Wilde and the General Election
Dear readers of my blog,
back only a day after my last post, you might think I am not pressed for time in this pre-Xmas period. In fact, I am, like everyone else. Anyhow, it is necessary to comment on current events in the light of Oscar Wilde. Let me first correct an error I made today – not for the first time, I am afraid to say, and certainly not for the last, since Wilde himself was prone to make himself younger than he actually was. I wrote that in 1894 when my grandfathers were born in December he was thirty, he was forty, in fact. So please accept my apologies for this error.
Second, I must come back to the General Election result and its repercussions in the UK on Thursday last. In his essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (1891), Wilde once wrote: “All modes of government are failures. Despotism is unjust to everybody, including the despot, who was probably made for better things. Oligarchies are unjust to the many, and ochlocracies are unjust to the few. High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people. It has been found out. I must say that it was high time, for all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised. When it is violently, grossly, and cruelly used, it produces a good effect, by creating, or at any rate bringing out, the spirit of revolt and Individualism that is to kill it. When it is used with a certain amount of kindness, and accompanied by prizes and rewards, it is dreadfully demoralising. People, in that case, are less conscious of the horrible pressure that is being put on them, and so go through their lives in a sort of coarse comfort, like petted animals, without ever realising that they are probably thinking other people’s thoughts, living by other people’s standards, wearing practically what one may call other people’s second-hand clothes, and never being themselves for a single moment.” I could spend a long time juxtaposing – as does Wilde for his age – the current leaders in the US and the UK to show how accurately his words still describe the actual political situation in the two countries. Even though I might be a “minority of one”, as James Joyce was wont to put it for himself, I am perhaps not the only person to read between the lines about the Tory landslide that what we have got in the UK as well as the US is a functioning first-past-the-post system which makes for clear results but cannot be properly described as participative democracy. For one thing, the turnout was lower than either in the last General Election or the Brexit Referendum, for another, it was much lower than the turnout in the Independence Referendum in Scotland in September 2014, and, finally, what is described as a landslide victory means that about 33 per cent of the electorate have elected more than fifty per cent of the MPs, enabling the Prime Minister to rule without paying attention to violent Brexiteers if he so wishes. What remains unsaid in such statements as that made by a German-Scottish politician that the Tories hit the nerve of the electorate is that, in effect, certainly more than fifty per cent of those who voted did not wish Brexit to be done the hard way. What is more, the Celtic fringe seems to move ever faster away from the United Kingdom consensus last evoked by all big parties prior to the Scottish Referendum. Again, it might be “a minority of one” point of view to say that one should bear in mind that since the extreme parties in the North of Ireland were obliged to form a government – which, alas, has not always properly worked and has been on hold for many months now – in May 2007, that is, similar views of various matters have begun to take root elsewhere in the UK as well. I would not be too much surprised to see centrifugal forces move to the fore in the shadow of such as government as the current PM is going to form because over time people are going to realise that they have given him carte blanche, while their first idea may have been to get rid of the Brexit debate. This, however, is not going to go away now, for the split in the country was not healed by an election showing that more people did not vote than voted in the new majority and that certainly fewer people wanted this government than wanted to punish the politicians and Brussels back in June 2016.
As an outsider, I do see such matters more on a rational than on an emotional level, while I clearly side with those who are conscious of how history has shaped the current situation. This is a position I also hold for my own country which has never been closer to me than when I leave it. In a now distant past, I wrote two pieces about the relationship of the UK and Germany in London and would like to publish them now when soon nothing will be like what it has been for the past 46 years. Here they are:
The Imperial War Museum
The Germans are again members of the warring community though never did their action in World War Two seem more prominent than during a week in spring when as a sideline to Liverpool winning a cup treble three Germans up in Yorkshire talked about events of times bygone in remote Westphalia otherwise present in that house only as a label on imported bread.
Whatever the channel the “Krauts” filled the screen – military history hugs literary criticism former POW camps are accessible to a curious throng boys’ schools – public ones – funded privately prepare cadets for Sandhurst and universities do so for officers of both sexes for HM’s gunboats on the road to a new Parliament Prescott politically incorrectly punches a protester who threw an egg while no one needs to pay who wishes to view past glories in the national hall of fame where you find feats graphically recorded voice-over reports from bombing raids and all that I had deemed over and done with in April 1978 when all you seemed to learn about Britain in Germany where BFBS helped me to adopt an English accent was that one colony after another had gone away.
London, 19 May 2001
York Münster Association – a second sense
Born and bred on the margin of the Westphalian metropolis never to desert his home soil where at eighty he still finds the bed he awoke in as a boy untrained but in the use of spades just like a member of the Arbeitsdienst in May 1940 he set out for France at one stage a guard sporting a gun unsuitable even for Russian roulette he travelled east later to walk the Caucasus whence he returned home on leave only to hear Herr A. later a commander in Bundeswehr mumble: “Diesen verdammten Krieg müssen wir verlieren.” (We are bound to lose this bloody war.)
Ordered back to France soon a POW in the US he slaved away in Louisiana picking cotton peeling sugar-canes rubber-caned on Führer’s birthday in 1945 before being retaken to Europe but working on Britain’s farms with release no option for the immediate aftermath of the war for the likes of him were needed to run British agriculture.
Fifty years on he recounts his adventures on VE-Day to a captive audience of Münster schoolchildren in English that is to a prolonged silence among his fellow delegates from York who were as unaware of his story as he was until 1999 of Clement Attlee’s programme called “Keep British farms working” he’d been made part of before he met a girl from the North set up house and family never losing his native accent and writing his life in a German and an English room of his bungalow after his wife’s death a man living in-between two countries with just one regret that he never made it into a proper football team.
Alive at York and to other survivors from the same camp, he dutifully departs – driving of course – to join his next of kin “übern Kanal” across the canal that is as he’s wont to say in Münster dialect now rarely heard but wondered at beyond the English Channel. A life-line to a fading past he keeps abreast with current events claiming anarchism as his creed and confessing to feel a certain relief when once the visit to the city churchyard is done he can look forward to going back to his island’s recluse just outside York.
London, 19 May 2001
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