Wednesday, 18 March 2009
The Left and I
The second lecture tries to tell it how it looked to me some time in the eighties, that is as it looked to me with the experience, direct and inherited, I had to hand. The simple things were always simple to answer: Are you for the weak against the strong? Yes. Are you for those who work for others rather than those for whom they work? Yes. Do you have a belief in the promise and goodness of the people whose part you say you would take? Yes.
I could go on setting up simple questions of that sort to which the simple answer would always be yes. However, did I hate those whom I opposed in this way? That is more complicated. The probable answer was no. I have considerable capacity for anger but not much for hatred of the long burning sort. I had a certain sympathy for what would have been called, by some, middle-class values in England, although I would not have called them middle-class, or indeed English. I never did feel, nor do I feel now, that I had a firm basis in one or other class as defined in in Britain, or, more specifically, England. I was immigrant refugee class of mixed parentage.
What do I mean? On the whole I would have chosen opera over darts for no other reason that I derived greater pleasure from the former. Ballet over football? More difficult. Football was about beauty as much as about kicking a ball into a net. Stuff like bingo and holiday camps seemed utterly alien and British to me. On the other hand I grew to love British professional wrestling which is a form of savage, working class morality play, a version of carnival (Barthes gets this dead right.) I thought my parents, in their way, were striving towards a European notion of progressive gentility. That they genuinely loved middle-brow music and operetta and gypsy bands and chansons and crooners and a reliable car to go out in on Sundays, and that they loved card games like rummy and bridge. That they were cafe rather than pub people. On the other hand I was aware that they had both been deeply socialist in their youth, my middle-class mother in a fervent idealistic way, my working class-lower middle class father in a pragmatic way. For him it was about the practical working of a fair system. Their instincts were never anything but socialist. But they lost the language for their kind of socialism when they emigrated and there wasn't another easily available language to replace it. They would, I think, have been natural WEA people had they got here in time. It was too late for that.
But this meant everything and nothing in England. Their preferences were not clear class signifiers. That was partly because of who they were and partly, maybe more importantly, because there were few clear-cut English class signifiers. That was the whole point. The distinguishing marks of class were part of the hidden complexity. It took more discrimination than I think they had, and certainly more than I had as a child or schoolboy. My own contact with the clearly identifiable English working class - voice, employment, manner, occasion - was, on the whole good. I liked them very much and immediately felt at ease. I found them warm and kindly. I was, of course, lucky to meet mostly good-hearted, tough but kind people. I did not think that was the whole story, because I was perfectly aware of a brutal side too. I had met it at school and felt it, even at this distance, in the mobs in Budapest. The sheer depth and range of human potential was part of my instinctive sense of reality. There was the potential for a lumpen fascistic proletariat too, though that would not have been the term I would have used.
My contact with the lower middle-class consisted of a balance of boredom and a certain detection, on my part - it might have been fanciful - of a decent, often well-disposed but rabbit-like fear in them. Fear of loss and exposure, I now think. That was their curse and predicament. Their personal actions were on the whole humane and well-intentioned as I experienced them. I couldn't possibly have hated them. I didn't much want to be with them, that's all. But how broad and wide that range was I had no idea. My social antennae were not that well-attuned. Interesting now to read Márai on the Hungarian upper-middle class and their self-torturing.
Almost everything - no, change that, everything - was complex and that was the truth of things. If something was not complex it probably wasn't true, and that was why it was difficult for me to hate, and still is. Easy to fear: hard to hate.
I would have been a natural Labour voter in the sixties and seventies. I would have had no problem voting for Harold Wilson or George Brown, or Jim Callaghan, or Neil Kinnock, or indeed Michael Foot. After 1968 I could have drifted very quickly to the far left or, more likely in a fanciful sort of way, towards anarchism, the former direction being the one taken by most of my contemporary contacts, indeed friends, and most admired friends. Instead I stayed just where I was. It was my peculiar form of resistance to the force of gravity. The popular visions, or panaceas, of both far left and anarchy seemed to me simplistic. The image that always comes back to me is the window of the anarchist shop in Leeds, close to the art college. It showed two pictures. One was dark grey, smoggy, faintly L S Lowry with miserable people drifting, singly, to smoky factories: the other showed a green hill in brilliant sunlight and a group of happy people holding hands in a circle. The legend underneath read. WHICH WAY DO WE CHOOSE? It was clearly a false dichotomy. That sounds a patently obvious judgment, but it goes very deep. Right down to the bottom, I would say.
It was the simple lies I resisted. I was not mythopoeic, if anything I was anti-mythopoeic. Still am. The second lecture was about the simple, all but innocent options offered by even the intelligent Left that troubled me and how the kind of reading it sometimes applied locally resembled very closely that which it condemned elsewhere, a kind of Stalinist reading of text for ostensibly anti-Stalinist reasons. It was what I heard in Tom Paulin's reading of Elizabeth Bishop. It was, I thought, a myth reading, a misreading, a kind of witch-finding discourse. What do you know about it! I felt deep within me. You who have lived in stability and safety all your life, and do not know the cold and frozen sea I sense knocking about at the bottom of things but all too close. That frozen sea was my corner. Maybe they too had it. I might have been wrong. Maybe I am still wrong. Maybe I will never know whether I was and am wrong. Allow for that. Allowing for that is what I think life is. Bishop does not put her hand in the sea.
But these are, to extend and mix the metaphor, dangerous and murky waters. The water Bishop talks about is cold, dark, deep and absolutely clear. Keeping one's head above the freezing complexities is difficult and can't be done for long. I am further to the left than I was then. I want to discover possibilities for a humane, believable, instinctively leftist writing that understands the big things while desperately loving the small things that comprise it while never forgetting, not for a second, that cold dark deep etcetera.