Train on fire

The attitude on arriving late at Latitude and the perils of reading AL Kennedy. Scotland's foremost

I’m sure you’ve already guessed this – the most stylish possible way to arrive at a summer festival is on board a burning train. So my trip to Latitude was pretty much perfect. As the smoke billowed, we were detained at Berwick for more than an hour. This was “…due to the driver carrying out safety checks.” As matters progressed, we learned that a) train announcements will always avoid mentioning “Fire !” and “Brakes !” even if – or perhaps especially if - the train is on fire in exactly that rather important brake area and b) that trains with hot wheels trigger a hitherto unguessed-at system of restraints which then hold them for random intervals, no matter where they go.

Still, no one was hurt - or even alarmed – many of us enjoyed bonding and grumbling, and my reading was cancelled for the coolest reason ever “A.L.Kennedy cannot be with us tonight – her train caught fire.”

And Latitude – once I got there – proved infinitely more enjoyable than I had imagined four days in a big park with increasingly unwashed strangers might prove to be. Given that I had imagined it would make me beg for death by lupus, I’ll clarify – audiences were friendly, the reading was rescheduled, deck chairs were free, the pies were fantastic, the events imaginative and Robin Ince’s Bookclub was entirely magnificent - you can only imagine my delight at being on the same variety bill as a man who puts forks up his nose and a lady who tap dances while eating swiss roll. Just excellent, lovely people.

I’m used to communal events involving blockades, policemen and occasional rumpusses, so it took me a while to relax and savour the sight of adults just wearing whatever the hell they wanted and/or possibly pretending to be someone else, while almost all the toddlers present generated a massive, wobbly-indie-dancing sub-culture with a rudimentary monarchy.

Sadly, I was unable to successfully propagate the rumour that an elderly man had been dragged into the lake by swimming tapirs, or to persuade the entire audience for Blondie to yell in unison, “You’re not bad for your age!” in an appreciative manner.

Happily, I may well take a tip from Debbie Harry and bind my upper arms tightly from now on - perhaps using lengths of drainpipe - instantly firming an area that slumps so troublingly in the maturer lady. Oh, and according to a festival Tarot reader, I’m quiet, although I sometimes talk a lot, I’ve been working hard, or I’m about to, and love will find me in October. Yeah. Right.

Meanwhile, it has come to my attention that some of you, having found these blogs sometimes give the impression that I am an amusing writer, have been considering buying my books. Now, while my volumes are occasionally funny – particularly if you are, may I respectfully suggest, slightly twisted or the tiniest bit unwell - I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them if you’re – say – vulnerable, unless you want to have perhaps a slightly bruisng giggle.

So maybe flick through one in a bookshop as a tester. Or, better yet – given that a recognisable continuum from stern to pliant is suggesting itself here - wait until you see another, compatibly dominant or submissive reader browsing nearby, then hook up and give each other the thumping good read you deserve. Not that I wish to intrude. Your reading pleasure is my only aim.

Next stop, the Edinburgh Fringe, The Stand and a month of comedy – so there’s a show to polish, iron tablets to take, black shirts to count and soon August will be shining up ahead like a glorious, burning train.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage