Monday, 10 September 2012

How are we to live?

In an otherwise blameless review of a book on urban transport systems, I came across another sighting of one of the most persistent misattributed quotes of modern times, the claim that "Margaret Thatcher once declared that 'a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure'." The quote is thought to have originated with the minor British poet Brian Howard, a part-model for the character of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, and was given currency in the memoirs of Loelia Ponsonby, Duchess of Westminster. The remark's tone of Lady Bracknell-like condescension is what you would expect from some called Loelia Ponsonby. What is baffling is why anyone would expect such an aphorism to drop from the lips of Margaret Thatcher.

For many, Thatcher's chief feature was her utter lack of empathy and corresponding lack of a sense of humour (conspicuous by its absence in her actual quotes). Though her martial spirit at the time of the Falklands and during the Miners' Strike earned her plaudits from many, those on the receiving end saw her as "unfeeling" and "cruel". I've often wondered if she wasn't actually on the mild end of the autistic spectrum. Her exceptional status as a woman meant that she was easily treated as a collection of props (the handbag, the hairdo, the haughty disdain), which deflected attention from the emotional void. Even the Soviets labelling of her as "The Iron Lady" is a literally superficial description, as well as a sarky reference to Stalin, the man of steel.

What got me thinking about the old bat, in a roundabout way, is the current BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End. In a review, the historian David Priestland focused on the lead character, Christopher Tietjens. Priestland has a book to sell, which attempts to interpret history through competition between three "castes": warrior aristocracy, technocratic sages and commercial merchants (with the workers largely off-stage). This substitutes boring old economic classes with modern personality types (Which one are you? Take our quick test!) Tietjens in this reading combines warrior and sage (he quits his job as a statistician for the trenches), while the target of Ford's satire is the unprincipled and venal political establishment, a Liberal administration that represents the commercial interest.

Priestland sees the success of the adaptation, and that of Downton Abbey, as a longing for "gentle Toryism" and claims that "the last time we saw such an epidemic of Tory nostalgia was in the 1930s. After the merchant-driven Wall Street crash of 1929, the conservative-voting middle classes faced a frightening world of social and international conflict. They rejected a failed commercialism, and sought instead a return to an imaginary world of idealised hierarchy – paternalistic, yet free of the old aristocratic warmongering that had brought them the suffering of the trenches". But the "last time" was surely the early 1980s under the first Thatcher administration, and specifically the success of Brideshead Revisited. This caught the zeitgeist in part because of the contrast between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. Not just the tension of class, middle versus upper, but Tory fogeyism versus amoral hedonism. Sebastian's aesthete crowd (including Anthony Blanche) may have been a bunch of arty poseurs of flexible sexuality, but they also exhibited a cupidity and taste for champagne that foreshadowed the coming house style of the City. Even Harry Enfield's "loadsmoney" plasterer had some common DNA. The unrepentant disregard for the working class, and the revelling in the material trappings of wealth, were what made Brideshead a TV hit, not the Catholic notion of divine grace.

There is a thread that runs from Ford's Tietjens in the 1920s to three characters published in the 1950s, just before the apotheosis of the bus in the form of the Routemaster. Evelyn Waugh's Guy Crouchback, the hero of the Sword of Honour trilogy, is the closest in style and mood, even sharing multiple plot similarities. At the extremes are the bathetic Jim Dixon of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and the caricature of Ian Fleming's James Bond. The common theme is that breeding and conservative principles are a bulwark against a changing world, though this outlook is presented through the virtues of authenticity and anti-pretension in the case of Dixon. These characters are all variations on the theme of powerlessness, with Bond's superiority in violence, tailoring and means of transport a compensatory daydream. Coincidentally, Fleming was a friend of Loelia Ponsonby and used her name for Bond's personal secretary in the earlier novels.

Benedict Cumberbatch is physically wrong for the part of Tietjens - too feline, not stolid enough, not enough of an Eeyore. The direction makes him look bigger, as it makes Stephen Graham (Combo in This is England) look smaller - a preening mouse. Rebecca Hall looks like a sleek thoroughbred - Tietjens loves horses and finds them more congenial than most people, a classic romantic Tory trope. It is a well-written, directed and acted production. The need to compress 3 out of the 4 books into a total of 5 hours produces a rapid series of miniatures: beautifully-shot scenes, witty dialogue, heightened emotion. You are never less than entertained. But what (if any) is the message? After 3 of the 5 episodes, it looks like it will be the consolations of love, even though the omitted fourth volume's coda concerns the practicalities of life: "How are we to live?" Ultimately, I think Ford's point is that "gentle Toryism" is not enough and leads to a retreat into the cultivation of one's garden. As we look forward to a decade of austerity, nostalgia looks as irresponsible and selfish now as it did in the 1980s.

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