Monthly Archives: November 2011

A marathon, not a sprint: the unabridged diaries of Samuel Pepys

My reading has been dominated over the past 18 months by a personal quest to tackle all  the unabridged diaries of Samuel Pepys. I have now reached 1667; the worst of the plague is over, the Great Fire still smoulders, but life is getting back to normal. However the impertinent and calamitous Dutch raids on the British Fleet at dock in the Thames lie ahead of us.

The diaries are perhaps a unique look into the life and times of early modern Britain. With Pepys’ acute  eye for social and political manoeuvring and scandal, allied to his sometimes unabashed self-aggrandisement  and scarcely revealed scheming, they allow the reader to glimpse the early years of the Restoration as a story unfolding .He achieves the rare feat of making us wonder about outcomes and sensing the tension in the air even when , armed with our historical knowledge ,we know what will happen next.

As a sometime historian I have never felt so immersed in any period as I have been with the Diaries. And as a Londoner, the city comes to life in all its many facets and features in a way that maybe only Dickens has ever equalled.

Claire Tomalin’s massive biography of Pepys, ‘The unequalled self’ places the diaries and the man in context and provides a narrative to the entries. In this piece I want to set out what I have learnt so far from my reading .This will necessarily be a partial and partisan offering.

Much that I understood about English history of the mid 17th century  has been challenged.

The London crowds welcomed Charles into London upon his return from Holland in1660. They welcomed the reopening of the theatres, taverns and other ‘diversions’. They danced round their newly reinstated maypoles and, following the King’s example, put pleasure before profit and puritanism. They did not regret the passing of Cromwell and were glad to see the back of the division and danger that had stalked the land. There was no spirited defence of the republic when its end came. Extremists of whatever religious colour were unwelcome.But the simmering conflict between King and Parliament was far from over and would erupt again in the 1680’s.

The persecution of Catholics was an everyday occurrence in London

Blamed for the Dutch war, the Great Fire and much else besides, life for the small catholic population of London was precarious. Clearly their plight was not helped by the major enemy power – France – being a catholic nation and Charles underhand  negotiations with the French King in an attempt to raise funds. The British reputation for religious toleration was not very evident in this period.

People lived without anything that we today would recognise as ‘news’.

More than anything else, what is most disquieting to the modern reader is the lack of reliable and verifiable facts about wider events in the world and the non-existence of anything we would call ‘the media’. The conduct and outcome of battles is disputed.Rumour abounds and action is taken or not taken on the basis of partial and often untrue information. Catholics and Covenanters are seen at work behind every set back, political or societal.

For many there was no ‘work/life’ balance. There was just ‘life’.

Pepys’ day is divided between home/office/theatre/tavern/Whitehall and the navy yards. He moves between one and the other without any comment as to whether he is ‘at work’ or not. His social life mixes contact with persons he has to do business with and those he has befriended for other reasons, but the mixture of the two is often unclear .For Pepys and his like this is not an issue. As there is little tenured salaried public employment, every contact may in time serve to advance Pepys own interests. Dealing in hemp, masts, prizes and other aspects of the ‘King’s business’ is seen by all as a semi legitimate way to make a living. Only when common practice is ignored and the line between business and corruption is crossed does the law come into play .

Scientific knowledge was rudimentary at best.

Pepys was a founder member of the Royal Society and the diaries contain gruesome accounts of early dissections and the like. This is a fascinating period for the history of science, exemplified by reactions to the great plague. There was less reliance than previously amongst the more educated elite upon Biblical or magical explanations for such phenomenon, but as yet an insufficient body of what we would now call ‘science’ to provide a full and convincing alternative explanation. So families are immured in their homes without question once plague is found to exist in the household since it is clear that the infection can spread through contact. But why that should be simply defeated the medicine of the time.’Churygens’ and doctors have begun to appear on the London scene in greater number, but enemas, leeching  and quack remedies sit alongside the new found , but very crude and painful practice of surgical intervention (as Pepys himself discovered when he had his ‘stone’ removed).

The theatre was subversive

Plays were the rock ‘n’ roll of the age. Many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed for the first time during the diary years and Pepys was often present .But other playwrights, some still performed today, but many more long forgotten, rank higher in his estimation. The Bard was still one amongst many in a London whose theatrical life burst forth as never before or since. But the religious ideology of the Puritan revolution still cast a shadow. Pepys famous ‘vows’ centre largely upon his desire to shake off the sinful habit of going to the theatre. But as with his rampant womanising, he cannot maintain his vows. Yet this very weakness of character allows us to see all too clearly the flawed humanity in the man.

Like the King and the Court, Pepys was an inveterate  womaniser.

I was unprepared for this . While he loves his wife and they seem to enjoy what by contemporary standards would have been seen as a good marriage, he cannot keep his hands off other women. Whether they are  the wives or daughters of his friends or just tavern maids, he is incorrigible. We will never know whether much of this was a form of sexual harassment, a kind of droit de seignior that made women of lesser rank or those in need of his favours for their husbands or sons willing to endure his groping, intimate touching and full intercourse. Of course it may be that in the spirit of restoration London, both sexes were only too keen to set free the libido that had been locked away for almost twenty years. And while we are right to resist imposing our own moral values on Pepys and his time, his own lapses into cod Spanish at those places in the diary when he describes his encounters maybe give the game away ;Pepys knew he was doing something that posterity would not find endearing or acceptable. After all he wishes the King would manage the affairs of the country as well as he manages the affairs of his bedchamber, but cannot see the irony in his own flagrant infidelity towards his wife.

Finally, one for the kids: nobody who is anybody eats vegetables! And everybody drinks wine (sack especially) and beer based concoctions.

Little wonder gout and gallstones were at epidemic levels amongst the upper classes. There was little understanding of any link between diet and health

So what might the diaries teach us ?

All history is contingent. For those alive at any moment, anything can happen next. People in the past knew no more of the future than we alive today .When we think about the past let us always remember that .For too often we fail to see the richness, the personality and the sheer humanity because we want simplistically to connect that past to our own present. Pepys was not a walk on character helping the story of the British people to unfold. The diaries reveal to us a man as human and flawed as many today, motivated by desires and dreams that are recognisable to all of us. We don’t have to approve of what he does or says. I for one am sure that was far from his mind when he wrote the diaries. But if we pay attention to what he has to say about people, life and politics in Restoration London, he can still teach us a thing or two about the curious ways of this world.




Country dumb?

Tired of x-factor inanities and Snow Patrol banalities?

Bjork maybe just  a tad too arty?

Underwhelmed by all those Eighties bands reforming?

If so, let me point you in the direction of  one Josh T.Person and his album ‘Last of the Country Gentleman’.

Gentlemanly it ain’t! Or only in a Rhet Butler kind of way.

Before you listen can I suggest that you pour yourself a glass of bourbon and imagine that you are about to be granted a glimpse into the mind of one of those dark, edgy hell raisin preachers that Robert Mitchum specialised in playing back in the Fifties!

‘From the start I told you of my dark coloured checkered past ,ya had to ask and how I ruined the lives of those I loved without so much as a backwards glance’.

It must be the most intense, riveting and sometimes downright unsettling music I have heard in many a year. Nick Cave doesn’t get anywhere near it and Mary Gautier sounds positively happy by comparison.

‘I come from a long line in history of dreamers,each one more tired than the one before’.

And what to make of a song entitled ‘Honeymoon’s great, wish you were here’?

Imagine William Blake as a singer songwriter raised in West Texas.Or a very dark, god fearing , ecstatic Astral Weeks!

Honestly this man is not to be treated with lightly. Not an extended riff in sight, and his guitar must be set to prevent him playing major chords!

But if it’s honesty, emotion, truth and raw balladry you want, then this is for you.

The last words go to Josh:

‘I’m off to save the world, at least I can hope’.



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What was communism and what is capitalism?

I have been thinking how we begin to develop a new economic paradigm to supersede the failed neo liberal strategies of the past 30 years.

Before I share my thoughts with you, I remind myself that prior to 1979 the world of economics (or at least as taught at A level) was entirely in the grip of Keynesian orthodoxy and Cairncross reigned supreme across the whole syllabus. Hayek and Friedman were seen as wild men at the fringes.

So during my lifetime we in the West have managed to extricate ourselves from what was perceived to be the straightjacket of one orthodoxy, sadly to replace it with another that has played havoc not just with that entity we label ‘the economy’ , but also with collateral consequences for many other areas of our lives.

But let us also not forget that for over 100 years there was a competing theory of economics and indeed society, namely communism. Both its practice and its theory. That ideological challenge served to keep capitalism on its toes .It forced a recognition of the permanent structural inequality that capitalism was bound to generate and the need therefore to act to address the needs of those who were not benefitting fully from its onward development.

Now I do not hear many voices calling for the reinstatement of the historically polarising and potentially dangerous ideology of communism in practice , but it is surprising that outside of academic circles and the closed ranks of obscure think tanks there has not been more thought given to just why communism failed and what we can learn from that failure for progressive politics’ (by which I mean -at a minimum – a body of thought that does not accept that the market will be able to deliver the society that most want if left unfettered and unregulated).

I take as my starting point that many if not most communists sincerely believed that the analysis of Marx and Engels provided the starting point for the transformation of society and the creation of a world that would be fairer, more just and peaceful . They may not have given their wholehearted support to the pseudo-science of historical determinism and many certainly didn’t subscribe to later Leninist and Stalinist doctrines (although sadly too many did). But we should remember thast Marxism tapped into other ethical and economic positions that pre dated and developed alongside it , such as the cooperative thought of Owen and Fourier, the humanistic guild socialism of William Morris and of course Methodism and later in the 20th century the liberation theology of the catholic church.

So I was pleased to find an excellent article in a posthumously published collection of essays from Fred Halliday* .It is simply and clearly entitled ‘what was communism?’.

What I want to discuss is not the full content of that article , stimulating though it is, but one of the four very persuasive reasons he gives for why communism did not succeed in meeting its own goals in spite of its sometimes noble objectives.He argues that communism failed because it lacked ‘any independent articulated ethical dimension’. That absence allowed the illegitimate use of state power and violence in the service of the Party’s goals and what he characterises as ‘scorn’ for the ‘bourgeois’ concept of universal human rights.

Of course communist governments did profess to have an ethical dimension to their actions – winning power for the increasingly mythical ‘working class’ upon whose broad, usually male shoulders the task of emancipating all humanity sat.But without an external framework of ethics and codes Party could not be held to account for what it did in the name of ‘the revolution’. A morality free zone opens up in which whatever the party decides needs to be done is de facto the only thing that could be done given historical necessity. It then follows that it is both morally and ethically the only position that the individual citizen can support without flying in the face of ‘common sense’.

I find this a very fresh and exciting guide to considering the world we now find ourselves in, albeit without the help of Fred to develop this very fruitful line of thought.

Because I want to argue that what we might agree to call ‘neo liberal late capitalism’ seems in danger of adopting a remarkably similar position. Questions of morality and ethics are subsumed to practical utility and the efficacy and efficiency of the market dictates what shall be done .The essential rights and freedoms that we assumed to exist outside of any specific moment in time or economic cycle are themselves seen as legitimate targets for corrective action. Debates about means are misleadingly turned into debates about ends!

Like the Leninists of old, those in power are starting to label as ‘technocratic’ a whole range of positions, decisions and installed governments that are behind highly political and ideological policies and practices that should in any developed democracy be vigorously contested and debated. And it is that independent ethical framework that Halliday saw as the essential underpinning that allows us to have that debate.

So I say, let’s start a debate about that ethical dimension, because in that way we can have a conversation about the balance between economic efficiency and sustainability, ensure the maintenance of hard fought individual rights even when they are not consistent with market needs and at the same time examine the very real conflicts that always arise during times of crisis .

Personally I do not hark back to the past or hanker after the purer, yet divisive politics of my youth. (I’ll keep the Clash t-shirts in the wardrobe and the ‘save the GLC’ badges in the sock drawer!)

But I fear that if we don’t talk to each other , we will lose our ethical compass and be lost on a sea of techno-pragmatism.

Maybe the Occupy movement has begun the process, however vague their aspirations and outlandish their message might seem to some.. We need to develop a convincing and positive story to tell ourselves and our children about who we are and what we want from our time on this planet. At the moment I see all too many who should know better watching passively as ‘the market’ plays God with all our lives while Governments of left and right simply act as willing and complicit disciples .

As good democrats we should never accept the doctrine of ‘there is no alternative’, even if some of you reading this believe that the actions being taken at national and supra national level are the right ones. History teaches that that at almost every moment, however dark the days, there are choices to be made. We should reject both the historical determinism of Marx and the ‘TINA’ of the free marketeers. We must be grown up enough to make choices for ourselves, not simply pass the responsibility onto unelected officials and hapless Governments. .

* In ‘Political Journeys’,Fred Halliday,

A hypothecated Tobin tax

I have been thinking about this idea of a so called Tobin Tax. It is self evidently right that the wider community should be able  to extract social value from a tax on what are essentially just financial transactions – which in themselves do not produce new wealth.

The difficulty I have with the idea  is the degree of transparency that will surround the use to which it is put. If it were for example simply a contribution towards the costs of bailing out the banks in the future or underwriting the losses of Lloyds and RBS, then fighting for its introduction it will have been a waste of time.

I think we need to link the introduction of the tax to a debate around what is called ‘hypothecation’ – that is a clear and public statement about the purpose to which the tax is put.In the absence of such a debate the money generated will just go into the concrete mixer of government funds .

And how about a Government sponsored on-line and public debate ? Should there be an arms length  body set up to distribute it as with the lottery? That would be a delicious irony as the Tobin tax is in effect a tax on gambling!

My ideas ? Kick start the so called Green revolution – fund an ethical  Green Investment Bank, provide Feed in tariff payments at levels that are realistic and certain, provide start up funds for new entrepreneurs in engineering and manufacture etc. But they are just my ideas.

Thoughts welcome.



Wouldn’t it be nice


Forget Proust’s madeleines- its Pet Sounds for me every time. If I want to recapture how I felt in those early teenage years, to recall the sights,sounds,longings and yearnings all I need to do is to hear the first few bars of ‘Wouldn’t it be nice’.In reality I know that my 12 year old self is simply waiting for my true love, for that moment when she strokes my brow and says ‘ don’t worry baby, everything is going to be alright’. But before that moment arrived  I was destined to spend many many years believing myself to be one of life’s eternally disappointed, with Brian Wilson  and Pet Sounds providing the soundtrack.

The images to which it gives rise are sun, girls and  chance stolen holiday encounters (admittedly in Margate and Eastbourne, not Venice Beach or Santa Barbara).Those early tentative liaisons during the summers of love that forever mark out the mid Sixties as a time of extraordinary adolescent ferment and the seeking out of new sexual and other freedoms that seemed to be all around in the music to which we listened incessantly and illicitly.Strangely,  Pet Sounds can also bring to mind airfix models, scalextric and muddy footballs, which demonstrates just how Brian Wilson sang to those of us who were on the cusp of the most significant transition in our lives, with one tentative  foot in adulthood and the other trying to keep us firmly tethered in the known, less turbulent world of childhood.

What he did in Pet Sounds was  to capture , arguably uniqely, just what it was like to be a teenage boy at the time and maybe any other time. The deep insecurities, the potential for self hatred and the fear that that true love will never arrive. The longing to escape, but then the desire to retreat into the familiar so brilliantly summed up in ‘That’s not me’. And our hesitation in the face of real world encounters that threaten to overwhelm our fragile emerging masculinity with a feminine vocabulary of tenderness and yearning, when we should be toughening ourselves up   with the speech of the football terrace and the street.

I would argue that Wilson was writing about and for the boys that girls always hoped to meet, but often never did- the thoughtful, emotionally reflective and confused ; but confused  in a winsome, charming way that expressed itself through vulnerability not aggression or bravado. Tragically the girls themselves – no less prisoners in the confines of their own lives – acted out their own stereotypical roles in life’s teenage melodrama and pursued other more desirably tough boys who would never be up to anything but no good.

We must remember that at the time Wilson was not revered as he now is. The Beach Boys were seen by the music press and the cognoscenti as nothing more than a pop band, Pet Sounds being in every way  inferior to Robber Soul and Sergeant Pepper, not to mention the now forgotten, but emerging Jefferson Airplane  and the west coast pop of the Byrds. Their primarily clean cut , surfin’ image blinded critics  to the content of the songs and  the way in which the music expressed  in its imagery and aping of classical phrasing the very emotions the words portrayed. If he was lionised at all it was on the much more acceptable  basis of his ‘sound’, the production values, his studio genius and the Beach Boys admittedly exquisite harmonies.

But what he was doing was writing clear, uncluttered pop songs for the lonely teenage boy in his room who so wants to hear him say ‘I know there’s an answer’ and maybe  still does to this very day! And to be consoled by Brian admitting that ‘I just wasn’t made for these times’ .Perhaps never since the days of Keats and Byron had anybody spoken to us so directly and with such insight, as pop lyrics became for all intents and purpose the poetry of the age. He shaped the words and music to appeal to the everyman inside the teenage boy, but without that sad recluse having had to have any contact with the great poets or the romantic composers to understand that appeal. He could sing  ‘ They say I’ve got brains and they ain’t doing me no good’  and it became the richest type of poetic expression. Let’s be clear -this music was not for middle class chaps mooning over the sonnets of Keats or straining to the strings of Schubert, but us council estate boys in our shared bedrooms and our suburban vocabularies..

Male artists so rarely, if at all, write about wanting to be in love.And the dilemma’s to which that gives rise – the emotions that are uncovered and exposed as seemingly uncontrollable and unconquerable forces drive us towards our adult destiny. To be able to use the imagery of prosperous, far away California to achieve that connection is for me the greatest achievement of Wilson and Pet Sounds.

And finally there’s ‘Caroline No’! It sums up all that has gone before as that home grown, home loving, secure teenage world is traduced and trampled upon uncaringly  as Caroline discovers the wider world and its promise of a life transformed. A harsher, less forgiving light seems to shine on her hair and it no longer glows ’Where is the girl I used to know?’ might well be taken as asking the question ‘where is the life I used to know?’ .I would argue  that many of us as men lament along with Brian the breaking of a bond, the promise of never changing ‘but that’s not so’. For me I wanted the old Caroline, with the long hair and the glow, even though I knew then and know now that we can’t bring it back once it has gone. But we are doomed to spend our lives searching.

And , reader, as a postscript,  a personal confession – I found  my Caroline, grown up and fully formed and understood for the first time what Pet Sounds was all about!

Starting out

After three months of relative relaxation , I am ready to head for the slopes of work again! While I have ‘been away’ much has happened and little of it to the good. Democracy has been put on hold by ‘the markets ‘ , environmental concerns have been refiled under ‘too difficult/too expensive/too ridiculous’ and it’s been up to occupiers in London,NYC and elsewhere to ask the fundamental questions.Yes, they haven’t had all the answers, but then again who has? We are in the grip of a delusion that borders on an illusion.That an inhuman force called the markets is making all kinds of demands upon us which if not met will imperil the very way of life that got us into this mess in the first place.Everybody should sit down and watch  ‘It’s a wonderful life’ and decide if they are with George Bailey or old Mr Potter! Sadly at the moment George is waiting on the bridge in the snow with Clarence nowhere to be seen!Or perhaps we should revisit The Third Man, with Welles’ Harry Lime reminding Holly Martins of the relative merits of the Borgias and the Swiss! What strikes me about Lime and Potter is their insistence that this is the way it has to be , the way it has always been.Men like Bailey and Martins are just dreamers with their claims to morality and enlightenment virtue, not to mention Bailey’s naive pursuit of the American Dream! Sound familiar? Justice,equality. democracy and liberty itself have to be ranked below the needs of something called ‘the economy’.As if there is a separate spehere of human activity that lies outside the boundaries of any discourse about our dreams, desires, beliefs and values.When surely the reverse is the case – we should create and shape an economy that can deliver the things we want – the things we truly want, not just what we can buy. Buy hey – maybe I’m a foolish dreamer!