Michael Burleigh’s Diary: Rees-Mogg at the Palladium, China’s exiled novelists – and why I’ll never vote Tory again

Weep as British politics drifts into light entertainment, and that John Osborne is no longer alive to scorn this.

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Stirring in January’s darkness to working days often occupied by Brexit has been a test for my alarm clock. The crackpot 18th-century social theorist Saint-Simon had a better solution. Late each morning, his valet drew the drapes, announcing: “Arise Monsieur le Comte, you have grand deeds to perform.” Mr Mogg has his nanny, so maybe a valet is the solution? He can serve smuggled lettuce and tinned peaches in our plucky island fortress.

Our very own black hole

I made a short BBC film before the 2016 Brexit referendum that made two points for remaining. First, that the effort of leaving the EU would be akin to an energy-annihilating black hole. Second, that the worst elements in the Tory party would rise to the top. I can never vote Conservative again, since they have made our country an international joke while neglecting so much that needs putting right. Imagine this crowd negotiating Industrial Revolution 4.0. But voting Labour is impossible in Vauxhall, as it is a vote for Kate Hoey, youthful Trot turned zealous tribune of the DUP and soulmate of the Moggite European Research Group.

Mourning John Osborne

Deep mental calm was briefly restored this past month by Canticum’s concert of 16th- and 21st-century polyphonic music by Tomás Luis de Victoria and Tavener, amid the gilt gloom of Bayswater’s St Sophia Greek Orthodox cathedral. A sophisticated French satirical series, Call My Agent, on Netflix was even more immersive, as I skipped all current affairs (except sardonic Tom Bradby on ITV): a rivalrous team of talent agents in Paris work 24/7 to manage the childlike actors they represent. Their clients include the real Monica Belluci, Audrey Fleurot, Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche, with even minor characters utterly distinct. The series’ stars are a ruthless lesbian agent, played by Camille Cottin, who gives birth on the agency floor, and Thibault de Montalembert, as the firm’s slippery boss.

Contrast this witty series to the forthcoming spectacle of Mr Mogg appearing at the Palladium. Weep as British politics drifts into light entertainment, and that John Osborne (in his Suez-era satire Entertainer period) is no longer alive to scorn this.

Don’t believe the spooks

For the past couple of years, the usual suspects in American-influenced British newspapers have been systematically fomenting anxiety about a recently risen China: unproven suspicions (hyped up by spooks) regarding Huawei infiltrating gremlins into 5G networks are the latest craze. The co-ordinated stridency of these claims reminds me of the intelligence-led build-up to war in Iraq in 2003, especially as the choleric John Bolton is involved again.

An end to your bad dreams

By way of resisting this febrile nonsense, I am limiting fiction reading this year to contemporary Chinese novels. Having worked through the stunning oeuvre of former People’s Liberation Army colonel turned novelist Yan Lianke, subject of a brilliant New Yorker profile last year, I’m now on to Ma Jian, an exile whose work, like much of Lianke’s, is banned in China. China Dream is the story of a seedy official primarily engaged in wiping out people’s bad dreams with a newly invented neural implant. But he is constantly plagued by his own memories of life and death in the Cultural Revolution, with Red Guard slogans of that time erupting from his mouth in breezy meetings on how to propagate the “China Dream” during the era of President Xi.

Two Remainers walk into a bar

I’ve had no Brexit nightmares, but it intrudes like a late-night catfight in the street. A good joke involves two Remainer City bosses, one of whom bewails the impending doom. “No, no Barney, it will be all right. We’ll pretend to leave while really staying in and the idiot public won’t notice.” Unfortunately, Barney was probably right.

100,000 truck drivers wanted

I attended a seminar at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to test the arguments of the still-unfinished Angrynomics, co-authored by my City fund-manager friend Eric Lonergan and the Brown University professor Mark Blyth (a major critic of “austerity” economics). It grew quite heated – and that was just the Scots-Irish authorial duo. To my historian eyes it was very social-science-y, but Anand Menon was on hand to raise issues of detail and nuance. What types of anger are there, do they have economic origins, or should more weight be attached to loss of dignity and status, and above all certainty about the future? Were people more angry in the early 1970s or 1980s than we are now? One point from Blyth made me think: thanks to scare stories about AI and robots and a failed driverless Tesla truck, the US is 100,000 truck drivers short, since people think it a waste of time to get an HGV licence. I’ll be going to things at the NIESR again after this.

Less of the greenery-yallery

People are being unkind about Pierre Bonnard because of paintings which are a hesitant and splodgy “greenery-yallery”. War and occupation did not intrude either, and the reclusive Bonnard was in his seventies when the Second World War started. Having discovered Bonnard at Washington’s Phillips Collection, I would not refuse one, so relished the big new show with more than 100 pictures at the Tate Modern. Forget the critics and marvel at a great colourist at work.

Singing and slumping

The Six Nations rugby has returned, so even less Brexit for me. After joining in “Flower of Scotland” or “La Marseillaise”, I slump watching such giants as Ireland’s 6’10” Devin Toner relentlessly piling in. Where’s that valet when you need him?

Michael Burleigh’s latest book, “The Best Of Times, The Worst Of Times: A History Of Now”, is published by Pan Macmillan

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam