In Staring at God, his magnificently panoramic account of Britain’s First World War at home and in the gruesome field, Simon Heffer reminds us that William Inge was popularly (or journalistically) nicknamed The Gloomy Dean. Inge subscribed to Rupert Brooke’s self-generated cult of noble death, reciting “If I should die think only this of me” from the pulpit of St Paul’s before Brooke had died. Soon that heady romanticism was properly quashed: Thomas Hardy addressed the shysters and brass who were spendthrift in their supply of young men to suffer trenchfoot and blindness before they were exploded:
Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame;
May their familiars grow to shun their name,
And their brood perish everlastingly.
The endurance of the name Harmsworth unhappily indicates the sheer impotence of great poetry.
Hardy’s letter of condolence to Rider Haggard on the death of his ten-year-old son is unsparingly tactless. It sweeps away conventional courtesy with truth: “I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.”
Housman wrote that pessimism is “almost as silly, though not so wicked, as optimism.” Billy Wilder remarked that “the optimists died in the gas chambers, the pessimists have pools in Beverly Hills.”
Optimism is foundationless expectation promoted by frauds and swallowed by dupes. There lies its wickedness. It’s akin to a faith. It relies on the will of the mob — and all mobs, I insist, derive from the first mob, the one which voted that Jesus rather than Barabas should die.
Mobs seethe with a wishfulness they have been instructed in by mountebanks and demagogues. The poor, according to Inge, are “intensely gregarious and very susceptible to all collective emotions”. Hence no doubt the collapse of The Red Wall, which is just about contiguous with The Irony Curtain.
This admirably miserabilist sky pilot was generally on the money: “When an old-fashioned brigand appears, and puts himself at the head of his nation, he becomes at once a popular hero. By any rational standard of morality, few greater scoundrels have lived than Frederick the Great and Napoleon I. But they are still names to conjure with. Both were men of singularly lucid intellect and entirely mediaeval ambitions.”
If the prime shit possesses such an intellect he does his utmost to hide it. He writes terminally jocular prose, like the victim of a Workshopping Wodehouse residential course for sad fucks who think they have a funny book in them. His boorish repetitions, exhausted alliterations and clichéd tabloid slogans — doomster, gloomster, awesome foursome — are far from Churchillian; they are not even the peer of Paisley’s. They are more akin to the stuff that used to emerge along with the 100-proof spittle from the mouth of an incoherent, jabbering, badered Oliver Reed grossing out on a chat show and unable to control his flailing arms.
But The People’s Piss Artist never held power. His avatar does: the antic squalor that’s just about acceptable in an actor is reprehensible in a politician. His lack of doubt, of reflection, is horribly childish; there is nothing to suggest that it’s an act. His mendacity about, say, the sunlit uplands of New Model Britain in Year Zero of the Johnsonian mandate is psychotic.
The optimist tells lies that he knows the people want to hear, he knows their will: it’s a matter of being in touch with the lowest common denominator. It was said of Richard Nixon “he lied so much that if he accidentally found himself telling the truth he’d start lying again just to keep his hand in”. The Shit’s demeanour makes the sentient wince, constantly. He provokes species shame.
One can just about live with that. But his antinomian lawlessness is genuinely frightening. Who is there to police this creature sculpted from luncheon meat and his out-of-control right-hand freak? No one. There is no point in looking to a parliamentary opposition. In an elective dictatorship such a body doesn’t exist, and very likely won’t for a decade. The sovereign’s impotence is embarrassing. The necessity for an independent president is urgent. Where is this person to be found?
The lack of a constitution is a kind of negligence which is all too exploitable by the unscrupulous: gentlemen’s agreements are old hat, perhaps they always were — fair play is for export only.
It couldn’t happen here. It could. It is happening. Optimists will continue to be conned by bread, circuses, infrastructural wheezes. It is in their nature to be had. Those pejorists who have not fled should keep schtum and fight the temptation to say I told you so even though retrospection will prove them right and the couplet
It’s beginning to feel to me
Like January thirty-three
will be shown to have been accurately prophetic in kind, if not extent.
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