The Casual Vacancy. Photo: BBC/Bronte Film and Television Ltd
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Alan Bennett is right: if you consult the literature, hypocrisy is a very English tradition

Alan Bennett's statement that the English excel at hypocrisy has upset the national press. But he's got literature on his side.

“What I think we are best at in England, better than all the rest, is hypocrisy.” Alan Bennett’s idea of the country’s greatest achievement has, perhaps understandably, not been received warmly by much of the British press. 

But if you, like five million others, have been watching The Casual Vacancy this week, these statements may seem less controversial. J K Rowling, the latest “quintessentially English” emblem, is constantly wrestling with this ugliest of British traits in her bitterly insightful exploration of middle-class suburbia. About halfway through the second episode, at a dinner party, frustrated doctor Parminder can no longer suppress her rage at this hallmark of the fictional Pagford, after her patient, Howard, has ranted at the injustice of taxpayer-funded support for recovering addicts.

How much did your heart surgery cost? Your stay in hospital, all the staff, the drugs, the medication you’re on now? How much did that cost? And you’re supposed to honour that work that’s done on you by staying below a certain weight. But you don’t. You eat, and eat, and eat - you’re practically mainlining foie gras into your eyeballs. So all that medication has to doubled, trebled, because you’ve made a ‘lifestyle choice’. And it all costs, right down to the cream for that disgusting rash under your belly. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds - which means that you, Howard, are a bloody hypocrite!

In making her speech on misguided ethics, Parminder reveals the private health issues of her patient to all present at the dinner table, exposing her own personal brand of hypocrisy. But the obese “burden” on the NHS railing against state-funded addict rehabilitation and the doctor who breaks her patient’s confidentiality on moral grounds are by no means the only hypocrites in Pagford. Among many others, we watch the lawyer who cannot fight for himself; the social worker who fails to keep her promises; the brother of the deceased councillor, who, using family values to campaign for his place, privately abuses his two sons. The moral centre of the work, troubled teenager Krystal, is in contrast praised as “authentic”: as the only character seemingly incapable of superficiality, she suffers most from Pagford’s institutional insincerity.

The Casual Vacancy. Photo: BBC/Bronte Film and Television Ltd

Rowling has repeatedly commented on The Casual Vacancy’s place as part of a tradition of sprawling novels about small towns, but, just like Bennett, she also takes her place as part of a lively tradition of authors mediating on the topic of English hypocrisy.

Bleaker even than Rowling’s Pagford is Hardy’s portrayal of an England under the grip of a structural, religious hypocrisy in Jude the Obscure. It’s a sexual hypocrisy that causes divorced Jude and his married lover, Sue, to be ostracised from their community: Sue grapples with her own potential to become “such a hypocrite”.

George Eliot’s provincial English town, Middlemarch, is coloured by double standards that stretch far beyond the novel’s famously hypocritical character, Mr Bulstrode, the evangelical banker who made his fortune on stolen property and appropriated inheritance. Eliot gives the town, and, by extension, the whole of English society, a faux morality that exists only to ensure personal gain over others. It’s with a thick, dripping irony that she writes, “On the whole, one might say that an ardent charity was at work setting the virtuous mind to make a neighbour unhappy for her good.”

Elizabeth Gaskell provides a rather more affectionate portrait of the English town devoted to keeping up appearances at all costs in Cranford, as her idiosyncratic characters refuse to let their anachronistic manners and values die. The women of Cranford despair at the visible poverty of newcomer Captain Brown, despite having no money for new candles themselves, and refuse to let younger women openly date, despite their own romantic regrets. The absurdity of this outdated kind of dressing up is neatly captured when Mrs Forrester’s hairless cow is given enormous pyjamas to hide its nakedness:

Of course, the most vividly acerbic complaint about England’s hypocrisy comes from Dickens’s miserably unfair London. From Reverends Chadband (Bleak House) and Stiggins (The Pickwick Papers), the creepily faux-humble Uriah Heep (David Copperfield), to the sanctimonious surveyor Seth Pecksniff (Martin Chuzzlewit), it does not take much reading of Dickens’s corpus before one begins to wonder if he might as well have scrawled “hypocrites!” on an enormous map of England before rolling it up and beating the reader repeatedly over the head with it.

Bennett mentions Shakespeare twice in his image of English hypocrisy, and it seems likely that Shakespeare would not disagree with his hypothesis. Why else would King Lear lose England to daughters whose words and deeds stand in stark contrast to one another?

Bennett’s theory might be indignantly splashed across the Daily Mail, but from a literary perspective, his thoughts are steeped in an ironic, deeply self-aware tradition. What could be more English than that?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Snakebites and body parts

The city at the edge of an apocalypse: a love letter to Los Angeles.

I was emailing with Kenneth Anger, the film-maker, when the coyotes across the street in Griffith Park started howling.

That’s partially true.

I was emailing him to ask if he’d direct a music video for me. Maybe Lucifer Rising 2.0. Or anything.

Just him in the kitchen making tea, as recorded on his iPhone.

Kenneth Anger is alive and well in Santa Monica, so why not ask him to direct a video for me? Hopefully, he’ll respond. We’ve never met, so I sent an email to him, not with him. That’s the partial truth.

But the coyotes did start howling.

It’s the single best sound in Los Angeles, or any city. Is there another city where you can email an 89-year-old devotee of Aleister Crowley while listening to a few dozen coyotes screaming and howling and ripping the night into little pieces?

No. Just here. This oddness by the sea and an inch from a billion acres of Arrakis.

I never thought I’d end up living in Los Angeles, but I’ve ended up living in Los Angeles. This dirtiest, strangest paradise.

Yesterday I went hiking in a two-million-acre state park that’s 30 minutes from my house. A state park bigger than all of New York City. And it’s 30 minutes away. With no people. Just bears and pumas and coyotes and snakes.

And other things. Abandoned bridges. An observatory where Albert Einstein used to go to watch space.

What a strange city.

A perfect city. Perfect for humans at the edge of this strangely unfolding apocalypse. A gentle apocalypse with trade winds and Santa Ana winds and the biannual vicious storm that rips eucalyptus trees up by their roots.

What a strange city. And it’s my home.

Today I hiked to the back of the Hollywood sign. This was before Kenneth Anger and the coyotes.

The tourists were dropping like flies on the long, hot mountain trail, not aware that this isn’t a city with the safe European ­infrastructure that keeps them happy
and/or alive.

Every now and then, a tourist dies in the hills, bitten by a snake or lost at night. The emergency rooms are full of tourists with snakebites and heatstroke.

Where are the European safeguards?

Fuck us if we need safeguards. Go live in a place like this gentle wasteland where you’re not at the top of the food chain. If you’re not in danger of being eaten at some point in the day, you’re probably not breathing right.

I hope Kenneth Anger writes back.


22 May

I drove some friends around my neighbourhood. They want to live here. Why wouldn’t they? Pee-wee Herman and Thom Yorke live up the street.

David Fincher lives a block away. It’s blocks and blocks of jasmine-scented name-

It’s warm in the winter and it’s weird all year round.

And there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright that looks like a lunatic Mayan spaceship.

And there go the coyotes again, howling like adorable delegates of death.

They’re so smart, I wish they would make me their king.

You hate Los Angeles? Who cares? You made a mistake, you judged it like you’d judge a city. Where’s the centre?

There’s no centre. You want a centre? The centre cannot hold. Slouching towards Bethlehem. Things fall apart.

Amazing how many titles can come from one poem. What’s a gyre?

Yeats and Kenneth Anger and Aleister Crowley. All these patterns.

Then we had brunch in my art deco pine-tree-themed restaurant, which used to sell cars and now sells organic white tea and things.

The centre cannot hold. I still have no idea what a gyre is.

Maybe something Irish or Celtic.

It’s nice that they asked me to write this journal.

Things fall apart.

So you hate Los Angeles? Ha. It still loves you, like the sandy golden retriever it is. Tell me again how you hate the city loved by David Lynch and where David Bowie made his best album? Listen to LA Woman by the Doors and watch Lynch’s Lost Highway and read some Joan Didion – and maybe for fun watch Nightcrawler – and tell me again how you hate LA.

I fucking love this sprawling inchoate pile of everything.

Even at its worst, it’s hiding something baffling or remarkable.

Ironic that the city of the notoriously ­vapid is the city of deceiving appearance.

After brunch, we went hiking.

Am I a cliché? Yes. I hike. I do yoga. I’m a vegan. I even meditate. As far as clichés go, I prefer this to the hungover, cynical, ruined, sad, grey cliché I was a decade ago.

“You’re not going to live for ever.”

Of course not.

But why not have a few bouncy decades that otherwise would’ve been spent in a hospital or trailing an oxygen tank through a damp supermarket?


24 May

A friend said: “The last time I had sex, it was warm and sunny.”

Well, that’s helpful.

October? June? February?

No kidding, the coyotes are howling again. I still love them. Have you ever heard a pack of howling coyotes?

Imagine a gaggle of drunk college girls who also happened to be canine demons. Screaming with blood on their teeth.

It’s such a beautiful sound but it also kind of makes you want to hide in a closet.

No Kenneth Anger.

Maybe I’m spam.

Vegan spam.

Come on, Kenneth, just make a video for me, OK?

I’ll take anything.

Even three minutes of a plant on a radiator.

I just received the hardcover copy of my autobiography, Porcelain. And, like anyone, I skimmed the pictures. I’m so classy, eating an old sandwich in my underpants.

A friend’s dad had got an advance copy and was reading it. I had to issue the cautious caveat: “Well, I hope he’s not too freaked out by me dancing in my own semen while surrounded by a roomful of cross-dressing Stevie Nicks-es.”

If I ever have kids, I might have one simple rule. Or a few simple rules.

Dear future children of mine:

1) Don’t vote Republican.

2) Don’t get facial tattoos.

3) Don’t read my memoir.

I don’t need my currently unmade children to be reading about their dear dad during his brief foray into the world of professional dominatrixing, even if it was brief.

The first poem I loved was by Yeats: “When You Are Old”. I sent it to my high-school non-girlfriend. The girl I longed for, unrequitedly. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to have sent “When You Are Old” to an unrequited love.

Today the sky was so strangely clear. I mean, the sky is almost always clear. We live in a desert. But today it felt strangely clear, like something was missing. The sun felt magnified.

And then, at dusk, I noticed the gold light slanting through some oak trees and hitting the green sides of the mountains (they were green as we actually had rain over the winter). The wild flowers catch the slanting gold light and you wonder, this is a city? What the fuck is this baffling place?

I add the “fuck” for street cred. Or trail cred, as I’m probably hiking. As I’m a cliché.

You hike, or I hike, in the middle of a city of almost 20 million people and you’re alone. Just the crows and the spiralling hawks and the slanting gold light touching the oak trees and the soon-to-go-away
wild flowers.

The end of the world just feels closer here, but it’s nice, somehow. Maybe the actual end of the world won’t be so nice but the temporal proximity can be OK. In the slanting gold light. You have to see it, the canyons in shadow and the tops of the hills in one last soft glow.

What a strange non-city.


25 May

They asked for only four journal entries, so here’s the last one.

And why is # a “hashtag”?

Hash? Like weird meat or weird marijuana? Tag, like the game?

At least “blog” has an etymology, even if, as a word, it sounds like a fat clog in a drain.

A friend who works in an emergency room had a patient delivered to her who had a croquet ball in his lower intestine. I guess there’s a lesson there: always have friends who work in emergency rooms, as they have the best stories.

No coyotes tonight. But there’s a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn. Where?

Where in LA would there be a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn?

It’s such a faraway sound. Lonesome hoboes watching the desert from an empty train car. Going where?

I met a woman recently who found human body parts in some bags while she
was hiking.

Technically, her dogs found them.

Then she found the dogs.

And then the sky was full of helicopters, as even in LA it’s unusual to have human hands and things left in bags near a hiking trail a few hundred yards from Brad Pitt’s house.

What is this place?

When I used to visit LA, I marvelled at the simple things, like gas stations and guest bedrooms.

I was a New Yorker.

And the gas stations took credit cards. At. The. Pumps.

What was this magic?

And people had Donald Judd beds in their living rooms, just slightly too small for actual sleeping – but, still, there’s your Donald Judd bed. In your living room at the top of the hill somewhere, with an ocean a dozen miles away but so clear you can see Catalina.

They drained the reservoir and now don’t know what to do with it.

Good old LA, confused by things like empty reservoirs in the middle of the city.

Maybe that’s where the lonesome train lives. And it only comes out at night, to make the sound of a lonesome train whistle, echoing from the empty concrete reservoir that’s left the city nonplussed.

“We’ve never had an empty reservoir in the city before.”

So . . . Do something great with it. I know, it’s a burden being given a huge gift of ­empty real estate in the middle of the city.

Tomorrow I’m meeting some more friends who’ve moved here from New York.

“We have a guest bedroom!” they crow.

A century ago, the Griffith Park planners planted redwoods across the street. And now the moon is waning but shining, far away but soft, through the redwoods.

No coyotes, but a waning moon through some towering redwoods is still really OK. As it’s a city that isn’t a city, and it’s my home.


Moby’s memoir, “Porcelain”, is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad