Shots fired in Edinburgh: Many writers and artists who once supported Labour, have abandoned it. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Artists for independence, reading Wilfred Owen and the return of Ian Nairn

Remembering the angst of Scottish writers, a schoolboy's introduction to the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the eccentric, melancholy genius of the topographer and broadcaster Ian Nairn.

In the early Nineties I was commissioned by a magazine to write a long report on what was being described as the renaissance in Scottish literature and publishing. I found a room in a hotel in Charlotte Square – from my window I could see the front door of Bute House, now the First Minister’s official residence – and spent four or five days wandering around Edinburgh, a would-be flâneur with an expense account.

My visit coincided with an unexpected heatwave and, beguiled by the weather, I thought for those few days at least that there was no better city in which to live in Europe. I was also struck by how few people I spoke to had any sense of a British identity. They were proudly, even militantly, Scottish. OK, most of them were young writers and artists but still their self-identity had been formed in opposition to England and to a Tory government for which none of them had voted and whose policies they despised. It was obvious to me that, given the chance, these people would vote for independence and that a referendum on the issue was inevitable, if not imminent.

A few years later, Blair’s 1997 landslide obliterated the Tories in Scotland (they won none of the 72 seats). The Conservative and Unionist Party had dumped the poll tax on Scotland a year before its introduction in England and myopically opposed devolution. It was a defeat from which there would be no return. Nowadays, Labour is also struggling for credibility in Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party has a likeable but hapless leader and a party machine that has been diminished by the flight of talent south and corrupted by decades of complacency. Many writers, artists and academics who once supported Labour have abandoned it. They are not natural SNP supporters but they will vote Yes in September.

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I spent last week high in the French Alps, where, despite many weeks of unseasonal warmth, the snow fell thickly on the day of our arrival and continued all through the night – the first snowfall I’d seen all winter. We awoke to a windless morning, fresh snow and brilliant sunshine, such a welcome respite from the storms and incessant rain of recent weeks. I returned from France to find an astronaut on the cover of the New Statesman and inside a fine review of Guy Cuthbertson’s biography of Wilfred Owen by Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who has joined us as a lead book reviewer.

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I can never forget my introduction to Owen’s poetry. One morning the school headmaster strode out before us at the start of assembly and, without introduction, read “Dulce et Decorum Est”, which I later discovered was one of the most celebrated anti-war protest poems. The headmaster was a short, aggressive, bullet-headed man – my father told me he was a communist who had fought in the Spanish civil war (this seems unlikely, in retrospect, though there was a finger missing from his left hand). Now, he was in late career and his idealism had curdled into disaffection. He seemed to hate the school and the children in it. Yet that morning he read Owen’s poem with an emotion I’d never seen from him before. A couple of days later I pulled down from my father’s shelves an anthology of First World War poets – Owen, Sassoon, Gurney, Blunden and others. I was on my way to becoming a reader.

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Towards the end of last year, Matthew Engel published a fascinating essay in the Fin­ancial Times about Ian Nairn, the eccentric and melancholy architectural commentator who became an unlikely TV personality in the early Seventies as he toured the country in his convertible Morris Minor. Dressed in a funereal suit and white shirt, overweight, his receding hair slicked back from a pale, pudgy face, Nairn, who had been a pilot, told the viewers in vivid and uncomplicated language which buildings and towns he liked and disliked and why.

He was often outraged. He was a passion­ate hater and denounced the carelessness and brutality of so much postwar architecture and town planning – “subtopia” was his coinage, a neologism he used to characterise the suburban sprawl he saw stretching all the way from Southampton to Carlisle. At times he seemed to be close to tears – one wag remarked on his edge-of-suicide delivery – never more so than when lamenting the impending destruction of the Emporium Arcade (1901-72) in Northampton. The wrecking balls had done their work even before the programme was broadcast.

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I knew of Nairn’s influence on a generation of psychogeographers and gonzo urbanists but had never seen any of his programmes or read any of his mostly forgotten books. I was still at school in 1983 when he died, aged 52; burdened, it seemed, by some unnameable sorrow, he drank himself to death.

However, since reading Engel’s piece I’ve been watching clips of Nairn on YouTube. I love his conversational style, as if he’s speaking to friends in the pub, his resonant voice, authoritative but not plummy, wavering with regret. And last week – the joy of it – there was an hour-long documentary about him by Kate Misrahi on BBC4. 

It was the model of a kind of documentary the BBC once excelled at before it became fixated on celebrity. It had a narrator but no presenter and featured thoughtful, well-edited contributions from those who had known and worked with Nairn or admired his originality. Now, surely, some enterprising publisher should reissue his out-of-print but much-in-demand book Nairn’s London. I’d buy it. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Daniel Hannan harks back to the days of empire - the Angevin Empire

Did the benign rule of some 12th century English kings make western France vote Macron over Le Pen?

I know a fair amount about British politics; I know a passable amount about American politics, too. But, as with so many of my fellow Britons, in the world beyond that, I’m lost.

So how are we, the monolingual Anglophone opinionators of the world, meant to interpret a presidential election in a country where everyone is rude enough to conduct all their politics in French?

Luckily, here’s Daniel Hannan to help us:

I suppose we always knew Dan still got a bit misty eyed at the notion of the empire. I just always thought it was the British Empire, not the Angevin one, that tugged his heartstrings so.

So what exactly are we to make of this po-faced, historically illiterate, geographically illiterate, quite fantastically stupid, most Hannan-y Hannan tweet of all time?

One possibility is that this was meant as a serious observation. Dan is genuinely saying that the parts of western France ruled by Henry II and sons in the 12th century – Brittany, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Aquitaine – remain more moderate than those to the east, which were never graced with the touch of English greatness. This, he is suggesting, is why they generally voted for Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen.

There are a number of problems with this theory. The first is that it’s bollocks. Western France was never part of England – it remained, indeed, a part of a weakened kingdom of France. In some ways it would be more accurate to say that what really happened in 1154 was that some mid-ranking French nobles happened to inherit the English Crown.

Even if you buy the idea that England is the source of all ancient liberties (no), western France is unlikely to share its political culture, because it was never a part of the same polity: the two lands just happened to share a landlord for a while.

As it happens, they didn’t even share it for very long. By 1215, Henry’s youngest son John had done a pretty good job of losing all his territories in France, so that was the end of the Angevins. The English crown reconquered  various bits of France over the next couple of centuries, but, as you may have noticed, it hasn’t been much of a force there for some time now.

At any rate: while I know very little of French politics, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the similarities between yesterday's electoral map and the Angevin Empire were a coincidence. I'm fairly confident that there have been other factors which have probably done more to shape the French political map than a personal empire that survived for the length of one not particularly long human life time 800 years ago. Some wars. Industrialisation. The odd revolution. You know the sort of thing.

If Daniel Hannan sucks at history, though, he also sucks at geography, since chunks of territory which owed fealty to the English crown actually voted Le Pen. These include western Normandy; they also include Calais, which remained English territory for much longer than any other part of France. This seems rather to knacker Hannan’s thesis.

So: that’s one possibility, that all this was an attempt to make serious point; but, Hannan being Hannan, it just happened to be a quite fantastically stupid one.

The other possibility is that he’s taking the piss. It’s genuinely difficult to know.

Either way, he instantly deleted the tweet. Because he realised we didn’t get the joke? Because he got two words the wrong way round? Because he realised he didn’t know where Calais was?

We’ll never know for sure. I’d ask him but, y’know, blocked.

UPDATE: Breaking news from the frontline of the internet: 

It. Was. A. Joke.

My god. He jokes. He makes light. He has a sense of fun.

This changes everything. I need to rethink my entire world view. What if... what if I've been wrong, all this time? What if Daniel Hannan is in fact one of the great, unappreciated comic voices of our time? What if I'm simply not in on the joke?

What if... what if Brexit is actually... good?

Daniel, if you're reading this – and let's be honest, you are definitely reading this – I am so sorry. I've been misunderstanding you all this time.

I owe you a pint (568.26 millilitres).

Serious offer, by the way.

 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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