Operation Nobel, part II

The prize committee issues Obama with a call to action

So, the weather didn't clear, but the mood in Oslo lifted distinctly yesterday evening: Barack Obama seems to have pulled off the remarkable trick of talking peace while standing firm to his commitments to war. And despite annoying the Norwegians at first by making his visit so peremptory -- "Everybody wants to visit the Peace Centre except Obama," snarked the newspaper Aftenposten -- he even seems to have warmed their hearts. He has done all this in less than a day. Living up to the prize will be nothing like as easy.

After his morning visit to the Nobel Peace Institute, Obama met with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who hardly needed the popularity boost, having just been re-elected, but who was doubtless grateful for it all the same. He set out a to-do list for the US president, beginning with a strong political agreement in Copenhagen.

That established one theme for the day: telling Obama how to do his job. At the press conference afterwards, a Norwegian journalist set the other: the search for justifications for his prize. What were the president's own views on it? Obama was asked. He replied by defusing the question with a one-liner: "The goal is not to win a popularity contest." That was the easy base covered, but the one American journalist then also granted a question went straight for the jugular: "Will the July 2011 date be when US troops actually withdraw [from Afghanistan]?" It would, Obama acknowledged, be just the beginning. He was doubtless relieved that the day's tight schedule would leave no time for follow-up questions.

The proddings and calls for justifications followed Obama over in the early afternoon to City Hall, where he was to give his Nobel Lecture, the prizewinner's address. Introducing Obama, the chairman of the Nobel Committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, gave his own, highly self-conscious defence of the committee's decision to award the prize to the US president, as well as a running commentary on the sort of world they would like to see him help create.

When Albert Luthuli received his prize in 1961, Obama was told, the struggle against apartheid was in its infancy; when Martin Luther King received his in 1964, the struggle for civil rights in America was also far from over. And as the committee has constantly been pointing out since making the award, Obama's prize, much more so than theirs, is intended to be "a call to action".

Some might, of course, say that all this is merely wishful thinking, and that their hopes of handing Obama a set of golden handcuffs at the same time as the Nobel gold medal are misplaced, misguided even. But as the words of Obama's own speech echoed literally right around the city this afternoon -- broadcast as they were from a large screen outside the City Hall -- he seemed to win a good few people to their cause.

In any case, "A Call to Action" is a phrase the Norwegians will keep hearing over the next year, it also being the title of the Obama exhibition that will run until December at the Nobel Peace Centre. Whether it is a phrase that still rings in the man's own ears in six months, let alone a year's time, remains to be seen.

With luck, he might still remember it next week at least, when he flies back this way to Copenhagen. But my guess is that he will not. After an afternoon spent tying himself in knots over the mirage of "just wars", and paying lip service -- however eloquent that lip service may have been -- to the much harder task of rebuilding the livelihoods of those in whose country he currently commands an army, it seems that Obama will not himself be making the shift from the probable to the possible any time soon.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496