Unionists are seen as Irish ‘White Trash’

Unionists are seen as Irish ‘White Trash’

By 1900, when Joyce and Yeats were strutting the streets of Dublin, Belfast had a higher population. Moreover, Ireland is the only country in the world with a lower population now than in the early 1840s. The extensive livestock agriculture that dominated after the Great Famine depends on low labour inputs for profitability, and the Industrial Revolution never took off. Apart, that is, from in the north-east corner where Belfast was the industrial powerhouse in which the Titanic was built.

Today, like many other former industrial regions across an archipelago commonly referred to as ‘the British Isles’, Belfast and its hinterland has fallen into seemingly irreversible decline. A succession of industries have departed, notably the Harland and Wolff plant, while efforts in the 1980s to resuscitate a flagging economy, such as the arrival of the DeLorean motor factory, failed spectacularly. Of course the Troubles played a significant role in turning the Northern Irish economy into a basket case dependent on subsidies from HM’s government, but this stagnation has more to do with Belfast being a part of the first wave of the Industrial Revolution, like other post-Industrial cities across the North of England. The peace dividend in Northern Ireland was negligible, and even after s spectacular economic crash the Irish Republic is considerably richer.

Working class Protestant and Unionist communities also lack a tradition of prizing academic education, while historically even poor Catholic family, across Ireland, would have been accustomed to having a bright son study for the priesthood or enter the civil service. Leaving school at a young age to enter into an industrial job was linked to religious affiliation in Northern Ireland, where Catholics were often discriminated against. ‘Low church’ Protestantism tended to encourage education to a point where a person could read the bible in their vernacular. Catholicism on the other hand invited scholarship in a number of languages, as well as surveying a philosophical tradition dating back to Aristotle. This brought Irish Catholics into the mainstream of European culture.

The dominance of the Catholic Church over education in the Republic permitted terrible abuses, but religious orders played an important role in educating a population much of which was living in poverty, at least until the 1960s. Alongside the introduction of free secondary education under Donnacha O’Malley in 1966, this provided the intellectual capital for the emergence of the Celtic Tiger.

Until the late 1990s, Ireland was a highly conservative society by European standards, with divorce permitted only after a referendum in 1996, but since then the liberal intelligentsia have become the dominant force politically. The Marriage Equality Referendum revealed the increasing dominance of liberal ideas in mainstream media and politics. The victory of the unapologetically gay and half-Indian Leo Varadkar in the Fine Gael leadership election this year, and his subsequent popularity, appeared to reveal the Irish as a cosmopolitan outward-looking people; although continued absence of access to abortion in the Republic puts the state at odds with most other countries.

Having secured peace through the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the gun seemed to have been finally taken out of all-Ireland politics, and since then Southern Irish liberals have tended to ignore the North. Most Dublin people I know have absolutely no interest in visiting there either, even though it’s only a couple of hours away. But Brexit and the prior collapse of the Northern Executive has re-acquainted liberal Ireland with the Northern Question, just as Westminster is now haunted once again by its own existential Irish Question.

It is hardly surprising that the DUP, which now represents the main body of working class Unionists, aligned itself with the Brexiteers in the UK. Lest we forget, Brexit was to some extent the revolt of the English working class who were doing poorly under the Common Market. Cities such as Sunderland (61%) and Hull (67%), structurally, and in religious makeup, similar to Belfast, voted by large majorities to leave the Union.

There were many reasons for Brexit, and also for the success of Trump, not least the cognitive unwinding that seems to have come about in the first wave of the Internet Revolution. The sounds chambers of social media seem to have amplified grievances and opinions. Liberal and Conservative have each become more shrill in their condemnation of one another, epitomised by Hilary Clinton’s condemnation of ‘the basket of deplorables’ who supported Trump.

This may have helped Trump’s side characterise themselves as defenders of a put-upon common man in states such as Pennsylvania. Liberal condemnation of the ‘white’ working class is common across Europe, as any defence of cultural relativism excusing their conduct does not usually apply. Simon Kuper observed in the Financial Times (17/2/16) when visiting white working class areas in Manchester and Lyon that he: ‘hadn’t realised just how much the white working classes are mocked.’ They can be referred to as ‘chavs’ in Britain, ‘white trash’ in the US and, sometimes ‘beaufs’ (‘oiks’) in France: ‘“Poverty porn” TV shows make fun of supposedly lazy, half-witted, track-suited scroungers.’ As a result: ‘Many poor whites complain that the “elite” care about ethnic minorities and gay people but not about them.’ This old-fashioned social snobbery is often evident in ‘respectable’ journalism, and its ventilation does not breach the same taboo as racism.

In the Irish media and politics the DUP are often portrayed as equivalent to a white trash on the economic scrapheap, with their noxious homophobia and ludicrous low church Protestantism. The high priest of Irish liberalism Fintan O’Toole often subjects them to ridicule, which falls short of outright abuse. Thus he wrote in June:

Dante and Beatrice. Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Cyrano and Roxane. Don Quixote and Esmeralda. These unrequited loves have great poignancy. But they’ve nothing on the tenderest, most poignant tale of unrequited love in our times, the tragically one-sided crush the DUP has on Britain.

He takes an unseemly glee at their political naivete:

It is one thing to be infatuated with someone who just ignores you. The unfulfilled love retains its bittersweet purity, its dreamy half-life of pure possibility. But the true tragedy occurs when your love is apparently consummated at last and you find that the loved one really despises you. The DUP has long dreamed of being wrapped fully in the warm embrace of the Tory world with which it strives so hard to identify. And now, miraculously, its moment has come. But the loved one is thinking of England, sneaking glances at her watch and praying “Oh god! When will this be over?”

The commonalities between the English working class ‘chav’ and the DUP ‘trash’ become more apparent:

does it [the DUP] notice that, even as the Tory party clasps it to its bosom, the lack of enthusiasm would be scarcely less evident if the Tories were wearing rubber gloves and surgical masks? They are not swooning with love, they are fainting with revulsion. The DUP may think it is coming home; most Tories think the mad woman has come out of the attic of an old hyper-Protestant British identity and is sitting in the parlour demanding tea and scones with lots of jam and a bucket of clotted cream. She has to be humoured for now, but only until there is some way to get rid of her.

O’Toole has also been a trenchant critic of the inequalities that beset ‘liberal’ Ireland, but an article he wrote in June for the New York Times puts a rather different spin on modern Ireland. He wonders whether Irish people should be allowed a moment of schadenfreude as we ask whether the Brexit-voting English are fit for self-government, and refers to Theresa May government’s reliance in Westminster on a small party from Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, that trades on a ‘backward expression’ of British and Protestant identity.

He contrasts this with Dublin where a new prime minister Leo Varadkar is 38, half-Indian and gay, as well as being ‘leader of what is traditionally the most conservative of the Irish political parties, Fine Gael, long a bastion of Catholic moral values.’ Irish people he says ‘like him or dislike him to the extent that they like or dislike his party and the minority government it leads. The rest is just personal detail, interesting but of minor significance.’ Surprisingly, there is no mention of Varadkar’s conduct as Minister for Social Protection when he launched a campaign against ‘welfare cheats’, which seemed a calculated appeal to his own thrusting constituency.

Moreover, I am not convinced the Catholic Right has been completely extinguished from Irish politics. Overall, I find the tone unsettling: the division between the backward DUP, and the suave cosmopolitan Irish, epitomised by Mr Varadkar. O’Toole also reminds his American readers that Varadkar is a doctor now faced ‘with a neighbor going through a nervous breakdown’, which, ‘will need his best bedside manner.’ The intellectual gap is emphasised, but O’Toole must surely recognise that the shrill superiority of the liberal emboldens the reactionary.

One senses that this is a journalist playing to his gallery, and, frankly, seeking clicks online. An intellectual such O’Toole can do better. Indeed, one of the reasons why the DUP scuppered Theresa May’s first attempt to agree on terms with her European counterparts may have the crowing from the Irish media, not just of politicians.

On RTE’s Liveline, where our old friend Damien O’Reilly was sitting in for Joe Duffy, a pro-Remain Unionist guest, Will Taylor, told the aspiring shock-jock that ‘the example you give is almost inflammatory’. O’Toole himself, in reaction to the final agreement, triumphantly wrote: ‘To adapt Henry Ford, Britain can have any Brexit it likes, so long as it is green.’

I would like to see a United Ireland come about in my lifetime because I think the presence of a border represents a failure to reconcile diverging ideas. I believe the industrious Unionist people have a lot to offer the Republic; Protestant rationality has bred technical acumen that seems to have missing since the inception of the Irish state. I also suggest that stolid working class Unionist values would not have permitted the level of mendaciousness which has been tolerated of politicians in this Republic. The great tragedy of Irish history in my view is the failure of the United Irishmen of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter to remain a political force.

And let us not delude ourselves as O’Toole seems to be in some of his gushing articles in the foreign press, the Liberal, or really Neoliberal, Ireland of Varadkar is a country increasingly short on compassion for the poor. Health and education provision are steadfastly two tier, and if you don’t work in the corporate sector there is little chance of you even being able to afford to rent a house in Dublin’s city centre. The streets of Dublin are still filled with human casualties that hark back to a time when the city had comparably poverty to Calcutta, and the area beyond the Pale never recovered from the Crash. Varadkar’s only ideological commitment is to people who get up early in the morning, like himself.

While rejecting their xenophobia and homophobia, I suggest Irish politics could benefit from integrating working class values and technical skills. It might even be able to stop looking at Brexit as an earth-shattering calamity, but an expression of British exceptionalism that was never going to be accommodated in an ever-closer European Union.

I even dream of a time in Ireland when social discontents are no longer channelled through parties that draw their identities from approaches to the national question, from Fine Gael through to the DUP. If anyone wants to see a United Ireland they should be receptive to the Unionist identity, and failure to accommodate this is also a failure of imagination.

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

The Irish political establishment looks askance at the apparent rise of Jeremy Corbyn. An historically warm relationship with Sinn Fein, lukewarm opposition to Brexit, and a stubborn commitment to socialism all receive a cool reception in government buildings.

Corbyn’s approach to Ireland is conditioned by an anti-colonial, English republican and Chartist outlook, a cast of mind he would have shared with the Romantic poet and revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Indeed, after what most commentators agree was a successful election campaign, Corbyn acknowledged a debt to the poet for his campaign’s resonant slogan: ‘we the many, they the few.’

The lines come from Shelley’s poem the Masque of Anarchy written in the wake of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, which also led to the founding of the Guardian newspaper. In this he calls on Englishmen to ‘Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number … Ye are many—they are few.’

Shelley’s links to Ireland extend beyond his second wife Mary’s maternal grandmother’s Ballyshannon origins; or the Irish painter Emilia Curran’s iconic portrait of him from 1819. As a radical expelled from Oxford in 1811 for authoring a pamphlet advocating atheism – the first such public argument in England – he displayed a keen interest in John Bull’s other island.

In the white heat of the Napoleonic wars Ireland’s plight was an important English radical cause, at a time when our population was half that of England’s. Shelley chose to travel to Ireland in 1812, along with his first wife Harriet with whom he had recently eloped.

He was genuinely shocked at the poverty greeting him in Dublin, writing: ‘I had no conception of the depth of human misery until now. The poor of Dublin are assuredly the meanest and most miserable of all.’ This would prove relevant to what he later described as his poetic education in the introduction to the long poem Laon and Cythna: ‘I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny and war … the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds.’

The precocious nineteen-year-old addressed the Catholic Committee, containing the dying embers of the United Irishman movement, in what is now Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. He urged: ‘In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other.’

The future leader of Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell also attended that meeting, although he does not seem to have been present for Shelley’s speech. Nonetheless, he shared Shelley’s distaste for armed conflict, and this survived as the dominant approach in Irish nationalism until World War I.

Shelley might have traced failings of the Irish Free State after independence to its violent birth pangs, but, like Corbyn, his sympathies would have lain with the historically oppressed Catholic community in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Undoubtedly Shelley would also share Corbyn’s principled opposition to Trident, Britain’s nuclear programme.

Another link between Shelley and Ireland is that he completed his poem Queen Mab while holidaying in Ross Island on Killarney Lake. This strident poem, which he later partly disavowed, became a standard text among English radicals in the nineteenth century, especially keen on its condemnation of commerce: ‘beneath whose poison-breathing shade / No solitary virtue dares to spring.’ Corbyn’s antipathy to big business has long antecedents.

Shelley was an inspiration to a host of Irish writers including Yeats who said that Shelley shaped his life, and O’Casey who described himself as a Shelleyan communist. Another devotee George Bernard Shaw described Shelley as: ‘a republican, a leveller, a radical of the most extreme sort.’

Shelley was an inspiration for another of Shaw’s lifelong causes: vegetarianism, which the former laid out in another pamphlet: ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’, although the term only came into being in the 1840s. Until then those who renounced meat were referred to as Pythagoreans.

This philosophy is shared with the current Labour leader who has been a vegetarian for almost fifty years. Considering the influence of the Irish livestock-lobby, this may further account for suspicion of the Labour leader in some government circles.

In his recent conference speech Corbyn argued that the political centre in the Britain had shifted to the Left making Labour the natural party of government. This commitment to the redistribution of wealth could be the fruition of Shelley’s idealism a ‘consciousness of good, which neither gold / Nor sordid fame, nor hope of heavenly bliss / Can purchase.’

Corbyn, like Shelley before him, may have appeared naïve in his approach to Irish politics. But he may yet become the first British Prime Minister to feel genuine remorse for the damage wrought by English colonialism in Ireland. And, notwithstanding the instability of the European project, ultimately this may harmonise relations between the peoples of these islands, all of whom have suffered under the yoke of tyrannical government during our shared history.

Jeremy Corbyn Unfairly Treated in the UK and Irish Media

Jeremy Corbyn Unfairly Treated in the UK and Irish Media

Walking up the driveway on my first day of secondary school I felt an added sense of trepidation on account of the dandyish slip-on shoes I was wearing. As I entered the school buildings I ran the gauntlet of a rowdy phalanx of students, giddy with first-day nerves. They smelt fear.

A piercing cry rang out: “check out the shoes on Armstrong”. A chorus of guffaws followed leaving me red-faced and mute. On returning home that afternoon I dolefully slipped off the offending shoes for the last time, recovering an old, innocuous, pair that would do service for another year. The following day no one noticed my change in footwear as I blended with the crowd, no doubt dispensing my own barbs still suffered silently decades on.

I suggest another damaging conformity emanates from a superficially progressive elite that hold back radical change in the UK and Ireland, mostly by controlling media pronouncements, that can ultimately be traced to the educational system
The alt-right which now whisper into US President Trump’s ear are a collection of misfits who hark back to a halcyon 1950s landscape of milk bars, jukeboxes, white picket fences and horn-rimmed glasses. The Fourth Turning they imagine is a fiction that invents an enemy in extreme Islamism that appeals to a similar myopic nostalgia among their equally deluded adherents.

Nonetheless, I am drawn to a term ‘the Cathedral’ coined by an otherwise abhorrent alt-right ideologue Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug. According to Paul Eliot’s superb account that recently appeared in Village: ‘The Cathedral describes a media-academic-cultural consensus with conditions for belonging: members must ascribe to the progressivist religion and must accept dogmas from feminism, multiculturalism and trans-rights activism.’

The alt-right are correct nonetheless that what used to be called political correctness excludes certain positions from expression in the liberal fraternity. Witness the former leader of the Lib-Dems Tim Farron being hounded from office for his Christian beliefs, and in Ireland the treatment of John Waters by his former colleagues in the Irish Times, as well as the “group-think” that impelled RTE Prime Time journalists to jump to conclusions about a missionary priest.

I agree with the Cathedral on social issues, although I find the shutting down of debate distinctly undemocratic. My difficulty with this broad liberal consensus is that their dogmas extend well beyond issues of personal conscience such as gay sex or reproductive rights. I suggest the Cathedral now occupies a position on the centre right that stymies meaningful distribution of wealth, and environmental shifts. In so doing it has ceded space for an atavistic right to thrive.

The Cathedral’s Presidential candidate in the last US Presidential election was Hilary Clinton whose victory in the Democratic primaries was stage-managed by party elites, against the surging appeal of Bernie Sanders, the first candidate in decades to declare himself a socialist. The Cathedral is backed by large corporations in the US who devoted billions to Hilary Clinton’s electoral campaign. A sufficient number of a traditional white working class recognised this, and fell prey to Trump’s scoundrel patriotism.

The global income gap between rich and poor has never been greater, and the social conscience which the Cathedral exhibits is rather like George Orwell’s description of the millionaire, “who suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton.” Stark inequalities in the UK have been laid bare by the penny-pinching that appears to have led to the Grenfell Tower fire.

All of this amorphous Cathedral are not millionaires. But they are drawn from fields such as law, medicine, education and media, and have reached, or feel themselves capable of reaching a comfortable level of wealth. They have vested interest in maintaining the status quo, including the price of property.

Divisions in UK politics are less stark than the US at least since Blair and Cameron apparently brought their parties into the centre ground, but actually affirmed Thatcher’s social revolution. Both New Labour and Compassionate Conservatism fell in line with the broad thrust of the UK’s distinctive Cathedral. In the process, each “de-toxified” their brands from association with union-jack-under-panted jingoism and unabashed capitalism in the case of the Conservatives; and old-fashioned trade unionism and socialism with Labour. But through the Blair-Brown years, and less surprisingly under ‘Compassionate’ Conservatism, income inequality (magnified by rising property prices) actually increased.

The fingerprints of the UK’s Cathedral was glaringly evident in the UK (and Irish) media’s treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, an unashamed socialist, anti-imperialist and vegetarian, in the months after he won the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015. A Media@LSE report: “Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press” reviewed what was the very opposite of a honeymoon period.
Bias emanating from the Murdoch and other right wing press that include The Sun, The Mail, The Express, The Telegraph and The Times were predictable, but the approach of apparently centre-left publications is more surprising. The authors state at the outset:

The results of this study show that Jeremy Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy. Corbyn was often denied his own voice in the reporting on him and sources that were anti-Corbyn ended to outweigh those that support him and his positions. He was also systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been. Even more problematic, the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK. The result has been a failure to give the newspaper reading public a fair opportunity to form their own judgements about the leader of the country’s main opposition.

This would appear to vindicate Ralph Milliband’s (father of Ed and David) view that ‘the press may well claim to be independent and to fulfil an important watchdog function. What the claim overlooks, however, is the very large fact that it is the Left at which the watchdogs generally bark with most ferocity, and what they are above all protecting is the status quo’.

It is insightful that in the three apparently left or centrist newspapers, the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Mirror a clear majority of articles were either critical or antagonistic towards him. Perhaps more concerning is the extent to which Corbyn’s own voice is absent: only 40% of articles in The Guardian and The Independent actually quote him. The authors reckon that up to one in five supposedly neutral news reports in the Guardian (as opposed to opinion articles) actually displayed bias against him.

The LSE authors conclude that superficially left-leaning and liberal newspapers provided an ‘extensive and enthusiastic platform to those forces in the Labour Party that aggressively contested Corbyn and what he stands for’.

It should be born in mind that censure in the apparently left-of-centre media was occurring at a time when the so-called ‘bearded socialist’ was being subject to an unprecedented level of attack by the right-wing press. The authors found that several commentaries moralised about Corbyn’s personal and romantic life. The ‘broadsheet’ Daily Telegraph heaped scorn on his former relationship with Diane Abbot folding a political critique with a questioning of what attracted the pair to one another: “Lover’s of what? Bolshevism? A warm vest to keep out the chill winds of the political wilderness?”

On the eve of the election a Guardian editorial on Friday 2nd of June reluctantly put its support behind Labour, but continued to question Corbyn’s fitness for office: ‘Many see him as a fluke, a fringe candidate who stole the Labour leadership while the rest of his party was asleep. In parliament he failed to reach beyond his faction. He is not fluent on the issues raised by a modern, sophisticated digital economy.’ He is thus portrayed as illegitimate, stealing the Labour leadership from a candidate who would presumably have adopted a more centrist position that preserves the status quo.

He is dismissed as ‘has been’ who doesn’t understand a sophisticated digital economy, including a neo-liberal arrangement in which transnational corporations successfully avoid taxation. Most damningly: ‘his record of protest explains why some struggle to see him as prime minister’; the Guardian would appears to be more comfortable with a Blairite willing to support a neoconservative administration in the United States.

Fortunately the public was given an opportunity to form their own opinion in the general election when broadcasting rules allowed the Labour leader to connect directly with the electorate. Policies appealing to the idealism of the young set off a social media storm that almost overcame a massive Tory advantage at the start of the campaign, and which actually displayed a very keen appreciation among his ranks of the power of the new digital medium.

To some extent the public service broadcaster was the saviour of democracy in the UK, but the BBC was not immune to the characterisation of Corbyn as being a Prime Minister who would give succour to the enemies of the United Kingdom.
During the election campaign David Dimbleby publicly asserted that the press had treated Corbyn unfairly, but his intervention during the Leaders’ Question Time would have pleased Conservative head office. Soon after coming to power Theresa May said that she would use nuclear weapons as a first strike, which presumably was designed to contrast her steely determination with the protest movement led by Corbyn.

After repeated questions from the floor on whether Corbyn would be prepared to use a nuclear weapon, Dimbleby as mediator twice pressed Corbyn on the issue. For the BBC’s most eminent journalist to place such emphasis on this issue is troubling. Either Dimbleby genuinely felt safer with a Prime Minister prepared to incinerate millions of people at the touch of a button, or this was being used to discredit Corbyn because he was simply dangerous to the status quo.
I am inclined to the latter view although Dimbleby’s response was probably reflexive rather than conscious. Nuclear war has not been a concern in Britain since the 1980s, and the Labour manifesto actually commits them to maintaining Trident, contrary to Corbyn’s own personal views. Nor was Theresa May questioned on this issue, and whether she could reconcile nuclear annihilation with her apparent Christianity. Rather, this allowed the Cathedral to portray Corbyn as unsafe, and foolhardy, as it became clear that the population were increasingly attracted to his economic policies.

The ‘steel’ required to unleash nuclear weapons, was also a major concern for another veteran reporter Andrew Marr when he interviewed Corbyn before the election. But, in an intriguing interview from the 1996 that is available on YouTube Noam Chomsky lays bare Marr’s own bias. The MIT Professor quoted George Orwell’s essay ‘Literary Censorship in England’ to him that “unpopular ideas can be silenced without any force”. He also referred to how the educational system makes you understand there are certain things you simply don’t say, just as deviations from fashionable norms are greeted with derision.

Chomsky outlines to Marr how there is “a filtering system” that starts in kindergarten which ‘selects for obedience and subordination’; removing the ones “who are mad to live”, as Jack Kerouac put it On the Road. Thus the troubled, and often artistic, student finds little encouragement amidst the dominant educational models, and viewpoints that deviate from established norms are held in check.

Chomsky referred to journalists he knew who regarded the media as a sham and played it like a violin: ‘if they see a little opening they will try and squeeze something in’. Marr protests: ‘how can you know I am self-censoring’, to which Chomsky laconically replies: ‘I am sure you believe everything you are saying’.
In the wake of the seismic shift in popular opinion over the course of the UK General Election it has been interesting to read mea culpa from leading radical journalists who abandoned Corbyn, writing him off as ‘unelectable’. A previously ardent supporter Owen Jones wrote after the election:

“I thought people had made their minds up about Corbyn, however unfairly, and their opinion just wouldn’t shift. I wasn’t a bit wrong, or slightly wrong, or mostly wrong, but totally wrong. Having one foot in the Labour movement and one in the mainstream media undoubtedly left me more susceptible to their groupthink.”

Another who deviated from his early enthusiasm was George Monbiot who wrote an article entitled: “The elections biggest losers? Not the Tories but the media who missed the biggest story”. He acknowledged: “the media has created a hall of mirrors, in which like-minded people reflect and reproduce each other’s opinions.” Thus:

“The broadcasters echo what the papers say, the papers pick up what the broadcasters say. A narrow group of favoured pundits appear on the news programmes again and again. Press prizes are awarded to those who reflect the consensus, and denied to those who think differently. People won’t step outside the circle for fear of ridicule and exclusion.”

It is interesting that our own Fintan O’Toole recently scooped a George Orwell press award for his coverage of English nationalism during Brexit. The Cathedral, in their favour, are hostile to racism; these atavistic tendencies are also bad for business, although a bullish secularism often leads to Islamophobia. Most, however, despair at Theresa May’s lapses which shows how the Cathedral is fracturing in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

Some weeks prior to the election O’Toole wrote an article entitled: ‘Corbyn’s nostalgia less of a fantasy than May’s’; note how Corbyn was being portrayed as a nostalgic fantasist just as the Cathedral would wish. He continues: ‘Corbyn’s Labour has been characterised by the overwhelmingly Tory press as a throwback to the early 1970s and there is some truth in the accusation.’ But what is this throwback to: less inequality? Job security? Public ownership of vital infrastructure? These all appear to be objectives to which O’Toole subscribes in Ireland, and he goes on to commend Labour’s manifesto while still insisting that Corbyn is ‘nostalgic’.

O’Toole concludes: ‘Corbyn is a highly problematic leader, not least in his inability to think about how to create a majority in England for this radical social democratic vision.’ The problem with Corbyn thus appeared to be his effectiveness in putting his point of view across; the old ‘unelectable’ jibe in other words, the has-been beardy-socialist of the wolf-whistling right’s portrayal.

The other slur levelled against Corbyn by the Cathedral is to blame him for Brexit because he didn’t campaign with sufficient vigour; this despite it being shown that the British media hardly report what he says, considering his brand ‘toxic’. He was also being asked to give unqualified support for an institution with many flaws from a left-wing perspective, and which had just imposed a cruel Austerity over Greece, and Ireland. He supported Remain but refused to lie through his teeth about how he thought everything was rosy about it, giving it a grade of 7/10.

In the UK the Cathedral are almost all graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. Whenever I watch programmes devoted to politics on the BBC I try to do an Internet search on the participants. Invariably the politician, journalist, writer or economist attended one of these institutions. I have also spent long enough in the company of Oxbridge types to know that directing the remark that someone attended a ‘redbrick university’ is a euphemism for saying he is an intellectual inferior. Corbyn did not attend either one of those institutions or any university for that matter. He’s an outsider with ‘cranky’ socialist and anti-imperialist views that the Cathedral doesn’t tolerate.

The furore over Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Change deal is instructive. That deal was supposed to have ‘taken care’ of the problem allowing us to return to giddy consumption. But the uncomfortable reality of the accord is expressed by the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh: ‘the Agreement’s rhetoric serves to clarify much that it leaves unsaid: namely, that its intention, and the essence of what it has achieved, is to create yet another neo-liberal frontier where corporations, entrepreneurs, and public officials will be able to join forces in enriching one another’. The agreement hardly addresses poverty or inequality and the principle of human superiority over nonhuman remains intact. Both drive Climate Change, along with the idea of economic growth-without-end.

The Irish ‘Cathedral’ has similar constituents and outlooks to its equivalent in the UK, and influence across the false centre of the political spectrum. We don’t have elite universities – however much Trinity graduates attempt to give the impression – so the social and professional networks tend to emerge in private schools. It is most obvious in the Irish Times, and to a lesser extent RTE.

In Ireland the Cathedral prefers to wage culture wars over issues such as gay marriage, and to an extent the right to abortion, that become overriding concerns which distract from structural and environmental questions. Both Enda Kenny and Bertie Aherne before him proved highly adept at managing the Cathedral’s concerns. The Irish Times now keeps Fintan O’Toole as a mascot for a social conscience, which also sells newspapers. In Ireland, it is only when a serious crisis is apparent – such as homelessness – that the Cathedral agrees to drop a morsel.

One wonders how long the broad consensus will last among the main Irish political parties who play pass the parcel with political power. At least Leo Varadkar’s unashamed neo-liberalism offers a degree of ideological clarity. Genuine radicalism may emerge within parties such as Labour and the Greens. In this respect the lesson of Corbyn’s success is clear: radicals should remain embedded in party organisations and work via constitutional means, relying on the clued-in and digital-savvy youth to bring about a political revolution.

The Cathedral despairs at the extremism that is evident in the disruptive era of the Internet, but the disenchantment reflects grotesque inequalities, particularly in the Anglosphere of which Ireland remains a part. Jeremy Corbyn seriously challenged these and he was hammered as a result but ultimately he found a way to get through to the electorate. Genuine socialists might take issue with details of his policies but surely not the thrust, which seeks to give a decent standard of living to all, and curb the excesses of the super-rich. This is also in harmony with an environmental movement seeking to curb consumerism.

Orwell wrote: “in countries where there is already a strong liberal tradition, bureaucratic tyranny can perhaps never be complete. The striped-trousered ones will rule, but so long as they are forced to maintain an intelligentsia, the intelligentsia will have a certain autonomy.” The disruptive power of the Internet is generating new politics that the Cathedral cannot control, and the intelligentsia have an opportunity to challenge “the striped-trousered ones”.

The Cathedral’s superficial centre cannot hold. Let us hope more beasts such as Trump do not slope towards Bethlehem to be born. These troubling times demand that the intelligentsia, who often wear odd-looking clothes, re-engage with politics and proudly assert the radical position.

(An edited version of this article appeared in Village Magazine in June, 2017)


(Published in Village Magazine, October, 2016)

North Oxford is a heartland of academia where leafy halls of residence mingle with stately homes and rarefied hostelries. Bang in the middle of England a pervading windlessness favours scholarly reflection removed from the fugue of modernity. Only here do scholars walk the streets with books aloft. Even the traffic is orderly with streams of bicycles sensibly preferred.

The city of Oxford is located on the confluence of the Isis (the idiosyncratic name for the Thames here) and Cherwell rivers. Broadly, it may be divided into three zones with a clear north-south divide: the aforementioned affluent and mature north Oxford suburbs of Jericho, Summertown and Wolvercote; an historical and commercial centre linked to Botley and Osney Island; and predominantly twentieth century suburbs including Headington, Cowley and Blackbird Leys to the south. The centre, layered on top of the original, though poorly preserved, Anglo-Saxon settlement, contains iconic colleges such as Christchurch alongside an incongruous “any-town-UK” commercial centre and its array of gaudy chains.

Flanked by the rivers and their flood plains, the division of the city is maintained by extended parklands and a canal network that insulate the lush northern suburbs. The Cowley Road is a transition zone mostly inhabited by transient, though not particularly exuberant, students. The strip, nonetheless, has an energy not found elsewhere in Oxford.

Moving south, there is another Oxford as housing gets cheaper and industry more evident. The first industrial revolution passed Oxford by as colleges objected to the contagion of commerce. Only after World War II did significant manufacturing arrive as the city attracted a motor car industry.

By the early 1970s, 20,000 people were employed in the sector and the original Mini Minor was developed here in 1959. Unfortunately, as in much of the country, a significant proportion of heavy industrial jobs have departed.

The working class areas now face social problems familiar in many English cities in a country that is the most unequal in Europe. Living as a generally penniless, jobbing tutor and supply teacher in Oxford for two years I encountered classroom behaviour that made experiences in schools in socially-deprived areas of Dublin seem positively meditative. Oxford is a place of profound educational inequality. Secondary schools such as the Oxford Academy which was built along the lines of a prison seem to be on a different planet from the elite educational institutions.

The number of Prime Ministers that have passed through Oxford University is startling. Among post-war prime ministers only Winston Churchill, Jim Callaghan, John Major (none of whom had a university education) and Scottish Gordon Brown did not receive an Oxford education. Another alumnus Theresa May (St. Hugh’s 1974) joins a list that includes Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair (St. John’s, 1974), Harold Wilson (Jesus College, 1937) and Clement Atlee (University College, 1904) as well as Tories: Anthony Eden (Christchurch, 1922); Harold MacMillan (Balliol, 1914); Alfred Douglas-Home (Christchurch, 1925); Edward Heath (Balliol, 1939); Margaret Thatcher (Somerville College, 1947), and David Cameron (Brasenose, 1988).

Moreover, numerous Tory politicians maintain an association with the wider shire. Churchill himself was born in the nearby ancestral estate of Blenheim Palace where he also proposed to his wife. David Cameron lives in Chipping Norton close to Rebecca Brooks, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the Chippy set. Michael Heseltine (Pembroke, 1954) is also nearby though he seems to look slightly askance at the gobby neighbours.

Meanwhile, Theresa May grew up in the village of Wheatley a few miles east of Oxford where her father served as vicar. Closer to London, Boris Johnson (Balliol, 1987), the new foreign secretary, lives in Henley-on-Thames.
Perhaps the county has a quality – an England of the imagination – that Tory grandees gravitate towards. It could be the low rural population density, a legacy of the Enclosure Acts (1760-1830) that placed formerly common land in the hands of expanding gentlemen farmers. Today, though located only an hour from some of the most inflated land prices in the world in London, it is possible to drive for long stretches without seeing a single dwelling.

As an Irish person living in the city of Oxford I was never made to feel unwelcome, or at least any alienation was no different to that felt by the bulk of the population beholden to a converging aristocratic and mercantile elite: unlike the ancient regime in France since the Tudor era nobility has been open to the highest bidder. One must however acclimatise to the southern English reserve and a sense of humour more sardonic than in Ireland. The historian Tony Judt writes that the English are perhaps “the only people who can experience schadenfreude at their own misfortunes”.

Succumbing to generalisation, I regard English friendships as firmer than Irish for all the latter’s sociability. But societies of companions generate mosaic communities often hostile to one another. Better the devil you know and bugger the rest.

In the age of the Internet which extinguishes old certainties a growing contempt is discernible towards politicians. Many are no longer content to be ‘shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour’ in the words of Uncle Monty in Withnail and I. The cultural dominance of Oxbridge (meaning both Oxford and Cambridge Universities) which extends to the media and business is threatened. This perhaps explains why maverick and grumpy (though otherwise profoundly different) outsiders such as Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage are appealing to a jaded electorate; a state of affairs the Oxbridge elite cannot abide as shown by the treatment of Corbyn even in some apparently left-wing media.

The excellence of the Oxbridge education contributes to the dislocation. Staff-student ratio at Oxbridge colleges are approximately one member of academic staff to every five students while other third level institutions are accustomed to 1:20. The hallowed tutorial system gives what are reckoned to be the brightest students, by the age of eighteen, individual or small-group tuition accelerating progress in their chosen fields.

Even if a student arrives from a lower-middle class or working class background – and the universities are constantly endeavouring to increases this cohort – and not from Eton or another public school that individual is stamped with the culture and polish of the elite institution. An Oxbridge degree brings enhanced job prospects and most are absorbed by an adaptable ruling class that grudgingly accepts infusion of new talent just as in Plato’s Republic there was a fluidity between the different casts of Gold, Silver and Bronze.

The major problem with the system, if we accept that a fixed sum is devoted to education in the country, is the opportunity cost of not investing in other institutions catering for a broader demographic. There seems to be an assumption as in Plato’s Republic that great swathes of the population are incapable of more than mundane labour. Irish third level education, for all its failings, is more republican in this respect.

The argument for disproportionate investment with finite resources on the cultivation of high academic achievers may be persuasive in the sciences but is less compelling in humanities where a wider diffusion of expert teaching could benefit English society as a whole.

Moreover, the Oxbridge education is at the apex of a system with a degree of specialisation unlike other European countries or the United States. School children take a mere three subjects at A-level beginning at sixteen, explaining the lowest rate in Europe of people speaking second languages.

Depth in a chosen field cohabits with a narrowness that might offer an insight into the closing of the English mind which the Brexit result has revealed.

One should generally avoid extrapolating grand narratives out of chance encounters, nonetheless a single incident sometimes crystallises understanding of a larger controversy. Three days after the result of the Brexit Referendum I arrived in Oxford to teach on a summer school. The following morning I encountered a man in his seventies purchasing strawberries in a pricey delicatessen. He was determined to ascertain whether the provenance of the strawberries was English and not grown indoors in a “ghastly poly tunnel” a method he attributed to the Dutch. After being reassured of their local origin he exceeded himself by declaring that after Brexit there would be more local production and it would now be possible for fishermen to bring in our fish.

As a matter of fact a recent report in The Guardian suggested that the British strawberry industry was threatened by withdrawal from the Europe, and the fishing industry will still have to contend with diminishing catches for the foreseeable future and negotiate with other countries for rights to offshore waters. But to me this man represented a whole generation who had come to despise the relentless march of progress in Britain where strawberries could taste of nothing but water and packaging, and for whom the European institutions had become a convenient whipping boy.

The lady serving him was, to be fair, taken aback by his ignorance of how Britain led the way with industrial food production. After he had left she reddened palpably when she referred to the “nonsense” of Brexit. The city of Oxford voted by 5:2 to Remain and some weeks later forlorn banners are still visible, with hardly an advertisement to Leave in sight. The University is closely tied to other European institutions and the populace is comparatively young, affluent and educated, all good indicators of a Remain preference.
In the wider county however less well-off towns such as Bicester (defined as a “Tescos Town” on account of the 6 branches for 29,000 people) ensured that the vote was much closer. Nonetheless, some large farmers anxious to retain EU subsidies along with affluent and cosmopolitan former Londoners ensured a Remain majority.

The hint of a skirmish I witness in the Oxford delicatessen took place on a charming street called North Parade containing a strip of pubs and restaurants. It is one of Oxford’s curiosities that North Parade is situated about one mile (remaining Imperial) to the south of another street called South Parade. This anomaly can be traced to the English Civil War of the 1640s when Charles I was forced to flee London and set up an alternative capital in Oxford, an idea revived by Hitler in his plans for the conquest of Britain. North Parade was the furthest extent north of the Royal lines while South Parade to the north was the equivalent parade ground to the south of the Parliamentary forces.

This fault line of English history throws up further symmetries. About a five minute walk to the north is St Hugh’s College where Theresa May read Geography, and even close to North Parade is sumptuous Lady Margaret Hall where Michael Grove (LMH, 1987), one of the prime ideologues of Brexit, studied English. This outsider who rose to President of the Oxford Union was adopted as a baby and grew up over five hundred miles away in Aberdeen. He is perhaps the leading spokesman for British nationalism in the Tory party.

During the campaign his notorious interjection that Britain had had enough of experts was disingenuous and calculated. Unlike some of his fellow politicians relatively humble origins may have given him a better understanding of the narrow outlook of many of his countrymen. The insights of his wife Sarah Vine as a columnist for the Daily Mail, a newspaper that has scapegoated the European Union as irredeemably bumbling and power-grabbing over decades, was also an asset. This portrait of the European Union compliments the generally negative perception of politicians. Furthermore in a society with an obsessive memory of its wartime sacrifices European institutions are constantly and not always subtly identified with Nazi perfidy by the right-wing press, including recently by Boris Johnson in The Telegraph.

Considering the weight of invective directed against the Union over so many years the Brexit vote was not surprising and the existential fear of a flood of migrants after the refugee crisis made attacking European institutions even easier. Brexit is the legacy of the takeover of the capital-intensive newspaper industry from the 1970s by the political right which has used sport and celebrity to stupefy much of an economically-distressed and poorly-educated population.

It is revealing that there was a split in the Murdoch media between the Sun which backed the Leave campaign with The Times backing a Remain vote. The Sun could hardly reverse forty years of Euro-bashing even though the danger was obvious to the British economy and acknowledged by the middle class Times.
Gove’s reason for deciding to campaign against “his friend” David Cameron were spelt out in a Spectator column some months before the referendum. He believed that “our” country would be “freer, fairer and better off outside the EU”. The article contained the usual lampooning of illogical rules such as how olive oil had to be dispensed in 5 litre containers – as if this changes with Brexit or matters in the least – and complaints about an unelected Commission; ignoring how Commissioners are appointed by elected governments in much the same way as a government minister – the member of parliament for a single constituency – is appointed to the national executive; and in exactly the way that US Presidents appoint their cabinets. The absence of a separation of powers in the English (and Irish) system is arguably more of the anomaly.

As an apparently intelligent, educated and reportedly well-read man it is hard to credit that Gove believed his own guff. More sinisterly, in just one six-line paragraph of his Spectator article the third person plural “we” is used seven times. Preserving a brittle “British” nation appeared foremost in his mind. It is axiomatic that the shrillest advocate of a nation has a dubious claim to that identity, the very identity “British” is being superseded by “English” and is under severe threat with the rise of Scottish nationalism.

Gove’s dismissal of expertise came from an individual who trusted his own wisdom to remodel the GCSE English syllabus removing favourites such as The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men and insisting on readings of whole Shakespeare plays and, more controversially, a plan to give the King James Bible to every school. Unusually, he has also argued for a formal British constitution to overcome the ambiguities of an unwritten one and a bill of rights in place of a European Convention on Human Rights despised by the Tory right. More benignly as a Minister for Justice he refused to do business with Saudi Arabia on account of the appalling excesses of their criminal justice system for which he was described as “naïve” by the new Chancellor Phillip Hammond (University College, 1976).

Some of Gove’s views on literature are, superficially at least, laudable. Leading literary critics such as Edward Clarke in his The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry argue that England’s great poetic heritage should be taught to all school children as a form of timeless scripture informing their lives. There is also a case to be made for the King James Bible as a prized work of Tudor literature. But it would appear that the cantankerous outsider Gove views literature instrumentally, as a way of shaping a common literary space – that first person plural again – for emboldened Britains that leaves aside a hyphenated sense of identity English-, Scottish- or even Muslim-. This idea of a nation sharing a literary space through reading books of this kind is identified in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Community as a formative experience, and European history shows how dangerous it can be.

During the leadership race another Tory grandee Ken Clarke (unusually a Cambridge graduate) perceptively muttered on Sky News that Gove would probably involve the country in three wars if he were selected, and his views expressed in a book on the Good Friday Agreement suggests he would be divisive influence. With Boris Johnson and the singularly unimpressive Andrea Leadsom inside the tent Gove remains the most credible Leaver to challenge May should she fail to maintain peace in the Tory party.

So it is left to the Vicar’s daughter to clean up the mess made by her younger Oxford fellow graduates. It remains to be seen whether the cultural cracks I witnessed on North Parade are part of a wider national schism generated by a long-standing inequality. Perhaps it is the case that the English (or was it a British?) revolution arrived too soon. Charles I was eventually defeated in Oxford and beheaded in 1649 but his son Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, and the country enjoyed a decadent Restoration. No foreign army has successfully invaded England since 1066 as every school child knows.

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, wrote that knowledge is power. Through history the English elites did not parade their wealth in gastronomic excess like the French ancien regime, but with display in learning especially in the Classics, the apparent mark of truly refined men now embodied by Boris Johnson. In a Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2011 he dismissed the idea that he was David Cameron’s intellectual inferior as the then prime minister’s first was in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) as opposed to his 2h1 in a superior Classics degree. The Oxbridge system produces a cast that has long dominated English affairs in part through the networks established there but also because of the polish imparted by that education.

The Brexit result was to some extent a revolt against that paternalism, ironically stage-managed by ideologues from within such as Gove who cynically dismissed “expertise”. But the English ruling class is formidably resilient and it seems that only xenophobic demagoguery of the sort unheard in England since the days of Enoch Powell could lift Gove to power now that the European Union bogeyman can no longer be reached for. Instead we may hope that a resurgent left under the principled and iconoclastic Corbyn is capable of harnessing the country’s discontents, and provide a genuine alternative direction for Britain that is not mired in delusions of imperial grandeur.

It is hard to imagine the tranquillity of north Oxford as the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in English history four hundred years ago, but the strength of feeling generated by the Brexit result has produced divisions in British society that will take many years to heal. A growing contempt for expertise and the difficulty of defining Englishness or Britishness threatens the intellectual pillars of a consensus that has lasted for nearly four hundred years.

Confronting the great men of history

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

That there was something altogether more disturbing about Hitler’s Germany than Stalin’s Russia is often assumed. Perhaps it comes from the idea of Germany, the most intellectually and industrially-advanced country of its time, being led by an individual whose core belief was the annihilation of a substantial ethno-religious minority. By comparison the aspirational ends of Stalinism are, superficially at least, universal and even Utopian.
The case of Germany suggests that intellectual progress does not dovetail with moral development. But at least the defeat of Nazism has consigned Far Right ideology in Germany and the rest of Europe to the political periphery since World War II. The Cold War ended when Mikhail Gorbachev unilaterally stopped projecting Soviet power and the populations of its empire rose up to gain independence. But the descent into anarchy of some of these territories has engendered a conviction, prevalent in Russia, that aspects of the ruthless means employed by Stalin are always required for stability and prosperity. The conduct of the West, both in its approach to Russia and a wider flouting of international law, has doused oil on the flames.
This is not to suggest that anything approximating the scale of state-sponsored terror is being unleased in Russia today but there is nonetheless evidence of an attitude to human rights that departs from values ascendant in most of the rest of Europe.
A case can be made for Stalinism being more terrifying than Hitler’s Nazism, precisely because the former emerged as victor in the apocalyptic struggle between the two monsters. It was a victory of a system that embraced industrial development and rationality, over one that advocated a primitive way of life for a chosen people fusing cultish spirituality with juvenile biology.
There were of course unforgivable excesses on the Allied side too, in particular the fire-bombing of Dresden and the unnecessary use of the Atomic bomb against Japan which was on the brink of surrender as laid out by Gar Alperowitz in his book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995). The political elites of America and Britain have not confronted their wicked pasts – America still refuses to apologise for Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and their foreign policies in recent decades are connected to an historical amnesia that foreshadowed the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 which Noam Chomsky recently described as ‘the crime of the century’. Instructively George W. Bush installed a bust of Winston Churchill inside his White House office as he embarked on his ‘crusade’ against terror, reaching into history for vindication. Churchill himself had ordered the use of poison gas against Iraqis in the 1920s.
Of course the schemes of Hitler and his Nazi party were more diabolically hair-brained than his opponents. Leading Nazis sought Lebensraum in order to restore the Germanic people to the soil in what was a rejection of urban modernity. In Hitler’s Mein Kampf George Orwell found: ‘a horrible brainless Empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder.’
Hitler’s primary lieutenant and SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s notions were particularly eccentric believing that Aryans were not evolved from monkeys or apes like other races, but had come down to earth from the heavens, where they had been preserved in ice from the beginning of time. He established a meteorology division which was given the task of proving this cosmic ice theory. It would be funny if he wasn’t a mass murderer.
The Nazis came very close to winning the war. Britain could easily have been brought to heel if Churchill had not stood firm against a vacillating Tory party. Hitler’s decision not to complete his victory – after the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France in May 1940 – before turning his attention to the Eastern Front was a flabbergasting blunder, as was declaring war on the isolationist United States after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
If Hitler had been victorious the plight of all of Europeans would have been insufferable for a time at least. In all likelihood the Holocaust would surely have been completed and many more enslaved. But perhaps before that contradictions would emerged among the Nazis especially as Hitler had allowed competing agencies including the SS, the army and the Party to develop. Blind loyalty to the Fuehrer might have dissipated as the spoils were devoured.
The triumph of a profoundly irrational ideology could have brought chaos in the absence of wartime exigencies especially if a policy of compulsory re-ruralisation was rolled out. Hitler certainly harnessed Germany’s industrial might, especially through Alfred Speer planning agency, but only when defeat loomed. With victory theories about ‘cosmic ice’ might have become ascendant and the Nazis empire could have been beset by slave revolts. The dormant humanity of the German people might have awoken. A more dynamic society and economy such as the United States’ would surely have surpassed the Nazi Empire and there was no sign that Germany was close to developing Atomic technology which required the employment of over a million men at enormous expense in the United States.
We know that Stalin and his no less unsavoury predecessor Lenin d.1924 (not to mention Trotsky who was equally ruthless) also liquidated vast numbers to advance their cause, more than the Nazis even. One estimate is that in the seventy years after 1917, the Soviet regime killed 61, 911, 000 people.
State terror was evident from the start. In August 1918 Lenin issued the following order:

1.) Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
2.) Publish their names.
3.) Take all their grain away from them.
4.) Identify hostages as we described in our telegram yesterday.
Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out [your instructions]. Yours, Lenin
P.S. Find tougher people.
This was not simply a reaction to the life and death struggle of the Russian Civil War, but policy. As far back as 1908 he wrote that the Paris Commune had failed because of the ‘excessive generosity’ of the proletariat who ‘should have exterminated its enemies’ instead of trying to exert moral influence on them.
Yet if we compare France and Russia only the former absorbed socialist ideas into its shared set of national values. Over the long term an ideology is accepted not by physical force (as George W. Bush should have realised in Iraq) but by persuasion. As soon as the constraints of the Communist regime in Russia were lifted the society became ultra-capitalist. In the end the ideas of the Communards endured much longer in France than the Bolshevik’s in Russia.
A revolution may not succeed but it is often how participants (or victors) conduct themselves that defines the acceptance of noble ideas. In the case of Germany after World War II the occupiers were able to draw on a long history of liberal democracy that the Nazis did not succeed in wiping out and had learnt from the mistakes of Versailles after World War I.
The Communist ideology as implemented by Lenin and Stalin was based on perfection of man by the revolutionary triumph of the proletariat. Lives, millions if necessary, could be sacrificed for the sake of final victory.
In his book The Economics of the Transition Period (1920), Nikolai Bukharin used the phrase: ‘the manufacturing of Communist man out of the human material of the capitalist age.’ In his copy Lenin underlined that phrase and wrote ‘exactly’ in the margin. There was no choice in the matter no respect for individuality, just blind adherence to the ideal with the great leader, soon to be Stalin, at the helm.
For many intelligent young Europeans of the period their Communist conviction was akin to religious devotion. Eric Hobsbawm in his Autobiography wrote: ‘For young revolutionaries of my generation mass demonstrations were the equivalent of papal masses for devout Catholics.’ This devotion allowed Stalin to build his power.
Individual Communists were even willingly to sacrifice their own lives for the cause, not least Bukharin who agreed to the necessity of his own death in a show trial, a psychological drama brilliantly conveyed in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon.
It was the conviction of Communists, no less than of Nazis, that allowed many of them to carry out some of the worst crimes of the twentieth century. As the dissident writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn puts it: ‘Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology.’
There also emerged a cult of the leader that is captured vividly by Solzhenitsyn once again. He describes how at a Party conference in one Moscow province a tribute to Stalin was called for. The audience stood up and began to applaud but nobody wanted to be seen as the first to stop. After eleven minutes the director of a paper factory had had enough and sat down allowing the remainder of the audience to desist. Not long afterwards he was arrested and given a ten year prison sentence.
Stalin hardened a society in a way vividly described by Nadezha Mandelstam who was herself in perpetual fear of arrest: ‘For our generation, kindness was an old-fashioned quality, and its exponents were as extinct as the mammoth. Everything we have seen in our time – the dispossession of the kulaks, class warfare, the constant ‘unmasking’ of people the search for an ulterior motive behind every action – all this has taught you to be everything you like except kind.’ Empathy became a failing as a base and sullen survival instinct took hold.
This survival instinct is also evident in Mikhail Bulgakov’s dark satire on Stalinism The Master and Margarita. The poet Ivan Nikolayevich and his friend Berlioz encounter the devil Woland in a Moscow park where the latter predicts that Berlioz will lose his head in a matter of minutes. True to his word Berlioz is decapitated after slipping under a tram. The encounter drives Ivan mad as he attempts to track down and bring Woland to justice. Eventually he winds up in a mental institution.
But at last he comes to terms with Berlioz’s loss: ‘I wonder why I go so excited about Berlioz falling under a tram? The poet reasoned, ‘After all he’s dead and we all die some time. It’s not as if I were a relation or a really close friend either, when you think about it I didn’t even know the man very well.’ Only by hardening himself to Berlioz’s plight can Ivan avoid insanity, the same could probably be said for many Russians who under Stalin had become as tough as Lenin had wished.
The revolutionary murderousness of the early Communist period gave way to slow-drip cruelty during the post-War years especially after the death of Stalin in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncement some years later. But victory in the Second World ensured that Stalinism spread beyond the Soviet Union into Eastern and Central Europe, and the recent indifference of much of the population there to the plight of refugees might be attributed in part to the absence of kindness that Mandelstam observed.
Under Vladimir Putin in Russia today the reputation of Stalin is enjoying a measured rehabilitation. The grandson of Stalin’s cook and former KGB operative opines that ruthless methods were crucial to Soviet victory and argues that Stalin never attempted to kill entire ethnic groups. The latter claim is quite groundless not least considering the Holodmor or terror-famine that may have killed as many as the Holocaust was carried out to suppress Ukrainian nationalism.
The narrative is not monolithic. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has been outspoken in his criticism of Stalin, but Putin’s line has become official policy reflected in school history textbooks where scant attention is devoted to the one and a half million Chechens forcibly removed to Central Asia by Stalin in 1941. In 2007 the Putin government directed an initiative to restructure the national curriculum, teaching schoolchildren that Stalin’s actions were ‘entirely rational’.
In 2009 a Moscow subway station was refurbished with large inscriptions reading ‘Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labour and heroism’, a direction quotation from the pre-1977 Soviet anthem. Meanwhile this year a statue was unveiled in Yalta, formerly in Ukrainian Crimea, of Stalin alongside Roosevelt and Churchill.
Putin has said that ‘we can criticize the commanders and Stalin all we like, but can we say with certainty that a different approach would have enabled us to win the war?’ The sacrifices of present-day Russia are situated within a deeper historical narrative. Democracy, a free press and human rights are subservient to the reassertion of order and Russia’s territorial claims and ‘sphere of influence’.
According to Reporters Without Borders between 2012 and 2014 Russia was placed 148th on a list which ranks countries’ performances in the areas of media pluralism and independence, respect for journalists’ safety and freedom, and media-related legislation, among other criteria. Putin is now de facto dictator of Russia and a free press will not be allowed to interfere with that. Defenders of Putin point to the chaos in Russia under Yeltsin but how will Russia ever become a democratic and tolerant society if this Hobbesian narrative is endlessly trotted out?
Thankfully Putin’s Russia is not resurrecting a murderous ideology, and it is also important to point out that Putin’s reassertion of Russia’s Great Power status has been to some extent a reaction to the eastward expansion of NATO. But failure to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine’s borders, directly in Crimea and indirectly in Donbass, is inexcusable as has been the steadfast support for Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
We confront an international order where international law is increasingly an instrument of foreign policy rather than a set of collective human values. The US President, a constitutional lawyer, sends drones on weekly missions to commit extra-judicial murder. Guantanamo Bay remains an affront to US values.
All of the victors of the Second World War exhibit a self-righteousness that permits excesses. The invasion of Iraq was the twenty-first equivalent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But in Russia the stain of Stalinism runs deeper as people endured far more than simply the Propaganda model identified by Chomsky as ‘manufacturing consent’, but had their very humanity ‘manufactured’ as Lenin underlined and Stalin carried out.
All countries must expose the limitations of their ‘great men’, even Gandhi needs to be subjected to greater scrutiny in India. Where a country has had a particularly unfortunate experience with one, as Russia certainly has, this process is all the more necessary and salutary. One need only look at the achievements of Germany in this regard which has emerged as an unsteady ‘conscience of Europe’.
Unfortunately, it would appear that Putin’s regime in Russia is doing little to encourage this process, in fact the opposite appears to be occurring with abuses of human rights domestically and reckless foreign adventures justified by Stalinist pragmatism.
The development of atomic weapons during the Second World War made warfare between Great Powers unthinkable but not impossible. That should be remembered. Since Mutually Assured Destruction became possible it became vital to establish shared values for humanity that will foster kindness among people and nations. Instead of esteeming toughness like Lenin we should prize sensitivity. The world needs more political leaders like Gorbachev whose show of weakness revealed an optimistic belief in human nature.


You Can’t Dukan

(Published in the London Magazine, March 2012)

For Citizen-paparazzo, that is anyone in possession of a mobile phone, the photographic Middletons represent fair game.

Statuesque Kate is less the object of coarse desire than polite admiration. Ideal marriage material it was said. She has the prim, faintly virginal appeal we expect of an English queen, starting with the original Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I herself. The Duchess of Cambridge looks as though she would say no to a cream bun or an impetuous suitor. The sanctity of lines waist and royal seems assured.

Kate would never play away but intrigue is provided by bouncy Pippa – a tabloid dream – who projects the cheeky sex appeal relished by a culture weaned on the Carry On films. Even Puritans need a little ‘crumpet’ to munch on.

We scrutinize and will continue to scrutinize their every move: each crevice and fold of flesh will continue to be admired, deplored and imitated. Plastic surgeons now refer to the ‘Pippa butt lift’. The mind boggles.

The reason this concerns an otherwise serious contributor on matters comestible to the London Magazine is that the contents of their ladyships’ larders is in the public domain, and subject to imitation.

At the time of the Royal wedding it became public knowledge that the Middleton girls et mère adhered to the so-called Dukan Diet, a set of prescriptions ordained by a French doctor named Pierre Dukan. Cosmopolitan called it: ‘The Diet Everyone (Including Kate Middleton) is Obsessing Over’; even that venerable publication The Financial Times was recently moved to interview the rather innocuous doctor. Celebrities such as JLo (yes you are reading this in the London Magazine) and someone called Gisele are following it. His book topped the best seller list in Poland and, bizarrely, Bulgaria. Docteur Dukan possibly exerts more influence than the NHS on how consumers make dietary choices. What does he say?

Trust me I’m a French Doctor

Dukan has a dual appeal. First, as a doctor it is widely assumed that no damage will result from embracing his approach. Second, he is French and the image of that country is bound with graceful beauty and fine dining. The tantalizing promise of elegance of form and gustatory pleasure is dangled like Bridget Bardot munching a slice of gateaux before frumpy Bridget Jones.

The diet has four stages. It begins with the Attack which is a pure protein diet. More accurately, this is a pure animal protein diet as vegetable proteins, which abound in nature, are dismissed as too difficult to work out. Thus, large quantities of meat, fish, eggs and low fat dairy produce is ingested. The long term health consequences are unknown, but in the short term the body ceases to function. Significant quantities of water and two tablespoons of oatbran are advised in order to avoid serious consequences. Dukan cheerfully describes the harmful effect of the Attack phase: ‘It finds itself working like a two-speed engine, in a scooter, lawnmower or motor boat, designed to run on a mixture of pure petrol and oil but trying to run on pure petrol. It putters and then stalls, unable to use its fuel’. Unsurprisingly: ‘After two or three days on a pure protein diet hunger disappears completely’. He admits sotto voce that constipation and bad breath are by-products and that dieters should not swim in cold water or ski at altitude.

Dukan argues that this Attack phase is necessary because: ‘An overweight person who wants to lose weight needs a fast-acting diet that brings immediate results’. It as if he does not take on board his own critique of faddish diets that they have a miniscule success rate in the long term. According to an American study cited by Dukan 12% of dieters do lose weight, but only 2% succeed in keeping it off. Of course Dukan claims that his diet is different.

He even seems to be making excuses for the eventual failure of his own approach saying, quite unscientifically, that the ‘body’s biological memory retains the information regarding the maximum weight and this can never be erased’. And: ‘every time you put on weight and reach a new record number on your scales, the way your physiology adjusts means that somewhere in your brain, a sort of nostalgic memory of this maximum weight is recorded which your body will then always try to reach again’. The original sin of being overweight is never expunged it seems, once a fatty always a fatty. Do not blame good Dr. Dukan, blame that greedy shadow that lurks behind you as you take another helping.

The subsequent phases to the Diet: Cruise; Consolation; and Permanent Stabilization, have fairly consistent dietary advice, eat significant quantities of animal proteins, selected vegetables and few fruits and avoid most fats even disease-busting polyunsaturated oils. He identifies 100 favoured foods of which 72 are animal proteins.

Dukan claims that ‘it has been scientifically proved that after eight hours without good-quality protein the body has to draw upon its own muscle reserve to ensure its vital function’. This claim, for which there is no citation, suggests that we begin eating our bodies in the usual 12 hour gap between dinner and breakfast. He also contradicts himself by calling it ‘natural’ for the human ‘predator’ to catch no prey and be forced to fast for a few days.

Dukan’s diet has been slammed by the NHS and goes against all mainstream advice. The risk posed by the intake of so much animal protein could well have serious long-term consequences; the connection between regular red meat consumption especially and a range of preventable diseases is well established. The Dukan diet is not a healthy diet.

According to the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report from 2011 ‘there is not a single health diet… instead there are many patterns of eating around the world that sustain good health. They share these things in common lots of fruit [viewed as dangerous by Dukan], vegetables and wholegrains; healthy fats from fish and plant sources; and few sugars or solid fats’.

Dukan’s disingenuous and dangerous advice lumps all carbohydrates together so that sugar, a slow-acting poison, is placed in the same category as vegetables, fruits and wholegrains, many of which are also significant protein sources.

Dukan’s diet may work but only because it promotes a disciplined attitude towards food and it advocates exercise. There is definitely no silver bullet here.

Take your Time

Dukan’s book does contain smatterings of good sense. First he devotes a considerable proportion of it to recipes which might encourage more people to spend time cooking their meals which would be an advance for many. According to the Food Standards Agency, in 1980 the average meal took an hour to prepare. By 1999, it had dropped to 20 minutes. He also emphasises the crucial importance of walking which Hippocrates described as ‘man’s best medicine’. Taking lukewarm showers, refraining from hot drinks and spending time out of doors is all excellent advice for anyone wishing to loose weight.

He asserts that: ‘Nourishing yourself is not just about taking in enough calories to survive, it is also, and even more importantly, about enjoying eating as part of that process.’ Indeed, the admittedly exaggerated French Paradox (a diet high in saturated fats but with relatively low rates of heart disease) has been attributed to the length which French people take over well-prepared meals. Dukan advocates: ‘EAT SLOWLY and CONCENTRATE ON WHAT IS IN YOUR MOUTH’, and avoid eating in front of the television or while reading.’

He refers to a study which filmed two groups of women, one overweight, the other a normal weight. It was discovered that the women of normal weight chewed for twice as long as the overweight group. The connection between eating quickly and excessively was recognised by the Ancients: the word gluttony actually derives from the Latin gula meaning ‘to gulp down or swallow’.

He also recalls the advice given by a guru in a New Delhi ashram to a person who was overweight. The guru said: ‘At each meal, eat and chew as you would normally, but just when you are about to swallow push the food back in the front of your mouth and chew it for a second time. In two years you will be back to your normal weight’, and so it proved.

Thus, one way of tackling the obesity epidemic is, paradoxically, to put more focus on food by savouring it.

Ethical Considerations

At no point in the book do ethical considerations emerge. How the 72 animal foods and 28 plant foods arrive at the table is of absolutely no concern to him, all that matters is that it is lean animal protein. Environmental impact, animal welfare and the qualitative difference of organically- or biodynamically- produced food is ignored.

Inherent too is an elitism among diners, this is certainly not a diet for humanity. The expense of sustaining a pure animal protein diet for any length of time would be considerable unless the lowest quality produce is selected. Further, particular cuts are defined as worthy whereas others are proscribed. Only lean beef for example is to be eaten. The obese poor who can’t afford the Dukan diet are to be left the fatty cuts that cause heart disease it seems. Or perhaps he thinks they should be thrown away, in which case the cost of the lean meat would be even greater.

He also expresses quite ignorant views on our evolutionary history as meat-eaters, saying: ‘it is possible to live without hunting and without eating animals meals BUT by doing so we give up part of what our nature expects and we lessen the emotional effect that our body is programmed to produce when we give it what it wants’. Hindus and Buddhists argue the opposite, saying the emotional effect of meat-eating is quite damaging.

Moreover, hunting for food in the Western world is generally limited to scouring the supermarket shelves for half-price offers. The proportion of game meat in the Western diet is miniscule. Even fish is increasingly farmed which can cause serious pollution. Conventional fishing is shockingly wasteful with almost half of most catches simply discarded. Many fish species are now under threat.

Apart from French cuisine most popular culinary traditions, including Italian, Arab, Japanese and Indian are predominantly vegetarian. The appetite for animal proteins is mostly a matter of upbringing, and with over seven billion people (and rising) on the planet many living into their eighties we need to alter tastes, and fast. Our health will certainly not suffer, quite the opposite according to the Harvard Medical School Report who say: ‘there are many nutritionally valid reasons to steer towards a vegetarian diet’.

In fact our evolutionary history suggests meat is an unnecessary part of our diet. As primates with relatively long intestines our bodies are more suited to herbivorous foods. Colin Spencer says: ‘Our hominoid ancestors evolved over a period of 24 million years and, for all but one and a half million of these years, the evidence we have leaves little doubt that their diet was almost completely vegetarian except for insects and grubs.’

Our closest relative in nature is the bonobo to whom we are as close as a dog is to fox.  ‘They live in a peaceful matriarchal society, consuming a wide range of leaves and plants, where any disputes are settled by sexual favours homosexual and heterosexual in all possible permutations’ The bonobo is ‘herbivorous in the wild but in captivity, like other primates, will eat almost anything.’

Prince Charming

The Prince of Wales has campaigned for thirty years on questions relating to food. He has written: ‘I have no intention of being confronted by my grandchildren, demanding to know why on Earth we didn’t do something about the many problems that existed when we knew what was going wrong. The threat of that question, the responsibility of it, is precisely why I have gone on challenging the assumptions of our day.’

Charles has placed a big emphasis on the environmental impact of farming and his views align with the principles of Biodynamic agriculture: ‘Genuinely sustainable farming maintains the resilience of the entire ecosystem by encouraging a rich level of biodiversity in the soil, in its water supply, and in the wildlife – the birds, insects, and bees that maintain the health of the whole system. Sustainable farming also recognizes the importance to the soil of planting trees; of protecting and enhancing water-catchment systems; of mitigating, rather than adding to, climate change.’ There is a wide consensus that radically reducing meat consumption is necessary in order to achieve this sustainability.

Unfortunately, unlike the Middletons, Charles is not suited to the Digital Age. He never became the ‘People’s Prince’ Plastic surgeons don’t talk about the Charles tuck. He has been so mercilessly lampooned that his views exert little influence on the public at large.

One assumes that serious discussions occur at Royal family dinners and that Charles gives vent to his passions. Does he notice that the Middletons are ‘on Dukan’? If so is he aware of the ethical import of that diet? He must know how influential pretty ladies in the public gaze can be. I wonder would he ever be able to persuade Kate and Pippa to start espousing views on food that might take into account the environmental impact of their choices, for the sake of his grandchildren at least. The unethical and unhealthy advice of an exploitative French doctor should be disowned.


Large scale immigration requires ‘the nation’ to be redefined

(Published in Metro Eireann, 2007)

‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’ (Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784)

Provisional census figures indicate that the there are approximately 400,000 non-nationals living in this country. Coping with such a level of diversity is a new challenge for the indigenous population of a peripheral island historically removed from the European mainstream, une isle derriere une isle as a French historian once put it. To date most of the new entrants have come from other EU states, but if, as seems likely, our economy continues to grow, increased numbers will arrive from elsewhere.

In order to achieve successful integration we may need to learn from other states in the Union, in particular Britain, where a model of multiculturalism prevails, and France where a different policy – that of assimilation, has been pursued. In 2005 both countries experienced serious incidents, civil disturbance in France and the terrorist attacks of July 7th in Britain, which called into question the efficacy of their respective policies. To achieve a peaceful transition, in this country, from a relatively homogenous society to one that is successfully cosmopolitan, it will be vital to strike the right balance between respecting diversity and encouraging integration.

The Immigration Residence and Protection Bill 2007

In a recent address to the Law Society the Tanaiste, and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell revealed the legislative response, in the shape of the Immigration Residence and Protection Bill 2007, the government will make to the large scale immigration of recent years.

In his speech, McDowell also explored how we identify ourselves, a theme which has been put in sharp focus by the pronouncements of the leader of the opposition, Enda Kenny, to the effect that we are a ‘Celtic and Christian’ people, which, apparently, makes us ‘understand better than most the special challenges of immigration and integrating new communities’. In an international climate which features a perceived ‘clash of civilisations’ to define ‘the Irish’, an increasingly diverse population, in racial and religious terms can, at best, be regarded as naïve, and at worst provocative. Mr McDowell, to his credit, repudiates the Fine Gael leader’s simplistic characterisation and instead advocates a ‘republican’ model rooted in ‘diversities of identities and traditions’.

The Minister also adds to the lexicon of Irish historiography by coining the terms ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Irish to distinguish between the indigenous population and new arrivals, many of whom will become citizens. One letter-writer to a national newspaper complained that, by analogy, an Irish person living in England could be referred to as ‘New English’, suggesting that this would be entirely unsatisfactory. This, however, is more testament to the stunted level of integration in Britain; the McDowell definition suggests that ‘Irishness’ is not the sole preserve of indigenes.

McDowell argues that there is little a government can do to promote integration: ‘[T]he breadth of the approach to this issue internationally suggests that integration policy and objectives are not particularly tied to legislative diktat’. He does, however, envisage some form of citizenship test: ‘[Citizenship] should perhaps be conferred only on those who can demonstrate that they have a minimum level of understanding of the nation and state to which those duties are owed and a minimum capacity to interact linguistically with the other citizens of the state’. The legal basis for a language test might be difficult to find in a country where the Constitution defines Irish as the ‘first national language’. Would immigrants be required to learn Irish? This approach evokes memories of Norman Tebbit’s absurd ‘cricket test’ for immigrants to Britain. The idea appears misguided; such an examination might demand a level of knowledge from a new immigrant that many a native would not attain.

Island Refuge

From independence, this state did not welcome foreign intrusion. Notably, Jewish refugees were not offered sanctuary during the Second World War. This reluctance can be explained by the efforts of a newly emerged governing elite to forge an unvarying national identity based on language and Catholic values.

The arrival of exoticism from abroad, in any shape or form, was not encouraged, especially while the country’s population continued to be drained by emigration, and resources were scarce. Cead Mile Failte would be extended so long as foreigners remained foreigners, admiring us from afar, or ideally, providing us with tourist dollars.

Times have obviously changed, the policy of autarky; the goal of self-sufficiency belongs to the past, we swim in the global economic maelstrom. It took some time to get there but now we serve as an exemplar to other post colonial states; the star pupil of the EU, brash and self-confident. While the boom depended in the early stages on the young population, since the turn of the century we have come to rely on foreign labour.

The relative opulence of virtual full employment counters a prevailing inclination towards begrudgery among the ‘Old Irish’, and also means that the new arrivals have, in general, avoided poverty. Further, as the majority have come from other European states, most of the ‘New Irish’ share cultural traits common to the ‘Old’, not to mention similar pigmentation. These factors have defused the threat of xenophobic political movements emerging. However, with birth rates at historic lows across the EU, and with the likelihood that the economies of Eastern European will improve as community membership takes effect, demand for labour will be filled from elsewhere if our economic success is to be sustained. This will bring increased immigration of peoples from countries with traditions and lifestyles more divergent to our own.


In Europe, it is possible to identify two main approaches to immigration; the British model of multiculturalism, and the French alternative of assimilation, neither of which have proved entirely successful.

In Britain, the issue of immigration came to the fore in the 1960s, most memorably in Enoch Powell’s speech predicting ‘Rivers of Blood’. The doomsday scenario has certainly not come to pass, although there have been numerous incidents along the way; race riots, the infamous Stephen Lawrence murder, and more recently the modest rise of the BNP and UKIP.

The main thrust of successive British government policy has been to deter discrimination. The Race Relations Acts (1965-2000) provide a legislative scheme for ensuring equality of treatment in areas such as employment, education, and housing. Further, a long liberal tradition has allowed immigrants, stretching back to Karl Marx, to freely express their opinions. Indeed, during the 1980s and 1990s ‘Londonistan’ emerged as a place of intellectual ferment for Islamists. This has been offered as an explanation for why Britain had not been subjected to attack by Islamic terrorists before the events of July 7th 2005 shattered the delicate modus vivendi.

Stemming perhaps from colonial experience, the British approach has been to identify various ethnic or religious blocks and patronise their leadership. However, the attempt to define, and to an extent control, ‘ethnic’ groups often generates confusion; for example in the ethnic coding for the 2001 census; ‘Muslim’ is offered as an ‘ethnic’ category under the heading ‘Asian’, while ‘Jewish’ (another religious category) falls under the heading ‘White’, with ‘Arab’ (are Jews and Arabs not supposed to both be Semites?) defined under ‘Chinese or Other’. The point is that ethnicity is a malleable concept, subject to change according to individual whim.

The British Home Office patronises various groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain (which is provided with financial support), as representatives of religious or ethnic blocks. But it is not always the case that individuals are satisfied to be represented by so-called ‘community leaders’, or that these often self-appointed individuals accurately reflect the views of their ‘community’; recently, a group of Jews in Britain came together to launch Independent Jewish Voices, an organisation opposed to the policies of Israel which are supported by the long-standing Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Anyone who has lived in London can testify to a level of alienation not experienced in other large cities. A trip on the Tube offers a parade of withdrawn faces. Tolerance can often lapse into a superficial political correctness, while communities stick to themselves.

Acknowledgement from social commentators and politicians that all is not well in multicultural Britain is beginning. In a recent article in The Guardian (1/2/07) Timothy Garton Ash wrote that the reality of multi-culturalism is ‘one of far-reaching alienation among young British Muslims. In an NOP poll last year, less than half of British Muslims interviewed identified Britain as “my country”.’ The situation in many communities of Afro-Caribbean descent is also a cause for concern, as gun crime reaches alarming proportions.

One source of the difficulties is the existence of an entrenched class system that encourages segregation. The effect of this is reinforced by colonial traditions that frowned upon miscegenation (cohabitation or marriage between different races); Britain is more mosaic than melting pot, and global currents enlarge the cracks.

Political Islam lays emphasis on the umma, the Islamic community, to the exclusion of ethnic or national identities. Social stratification has provided a breeding ground for this ideology, especially in the North of England ravaged by Thatcherism. Added to this social discontent, the foreign policy of the British government, strongly associated with what is perceived as a U.S ‘crusade’ against Islam, has created serious tensions that culminated in the suicide attacks of July 7th, 2005 which marked a new chapter in inter-communal relations. Currently relations are frosty, and much could depend on the foreign policy that emerges from the Blairite abdication.

The tradition of tolerance in Britain is to be admired, but the rigid stratification of ‘ethnic’ groups is increasingly a cause for alarm among politicians and social commentators in that country. Successive governments have tended to ignore the challenge of integration, giving rise to a situation where it would be fair to ask how many people would see themselves as ‘British’ as opposed to any of the other competing identities.

Veiled Threats

French colonisation developed by contrast, a policy of Assimilation (although Association was practised in later colonies such as Morrocco and Syria). The objective was to mould Frenchmen out of the native populations and there was no such taboo around miscegenation as under British colonisation. Indeed, the more sensual French tended to celebrate the native, perhaps most memorably in Gauguin’s depictions of Tahitian life.

However, efforts to integrate native populations ultimately failed, owing perhaps to the exploitation that defines the relationship of coloniser to colonised. This failure was seen most starkly in Algeria, the oldest of French colonies which had been integrated into Metropolitan France, where a brutal war of independence led to the deaths of at least 350,000 (and over twice that number according to Algerian sources) which effectively led to the demise of France as a colonial power, and has caused lasting enmity.

Within France, the state seems to continue a policy of Assimilation towards immigrants most of whom arrived during France’s trente glorieuses, (1945-1974); the thirty years of prosperity that followed the Second World War. In contrast to Britain, the French government does not allow official statistics based on ethnicity or religion to be compiled. Nonetheless, it is estimated there are 6.7 million people of immigrant background.

The absence of statistics cannot, however, mask clear fault lines exemplified vividly by the continued success of the National Front, Europe’s largest avowedly xenophobic party, the leader of which, Jean Marie Le Pen, interestingly, fought in the Algerian War of Independence. Its continued electoral success shows that there are ingrained prejudices in French society directed against those perhaps still considered colonial underlings. Indeed, an analysis of 1999 French census data elicited evidence of significant occupational segregation with immigrants occupying ‘jobs shunned by natives.’

Recent years has seen unemployment hover around 10%, generating discontent, and latterly civil disturbance. Scenes projected by the fictional film La Haine came vividly to life on a massive scale in 2005 as riots erupted in les banlieus causing extensive damage to many French cities, and leading to the declaration of a state of emergency.

Although the Renseignements Generaux (French Intelligence Agency) denied that there was an ‘Islamic factor’ to the riots, the aggressive policy of secularisation, a polite form of Assimilation, has fuelled tension. The ban on the wearing of the hijab (and other religious symbols) in schools allows Islamic militants to portray the state as Islamophobic, but for many in France this has become a fundamental tenet of their republicanism, so it would be almost impossible for any government to change course.

French society is highly politicised, strikes and manifestations seem to occur more regularly than in any other state on the planet. To an extent this is indicative of a healthy body politic, and revealingly, a 2006 survey, conducted by the Pew Research Centre, found that 72% of Muslims in France perceive no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society, in contrast to Britain where Muslims split evenly (47% saw a conflict, 49% did not). Furthermore, French foreign policy, particularly the French stance on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has brought the French government more in step with the views of most immigrants.

Nevertheless, the seeming unwillingness of the state to face up to diversity ignores the frictions in French society, and the ban on the hijab only stokes tensions without achieving any discernable objective. Ultimately, it is likely to be economic factors, especially the prevalence of unemployment, which will define future relations. It also remains to be seen how, if elected, the current Presidential favourite Nicolas Sarkozy, who advocates a more pro-American foreign policy, will effect relations.

Clean Slate

Unlike many other European states, the ‘Old Irish’ can define a relationship with the ‘New’ without the burden of colonisation. Indeed, as colonial subjects, and with a history of emigration, we should begin with a certain empathy with many Third World immigrants. Also, a tradition of neutrality means that this state is unlikely to get involved in foreign misadventures. But initial goodwill, on both sides, could rapidly dissipate.

There are clearly lessons to be learnt from the French and British experiences, and Michael McDowell is disingenuous to contend that the legislature does not have a role in confronting the question of integration. Council estates, and les banlieus have emerged in Britain and France as breeding ground for poverty and crime, allowing terrorism and civil disturbances to flourish. It is crucial for integration that our government pursues housing polices that counter the possibility of such ghettos. Already, socially deprived council estates have engendered a pernicious gangsterism among the ‘Old Irish’. It is surely vital that a like degeneration does not manifest itself among the ‘New Irish’.

Another danger, in the longer term, is that the gulf in wealth between the migrant and native could fuel tensions. An increase in the minimum wage, or further reduction in the lower band of income tax, would have an equalising effect. Otherwise, a neo-colonial relationship could take hold, with immigrants taking on the subaltern roles in Irish society with ‘occupational segregation’ emerging.

From the French experience it is worthwhile to observe the value of instilling in immigrants a sense of pride in the nation. The educational system is crucial to this endeavour. The presence, still, of habit-wearing nuns still teaching in schools, ought deter controversy over the issue of the hijab, but our education system does perhaps require a dose of secularisation; schools run by religious orders are unlikely to be acceptable to many non-Catholic immigrants, and it is important that children from different backgrounds are acclimatised to one another. The bifurcation of Protestants and Catholics in the North of Ireland can perhaps be traced to the segregation of schools there.

Modest Proposal

Article 27 of the Canadian charter reads as follows:

‘This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.’

The Irish Constitution already ‘cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage’; would it not be fitting to amend our Constitution to include a similar endearment towards immigrants?

Rising Tide

Fortunately, no significant racist or xenophobic political movements have emerged in this state; in contrast to many other European countries where, in recent years, political parties advocating stringent controls on immigration have grown in popularity, and have even entered into ruling coalitions. For all its faults, the melting pot of U.S. society has been far more accommodating to immigrants. Perhaps Europe’s inability to integrate immigrants is best explained by how, with France perhaps excepted, pride in the nation is generally bound up with attachment to a particular ethnic background, or volk. There is an urgent need to repudiate this conflation, and re-appraise this understanding of the ‘nation’. The views of Dominique Schnapper of the Constitutional Council of France are endorsed: ‘The Classical concept of the nation is that of an entity which, opposed to the ethnic group, affirms itself as an open community, the will to live together expressing itself by the acceptance of a unified public domain which transcends all particularisms.’

If we define ourselves as a ‘Celtic and Christian’ people we embrace an exclusive “particularism” that will exclude immigrants. Michael McDowell’s definition of the ‘Old Irish’ and ‘New Irish’ is helpful, as Irishness ceases to be exclusive. Nonetheless, the state should refrain from a heavy-handed Assimilation, allowing for the celebration of other cultures, not just our own. It is also important that this government move beyond rhetoric and adopt policies that will smooth the process of creating an “open community”.

The Thin End of a Hamburger-Shaped Wedge

(London Magazine, October/November, 2011)

While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered beasts, how can we expect any ideal conditions on this earth?

– George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

The appearance in men’s lives of domestic animals as a reserve of meat and energy, proved to be a continuing originality of the West

– Fernand Braudel (1902-1985)

Last year I paid an illuminating visit to a French food market in Libourne, outside Bordeaux. At the entrance, among teeming ‘fruits of the sea’, a proud fisherman unfurled a bag of writhing eels. They bore contorted visages that betokened awareness of a fate involving slow-cooking in red wine to form Matelote – a delicacy in those parts.

The real action, however, was to be found inside at the butchers’ stalls. No inanimate chicken breast here; instead, whole birds with patches of unplucked feathers and proud heads nuzzled demurely against one another. Not far away lay a ghoulish array of tongues – mostly cow, but also of pig – arranged in apparent homage to The Rolling Stones’s Forty Licks album. It is startling how long they are. I began to anthropomorphise, roll my own, and, recalling a buried fondness, gulped nervously at karmic prospects.

Next I came to a wild-eyed horse-meat seller who whinnied disconcertingly before launching into enthusiastic instructions on how to stew his, to me repellent, meat. It looked like beef and I wondered whether it should be accompanied by horseradish. Then I felt nauseous at instinctive gourmandising.

On a certain level it was a house of horrors, not dissimilar to the triumphal marches of antiquity in which vanquished warriors were paraded incages through dusty streets en route to ritual execution. Yet the apparent necrophilia of the market stall is a tourist attraction and a flowering of France’s gastronomic tradition that prizes the sometimes brutal terroir of ingredients.

As a consequence, vegetarians are often regarded by the French as po- faced ascetics, removed from the pleasure of dishes like foie gras, coq au vin or confit de canard which define regional identities, forge family bonds, and channel culinary skill. A refusal to eat meat is almost taboo in France, a contempt that may be traced to the Albigensian Crusade of the thirteenth century when heretical Cathars were identified by their refusal to consume flesh.

Les Rosbifs

Britain has a different relationship with meat. Early urbanisation disconnected most from agriculture, and industrial packaging sanitises it; the ubiquitous chicken breast is dissociated from its animal origins. Indeed, an encounter with a blood vessel can serve as an alarming – horrific to some – reminder that this flesh was once living, and not unlike our own.

Just as we are removed from the brutality of war so the abattoir is out of sight. We receive reports of foreign conflicts in news clips of laser- guided weapons that leave puff balls of smoke on infra-red landscapes, and we are quite detached from its shocking reality. Similarly we rarely encounter any hint of the squawk and screech of production-line killing. Even once-ubiquitous butcher shops are now a quaint presence on the cityscape as supermarket-packaging draws us one stage further from the bloody business.

Of course nowadays even the French do most of their shopping in vast, quite sanitised hypermarchés, while a new generation of British ‘foodies’ usually embrace the brutality of meat. Unusually, a few weeks ago I witnessed a succession of rabbits being decapitated in Oxford’s fashionable Covered Market. I recalled Uncle Monty’s sensitivity in Withnail and I (1987) when he revealed: ‘As a youth I would weep in butchers’ shops’.

Apparently, the French consumer is more desensitised to the reality of meat-eating than her English counterpart.

A tendency to ignore the animal origin of meat in Britain is furthered by a linguistic disjunction between the words for most meat, like beef, and the animal from which it derives, e.g. cattle. Only in unusual (reindeer), taboo (horse) or, oddly, immature animals (lamb, chicken) do we find correspondence. In contrast the Frenchmouton and porc identify both the meat and the animal, but as loan-words these were adopted in English only for the comestible meats: pork and mutton. The original Old English terms for pig and sheep are little changed. In part this disconnection is the legacy of the Norman conquest of 1066. The words beef (boeuf) and veal (veau) also derive from French. The conventional explanation is that the vanquished Anglo-Saxons tended the animals while the tiny minority of French-speaking Anglo-Normans ate them. This linguistic separation casts a long shadow, and reveals how little meat was actually eaten.

Meat eating is less enshrined in the English psyche. In the nineteenth century a puritanical aversion to fatally French-inspired gastronomy meant any talk of food was considered dangerously sensual. Meat, with two veg, was the national staple but its popularity derived from its being perceived as ‘filling’ and nutritious. English food was so self-consciously plain that, in the second part of the twentieth century, foreign cuisines were rapidly embraced. Vegetarianism, while unusual, is not controversial as it can be in France.

In recent times a ‘foodie’ movement of celebrity chefs has attempted to alter the national relationship with food, meat in particular. Stately, plump Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the self-styled diabolic Gordon Ramsay and the slick marketing empire that is Jamie Oliver, have extolled the gastronomic value of meat. The descendents of the victors at the Battle of Agincourt have determined that the French blood-and-guts-approach should be embraced. The factory farm has been eschewed in favour of a pastoral idyll in which seasonality and provenance are the buzz words.

Energy Deficits

My grandmother kept hens on a small scale in the west of Ireland. She would say that ‘every hen dies in debt’, meaning the cost of feeding them, even offset by the addition of household scraps, outweighed any saving on egg expenditure. But she continued to tend them until near her death because hens allowed to roam freely produce eggs with vividly orange yolks that surpass in taste anything produced in industrial-agriculture (the description ‘free range’ found on many egg packets is simply untrue).

Canny Granny Armstrong recognised that her energy inputs outweighed the energy output of her eggs. The factory farm could produce eggs more efficiently, but industrial-agriculture contends with the same deficit.

All animals draw their nutrition from plant-life which photosynthesises; but the converted energy of animal by-products never equates to the energy value of the plant-matter prior to consumption. There are, it is true, marginal landscapes and grasslands unsuited to field crops where ruminants may graze without encroaching on yields from arable land. But most ruminants, especially cattle, are now fattened in feeding lots, mainly consuming grains previously reserved for humans. Less than twenty percent of the corn maize grown in the US is eaten by humans; much of it is fed to cattle even though its acidity leaves them sick with indigestion. The energy-deficit of beef is particularly bad: an energy input to protein output ratio of fifty-four to one normally applies. Consequently, according to a UN report from 2006, cattle-rearing generates more greenhouse gases than driving cars: as well as the methane that is produced in their intestines, most grain fed to animals is grown using artificial fertilisers, the production of which is dependent on natural gas.

Cattle, however, play a crucial role in traditional agriculture due to the manure they provide which restores nitrogen to the soil. Also, their hoof indentations assist the growth of new grass. Oxen once provided crucial energy for ploughing. Between man, beast and grass varieties there has been a fruitful co-evolution that once operated sustainably. The industrial- farming model, by contrast, involves a specialisation in which grain-fed livestock are limited to one single use: food production.

The energy inefficiency of beef is recognised by ‘primitive’ pastoral societies such as the Gaelic Irish prior to the Tudor conquest, and the present-day Masai Mara in Kenya. Cattle are slaughtered only in extremis; instead they extract milk, or blood more rarely. Most famously the cow is sacred to Hindus. The historic popularity of veal in Europe is explained by the male’s inability to yield milk. Scarce fodder from productive dairy cows would have to be diverted in order to bring the male to maturity. Killing the fatted calf was a necessity as well as a rare aristocratic treat.

The challenge of allowing much of the Western world to eat meat and other animal by-products at almost every meal has been achieved by two means: first by increasing the yields on arable land with artificial fertilisation, pesticides, and genetic selection and (occasionally) engineering, and, second, through deforestation. In the last century the Amazon jungle has been radically reduced, but the same process occurred in once-forested Europe. Continued growth in global population and, more importantly, the increasing spread of the modern meat-heavy Western diet motivates further encroachment with unknown consequences. However, any environmental Armageddon can be averted if eating habits change. Research by Cornell University (1997) established that if livestock were restricted to grasslands the United States could feed 800 million people, with no nutritional deficit.

Delusions of Grandeur

In the hierarchical societies of feudal Europe, despite the population being a tiny proportion of current levels (England’s population is reckoned to have been between 1.4 and 1.9 million in 1086 at the time of the Book of Doomsday, compared to fifty million today), meat was usually reserved for the aristocracy. Only in the wake of the Black Death (1348-1350), when as much as a half of Europe’s population was wiped out, did its consumption increase at all social levels before receding as populations grew in the sixteenth century.

Slaughtering an animal foreclosed an important agricultural resource and a steady supply of food; the only exception was the pig which was raised exclusively for meat. But in the past pork was a rarity for all but the nobility, and deployed sparingly. As late as 1852 a travellers’ guide for Tarn in the south-west of France recorded how the poorer peasants greased their vegetable diets with a little lard in a small bag which they plunged briefly in the cooking pot and used over and over for as long as it would last.

Along with the increased productivity of European agriculture, where Holland led the way in the early modern period, the colonisation of the Americas held out the possibility of increased meat consumption. The desire for a diet heavy in animal by-products motivated the continuous expansion of European settlement, at the expense of the indigenous population. According to Deborah Valenze, in ‘the bestiary of the New World … [a]nimal protein was always the subtext of early colonial braggadocio’. Cowboys staked a claim to the land with their choice of food. The railroads allowed city dwellers to partake in the edible bounty.

Meat eating is primarily associated with urban living. Previously this was because towns held the critical mass to consume a large animal before putrefaction set in. Refrigeration arrived only in the late nineteenth century, and accelerated the consumption of meat in technologically advanced cities. As recently as a century ago, the average annual consumption of meat per capita in England was twenty-five kilos, a figure that has risen to eighty kilos today; hence Carolyn Steele’s conclusion that ‘the inexorable rise of burgher and burger go hand in hand’. Meat-eating is now present at all social levels from haute cuisine to kebab shop.

The diet promoted by the original gastronomes, Jean-Anthelm Brillat- Savarin (d.1826) and Grimod de La Reynière (d. 1837), in France evoked pre-Revolutionary aristocratic taste. This meat-heavy diet was equated misleadingly with a traditional rustic one and popularised as ‘French’ food. Fernand Braudel writes: ‘the diet of peasants, that is the vast majority of the population, had nothing in common with the cookery books written for the rich.’

So-called French food was a global hit. The great chef Auguste Escoffier (d.1935) boasted: ‘I have “sown” two thousand chefs all around the world … Think of them as so many seeds planted in virgin soils.’ ‘French’ cuisine became the dominant idiom in Western elite cooking over the course of the nineteenth century and has only latterly been overhauled.

The present English foodie-gastronomy essentially endorses French cuisine, unsurprisingly as most top chefs are trained in that style. The American diet is rejected for its perceived vulgarity. The fabled, pre- modern, edible-landscape of Melton Mowbray pork pies, Cumberland sausages and ten-bird roasts that has emerged in the imaginations of foodies disguises a humbler reality. As late as 1797 Sir Frederick Eden describes in The State of the Poor how farm labourers in the south of England were ‘habituated to the unvarying meal of dry bread and cheese from week’s end to week’s end’.

Doubtless, meat enthusiasts would counter that people should be willing to spend a greater proportion of their income on food, and prize the entirety of an animal. However, this ignores the inescapable impact of widespread meat-heavy diets with population at its current level. It hardly matters whether offal is prepared in posh restaurants or ground into meat patties. Our leading celebrity chefs popularise aristocratic meat-based dishes while maintaining a veneer of environmental-correctness which suggests a rejection of the American consumption model. Nonetheless the selection of choice cuts is the thin end of a hamburger-shaped wedge.

Man the Hunter

There is no reason to suppose that meat tastes better than other foods. Taste is learnt and trends are followed. Braudel observes: ‘fashion governs cooking like fashion. Famous sauces fall into disrepute one day and after that elicit nothing but condescending smiles.’ A gastronome reflects popular taste but also informs it through writing and broadcasting. If you told a Londoner in the wake of World War II that Japanese food would be all the rage today they might laugh at you, or perhaps attack you for sullying the memory of fallen comrades.

Perhaps part of the appeal of meat is that it identifies us with man-the- hunter, even if wild animals are rarely consumed, much less hunted. Men in particular seem to enjoy the experience of the barbecue which, it is often suggested, connects us with hunter ancestors. But hunting came very late in our evolution and only ever formed perhaps one fifth of a pre-agricultural diet. Gathering, usually done by women, was far more important.

Pierre Bourdieu observes of male eating habits: ‘the practical philosophy of the male body as a sort of power, big and strong, with enormous imperative,

brutal needs, which is asserted in every male posture, especially when eating, is also the principle of the division of foods between the sexes … It behoves a man to drink and eat more, and to eat and drink stronger things.’ He continues: ‘Meat, the nourishing food par excellence, strong and strong-making, giving vigour, blood and health, is the dish for the men, who take a second helping.’ This stereotype was confirmed to me by the cover of the Esquire magazine cookbook which I recently noticed in a bookshop. It reads, ‘Eat Like a Man’ and features a huge char-grilled steak on the front cover.

A conventional gesture of maleness suggests that he should order the steak or other large joint of meat, idly flexing his bicep as he points to the menu. This view of maleness is reinforced by the gastronomes and celebrity chefs that inform macho tastes. The male vegetarian is considered an androgynous oddity, and wags recall that Hitler was one.

Nutritionally, however, it is not a requirement for us to consume meat to the present extent. In fact it is positively unhealthy to do so according to important research. This is rarely emphasised by health authorities that seem fearful of offending powerful agri-business. The China Study (2005), a comprehensive epidemiological survey conducted over twenty years, revealed that a vegan, plant-only diet minimises or reverses the development of chronic diseases. Perhaps the lower life-expectancy of men compared to women is explained by a cultural equation of meat with masculinity. Contrary to popular perception, plant proteins abound, and are found in quite surprising sources like potatoes and most grains. The essential amino acids are available in tofu and miso.

Vegetarian food is still viewed as the poor relation, a position derived from the French pioneers of gastronomy who extolled a meat-heavy aristocratic diet. The challenge for a new generation of chefs is to break with convention and make vegetarian food something special, and hopefully gastronome-foodies will endorse their efforts. The recent volte-face of the foremost of carnivore propagandists, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, offers some encouragement.

The Thin End of a Hamburger-Shaped Wedge

Elizabeth David and the British Gastronomic Enlightenment

Elizabeth David and the British Gastronomic Enlightenment

Published in The London Magazine April/May 2010

The landscape of British cuisine would be unrecognisable without the influence of Elizabeth David, whose French Provincial Cookery has been fifty years in print. Not least, the sophistication of her prose – up to this point no British writer had brought a literary sensibility to bear on food writing – created a climate where discussion of gastronomy, which Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin defined as ‘the reasoned comprehension of everything connected with the nourishment of man’, became acceptable and, at times, even de rigueur in polite society.

In Spicing Up Britain – The Multicultural History of British Food, Panikos Panayi’s analysis of the evolution of British food culture, he likens her role in this culinary enlightenment to a Rousseau or Voltaire because of the number of writers who appeared in her wake.

David Kynaston in Austerity Britain 1945-51 is rather more circumspect. He asserts: ‘it is arguable that her influence has been exaggerated. Not only was she far from the most widely read cookery writer – significantly, she seems to have had little or nothing to do with the mass-market women’s magazines.’ He does, though, acknowledge that ‘among those at the very vanguard of the culinary broadening out, David was the totemic figure.’

Thus, while she is not a household name her influence in turning food into a topic for intellectual discourse, and, especially, in generating an awareness and appreciation of other European cuisines among legions of chefs, professional and otherwise, cannot be discounted. Perhaps the River Café, whose alumni (Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall et al) read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of English gastronomy, best embodies her vision of Mediterranean cooking with the finest ingredients.

By the time David came around to writing her books, it is fair to say that British cuisine had reached a nadir. In the 1930s George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier argued that the ‘English palate, especially the working class palate, now rejects good food almost automatically.’ Talk of food was regarded as crass, and shamefully Francophile, even for the upper-middle class as Harold Macmillan recalled of the circles he grew up in before World War I. An interesting echo of a Tory distaste for gastronomic musings can be discerned in views expressed by Boris Johnson in the Observer in 2008: ‘I think all food is delicious. I just can’t understand why people go on and on about it, especially restaurant critics. I mean, food is good, isn’t it?’

Moreover, according to Stephen Mennell’s in All Manners of Food: ‘The really striking, virtually central concern running through the British [cookery] trade press for the best part of a century is with economy.’ The spirit of ‘waste-not-want-not’ fostered an industrial food culture that saw eating in empirical, calorific terms, rather than as an expression of individuality or an evocation of place.

The privations of World War II hardly helped matters by creating an atmosphere, as David Kynaston has observed, where ‘no unbearable lightness of being’ prevailed. ‘Make do and mend’ was the zeitgeist. The continuation of rationing was causing not just hardship but also a stasis or even deterioration in culinary skills.

It was into this setting that the bohemian Elizabeth David strode. She had been travelling around Europe, mainly France, since the age of sixteen, between half-hearted attempts to make a career as an actress on the London stage, and before spending what might be described as a ‘good war’ in Alexandria after being rescued from a rather idyllic sojourn on a Greek island. While in war-time Egypt she moved in the same circles as literary types such as Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor, and entered into an unsuccessful marriage.

On repatriation to England at the end of the war, David, a tempestuous personality at the best of times, did not take kindly to the bland fare which she was forced to endure. She was particularly outraged by dining experiences when marooned in a hotel in Ross-on-Wye. She later recalled: ‘there was no excuse, none, for such unspeakably unpleasant meals as in that dining room were put in front of me. To my agonized homesickness for the sun and southern food was added an embattled rage that we should be asked – and should accept – the endurance of such cooking.’

Neither was she best pleased by the conservative cooking habits of some her friends. Helping one companion to prepare the family’s evening meal, she injected a bit of life into a gravy by substituting red wine for the cabbage water that was normally used. The children lapped up the new version but her hostess was concerned lest the wine would intoxicate her offspring. David’s claim that the alcohol had been boiled off fell on deaf ears so, ‘[b]ack we had to go to the barbarous gravy routine.’

Her sense of outrage seems to have impelled her to forge a new awareness of the art of cookery through the publication of a series of recipe books that began with Mediterranean Cooking (1950), culminating in her last non-posthumous work An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (1984). Her style of writing was sparse but clear and featured often extensive quotations from her favourite authors. She could deploy a caustic wit to devastating effect when roused. This quality can be seen in an article for The Spectator entitled ‘Lucky Dip’ (29 June 1962) where she mentioned that she had given the filling for a commercial veal and ham pie to her cat, who had turned it down.

Despite engaging with specifically British recipes and themes in some works, her culinary imagination was invariably stirred by memories of the sun-baked surroundings of her dilettante youth. Thus she writes: ‘Here in London it is an effort of will to believe in the existence of such a place [Provence] at all’. Indeed, it could be argued that she developed a Manichean view of a division between the diabolic depths of British food, and the celestial heights of continental gastronomy.

Referring to the routine evening set meals in ‘more modest hotels and restaurants’ in France, she say that the ‘cooking of these dishes would possibly make them into notable meals here in England, but in France one’s expectations are higher, and one’s disappointment at a dull meal consequently greater.’ Not only were English restaurants subjected to criticism but also, seemingly, the very produce of the land. She quotes Ford Maddox Ford to the effect that ‘There [in Provence] there is no more any evil, for there the apple will not flourish and brussels sprout will not grow at all.’ She seems to have had an abhorrence for all things brassicaceae: ‘the drabness and dreariness and stuffy smells evoked by … [the Brussels sprout’s] very name, has nothing at all to do with southern cooking.’

Arabella Boxer in Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food argues that by introducing cheerless post-war England to the delights of olive oil, parmesan and garlic, David diverted attention from the ‘brief flowering’ of English food that took place between the wars, a cuisine that ‘had absorbed a lot of French and American ideas; but it was still based on traditional, home-produced ingredients’ such as simple grills and roasts, fruit fools, summer puddings and Bakewell tarts and cold meats and salads ‘which became more interesting’. David, however, can hardly be held responsible for the failure of British culture to produce adequate writers on that subject. She cannot be faulted for her own inspirations; what she did, above all, was popularise the concept of gastronomic writing as a genre beyond simply recipe books. By establishing this precedent she popularised the discussion of food, and provided ample scope for her heirs, such as Boxer, to reclaim any perceived lost traditions.

Nonetheless, while Dorothy Hartley is correct when she says: ‘We do enjoy foreign dishes and admire continental cooks but when we cook the foreign dishes the dishes, like the foreigners become “naturalised English”’, a fissure does seem to develop between a people and their terroir when the provenance of so much food, like olive oil for instance, is foreign. David was unapologetic: ‘all of us nowadays, except perhaps some curiously bigoted members of the catering profession, have travelled a little, and on visits abroad have acquired tastes which, so far from disagreeing with us, have become a part of our daily lives.’

The kind of domestication of foreign cuisine that David encouraged can be seen as a positive development in that it connotes an avoidance of xenophobia and the smooth operation of multiculturalism – by comparison the French tend to turn their noses up at the very notion of non-French food while simultaneously displaying greater levels of xenophobia if their political preferences are taken as a measure.

Nonetheless, though her official biographer, Artemis Cooper, argues that David always informed people what locally grown food was in season, the ample produce of English agriculture, creams and butters and handmade cheeses, a practice of grass-feeding sheep and cattle, wild fish, abundant game, all tended to pale for her in comparison to foreign alternatives.

The imported foodstuffs that she advocated are not cheap either monetarily or in environmental terms. Arguably, then, she has contributed to a division in British cuisine between a high church of ‘posh’ – generally foreign food – and the traditional and affordable, low-church fare of fish fingers and spaghetti hoops, exemplifying and even amplifying Mennell’s maxim that: ‘Higher social circles have repeatedly used food as one of many means of distinguishing themselves from lower rising classes.’

One area of British food, impacting on all classes, where David attempted to prevent the encroachment of industrialization was bread-making. In article and in her book English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), she decried the advent of the Chorleywood process which uses lower grades of wheat and comes at the nutritional cost of increased salt and yeast and decreased protein value. Alas, today eighty per cent of British bread is made using that process.

Elizabeth David is now regarded as the doyenne of British cookery and French Provincial Cooking is regarded by many as her finest work. She made the foreign accessible and almost single-handedly forged a British gastronomic tradition. Perhaps her most enduring legacy is that today Britain probably boasts some of the most adventurous and exciting food in the world, but in its lack of esteem for native produce, also some of the most bland and insipid.