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Artillery Row

How I came to live in Looking-Glass House

How it feels to be exiled over political disagreement

For half a century I knew everything. Flag up a cause, an issue and I knew the correct line to take. If I was in doubt the BBC and the Guardian would tell me. So would my friends. They were, at various points, students, artists, Quakers, academics and social workers. 

I didn’t know any Tories unless you count a mate’s eccentric husband. He was a landowner, with an entry in Debrett’s. In such circumstances, the kindest view was that the man’s politics were a hereditary affliction, like haemophilia. In all other cases, I felt Conservatives could be classed as bad, mad, or stupid. Usually, a combination of all three.

There could be no doubt I was a socially engaged, progressive person. I signed petitions and supported causes. For years I was a card-carrying member of my chosen party. For six months — and isn’t everyone entitled to a fling? — I paid subs to a different one. 

Yet I took care to avoid the slog of thinking about political problems. Mental activity was reserved for paid work — teaching, writing, editing. My intellect was a smart but uncomfortable suit. As soon as possible I’d dump it on the bedroom floor.

The beliefs which I held to be proof that my childhood was over, sprang from my upbringing. I’d been taught that virtue meant being generous to those less fortunate than myself. I had also been raised on fairy tales. The message I drew from them was that if I was polite to the oppressed, all would — eventually — be well.

Decade followed decade. Utopia came no closer. Perhaps my distance vision was failing. 

But I felt the trouble was caused by an explosion of new sects — all vying to see who was the most marginalised.

I could have opted to embrace this change. Didn’t it create fresh opportunities  for me to give? But I saw just how much was being taken from a group to which I belonged. My group, the membership of which was once clearly understood and defined, was also being weakened by entryism. (To avoid inflaming sensitivities, I’ve not named this body, but put extra information in a footnote*.) 

My views were so normal I was sure my friends — the artists, academics, Quakers and social workers — would concur. To my astonishment, they rejected my concerns. 

I would draw on my stock of cleverness. I would gather data, construct bullet-proof arguments. That should win them over.

But I lost. The losses were heavy. 

I lost not only friends but also the two political parties, my writing community, a church, a trade union, and more campaigning organisations than I could mention.

I told myself it didn’t matter. I had poetry — the successor to fairy tales — and could find solace in the work of Elizabeth Bishop.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

It’s a handy philosophy, though one that’s easier to deploy when a person is well-off. (Bishop inherited money from her father. This legacy allowed her to travel widely. She stayed in a variety of countries without ever having to work for a living.)

Then a company I worked for got rid of me. They did this after I posted on Twitter about the plight of the group I belonged to. Still not the worst of disasters, but it was inconvenient and unjust. With help from the Free Speech Union, I took the company to an Employment Tribunal. After fifteen months, shortly before the hearing, I received an apology and settlement.

The plan was to settle back down with my old opinions. After this victory, my former companions would come round. I’d feel at home in my life once more.

Instead, a removal occurred.

Each day I wake to find myself in a Looking-Glass House. In appearance it is like my former address. Yet it differs in a way that’s been described by Lewis Carroll’s Alice:

First, there’s the room you can see through the glass – that’s just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way.

Things go the other way. What sort of things?

Political things.

The reversal had its own logic. Didn’t I come from a world where the Conservative Party conserved nothing? Where Labour distanced itself from people who go into labour? Where LibDems were illiberal? Where the Greens didn’t focus on ecology but urged the young to alter themselves with dodgy chemicals.

I met the House’s other occupants. They were an odd bunch.

They proved to be more tolerant, more diverse and inclusive than the folk I used to hang out with

Rather than celebrate the joys of multiculturalism, they liked to pick holes in critical race theory. Instead of pronouns, some had Union Jacks in their bios. A lot of them voted for Brexit. Lastly there were the Christians. I’d known Christians before, but these were the sort who believed. Who didn’t just skip the less palatable verses of the Bible. 

Even so, my housemates were alright. (All Right?) They proved to be more tolerant, more diverse and inclusive than the folk I used to hang out with. 

Looking-Glass House lets me say what I please. Here, I may write what I like. 

In the old world my options had been whittled away. I was to keep my mouth shut or pretend to be down with the kids.

My children! I had almost forgotten…

At least, I think the people on the far side, waving, are my children. It is hard to know because there’s mist in the way. Also, their faces have changed.

“Be careful!” they shout. “Beware!”

I pretend not to hear them.

[*] This group makes up half the human race and has large gametes.

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