Corbyn’s lost poem, the Aussie Battler and the BBC’s take on The Go-Between

From the clips I have seen, this latest BBC version is being promoted as if it were some kind of upmarket bodice-ripper: Lady Chatterley meets Poldark.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When I interviewed Jeremy Corbyn in July he told me about a poem he had sent to the New Statesman when he was working in Jamaica in 1968. Receipt of the poem was not acknowledged and many months passed before he was sent a rejection note. “I’ve had an issue with the New Statesman ever since,” he said, with a smile. Corbyn has ­often been ridiculed as a dour Spartist but actually he has a wry sense of humour and an attractively self-deprecating manner.

After my interview was published, several newspapers contacted me about the “lost” poem. Would we be publishing it? Carmel Nolan, who was head of the Corbyn media team during the leadership campaign, told me she would send it our way if he won. When I texted her about the poem last Sunday, she said that her man was preoccupied with the small matter of forming a shadow cabinet, which was fair enough. On Tuesday she contacted me to say that “Jeremy is digging out the poem for you”. So far, nothing has turned up. Watch this space.

 

****

The present unrest in the Parliamentary Labour Party, with MPs despairing of or already plotting against Corbyn, is mild compared to the viciousness of Australian politics. After the ludicrous and protracted wars between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd eventually led to the ejection of the Labor Party from office in 2013, one might have expected the Liberals to have learned from the mistakes of their left-wing rivals and behaved differently. But last Monday Malcolm Turnbull, who came to prominence in Britain as the lawyer who defended Peter Wright in the Spycatcher trial and who is a republican, became the country’s fifth prime minister in just over five years after he ousted the socially conservative Tony Abbott from office.

Australia has parliamentary terms of no more than three years, and so its politicians are seemingly on a permanent election footing. In such circumstances and with so much internal party conflict, one marvels at the longevity of John Howard, who won four elections and served more than 11 years in total as prime minister, from 1996 to 2007.

In an essay on Australian politics in his most recent book, Latest Readings, Clive James suggests that Howard was successful because he was the “very picture of what Australians call the Aussie Battler: the average bloke slogging along to keep his family fit and well”. The white-collar left (James says his family were of the blue-collar left) hated Howard, “despite, or because of his popularity with the electorate”. Howard demonstrated just how “far you can get in Australian politics by balancing the books and saying what you mean”. In a characteristic flourish, James says: “To be without style was his style.”

Like Howard – or Howard as James represents him – Corbyn, who has his own appealing anti-style, certainly says what he thinks. But can his brand of leftist populism appeal to the anti-utopian, non-ideological British Battler? It’s the question every Labour MP is asking.

 

****

I shall be fascinated to watch the BBC adaptation of The Go-Between on Sunday evening. The 1970 film adaptation, with a script by Harold Pinter and starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie, has haunted me since I first saw it as a boy. Later I discovered just how faithful it was to L P Hartley’s fine novel, set in 1900, which has one of literature’s most celebrated opening sentences: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

From the clips I have seen, this latest BBC version is being promoted as if it were some kind of upmarket bodice-ripper: Lady Chatterley meets Poldark. Ben Batt plays Ted Burgess, a rugged farmer who has an affair with the upper-class beauty from the local manor house. There’s been much excited press chatter about the scene in which Batt swims naked, his buttocks nicely taut.

The Go-Between is a melancholy English pastoral and, in mood and theme and in the oblique unreliability of its narration, it was, I think, an essential influence on Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement. It’s a study of class, deception, betrayal and the loss of innocence. The story is told from the perspective of the 12-year-old Leo Colston, who never quite knows what he thinks he knows. We first encounter him in disappointed old age as he recalls a radiant summer 50 years earlier when he was a house guest of a school friend (they are both at Eton but Leo is middle-
class, the son of a bank manager). During his stay at Brandham Hall Leo falls under the influence of Marian Maudsley (Julie Christie at her most enchanting in the film), his friend’s manipulative elder sister, who is about to be unhappily married off to a viscount. Leo is beguiled by her charm and becomes an unwitting go-between, carrying messages for her and her secret lover, Ted.

Together with Mrs Maudsley, Leo eventually discovers Marian and Ted having sex in a barn – “. . . two bodies moving like one . . . a shadow on the wall that opened and closed like any umbrella” – and he is devastated. The discovery has appalling consequences and deforms the adult Leo’s life (the suggestion is that he is sexless and/or impotent). So, this is a book about the dangers of illicit sexual passion as well as its pleasures, the allure of charm as well as its corruption. It’s certainly no bodice-ripper. Let’s see what the BBC makes of it.

 

****

On Monday evening, I went to the launch of my old cricketing friend Tom Holland’s new book, Dynasty, a thrilling account of the rise and fall of the house of Caesar. The book has been praised by Boris Johnson, who wrote that the story of the Julio-Claudian dynasty – of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero – had never been better told. I mentioned this to Holland, who is a prolific tweeter. “Never been better told! Tacitus and Robert Graves told the same story,” he said, laughing incredulously. “But I’ll take whatever praise I can get, especially from Boris.” As one should. 

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 appears in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War