In the concluding part of his Brexit diary, WILL SELF reflects on how Britain became a Marie Celeste of a Western democracy.
Tuesday, March 26, 2019
I worry this is beginning to seem like Harold Nicolson’s war diaries – especially those sections where he’s writing about the period when he’s travelling up from Sissinghurst every day, to track the progress of the Churchillian revival in the Tory party. May = Chamberlain, which implies Bojo = Churchill. Johnson! A man who actually published a book in which he asserted that the Germans took Stalingrad!41 Anyway, where do I get off with comparing myself to Nicolson, who as well as actually being an MP at the time of his principled support of Churchill, went on to be a minister in the wartime coalition government. The answer is this: the Commons having seized control of the parliamentary agenda last night, they’ve effective replaced the elected government with a sort of shaped charge of popular sovereignty. Trouble is, the very issue that’s brought them to this frenzy of ‘taking back control’ (which is, of course, what the Brexiteers promised all along), is the one decision they’ve already ceded responsibility for to… the people!
Whoa! It’s a great howling feedback loop of un-governance yowling through the land. No doubt Remainers everywhere waking up and adjusting their ears to its eerie tone, will be imagining it’s worked: they’ve levitated the Pentagon… the voters are walking backwards into the booths, and making ready to erase their own crosses… Yes! It will be, as the Sun’s editorial says: a counter-revolution of ‘grey-haired Waitrose regulars’, taking back control with their ‘snarky little placards’.
I know what the leader-writer means: there’s one such propped up on the landing outside the flat downstairs, reading ‘YOU CAN STICK BREXIT UP YOUR REAR EXIT’, and blazoned with little yellow stars. Really, it doesn’t just sound snarky – but painful. And on I’ve-Got-Four-Radios-Permanently-Tuned-to-It there’s a new sport, thrown up by the Brexit crisis: John ‘Hanging on for Grim Death’ Humphreys42 interviewing a former minister who resigned last night because he doesn’t know what the fuck is going on. Step forward Richard Harrington, former business and industry minister, one time hotelier and property developer – a brave tribune of the people for these nine long years now, who, when put on the spot by Humphrey’s thus: ‘What do you expect your resignation to achieve?’ began clucking out the word ‘democracy’, as if it had stuck in his craw.
But what will it look like as the headless chickens return to the division lobbies tomorrow, in a process guided by that browned-up ‘grandee’ Sir Ollie? No unicorns – ie, propositions that the European Union simply won’t countenance – will be allowed on the new People’s Order Paper, instead, we’ll have all the other options that have been bruited about time-out-of-fucking-mind, duking it out, one against the other, in a series of binary votes, that will in the end – should everything go to plan – leave the country with a least-worse option that absolutely no one wants, except possibly Harrington, who, besides being not terribly bright, is a crypto-Remainer, as evinced by this telling fact: he not only shops at Waitrose – he was once a director!
What does all this feel like? What does it feel like to be living in a Marie Celeste of a Western democracy, where the lights are on but no one’s home? I suppose it probably feels a bit like being in the US during a federal government shutdown – or indeed in any society during a period of odd hiatus. The last few times I’ve seen John Gray, the conversation has slid – one way or another – towards the Balkans. Nothing to do with my DNA, just that he’s seemed to want to recall visits he took there in the early 1970s, and to relay to me a picture of deeply dysfunctional polity, never effectively integrated, that was really only waiting for the blowback from the Berlin Wall’s toppling, to disintegrate itself.
And what a disintegration. Surely the European ideal, the European dream of effective statehood – which, as I’ve had cause to remark, is really the exercise of a monopoly on violence – died there, with impotent blue and white hats standing by, while people were led away to be shot, and the barbed wire was strung between the posts. I had a dream of Europe – yeah, yeah, yeah… an’ a love like that has George Martin at the controls and the Eroica playing, and Pavarotti emoting, and the Sagrada Familia ever being built. I had a dream of an amazing polyglot Europe: the poetry of Rilke and Lorca! The plays of Shakespeare and Schiller! The music of Satie and Mendelssohn! The hills and the lakes! Flow gently Sweet Afton – or do I mean Danube…? Kafka! Proust! Joyce! Modernism! Surrealism! Marx…. Oh, hang on a minute – just about every fuckin’ spasm and ism you care to think of it was minted here: we got Enlightenment, Renaissance, scientific revolutions galore… Yeah, yeah – I know everyone bangs on about the Arab contribution, and the translation movement – but face it, these guys were only reintroducing us to ourselves, to the stuff we’d come up with centuries before.
What I’m driving at here is that every dream of Europe was, perforce, always a dream of statehood – and that European super-state, was an embryonic hegemon like no other, reeking with its own feverish manifest destiny, and stoned on its Hegelian, world-girdling fantasies… My dream of Europe – and it was strong, stronger I suspect than any other patriotism – died decades ago, and this latter European Union has just been its uncanny double: a collective hallucination of what might have been, if reality hadn’t intruded.
In his letters to Allen Ginsberg, written when he was travelling in South America, in the early 1950s, William Burroughs describes the relief he experienced on reaching Peru, after passing through a series of smaller countries, for here was a nation big enough for it to be possible for its own citizens to cordially despise it. That’s the club I always felt I’d signed up for – that’s the government I’ve paid my taxes to support. A bit like John Gray, au fond, I’ve always believed in a shaped charge theory of English tolerance: that all things being equal, the inclination would be more towards the state being non-interfering.
It’s a fantasy, really – a fever dream like any other, and one not too far removed from that of my father, with his mutton-chop sporting Trollopian clerisy, and endless draughts of Hardy’s bitter. Tell it to Faun and Sheena up in Stoke – tell it to the generations of men who have been without decent or meaningful work in the north for generations now, and tell it to the women on swing-shifts and zero hours contracts who have drudged to support their families. And while you’re at it, tell it to all the other working poor, and the underemployed poor, and the poor fuckers who do jobs they find to be utterly meaningless, or faintly ridiculous, or mind-numbingly tedious, which I fear may define us modern Britons more than any less negative capability.
No. I’ve no uchronic vision of Europe, anymore than I do of Britain – and perhaps more’s the pity. What I do have is children, who seem to me to be, as they grow older, like limbs extending through space and time, over which I can neither exert any control, nor provide any great safety – whether that be physical, financial, or the prophylactic of a self-confident culture, sure in its own future. I have no uchronic vision of anywhere, what I do have – and what I think informs the entire fragmentation of the old global order – is a sense of an existential threat to humanity posed by environmental degradation, plus the high fragility of complex machine-human interdependent systems, that invests all with the darkest of cybernetic shadowing.
Is it this that provides the acid reflux that makes this at once the most reposeful and the bitterest of moments… as I sit up waiting for nightly main news bulletin, made especially for me by those nice state broadcasters in Portland Place, it occurs to me that the neo-ultra-solipsist-bleeding-heart-liberals, with Sir Ollie Let-the-right-Blair-in at their helm, have indeed succeeded: they’ve taken back control of the agenda, and on it they wish to impose a permanent Now: henceforth all will be chosen in the form of indicative votes, on paper, to be burnt on the altar so as to describe a future that is forever imminent, but will never arrive, so held back is it by the perfection of the moment. Champagne anyone? It’s Waitrose own – but not bad….
It’s gone 10pm now, and there’s a long night of tossing and turning ahead, as, confined to their pitifully small taxpayer-funded cages in the immediate purlieu of their mouldering House, the headless chickens examine yet again their much overworked consciences. Which of these many amendments will they sign up to… How will they complete the awkward triangulation required to bring their pitiful and contingent will in line, either with the great God story of Our Island Story, or some other crazy trip. Ye-es, this shuddering in the night is the vibrancy Bish’ Harries spoke of: it’s a perfect representative democracy, alright, but the dusty men in the Priory Arms were, I’m afraid, right – it’s perfection lies now in its ability to exactly represent, in all its bloody gyrations, the headlessness of its citizenry. A fine assemblage of hypocrites representing hypocrites… the people must be dissolved and a new one elected, to elect a parliament that must… in turn… be dissolved. And how will you feel then, clever clogs… Mister Too-big-for-your-fucking-boots…
I feel fine, 1970s Finchley schoolboy imago, I reserve the right to my neutrality – I pay my taxes. I reserve the right the right to cordially dissent from all parties – I’ve done my time. I dissent from John Gray, whose pessimism, for all his hopefulness, shines but darkly – and I dissent from all the Pollyannas, and Labour Party composite stooges; the atavistic apparatchiks, who have indeed entered an amendment on tomorrow’s order paper calling for… better writing. I’ve been thinking, sleeping and breathing Brexit, along with hundreds of thousands of others now, for weeks… and I’ll tell you what Brexit is, it’s like the comedown from a batch of bad amphetamine – and sometimes I think I’ve been living through this: the pounding heart and the thickening blood, the pressure dropping me into impending doom and pervasive unreality, while everything around me is reduced to an image of itself, and the CCTV cameras ceaseless proliferate, my entire adult life – ever since, in fact, the night of May 3, 1979, when I chucked back a handful of speckled blues, popped the golf-foiled cap of a bottle of Holsten Pils (‘All the Sugar Turns to Alcohol’), and settled down to welcome in the new world.
So, a plague on the Remainers’ house – and a plague on the Brexiteers’; a plague on the Tories and a plague on Labour – a plague on the old, and a plague on the young, a plague on the north and a plague on the south – a plague on the time that never was, and a plague on the one that will never be… A plague o’ both houses! I, Self, am sped… while men with names like Mogg and Brine, women called May and Rudd are not… I have a scratch – but, marry, as the Staphylococcus MRSA proliferates through the backwards of underfunded hospitals… ’tis enough… I’m not saying it’s as deep as the reservoirs that haven’t been dug since water privatisation – nor as wide as a state church door for a broad congregation, singing No Surrender! and Tiocfaidh ár lá… but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me… on my way to Zurich, for an assisted suicide… I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses! Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death with your bickering and your statistics! A braggart, a rogue, a villain – an economist who fights by the book of arithmetic!
You’ll say I thought it all for the best… that you intervened to stop the fight… but now the blow’s been struck… A plague o’ both your houses… Especially those of you who actually have… two houses… one of which you rent out… But since you’ve got two… let me die in the one you’re currently refurbishing… Or rather those Poles who came in with the best estimate are… It’s you – you who’ve made worm’s meat of me…
I have it…
And soundly too.
• Will Self’s special edition of The New European is in shops now, and is also available to buy from our online shop.