Who in the world do we think we are?

My article in the Ham & High of 21 June featuring my new book Britain Explained.

WHO IN THE WORLD DO WE THINK WE ARE?

Drill down into Britishness and what do you find? Is it from institutions like the BBC, the NHS or the OU? Or are we British because of common schooling experience and a love of Shakespeare? asks Hornsey author Martin Upham

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Martin Upham author of Britain Explained

Who do you think you are?
It used to be so simple. I’m British, English, Catholic, Labour: you’re British, Scots, Jewish, Conservative; I’m from the country and support a county cricket team: you’re a football-obsessed urbanite.
In north London, such multiple identities are familiar, perhaps overlaid with film, stage or music interests, extended or shortened education, white- or blue-collar status, ethnicity, media selection, private or state schooling. All this apparently thrives side by side, but it creates a false sense of ease. The 2016 Brexit vote shocked many Ham&High readers. London might be capital of the UK but it is also capital of an England that views the world very differently.
I’ve taken a scalpel to identity in my new book Britain Explained. While writing I remembered the many young Americans I once taught as a study abroad director. They would spend a semester here, attracted by a hazy notion of ‘Britishness’. As strangers they noticed things we don’t: CCTV, an absence of identity cards, barristers in funny wigs. They also arrived thinking the NHS was just for the poor. The BBC – somehow public but not run by the government – baffled them. Much of their mental imagery drew on a past shaped by costume drama.
Britain Explained
You can learn from visitors. Drill down into Britishness and what do you find? Is it from institutions like the BBC, the NHS or the OU? Or are we British because of common schooling experience and a love of Shakespeare? Several politicians – and the Department of Education – have cast around for an umbrella ‘Britishness’ embracing all the nice positives: tolerance, mutual respect, multi-culturalism, the rule of law. The trouble is that a stretched fabric tears. That shocking referendum vote might mean a majority aren’t signed up to this official version of Britishness.
England’s ten other regions (a majority of two million English voters) were saying something when they voted Leave. Perhaps they saw it as a way to stop immigration. Perhaps they just got tired of being ignored. If so they have a point. There is a giant unfairness in the way the country is run. While Haringey Council is licking its lips about Crossrail 2 it takes four hours by train to reach Liverpool from Hull. This non-car owning Hornsey-dweller spends much of his life on the 41 bus. If I miss one there’s another just behind; bus-users in the shires can’t be so sure.
Some now suggest that older identities matter more. For a decade the Scots have been governed by a pro-independence party; while half of Northern Ireland seems more British than the British the other half isn’t British at all. This UK emerged with a British Empire, now long gone. Perhaps like the Empire it has had its day? A new state could emerge from England and Wales (maybe) and with London less of a First among Equals. This ‘rumpUK’ might allow individuals to fall back on self-identifiers and worry less about what we share.
Yet powerful common factors endure. Our political system may count votes in a peculiar way, but it survived the rumbustious 20th century. Our language is the one everyone else learns (while we never speak other peoples’). Almost all obey the law and even the most hardened racist loves a curry. What is valuable might yet be salvaged if London stopped elbowing its way to the front, if the arts, public transport and health resources were evenly distributed. The social care controversy might yet lead to a new national system to be proud of, as the NHS once was. And if centralising control freaks would just let go, a new national identity might emerge in which each had an equal stake.

Martin Upham lives in Hornsey.
Britain Explained, published by John Harper Publishing (£12.99), is available online from Waterstones and Blackwell’s and from Foyle’s, Waterstones Crouch End , Muswell Hill Books and all good bookshops.

 

 

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Britain Explained

My new book Britain Explained is published tomorrow by John Harper Publishing (see foot).  Completed on the eve of the general election it is an up to date guide to the UK on the eve of Brexit.  The defining institutions of the UK are identified and dispassionately probed: what are the Westminster System, the BBC, the NHS or the Arts Council? How do they shape the shifting national identities of the UK.

This is no patriotic puff. The divisions of this ‘United’ Kingdom are laid bare, be they political, national, social or cultural.  They aren’t just between the nations but within them: city and country, North and South, metropolitan and excluded.

And it’s a bargain at just £12.99 from your favourite online bookshop

 

An Ode to Owen Smith

In 1912, F.E. Smith condemned the Welsh Disestablishment Bill as ‘A Bill which has shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe.’  G.K. Chesterton’s famous Antichrist, or the Reunion of Christendom: An Ode punctured his ridiculous hypocrisy.  The BBC recently reported that Owen Smith praised Jeremy Corbyn for helping Labour “rediscover its radical roots” and would offer him the role of President to “speak for the party” to the wider membership. This awoke in me sentiments not unlike Chesterton’s, though my eloquence is less than his.

 

SO YOU’RE IN A GIVING VEIN,

ARE YOU SMITH?

WANT TO PUT YOUR OFFER PLAIN,

DO YOU SMITH?

SO WE’LL HAVE A PRESIDENCY FOR THE PARTY AND WE’LL THEN SEE

ALL THOSE MEMBERS WE’VE RECRUITED QUITE CONTENT TO BE UPROOTED,

WHILE YOU’LL BE THE REAL LEADER, OWEN SMITH.

 

YOU’D LIKE CORBYN TO PRESIDE,

WOULD YOU SMITH?

WHILE THE PARTY YOU WOULD GUIDE,

OWEN SMITH.

TO YIELD UP HIS LEADER’S POWER TO THE MP OF THE HOUR

WITH THE MEMBERSHIP THAT BACKED HIM RALLYING BEHIND WHO SACKED HIM

IS THAT PRACTICABLE THINKING?

REALLY, SMITH.

 

WHEN YOU TOOK BIG PHARMA’S SHILLIN’,

OWEN SMITH,

DID IT ENTER YOUR CAMPAIGN IN

PONTYPRIDD?

WAS THE VOTERS’ MAIN IMPRESSION YOU WOULD KEEP THE NHS ON

DID THEY WANT A COMPROMISER WHO’D BEEN HELPED ALONG BY PFIZER,

DID THEY KNOW JUST WHERE YOU STOOD, OWEN SMITH?

 

WHEN FOR TRIDENT THEY FOUND BILLIONS,

OWEN SMITH,

DID YOU THEN THINK OF THE MILLIONS,

TELL ME, SMITH,

WHO CAN’T FIND THE CASH FOR RENTING WHEN THE LANDLORD’S UNRELENTING,

AND WHO SEE NO COMMON SENSE IN THIS UNUSABLE ‘DEFENCE’.

DID YOU WEIGH THEM WHEN YOU VOTED, OWEN SMITH?

 

ARE THE MEMBERS IN YOUR THOUGHTS

OWEN SMITH?

CANVASSERS, RETIRING SORTS,

ARE THEY SMITH?

NOT REQUIRED TO GIVE THEIR VIEWS, WATCHING MPS HOG THE NEWS,

KEEPING SILENT, UNCOMPLAINING, PUSHING LEAFLETS WHILE IT’S RAINING

DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HEAR THEM, OWEN SMITH?

 

IS IT ONLY YOU THAT FEARS,

OWEN SMITH,

TORY POWER FOR MANY YEARS,

TELL ME SMITH?

IS IT YOU ALONE THAT WORRIES FOR THE POOR AND DISPOSSESSED?

ARE YOU SOLITARY IN YOUR WISH TO REPRESENT THE REST?

IS IT ONLY YOU CAN SAVE US, OWEN SMITH?

 

WHAT’S YOUR CAMPAIGN REALLY FOR,

OWEN SMITH?

IT’S HIGH TIME WE KNEW THE SCORE,

COME ON SMITH!

IS YOUR TALK OF ‘REVOLUTION’ JUST HISTORICAL ABLUTION?

IS THE MEANING OF YOUR FIGHT JUST TALKING LEFT WHILE ACTING RIGHT?

IF SO, YOU WON’T FIND MANY TAKERS,

CHUCK IT SMITH.

 

Martin Upham

 

Tory splits matter

 

My article from the May issue of Labour Briefing – just out!

You’d need a heart of stone not to relish the Tory in-fighting as the referendum looms. It couldn’t happen to better people. It’s half a century since this jagged fissure over Europe reached the Conservative core. Now it colours attitudes on everything: the help-the-rich Budget, neglect of steel, even the murky monetary misdemeanours of Dodgy Dave.

The Conservatives are an old party with a ruthless power instinct, apparently unconcerned about ideas. Everything comes second to winning the power to enrich their class. A National Living Wage? Why not, if people spend it and boost profits? The important thing is to govern so that the right people are taking decisions. Why else did papa send one to Eton? Thus in normal times ideology is out and effortless superiority is in. They can sit back and enjoy Liberal splits over Home Rule (1880s), Ramsay MacDonald’s defection (1930s), the SDP (1980s), radiating calm while depicting opponents as a rabble.

But periodically free trade disputes shiver the entire structure. In the 1840s Disraeli rallied Tories against Robert Peel’s Corn Laws repeal, a protectionist triumph. Sixty years later the Tories themselves were free traders, but under Balfour, still split over ‘imperial preference’ (the new protectionism). In the 1930s Stanley Baldwin fought Tory press barons wanting ‘Empire Free Trade’. From the 1960s projected EEC entry destabilised Conservatives again. Edward Heath presented it as a free trade move, taking Britain in and campaigning to remain in the 1975 referendum. But party opinion chilled. The EU seemed an obstacle to Britain’s world trade – a barrier to free markets. By the 1980s, his successor Thatcher (a 1970s Yes campaigner) was Euro-hostile. Her followers wrecked John Major’s 1990s government.

By the 21st century Euro-scepticism had won. Dodgy Dave could never have become party leader as a Europhile: nobody could. Even as Prime Minister he has always been on the defensive over Europe, untrusted by his party. By 2013 he could only staunch Euro-hostility by promising a referendum on membership. He glibly thought he could present a few minor renegotiations as a reformed EU; worth staying in. Few Tories were deceived. Now we hear the old song, a fracture over the lethal free trade issue.

There are at most 100,000 Tories. Yet to appease this ageing sect of racists and Rotary Club members, Cameron plunged 65 million people into a referendum. What a falling off since Balfour declared he’d rather take the advice of his valet than listen to the Tory conference! But Conservatism was then a mass movement. Now its Prime Minister can’t face down his small, shrinking party. Is it over for the Tories?

That depends on a referendum that could go either way. If the UK votes Remain they will pay a high price. The constant attempts to rig the vote, the £9m leaflet to every household (before spending limits kick in) and bitter Cabinet exchanges have inflamed differences. When Ian Duncan Smith, scapegoated for benefit cuts, angrily resigned, Europe’s power to inflame pre-existing differences was evident. Cameron may assume unity will break out after the vote but Tory Euro-rebels will cry foul and demand another one. Plenty would like to give him the same treatment Thatcher had in 1990.

If the UK votes Leave, Cameron – the leading Remain campaigner – cannot remain Prime Minister. In the contest to succeed him the key question would be ‘which side were you on in the referendum?’. The link between Free Trade, the EU and economic policy would be exposed, as triumphant Euro-sceptics lay into the National Minimum Wage, pensions and holidays. Vote Leave is the prelude to rolling back half a century of employment rights progress and introducing an Americanised labour market. UKIP (already half the Tory size) will cheer them on. It would be all-out class war.

Labour isn’t like a football team that accepts elimination from the Cup to concentrate on the League. It must get stuck into Remain and push every voter to choose. This referendum will shape Britain’s future. Then, if a weakened Cameron survives, he faces a revived Labour that can emerge – after good Wales, Scotland and London results – as the country’s strongest political force. If he falls, Labour can force an early election while the Tories disintegrate, Major-style.

 

 

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.