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6 April 2022

Howard Jacobson’s Diary: Home-front warriors and Francis Bacon’s waning shock value

The spectacle of genuine horror unfolding in Ukraine throws into perspective our more synthetic outrages.

By Howard Jacobson

So now we know what tyranny actually looks like up close and personal, we must wonder what those intrepid warriors who faced the might of Priti Patel to defend their right not to wear a paper mask have to say about their struggle. “I suppose we were being a mite silly”? Not a bit of it. “We stand vindicated” is my bet. “See? Isn’t this exactly what we warned against? Allow them to stick a needle in our arms today and they’ll be occupying the Isle of Wight tomorrow.”

And what of those who’ve been bowdlerising Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare lest it creates panic in the playground? How are they explaining the horrors of war to their little ones? “Darling, they’re only lying down to take a rest. It’s a game, like paper, stone and scissors, only don’t use the word scissors in this house. Now dry your eyes, turn off the television and get back to reading that comic of King Lear I bought you, the one without the naughty daughters, the rude clown, the bad weather and the blinding scene.”

Screen solace

I can’t pretend I’ve been any more heroic myself. I too was waking wet-cheeked until I stopped doom-scrolling before bed. In fact, what I was doing was more like false-solace-scrolling. Tell me the Ukrainians have shot down the entirety of the Russian air force. Tell me the Russian people have suddenly begun to wonder why opposition politicians in their country are always going away and not coming back. Tell me Zelensky’s flying in to do Live at the Apollo. Sing me a nice hymn. “All things bright and beautiful…”

Writing is reality

Beyond that, I’m making a reasonable fist – sorry, sorry, not fist, job – of following Kingsley Amis’s advice to writers to forget all about a book the minute they finish writing it and get stuck into a new one. This is to forestall the disappointment that invariably waits on publication. The world will look no different the day it appears in print, he warned. And he’s right. A few appreciative words from an astute reviewer, a handshake dipped in Novichok from an embittered fellow writer, someone mistaking me for Alan Yentob on Regent Street, otherwise all is as it was before.

[See also: Peter Wilby’s Diary: Remembering Bruce Page and how to house Ukrainians in need]

So it’s back to the desk and the pleasure of actually writing, which must never be confused with the siren distractions of praise or dispraise, publicity or the lack of it, and worry about one’s legacy. A writer’s only legacy is the sentence that comes after the one before.

Paint and politeness

I suspect Francis Bacon would have agreed with me. My only subject is paint, he said to someone. By which I take him to have meant his only lasting purpose and pleasure was paint. As opposed to getting sloshed in Soho. I usually leave it too late to go to the great art shows in London, which must bespeak some deep reluctance to see them, or at least to being told I must, but I made it just in time to catch Francis Bacon: Man and Beast at the Royal Academy, on the way to which I was mistaken twice: once for Waldemar Januszczak and, for a second time, though not by the same person, for Alan Yentob.

It was a bold, well curated show with informative wall notes in the English language, rather than that academic socio-speak that squeezes the vitality out of every canvas it describes in the name of precisely those abstractions art abhors. How much I like Bacon’s work I can’t decide. There’s some disconnect that bothers me between the raw animality of what he paints and the serenely civilised demeanour of those looking at it. What beasts we are, except when we’re looking at Francis Bacon!

[See also: Phil Jones’s Diary: Leaving Radio 2, the Queen’s favourite show, and why Gorbachev apologised to me]

You can’t blame him for the way he’s looked at, of course, but you can wonder why work so obviously intended to be disturbing barely disturbs a hair of his admirers’ heads. How do I know that? Well, put it this way: it barely disturbs a hair of mine. Are we too used to it now? Has Bacon dated already? Or was it always less harrowing than it purported to be – more kitsch than horror, more partygate than Mariupol?

We play happily with plasticine bestiality until the real thing bursts into the nursery. Suddenly I find myself thinking Boris Johnson’s not so bad. When hell unlooses demons, what’s a scoundrel more or less?

Howard Jacobson’s memoir “Mother’s Boy: A Writer’s Beginnings” is published by Jonathan Cape

[See also: John Simpson’s Diary: In Afghanistan food is scarce, poverty is spreading and fear is everywhere]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special