UPRIGHT MALES

Tatyana, a young country girl of obscure family given to romantic dreaming, falls suddenly for Yevgeny, an older, more worldly neighbour. Impulsively, she sends him a passionate declaration of love. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (1879) – inspired by a verse novel of Pushkin – pivots on his response to the letter, delivered in person later that day. To Tatyana’s growing dismay, Onegin condescends. He is flattered by her proposal: if he were to fall in love with anyone it would be her! But, he loftily explains, his heart is hardened against emotions. He cannot love her, except perhaps as a brother (!). It is as well that he, a man of honour, was the letter’s recipient; another, less scrupulous, might have taken advantage. The music suggests he may have meant this kindly but Tatyana wants a lover not a moral advisor. She is left despairing and humiliated.

Eugene Onegin

Alfred Allmers, ‘landed proprietor and man of letters’, comes back from a long holiday hiking in Norway’s mountains. We quickly learn from Rita Allmers how long he has neglected her emotionally and physically. Now, on his return, he goes one further. He has not written the book he went away to write but has found a new purpose to his life, he tells her. From now on he will devote himself entirely to their crippled son Eyolf. The appalled Rita, whom Alfred has been avoiding, knows this is a mortal threat to her happiness. In this autumn’s wonderful Almeida production she opens her dress to reveal her breasts in an unavailing attempt to stir the stodgy Alfred. Director Richard Eyre’s dramatic coup de theatre is justified by the text of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf (1894): we later learn that the boy’s injury derives from a cradle injury while the neglectful couple were making love. Eyolf, desperate for companionship among local boys swimming on the beach, later drowns.

 

Just desserts?

The scornful Onegin receives his quittance. He quarrels with his best friend Lensky, whose fiancée he has casually romanced. Too stiff – as ever – to appease the outraged Lensky he kills him in a duel. Now he must flee for years of empty womanising in exile. On his return he goes to a ball attended by his distant and distinguished relative Prince Gremin. Gremin has lately married and the startled Onegin discovers his bride to be Tatyana herself. Thrown into confusion and violent desire, he takes the first opportunity to declare his love. But Tatyana reminds him of his scornful treatment of her younger self. Her eventual rejection of him is no tit-for-tat: she is tempted by Onegin’s passionate outburst. Yet she knows Gremin genuinely loves her whereas Onegin spurned his chance long ago. In faint echo of the sad musings of her mother that open the opera, she chooses duty over passion and remains faithful. Onegin’s motives are ambiguous. Tchaikovsky leaves us to decide whether he is animated by true love or envy of Tatyana’s newly-elevated status. But it is he who ends the opera in despair.

Rita Allmers comes close to seeing her son as a rival (how mercilessly Ibsen observes mothers and sons). Yet Eyolf’s death by drowning leads to no physical reunion with her husband. They stay together not through mutual desire but to fulfil a social obligation by caring for the poor children of the village. Thus public duty trumps private desire, at least on Rita’s part. Onegin (and later Tatyana) stifle private desire with private obligation. True romantic love is represented by Lensky who is besotted by Olga, Tatyana’s older sister. In killing Lensky, Onegin kills romantic love too. Duty and love are poor bedfellows.

The Allmers once consummated their love but something – perhaps the birth of little Eyolf, perhaps Alfred’s unholy interest in his step-sister – has soured it. Onegin’s stolid treatment of Tatyana means they can never enjoy each other. Lensky’s death robs him of Olga: his haunting lament for lost life and love is rhapsodically sung by the fine young tenor Michael Fabiano. In the Royal Opera House’s unjustly criticised production – one of Kaspar Holten’s last before he leaves in 2017 – Onegin’s loveless philandering is depicted through dance. The fine ROH chorus and orchestra under Semyon Bychkov excel here, as throughout.

Onegin, lacking self-knowledge, must return home to learn why his life is empty. In the title role Dmitri Hvorostovsky does not have the best tunes. How can there be rhapsody for a man who puts romance second? Tchaikovsky’s opera is a threnody to unacted desires: better murder an infant in its cradle than cherish one of those. Ibsen’s great play suggests that the Allmers, albeit indirectly, might have done just that. Eyolf dies in any case.  Little Eyolf is concentrated in time and place; Eugene Onegin spans the vastness of Russia. The play is taut, economically written, concentrated; the opera is languorous, romantic and lush. But both express the folly of the morally upright. In ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ Richard Rodgers wrote tunefully of a man who ‘horizontally speaking (is) at his very best’. Alfred and Yevgeny, prig and snob, are vertical men who kill the thing they love.

How to mark the Winter Solstice

Once again the admirable Fusion-run Park Road Pools and Fitness has come up trumps. Many feared that last year’s all-winter swimming in Hornsey’s Olympic length lido was a one-off, but not so. Every morning in N8 there is an opportunity to relish open-air swimming in a dependable temperature range from 18-21 degrees. No stinging eyes, no sweats from excess humidity, no blaring muzak, no overcrowding. Instead the calm experience of rhythmic strokes outdoors in this warmest of Autumns. Even on the Winter Solstice you can get your daily Vitamin D.

steamy lido

 

Julius Caesar misplaced the date of the Winter Solstice believing the sun  reborn on 25 December. But we now know that today is the true day. This year – so far – we have none of the traditional shivering described by Spenser in The Faerie Queene:

‘Lastly, came Winter cloathed all in frize,

Chattering his teeth for cold that did him chill..’

But for all that today does mark the furthest reach of the planet and I had to celebrate it as I did in 2014.  Then as now, a steady breast stroke for 500m in the open air on the shortest day of the year is the best way to salute the birth of a new year.

FREE VOTE ONLY POSTPONES RECKONING

Labour needs to make it unmistakeably clear that it is committed to keeping the country and its people safe, thereby snuffing out pacifist accusations, but also giving a context for the ensuing forensic argument. People must know we are prepared to defend the country. If Labour is not pacifist the only question is whether bombing Syria will advance or degrade safety – a pragmatic, and therefore a secondary issue. Jeremy’s objections are all valid except for one – that it increases the risk of attack at home. There is no doubt – the security services have sad so – that that is going to happen anyway.
It is impossible for one of the country’s two main political parties not to have a position on whether to go to war. What could be more fundamental? I see all the dangers to the Labour Party of a whipped vote – they are great and growing. However the yawning gap between the Leader and some Labour MPs is a political fact. If not confronted now when will it be?
The dangers of not having a view at all on peace or war are worse: it will be seen an abdication of leadership which, after all, is largely about managing difficulties. Labour will wriggle off this week’s dilemma only to postpone the reckoning. It must have a sense of direction, even if there is a rebellion. The Leader has rightly consulted and the result, I believe, has been decisive. Moreover there are large numbers of people outside the Party who are opposed, including Tories (the Mail, Matthew Parris) and people of no party. Who is to speak for them? The SNP? A free vote will make the Leader appear as his enemies portray him – an impotent sentimentalist, a new George Lansbury, ‘hawking his conscience about…’ as Ernie Bevin cruelly said. This is not an issue of conscience but of policy on the most fundamental question any country ever has to face.

GIVE ME STRENGTH!

Yvette has ‘the strength to win’.  She wants a ‘strong Labour Party’ that will ‘make us stronger’.  She knows this cause she comes from a family of ‘strong women’.  After all ‘we’re stronger when we stand together’ and ‘we need strong opposition’. The way back for Labour is to ‘build stronger public finances’. Her backers confirm this is true: Yvette has ‘Labour values and strength’, they tell me, ‘knowledge, experience and strength’.  Thank God she’s not like that Jeremy, with his ‘old solutions to old problems, not new answers to the problems of today’.

Yvette doesn’t like Tom, but Tom is strong too. We have his own word for it when he promises ‘a strong voice for you’. The visionary look and cleft chin eradicate all doubt. You might shoot the sheriff, but I wouldn’t point your weapon at the deputy, not while Tom’s around.

At the local level things are different.  Here it’s more about smiles. Take Tessa. ‘She’s a star’, a nice man who once delivered the post tells me, ‘She is Labour’s Kylie – everyone loves her and she only needs a first name’.

O I almost forgot Christian.  He’s a bit like Jeremy really. In fact what with their bikes and lack of ties they do seem rather similar. I don’t know if they are strong men or not.  Perhaps I should worry about this because no-one has written to tell me they are? The trouble is, they will keep going on about their policies when really all I’m looking for is a cheery smile with a hint of inner strength from people who understand all these things so much better than me.

My letter to the London Review of Books on the Labour Leadership contest

The 27 August 2015 number of the London Review of Books published an alarming article from David Runciman (reproduced at foot). I have sent the following response.

Dear Editor,

Strip away the persiflage in David Runciman’s piece (‘Short Cuts’, 27 August) and you are left with an assertion that Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead Labour at all – let alone back to power. Established parties are not led by the likes of him. His supporters wrongly see their approaching vote as a way to express themselves and it is no excuse that they know exactly what they are doing.

Labour is hardly a thriving enterprise. Much polling evidence suggests 2015 voters did not know what it stood for (sometime appending the deadly phrase ‘any more’). Until Corbyn electrified a dismal contest Labour’s identity remained a lost cause. Now overdue policy shifts are being advocated from a position of authority. Runciman acknowledges Corbyn’s policies are ‘popular with a surprisingly wide swathe of the public’, but expects the message to be muffled by a divided PLP and Shadow Cabinet. That distinguished body has Chris Leslie as its Shadow Chancellor. Corbyn is an unassuming man but it does not follow that he cannot lead a powerful opposition from an unpromising electoral position, wrong-foot Cameron at PMQs or handle the press lobby. Campbell-Bannerman and Attlee, who both led powerful but fractious teams back to power from the wilderness, were likewise underestimated.

Political science texts portray party members as unduly ideological and unrepresentative. Blair disarmed them, ruling by referendum as he narrowed the span of legitimate debate and impoverished Labour’s ambition. The Party became defined against its own history, frightened to advocate rational policy. In 13 years it didn’t even achieve public control of the railways – a vote-winner with commuters in Southern target constituencies if ever there was. Has anyone at all complained about Boris Johnson’s quiet municipalisation of private rail lines in rural and suburban Essex, stuffed with seats Labour must win?

The Scottish government disproved New Labour’s thesis by governing from the Centre-left. Despite a referendum defeat, SNP membership exploded, presaging an electoral landslide. Just the prospect of a Corbyn victory has galvanised Labour. Of course its UK-wide task is greater than the SNP’s. But Labour has five years to transmute enthusiasm into votes; Nicola Sturgeon had eight months. This willingness of the once unaligned, jaded or cynical – many of them young – to explore established parties rather than insurgents has unnerved many, Runciman among them. His plea for Labour to do ‘a bit of fixing’ must be the first call for ballot-rigging you have ever carried. I hope it will be the last.

Yours Sincerely,

Short Cuts

David Runciman

It’s easy to confuse democracy with democracy. Having a party’s members elect its leader is clearly more democratic than leaving the decision up to MPs or union bosses. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for democracy. When the Tories first moved to a one-member-one-vote system in 2001, they plumped for Iain Duncan Smith over Kenneth Clarke. The result was that Britain had a weak and ineffectual parliamentary opposition at the most hubristic phase of Tony Blair’s premiership, during the run-up to the Iraq War. The situation was only remedied two years later when the parliamentary Conservative Party effectively staged a coup, installing Michael Howard as the sole candidate without consulting the membership. In 2007, Lib Dem members chose Nick Clegg over Chris Huhne as their leader by the narrowest of margins. Given that Huhne was to end up in jail in 2013 you might think this was the wise choice. But none of the voters (bar two) could have known Huhne’s vulnerability on that score. By choosing Clegg they went with a comfortable politician under whose leadership the party would be chewed up and spat out by the Tories, rather than with a more rebarbative one who might have kept them at arm’s length – and his party alive. It’s hard to argue that British democracy is better off as a result.

Now the Labour Party, putting the decision entirely in the hands of its members for the first time, may elect Jeremy Corbyn. It’s tempting to see this as another IDS moment. But it’s something more than that. The election of IDS was wishful, whereas this looks much more wilful. Deluded Tory members seemed genuinely to believe that Duncan Smith was a widely appealing politician whose virtues, so apparent to them, needed only to be brought to the attention of the general public to win them over. Corbyn’s supporters are under few illusions that he fits the mould of a mainstream party leader. They know he’s at best an acquired taste and unlikely to be the man to win back voters lost to the Tories in the key marginals. A recent YouGov poll found that barely a quarter of Labour members believed that understanding how to win an election was one of the key qualities needed in a Labour leader (62 per cent wanted him or her to be ‘in touch with the concerns of ordinary people’). Corbynites realise that they are not playing the game by the rulebook. They don’t care.

One way to understand this is as a manifestation of what political scientists call the expressive, as opposed to the instrumental, theory of voting. If voting is instrumental then it’s presumed that voters are primarily motivated by the results they hope to achieve: leaders and parties who can deliver real benefits. If it’s expressive then voters are more interested in signalling who they are and what they value. The case for expressive voting is partly driven by the thought that instrumental voting is a waste of time, since in any significant election no one’s vote ever decides the outcome (if your candidate wins or loses it is always by more than one vote, making your contribution incidental). But it also seems to chime with the world of social media and online communication, where self-expression rules and echo chambers proliferate. The internet is much more effective as a vehicle for expressing disgust with mainstream politics than it is for organising pragmatic reconfigurations of it. Corbyn might be a reminder of the 1980s in some of his policy prescriptions, but his is still very much a candidacy of the internet age.

Nonetheless, there is something unpersuasive about the idea that voting is simply a way of striking an attitude. Casting a ballot is an odd way to signal anything to anyone, given that no one is actually watching you do it. Most voters do seem to want their personal contribution to make a difference and believe that it can. I’m not convinced that support for Corbyn is just gesture politics. As well as being the era of self-expression this is also the era of disruption. Yes, a Corbyn victory would mean going against all the conventional wisdom about how to win an election. But conventional wisdom is a devalued currency these days. Whole industries that believed the world was a certain way have found the rug pulled out from under them. Things that seemed impossible become inevitable with barely time to pass through a phase of being merely improbable (and if Corbyn does win his campaign will conform to that pattern – a few weeks ago he was a 100/1 outsider; as I write this he has just been installed as the bookmakers’ favourite). A few years ago Uber didn’t exist. Now it’s taking over the world. Not playing the game by the rulebook can pay off in the most dramatic and unexpected ways. Why should political parties be immune to this expanded range of possibilities? The shake-up is happening across Europe. Why not here?

If I’m right that this is part of what lies behind the Corbyn surge, then his supporters are making a mistake. The Labour Party is not a start-up. Disruption is almost certainly not what it needs. Indeed, disruption is more likely to destroy it than to revitalise it. The job for which Corbyn is standing has many different facets, of which the most important remains leading his party’s MPs in Parliament. This is the bit of the job it is nearly impossible to imagine him doing successfully. It is not just that the parliamentary party is liable to be both split and demoralised by his election. He also lacks the experience. Corbyn at PMQs? Corbyn handling the press lobby? Corbyn managing the shadow cabinet? To see these as relics of the old way of doing politics is to mistake the range of policy possibilities for the range of institutional ones. It may well be true that much of what Corbyn stands for – including a fairer tax system, greater public ownership of key services and more support for the low-paid – is popular with a surprisingly wide swathe of the public. But it won’t make any difference if the news never gets beyond a divided and dysfunctional parliamentary party. Voters don’t elect parties that are split. Those rules are not going to change.

In this respect, the examples of Syriza and Podemos are a distraction. Both those parties are start-ups. Britain may well be crying out for new political parties (especially in Scotland) and the thought of someone like Corbyn at the head of one makes sense, though under Britain’s first-past-the-post system it might not make much difference. But that isn’t what he’s offering. His popularity has been compared to the baffling levels of support currently being enjoyed by Donald Trump in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. That too is probably a reflection of the fact that voters are no longer content to take at face value the limited range of acceptable options presented to them. But Trump’s case is also very different. The length of the US contest means there is plenty of time for the old rules to reassert themselves. And when that happens, Trump has the option of running as an independent, which is what a disruptor would do (though the likely consequence is that he would help usher Hillary into the White House). Corbyn is an intransigent independent trying to take over an established player. It rarely works in politics, just as it rarely works in business. You don’t disrupt corporate behemoths like IBM from the inside. You have to break away.

There is still time for the Corbyn bubble to burst. The opinion polling that has him far ahead is more likely to be expressive than the casting of ballots will be. Polling in previous Labour leadership elections has shown a tendency to overstate support for the more radical candidates (the final YouGov poll of party members in 2010 had Ed Miliband winning by 4 per cent when in fact his brother, David, won that section of the electorate by nearly 9 per cent). If Corbyn does win, there is talk of a swift coup to replace him, but the Labour Party is not the Conservative Party and kneejerk anti-democratic moves are a much harder sell. Ed Miliband must take some of the blame for where the party finds itself. Even Syriza, we now discover, had some contingency plans for exiting the euro. Miliband seems to have done nothing to prepare for defeat, presumably on the grounds that it would damage morale. When it happened he simply walked away. Michael Howard stayed on in 2005 to ensure that the election of his successor could be steered in his preferred direction. Miliband was probably too damaged by the scale of his failure to do that (and who knows what his preferred direction would be), but he could have done more to try to ensure a better range of options than the party is currently faced with: unsustainable inspiration or uninspired continuity. It pains me to say it, but if ever an election needed a bit of fixing it was this one.

31 July