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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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism