society could develop very far technologically. Innovation would suffer if freedom was stifled. Again I think history supports her supposition. The Soviet Union continuously lagged behind the West in technological development, and today we see that the remaining Communist regimes of the world, such as North Korea and Cuba, are severely under-developed compared to the freer and more capitalist countries of the world.

One reason I believe Huxley’s work became the best known, and more widely read of the three, is that it is the only one not written by someone with first hand experience of socialist oppression. Huxley was born into a comfortable and academic English family, and was educated at Eton and Oxford. His novel speaks to us from a point of view of conservative romanticism, with its deep scepticism of vulgar modernity, mass-production and the consumer society. This is a view we all agree with, whether we want to or not, whether we know it or not. We are brainwashed – just like the mass-produced citizens of the Brave New World – into pathological self hatred of the symptoms of the capitalist disease: too much food, too much time, too much entertainment, too much fun. The novel mines this self-hatred, and I believe the recognition of it gives us the same sense of catharsis a Catholic may feel when going to confession. The depiction of sex in the novel is, it might be added, guiltily Catholic. The novel was in part inspired by what he saw as the horrors of Henry Ford’s mass production – also gloriously satirised by Charles Chaplin in Modern Times. The new God that is worshipped in Brave New World is called “the Great Ford”, and time is reckoned from the birth of Henry Ford. Huxley was not alone in finding mass entertainment tasteless and base. Many of the Marxist intellectuals who in the 1930s had fled European National Socialism, happily bit the hand that generously fed them, by attacking relentlessly what they saw as the opium of the American masses: popular films, shows and television programmes. Huxley was no Marxist – he was too intelligent, I guess – but his internalised hatred for Western values did take him down the route of Easter inspired mysticism.

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Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times – criticising Fordism and Taylorism from the inside

As with We, Anthem was also attempted silenced, not by the government, but by publishers in the US with strong pro-Soviet sympathies. Apparently one even suggested Ayn Rand didn’t understand socialism very well. Similar to Yevgeny Zamyatin she had only grown up in Russia and lived through the violent civil war and power grab by the Communists (she was able to flee the country in 1926, Zamyatin managed it in 1931), so it is very likely she had no clue, compared to those who had grown up in the West. The story was eventually published in the UK

The themes that are treated so masterly in all three novels follow many of the same fault-lines we see in current debates: the discussions around the application of science, such as Artificial Intelligence, DNA-technology and information gathering, in the (feebly) ongoing debate about whether the state should be involved in our well-being, in the changing mores around sexuality and relationships, in the importance of the individual as an individual, in opposition to the needs and goals of “society”, if that even exists.

But the books do not need to, nor perhaps should they, be read as debating points. They are great stories, engaging and intelligent and worth to either discover (or re-discover) on Kindle (if, like me, you’re lazy) or at a second hand bookshop near you.

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Chinese soldiers expressing their entirely individualistic preference for blue dresses.