President Brexit’s last stand – a new version of an old lie

Jake Mogg may not be the subtlest of all the beasts in the field, but like the serpent in the garden (to use Dante’s description) egli e bugiardo e padre di menzogne – he is a liar and the father of lies. The Brexit crew have a passion for ‘Research Groups’, for which I believe they receive parliamentary funding [= our money as taxpayers]. These groups are little better than lie factories: listen out, and in various forums you will hear their members repeat, in different voices but strikingly similar forms of words, some falsehood they have contrived that they wish to propagate.

The original version of the ERG ‘Big Lie’ was that Brexit was ‘the will of the British people’ who ‘voted overwhelmingly for it’ [see ‘Liars in Public Places‘] . Both claims are false, of course: insofar as ‘the British people’ can be equated with the electorate who participated in the 2016 referendum, only a minority voted to leave the EU: the majority expressed no desire to do so. This lie was wielded as a weapon to shut down debate: because Brexit was ‘the will of the British people’ speaking against it was tantamount to treason and was certainly undemocratic; the people had decided, so the matter was settled (even, absurdly, to the extent of denying the same people any chance to reconsider it – see ‘A Most Ingenious Paradox‘).

Of course, to represent the 2016 referendum as an exercise in ‘direct democracy’ [see ‘Another Lie from the Egregious Bernard Jenkin‘] is itself a lie. At most, a referendum in this country can decide whether or not legislation already passed by parliament is to be implemented: that was the case with the 2011 referendum on whether to replace the ‘first past the post’ system with the ‘alternative vote’ (sadly, the change was rejected). The 2016 referendum was not of that sort: it served only to advise the government of the day on how the public felt regarding continued membership of the EU [see ‘The Real Enemies of the People‘] – and what it showed, of course, was that the country was divided on the issue and that a minority (37.5 % of the electorate, 26% of the ‘British People’, i.e. the total population) wished to leave. Nevertheless, ERG members strove consistently to present the referendum result as something which was so overwhelmingly decisive that to challenge it would be undemocratic.

Lately, this nonsense has been revived in a new and interesting form. With Johnson sinking ever deeper in a mire of his own making, Mogg popped up on BBC’s Newsnight to deliver himself of this breathtaking falsehood: “It’s my view that we have moved to…an essentially presidential system and that the mandate is personal rather than entirely party and each PM would be advised to take a fresh mandate…my view is a change of leader requires a general election.”

This, of course, is a tissue of lies. Regardless of Mogg’s ‘views’, we do not have, nor have we moved towards, ‘an essentially presidential system’ in which ‘the mandate is personal’, so that cannot be used to support the equally false claim that a change of Prime Minister requires a general election*. What we have is a system of representative democracy: constituencies elect Members to sit in Parliament, the legislature that decides our laws. The Executive or Government is formed by whatever group can command enough votes in the House to pass its legislation; this is termed ‘having the confidence of the House’. The leader of that group, which typically is formed from one or other of the parties, or sometimes a combination of them, is de facto Prime Minister. The different parties have different methods of deciding who leads them but none involves the electorate voting directly for them.

The dust that Mogg is trying to throw in the public’s eyes is that because Johnson has promoted himself as having ‘got Brexit done’ (another lie, since the process is still unfolding, and worsens at every step – consider the huge tailbacks on the M20) and because Brexit was ‘the will of the people’ (as we’ve seen, it wasn’t) then any vote for the Conservative party in any constituency was in reality a vote for Johnson. Factually, that is incorrect: votes are cast for individual candidates who stand for some party or as independents. The fact that some people, even the majority, may vote along party lines does not legitimise the claim that someone perceived (or promoted by the press) as a popular leader is directly elected by the public, or the notion that seeking to remove them from office is somehow undemocratic or even anti-democratic, as claimed today on Twitter by Lucy Allan MP:

‘Trying to remove an elected PM with a huge personal mandate, mid term, is anti democratic. Those who seek to do so are subverting democracy. If you respect democracy, Mr Major, Mrs May, Mr Heseltine et al, do it through the ballot box, not by abusing your power and influence.’

On the contrary, it is false claims like these, that misrepresent the nature of our system of government in order to bamboozle the public, that are anti-democratic. Boris Johnson is only Prime Minister by dint of leading the group that currently commands the confidence of the House and so is able to pass legislation. Should he lose the confidence of his supporters in the House, they will replace him, using the method the Conservative party has chosen to elect its leaders (interestingly, this now inolves direct voting by around 150,000 members of Conservative constituency associations, which is arguably less democratic than the former system, where the parliamentary party (each of whom has a mandate from the electorate) chose who would lead them).

[Should the ruling group itself lose the confidence of the House – typically through being unable to pass some key legislation, e.g. a finance bill – then even then there need not be a general election, provided another group can be formed that does command a majority of votes. It was the failure of Parliament to get their act together to do this for the good of the country in September 2019 (see ‘Only the Conservative Party can save us now‘), when Johnson had not only failed in every vote he attempted but had lost his parliamentary majority live on television, that landed us in the mess we are now in]

The most worrying aspect of the false claim that Johnson was somehow directly elected by the people to lead the country is that it appears to be part of a larger programme, to vaunt the power of the executive at the expense of Parliament and the Judiciary. Thus we see, on the one hand, a continual bypassing of Parliament which a weak and ineffectual speaker has done little to prevent: it has become routine practice to announce policy via Tory-supporting newpapers before it is brought to the House, while in the House itself debate is curtailed or even bypassed alogether using a combination of emergency powers or so-called ‘Henry VIII clauses’ that enable ministers to amend or repeal provisions in an Act of Parliament using secondary legislation, which is subject to varying degrees of parliamentary scrutiny.

At the same time, laws are being proposed expressly to prevent public opposition to the executive [the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, to which Home Secretary Priti Patel added some 18 pages after it had been voted on by MPs – thankfully the Lords threw them out] , either through protest or recourse to the judicial system [the government wants to restrict recourse to judicial review, so that it could not be used to hold the executive to account, as it was by the redoubtable Gina Miller in 2017 and 2019 (in the first case, ironically, she sought to have the sovereignty of parliament upheld by giving MPs a say over triggering Article 50 – the legal mechanism taking the UK out of the EU. In the second, famously, she asked the court to rule that Johnson’s attempt to prorogue Parliament (which he lied to the Queen about) was unlawful]

When we consider these concerted attempts to portray Johnson as a leader with a mandate that comes directly from the people (and so is answerable only to them, not their elected representatives) against this background of vaunting executive power by undermining Parliament and the Judiciary, then Johnson’s recent remark that it would require ‘a tank division to drag him from office’ has a sinister ring – it is strongly reminiscent of Trump’s rhetoric leading up to the January 6th insurrection.

There may be trouble ahead.

*The extent of the falsehood is seen when you consider that, going back to the early fifties, Johnson succeeded May; May, Cameron; Brown, Blair; Major, Thatcher; Callaghan, Wilson; Douglas-Home, Macmillan; Macmillan, Eden; Eden, Churchill; all without the intervention of a General Election.

To whom it may concern: the conduct of Cressida Dick with regard to the Sue Gray Report

From one perspective, I can see it is reasonable that

In order to make a police complaint, you must be eligible to be a complainant. This is defined by the legislation as someone who has directly witnessed the incident or who is directly affected by it.

Complaints can be raised by other people on their behalf, but only with their written consent.

Therefore, if you are not directly affected or were not present at the incident that you have concerns about, you cannot use the police complaints system to make your concerns known.’

– IOPC Website

However, in the light of today’s events, it does cause a certain amount of frustration: when the public actions (and inactions) of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police are open to the construction that she is acting to shield the Prime Minister from scrutiny at a time of public scandal, what can be done about it?

This is the best I can think of:

To all whom it may concern – including the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and the Independent Office for Police Complaints* – I wish to complain about the actions of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, in relation to the Sue Gray report and the events surrounding it. The nature and timing of those actions create a strong impression of corruption and misconduct in public office, specifically that the Commissioner is acting, not in the public interest, but to shield the Prime Minister from scrutiny at a time when public confidence in him is at an all-time low. It is entirely wrong that the police should act from political motives against the interest of the public whom they serve.

The impression of corruption and misconduct has been created, not by a single act, but by a sequence of actions (or inactions) in which the only consistent factor appears to be that they serve the Prime Minister’s interest and not the public’s.

When the initial allegations emerged that led to the Gray report, there was a clamour for the Met to investigate, on the grounds that these were precisely the same kind of breaches of Covid regulations which the Met and other forces had pursued zealously against ordinary members of the public; yet here was a case where Met officers were in constant attendance and evidence of any coming and going was well documented for security purposes and no action was taken. Yet despite the presence of officers in the vicinity of the alleged incidents and the ease with which evidence could have been obtained, the Met announced that there would be no investigation, saying that there was ‘a lack of evidence’ and that in any case it was not policy to investigate such complaints retrospectively. With regard to the first point, if the police make no attempt to gather evidence (when it is there for the asking) they can hardly cite that as grounds for inaction. With regard to the second, it is not clear that the policy cited actually exists in any official form that can be examined – and an unwritten policy, to borrow Sam Goldwyn’s line, ‘isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on’ – it would appear, at best, to be an unofficial but accepted practice; at worst, an invention of the moment.

As the clamour grew, the next position taken by the Met was that it would wait till the Gray report was concluded before taking any action. For the police to defer to an internal enquiry where the matters alleged involved breaches of the law seems unusual to say the least. Once again, it is hard to see that the public interest was being served here, while it evidently did suit the Prime Minister, who found himself under increasing pressure as allegations increased but was able to take refuge behind the shield of the forthcoming Gray report to deflect any questions.

Only when the Gray report was imminent, three days ago (25 January), did the Commissioner suddenly reverse her position and announce that the Met would investigate, in terms that are difficult to reconcile with her earlier grounds for inaction. Many people, myself among them, concluded that this would mean a delay in the publication of the Gray report, and publicly expressed their concerns that such a delay, which again suited the hard-pressed Prime Minister, was the real intention of the Commissioner’s sudden change of mind and reversal of her position. Our fears were alleviated when it was reported, on the same day, that the Met had not sought any delay to the publication of the report.

Nonetheless, the report, which had been said to be complete three days ago, and was expected to be published on Wednesday (26 January), has still not appeared. Now today (28 January) comes a statement from the Met which makes clear that they have intervened to intefere with the publication of the report, in the following terms:

‘For the events the Met is investigating, we asked for minimal reference to be made in the Cabinet Office report.

The Met did not ask for any limitations on other events in the report, or for the report to be delayed, but we have had ongoing contact with the Cabinet Office, including on the content of the report, to avoid any prejudice to our investigation.’

Far from clarifying the situation, this statement obscures it further, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is intended to do so. Since the public has no idea which events the Met is investigating, the scale of their interference in the report is impossible to gauge. However, since (to use the Commissioner’s own words) the Met will only investigate “serious and flagrant” breaches of the Covid regulations retrospectively, we can conclude that what will be omitted from the report are those elements likely to be most damaging to the Prime Minister.

The second paragraph is a combination of the disingenuous and the nonsensical. In saying that they ‘did not ask for any limitations on other events in the report, or for the report to be delayed’ while at the same time asking for the most serious content to be held back, is tantamount to saying that they have not interfered in the report apart from the extent to which they have interfered in it or delayed publication of its content apart from the content they have asked to be held back. The public could have no confidence in a report published on those terms. As regards prejudicing their investigation, it is hard to see that such a claim makes any sense at all.

First of all, since this matter is not under the consideration of a court, it is not sub judice, though there is reasonable ground to suspect that the Met is playing on public ignorance to suggest that it is. That would be dishonest. Secondly, it is hard to see how, since they are already in possession of as much of the report as they deem relevant, their investigation could in any way be prejudiced by its publication in full. Indeed, it is difficult to grasp just what sense of ‘prejudice’ is intended here. Who is supposed to be in danger of being prejudiced by what?

There is a more sinister interpretation of these words and that is at the heart of my complaint. While it is hard to see how the full publication of the Gray report would in any way prejudice the Met’s investigation, it would certainly prevent their concealing from the public the extent of any wrongdoing on the part of the Prime Minister.

Given the pattern of behaviour that has preceded today’s statement, and against the background of the findings of the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel that “we have found the Met to be institutionally corrupt” and “the public statements which we have heard from the Commissioner and the Deputy Commissioner and the Assistant Commissioner in the days following the publication illustrate exactly the problem that we have been describing”, there is strong ground for supposing that the Commissioner, in her conduct of this matter, has at the very least brought the Met into disrepute**, and at worst has been complicit in a sustained, corrupt and politically-motivated attempt to shield the Prime Minister from public scrutiny and to bamboozle the public whom it is her duty to serve. If this falls within your area of responsibility, I would be pleased to know what you are going to do about it.

*I do not consider it worthwhile to include the Home Secretary, in whom I have no faith whatsoever – see this report of her own questionable conduct re the Met

**perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘further into disrepute’ – recent events, such as the Sarah Everard case and the disgraceful handling of the vigil in her memory, have shown the Met in a poor light.

Α or Ω ? Reflections on ‘A Vignette’ – M R James’s last masterpiece

‘Feeding the Cockerels’ by Myles Birket Foster

A Vignette is generally described as ‘the last ghost story MR James ever wrote’ – not unreasonably, since it was published posthumously in the year of his death, 1936, in the November edition of The London Mercury (at that time, a major monthly literary journal), James having died in June. Evidently the story was commissioned for the Christmas 1935 edition but arrived too late, so was probably written some time in late 1935. It is something of an outlier when it comes to the canon of his work, and is seldom anthologised; the only place that I have seen it (and the first time I even heard of it) is in Richard Dalby’s collection, The Sorceress in Stained Glass (a book I bought on the strength of it). Its rarity is a pity, since it deserves to be better known; I think that it is, in its own small way, a masterpiece, and as far as its author is concerned, a work of singular importance.

I cannot claim to have thought so on first reading it; my recollection is that I enjoyed it well enough, but that it definitely belonged in the ‘minor’ category (of which, more later). There was, I thought, a comforting familiarity about it – so many details were characteristic James, and resonated with many of his earlier tales: it was pleasing to find that the old master had not lost his touch, even if his best days of invention were behind him. The last word I would have thought to apply to it is ‘original’; indeed, it seemed precisely the sort of piece that an acknowledged master of the genre might produce late in life in response to a commission that invited him to revisit old familiar territory, yet again – brief, as well-crafted as ever, but essentially a rehash of many elements that already feature in his previous stories.

It is only from rereading it recently that I have revised my opinion and come to think that it is original in a very precise sense: one might also call it seminal. Even if it is the last ghost story he actually wrote, I would suggest that it is quite possibly the forerunner of them all. I say ‘possibly’ because James is nothing if not a master of his craft; and just as it is wise, if a ghost-story is to be persuasive, to allow more than one possible explanation of the events it relates, so with A Vignette, two distinct and even opposite readings are possible. It may be, as I have suggested, a minor work in which a master of the genre, feeling obliged to write something, produces (to paraphrase his own note on A Haunted Doll’s House) ‘a variation on former stories in the hope that there is enough of variation in it to make the repetition of motifs tolerable’.

On the other hand, it may be that this is not the last in a long line of stories in a similar vein, but rather an account of the original childhood experience from which all the others sprang, an experience that explains not only the recurrent features of those tales, but also what prompted him to tell stories of that kind in the first place.

The key, I think, lies in one feature of A Vignette which is almost unique: aside from his children’s story, The Five Jars, only one other of James’s tales is related directly in the first person, as if the narrator is telling of events that have actually befallen him. That other is its companion in what I earlier called the ‘minor’ category, that odd lopsided nine-tenths-humorous curiosity, After Dark in the Playing Fields. We know, of course, that it is an error to assume uncritically that the ‘I’ in the story is the person who wrote it, but given that James was raised in a country rectory (where A Vignette is set) and was Provost of Eton (the location of the playing fields referred to in After Dark) we have reasonable grounds for supposing that here James is speaking as himself and that he may be giving an authentic account of an actual personal experience.

(As regards After Dark, I do not of course mean the humorous encounter with the owl, but rather the odd ‘tacked-on’ portion of a dozen or so lines at the end which hardly belongs with the rest – that, to my ear at least, has the ring of truth about it [indeed, it prompted me to write a story of my own – The Partygoers])

For those well-versed in James’s work, to read A Vignette is to hear, at frequent intervals, the wine-glass ting! of resonance as this or that aspect of the text recalls some feature of an earlier tale. Why not try it yourself, with this combination of the opening lines and a passage that comes soon after, in which (to paraphrase the author once more) ‘the ominous thing first puts out its head’:

You are asked to think of the spacious garden of a country rectory, adjacent to a park of many acres, and separated therefrom by a belt of trees of some age which we knew as the Plantation.

I should be puzzled to fix the date at which any sort of misgiving about the Plantation gate first visited me. Possibly it was in the years just before I went to school, possibly on one later summer afternoon of which I have a faint memory, when I was coming back after solitary roaming in the park, or, as I bethink me, from tea at the Hall: anyhow, alone, and fell in with one of the villagers also homeward bound just as I was about to turn off the road on to the track leading to the Plantation. We broke off our talk with ‘goodnights’, and when I looked back at him after a minute or so I was just a little surprised to see him standing still and looking after me. But no remark passed, and on I went. By the time I was within the iron gate and outside the park, dusk had undoubtedly come on; but there was no lack yet of light, and I could not account to myself for the questionings which certainly did rise as to the presence of anyone else among the trees, questionings to which I could not very certainly say ‘No’, nor, I was glad to feel, ‘Yes’ because if there were anyone they could not well have any business there. To be sure, it is difficult, in anything like a grove, to be quite certain that nobody is making a screen out of a tree trunk and keeping it between you and him as he moves round it and you walk on. All I can say is that if such an one was there he was no neighbour or acquaintance of mine, and there was some indication about him of being cloaked or hooded.

For me, the landscape is reminiscent not only of the ‘park… protected – we should say grown up – with large old timber’ through which the unfortunate Mr Wraxall (in Count Magnus) makes his way past the mausoleum where Count Magnus lies, surrounded by ‘limitless… woods near and distant, all dark beneath a sky of liquid green’ but also recalls (as the child James makes his way homeward through it) that charming slideshow of Mr Karswell’s in Casting the Runes, ‘which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. …and this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees’.

There are more than a few such parks with their grand houses in other stories – Aswarby Hall in Lost Hearts, Anningley Hall in The Mezzotint to name but two; and while it might be argued that this simply reflects the adult James’s admitted predilection for such houses, it is reasonable to ask both where that predilection originated, and why such landscapes feature in so many of his stories: might it not be from the musings of an imaginative and impressionable child whose daily walks took him through just such surroundings?

But our tally of resonances is far from done. I think it quite possible, for instance, that the neighbour who stood looking after him as he went through the wood grew up to be the ticket man at Dover who called after Mr Karswell, ‘Beg pardon, sir, did the other gentleman show his ticket?’ and on receiving a brusque reply said to his subordinate, ”ad he got a dog with him, or what? Funny thing: I could ‘a’ swore ‘e wasn’t alone.’ And as for the presence among the trees, does it not recall a line which Mr Humphreys (whose eponymous Inheritance also consists of a fine house and surrounding park) finds in the small quarto in his library,

‘but as Night fell, wherein all the Beasts of the Forest do move, he begun to be sensible of some Creature keeping Pace with him and, as he thought, peering and looking upon him from the next Alley to that he was in’

as well as the predicament of Fanshawe in Gallows Wood (entered by ‘a gate… leading into a belt of plantation’) in A View from a Hill: ‘I had all the fancies one least likes… indistinct people stepping behind trees in front of me, yes, and even a hand laid on my shoulder… just about at the middle of the plot, I was convinced that there was someone looking down on me from above – and not with any pleasant intent.’

That the presence in A Vignette (if indeed there was one) had ‘some indication about him of being cloaked or hooded’ does not surprise us, since that is the standard garb of many of James’s apparitions – but might we here be encountering the original of all those others?

A little further on in A Vignette, the child who says ‘I seem to see myself again in the small hours gazing out of the window across moonlit grass and hoping I was mistaken in fancying any movement in that half-hidden corner of the garden’ certainly recalls young Stephen Elliott in Lost Hearts ‘standing at the open window of his bedroom, looking out over the country’ when ‘the mysterious population of the distant moonlit woods was not yet lulled to rest.’

What follows in A Vignette is a passage that reflects on the nature of recurring dreams: ‘the moment a dream set in I knew that it was going to turn out ill, and that there was nothing I could do to keep it on cheerful lines’ and this undoubtedly chimes with an observation made by the narrator of O Whistle and I’ll Come to You (whom we can take to be James himself) ‘Experto crede [‘take the word of an expert’] pictures do come to the closed eyes of one trying to sleep, and are often so little to his taste that he must open his eyes to disperse them.’

The dream that James reports has an authentic ring, and recalls, not so much a specific story, but James’s own advice on crafting ghost stories: ‘Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

compare that to

Ellis the gardener might be wholesomely employed with rake and spade as I watched at the window; other familiar figures might pass and repass on harmless errands; but I was not deceived. I could see that the time was coming when the gardener and the rest would be gathering up their properties and setting off on paths that led homeward or into some safe outer world, and the garden would be left – to itself, shall we say, or to denizens who did not desire quite ordinary company and were only waiting for the word ‘all clear’ to slip into their posts of vantage.

and you find in the second a specific realisation of what is described in general terms in the first.

On a point of technique, the way in which the dream in A Vignette makes a link between the experience in the Plantation and what is to come in the garden is strikingly similar to the way Parkins’s dream in O Whistle links his homeward walk along the beach with the later events in his bedroom. Another feature of it points to a different story:

Now, too, was the moment near when the surroundings began to take on a threatening look; that the sunlight lost power and a quality of light replaced it which, though I did not know it at the time my memory years after told me was the lifeless pallor of an eclipse.

The momentary change in atmosphere from calm to threatening, heralded by a change in the quality of light, is surely also found in two related passages, one from the unfinished John Humphreys and the other from A Neighbour’s Landmark: ‘The homely well known pasture seemed in a moment to widen into an illimitable grey expanse – an acute feeling of extreme loneliness and of being on a hopeless and aimless journey came over him’ (John Humphreys)

‘But I must fix the view a little more firmly in my mind. Only, when I turned to it again, the taste was gone out of it. The sun was down behind the hill, and the light was off the fields… I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest… but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders … of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life.’ (A Neighbour’s Landmark)

As I have remarked elsewhere, these too have an authentic ring – anyone who has felt it will recognise their accuracy as descriptions of sudden acute dysphoria, the sense that no pleasure is to be had from anything, and all the goodness has drained out of life. While I accept that this is aside from the main line I am pursuing here, it is interesting to find these fictionalised accounts of what I strongly suspect was a personal adult experience for James couched in terms reminiscent of what may have been an actual childhood terror.

The resonances with earlier work continue in the account of the central experience itself: when the child in A Vignette steals down to the garden ‘with an access of something like courage – only it was more like desperation, like determining that I must know the worst –’ to see what is actually there, he strongly recalls Stephen Elliott, who wakes from a terrifying dream and ‘with a courage which I do not think can be common among boys of his age… went to the door of the bathroom to ascertain if the figure of his dream were really there.’ Stephen finds nothing; the child in A Vignette is less fortunate: Things were, alas! worse than I had feared; through that hole a face was looking my way. It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.

Not only does this recall a line from Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, “and have you never heard” cries a Neighbour “of what Faces have been seen to look out over the Palisadoes and betwixt the bars of the Gate?” but that curious detail, ‘It was pink and, I thought, hot’ immediately conjures the experience of Mrs Anstruther in The Rose Garden: ‘It was not a mask. It was a face – large, smooth, and pink. She remembers the drops of perspiration that were starting from its forehead’. The apparition itself conforms to (or might we say, is the source of?) James’s dictum, ‘the ghost should be malevolent or odious’ – he expands on the description above: There is something horrifying in the sight of a face looking at one out of a frame as this did; more particularly if its gaze is unmistakably fixed upon you. Nor does it make the matter any better if the expression gives no clue to what is to come next. I said just now that I took this face to be malevolent, and so I did, but not in regard of any positive dislike or fierceness which it expressed. It was, indeed, quite without emotion: I was only conscious that I could see the whites of the eyes all round the pupil, and that, we know, has a glamour of madness about it. The immovable face was enough for me. I fled, but at what I thought must be a safe distance inside my own precincts I could not but halt and look back. There was no white thing framed in the hole of the gate, but there was a draped form shambling away among the trees.

Again, the ‘draped form shambling away among the trees’ is the standard-issue James apparition (and the distinctive gait is as much a characteristic as the fluttering draperies – James’s ghosts seldom walk: they crawl, move to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity, hover, and dart; or (as we have seen) hop). The one that Mitchell’s mother saw in A Neighbour’s Landmark, as well as being close kin to the dream-spectre of O Whistle and the dwellers around Wailing Well, would, we feel, be quite at home in the Plantation: ‘on the darkest evening she ever came through the wood… she seemed forced to look behind her as the rustling came in the bushes, and she thought she saw something all in tatters with two arms held out in front of it coming on very fast’. (And A Neighbour’s Landmark, of course, centres round a strip of wood with a path through it that the locals preferred to avoid, and when it ‘was stubbed up [t]hey done all the work in the daytime, I recollect, and was never there after three o’clock’.)

The climax of the story in A Vignette – the actual experience, if such it is – is approached with the masterly diffidence that characterises the whole tale. From the outset, James expresses doubt about the precise detail of what he is recalling and he accompanies this with the consistent use of another device, technically called paraleipsis (or apophasis), the rhetorical trick of drawing attention to something by denying it or pretending to ignore it. On the first page he says, in describing the Plantation, ‘but there is nothing that diffuses a mysterious gloom or imparts a sinister flavour – nothing of melancholy or funereal associations’ and likewise ‘there is neither offensive bleakness nor oppressive darkness’ – so conjuring all these things in the very act of denying them. As he approaches his account of the experience itself he begins by stating ‘One afternoon – the day being neither overcast nor threatening – I was at my window in the upper floor of the house.’ Even the face, when he finally sees it, ‘was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral’. James’s combination of continually casting doubt on the substance of what he saw with denials that anything overtly sinister attended it creates a sort of counterpoint in the reader’s mind to the effect that it has some substance and is sinister in character.

I mention this as a reminder that there is another way to read this story: James was, undoubtedly, a master of his craft, and he knew very well how to overcome the obstacle that inheres in all ghost stories, namely that they deal with matter which, on an everyday level, we find incredible. The usual device, which James generally deploys, is to put some distance between the narrator and the events he relates: the action is represented as happening to someone else, and may be further filtered through the medium of letters, diaries or old papers. This cleverly separates the credibility of James as a narrator from the credibility of the tale itself: we believe him to be a faithful reporter, so we are more inclined to accept the possibility that what he relays to us, however fantastic it seems, may just be true – the more so as James makes no attempt to force it upon us. But here, in this final ghost story, he dispenses with the buffer that distance provides and speaks directly as the person whom the strange events befell: can he still make us believe him?

I think he can, because I am genuinely in two minds as to whether A Vignette is an authentic account of an actual childhood experience, recalled in old age, or a tour de force of the ghost-story writer’s craft that perfectly simulates such an account. But if you were to press me, I would come down on the side of a genuine recollection of an actual childhood experience. In part, I know that is because I want it to be the case, but I feel that there is evidence to support my view. Two things combine to turn the scales for me: the first is the sheer abundance of the resonances. As we have already seen, there are echoes of A Vignette (I feel that this is the right way round to put it) in Lost Hearts, The Mezzotint, Count Magnus, O Whistle, The Rose Garden, Casting the Runes, Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, A Neighbour’s Landmark, A View from a Hill and Wailing Well (as well as a connection in character with After Dark in the Playing Fields) – that is a third of the collected stories, and there are a couple more resonances to be sounded before we are done.

The second thing that convinces me is what I would call explanatory power: we gain much more understanding of James’s stories and his motive in writing them if we suppose them to stem from the seminal childhood experience recounted in A Vignette than if we suppose A Vignette to be no more than a weary old man’s conscious or unconscious recycling of elements drawn from a range of his existing stories. I think we should take James’s concluding paragraph at face value, not least because it adumbrates an idea that recurs in more than one of his stories, including two we have not mentioned yet:

Do not press me with questions as to how I bore myself when it became necessary to face my family again. That I was upset by something I had seen must have been pretty clear, but I am very sure that I fought off all attempts to describe it. Why I make a lame effort to do it now I cannot very well explain: it undoubtedly has had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination. I feel that even now I should be circumspect in passing that Plantation gate; and every now and again the query haunts me: Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them; and perhaps that is just as well for the peace of mind of simple people.

This, I think, is as plain a statement as we can find: that the childhood experience – whatever it was – ‘had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination’ is amply demonstrated by the fact that aspects of it suffuse a great number of James’s stories, even to the point of making them seem (when considered as a whole) to draw on rather a narrow range of invention: so many houses with parks to be traversed, so many woods with some half-seen presence, so many cloaked or hooded apparitions with fluttering draperies and a curious gait. As to the query that haunts him, ‘are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see or speak to as they went about their daily occasions’, that recalls the memorable exchange between the Rector of Islington and Dr. Abell in Two Doctors:

“You are then of John Milton’s mind,” I said, “and hold that

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth

Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.”

‘”I do not know,” he said, “why Milton should take upon himself to say ‘unseen’; though to be sure he was blind when he wrote that.”

and the same notion finds its way into An Evening’s Entertainment in the conversation that the children’s great grandfather is reported to have had with Mr Davis and his young man:

‘Well,’ [my father] said, ‘it may suit you, but I shouldn’t like a lonely place like that in the middle of the night.’ and Mr Davis smiled, and the young man, who’d been listening, said, ‘Oh, we don’t want for company at such times’

(that word ‘company’ is characteristic of the way James can charge a quite ordinary word with sinister overtones: such as HP Lovecraft rely (overmuch to my mind) on obscure vocabulary to conjure horror – ‘arcane’ ‘blasphemous’ ‘Cyclopean’ ‘eldritch’ – but James can raise a frisson with the way he employs a common term. ‘Company’ (which occurs in a surprising number of his stories) almost invariably carries a sinister charge, from the old sacristan in Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, ‘Monsieur will travel in company with his friends; they will always be near him. It is a good thing to travel thus in company – sometimes.’ (and that, it now strikes me, recalls the horrible betrayal of companionship that concludes A Warning to the Curious – ‘The notion of Paxton running after – after anything like this, and supposing it to be the friends he was looking for, was very dreadful to us.’) through to Parkins on the beach in O Whistle (in a scene that is a kind of reverse of the the one with Paxton): ‘One last look behind… showed him the prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him…[Parkins] decided that he almost certainly did not know him and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion.’ Dr Abell and Mr Davis’s young man we have already mentioned, and we can add, from Number 13, Anderson’s judgement on Daniel Salthenius, who had signed a contract to sell himself to Satan, ”Young idiot!’ he said, meaning Salthenius, who was only an undergraduate when he committed that indiscretion, ‘how did he know what company he was courting?” and of course in Casting the Runes ‘Both Dunning and Harrington are firmly convinced that it [the scrap of paper with the runes on it] had the effect of bringing its possessor into very undesirable company.’ To round it off (or begin it) we have the same usage in the description of the garden from A Vignette, quoted earlier: ‘and the garden would be left – to itself, shall we say, or to denizens who did not desire quite ordinary company and were only waiting for the word ‘all clear’ to slip into their posts of vantage.’)

To conclude, why James makes, in A Vignette, what he modestly describes as ‘a lame effort’ to describe his moment of childhood terror may be inexplicable to him, but I think I understand it well enough: towards the end of his life (perhaps already sensing that his time is drawing to a close) he is asked to write yet another ghost story, for the 1935 Christmas edition of the The London Mercury. That he does not finish it in time may be significant: perhaps, in quest of a plot, he has become sidetracked into pondering the path that brought him here, a distinguished scholar in his field and an eminent man who has persisted throughout life in what might be thought the frivolous pastime of writing ghost stories. Where did all that start? As Graham Greene observes, ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in’.

For James, I think that moment was a distant experience rooted in the domestic landscape of his early childhood, an experience that comes to him now not as anything clear-cut but rather with (to borrow his own phrase) ‘a haze of distance’ – not unlike a vignette, in the photograhic sense, in the 1930s a style already redolent of Victorian times, ‘a small illustration or portrait photograph which fades into its background without a definite border’. But vignettes can also be ‘short, impressionistic scenes that focus on one moment or give a particular insight into a character, idea, or setting’ and James’s story also does all that: the one moment that it focuses on affords an insight not only into James’s character as a writer, but also into the ideas and settings that recur in his stories. I think it is significant that James ‘could never glean any kind of story bound up with the place’ even though he cannot deny ‘the strong probability that there had been one once’ – is not that want of a definitive explanation of his formative experience just what has given him both the licence and the spur to pursue, in his adult ghost stories, what such a story might have been?

Lying with impunity

I have today had a letter from the office of that egregious ass, Jake Mogg, known principally for lying in the House of Commons, as shown above, though he has lied elsewhere, too [see Mogg the Mendacious, Mogg Mendax]. The letter (which is quite as underwhelming as you would expect) was in belated response to a petition seeking to ‘Make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence’ which asked that

The Government should introduce legislation to make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence. This would mean that all MPs, including Ministers, would face a serious penalty for knowingly making false statements in the House of Commons, as is the case in a court of law.

We believe false statements have been made in the House and, although regarded as a “serious offence” in principle, options to challenge this are extremely limited as accusing a member of lying is forbidden in the House. 

Truth in the House of Commons is every bit as important as truth in a court of law and breaches should be treated in a similar way to perjury and carry similar penalties.

The letter begins,

‘The Government does not intend to introduce legislation of this nature. MPs must abide by the Code of Conduct and conduct in the Chamber is a matter for the Speaker.’

As will become apparent below, this utterance is on a par with Mogg’s habitual standard of misleading statements.

(You can read the response in full – for what it is worth – if you click on the link to the petition above)

It has taken over three weeks for the government to come up with this response, which should have been triggered when the petition reached 10,000 signatures, which it did on the day that Dawn Butler was expelled from the House of Commons for telling the truth. The truth she told was that on several occasions the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had lied to the House of Commons by making false or misleading statements at the despatch box. Ms Butler cited a video by Peter Stefanovic which documented those instances. An independent fact-checker subsequently found that ‘the majority of Mr Johnson’s claims that Ms Butler mentioned were either false or misleading.’ The video has now had in excess of 31.1 million views and has featured as a news story on foreign TV stations, yet has inexplicably failed to feature on BBC News (even in their report of Ms Butler’s expulsion, when she expressly cited it).

Ms Butler was expelled because the House of Commons has very precise and detailed rules about ‘unparliamentary language’. Thus, ‘Accusations of deliberate falsehood, if seriously alleged, would be a matter of privilege and could be made only on a substantive motion secured by writing privately to the Speaker to obtain permission to raise a matter of privilege. Any such accusation made in the course of other proceedings would be disorderly and must be withdrawn.

Technically, there is no doubt that Madam Deputy Speaker was correct in asking Ms Butler to amend her words and in expelling her when she refused to do so, but the manner of her doing it suggested that she found the breach of parliamentary etiquette far more outrageous than the well-substantiated assertion that the Prime Minister had repeatedly misled the house. There is a yawning hole in the procedures of the archaic and often absurd institution on which our country depends for government and legislation that means that the Speaker has stronger powers to sanction MPs who accuse others of lying in the chamber than those who actually lie (see ‘what are the consequences for politicians who lie?‘ a Channel 4 fact check).

The full flavour of this absurdity is well brought out in Mogg’s letter, which helpfully informs me that

MPs are also subject to the House of Commons Code of Conduct and the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members’ which ‘includes a general duty on MPs to “act in the interests of the nation as a whole…” alongside a requirement that MPs “act on all occasions in accordance with the public trust placed in them. They should always behave with probity and integrity”

furthermore, there is a

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards [who] is an independent officer of the House of Commons and is responsible for investigating allegations that MPs have breached the rules in the Code of Conduct.’

Sounds good, eh? Except that, as the letter goes on,

Conduct in the Chamber is beyond the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. This is because the House has determined that how Members conduct themselves in the Chamber, including their adherence to the principles of public life, is a matter for the Speaker

In other words, the House of Commons Code of Conduct has no force in the Chamber of the House of Commons because the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (an officer of the House of Commons) has no responsibility for… standards of conduct in the chamber of the House of Commons.

However, although one would have thought that lying to the House of Commons was clearly a case of not ‘adhering to the principles of public life’ what is less clear is that it is the responsibility of the Speaker to do anything about it: Erskine May, the so-called ‘Bible’ of Parliamentary procedure, says that

The Speaker’s responsibility for questions is limited to their compliance with the rules of the House. Responsibility in other respects rests with the Member who proposes to ask the question, and responsibility for answers rests with Ministers.

And the present Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle – a sadly spineless and ineffectual creature, in my view – has said, “The Speaker cannot be dragged into arguments about whether a statement is inaccurate or not. This is a matter of political debate.” (Though to be fair to him, previous holders of that office have said the same).

So if it is not for the Parliamentary Commissioner or the Speaker to do anything about the Prime Minister’s lying to parliament, whose then is the responsibility?

I expect you have already guessed. Such conduct is a clear breach of the Ministerial Code (aka ‘the Nolan Principles’) and the sole responsibility for interpreting and enforcing that lies with…

…the Prime Minister.

To sum up, in this absurd Alice-in-Wonderland institution, which has not enough seats to accommodate its members, a voting system that requires the members to troop out into the lobby then back in again through the appropriate door, and till recently required the wearing of a top hat to make a point of order during a division*, the Prime Minister is sole arbiter of whether he (or any of his ministers) should suffer any sanction for lying to the House or failing to correct the parliamentary record when they have made a false statement to the House.

Could I suggest, Mr Mogg, that a more honest response would simply have read,

‘The Government does not intend to introduce legislation of this nature as the Prime Minister (and other ministers, if he allows it) can at present lie to parliament with impunity, and we would prefer to keep it that way.’

*To increase their appearance during debates and to be seen more easily, a Member wishing to raise a point of order during a division was, until 1998, required to speak with his hat on. Collapsible top hats were kept for the purpose. This requirement was abolished following recommendations from the Modernisation Select Committee, which stated: “At present, if a Member seeks to raise a point of order during a division, he or she must speak “seated and covered”. In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television. We do not believe that it can be allowed to continue.”

The Beat-Boxer and the Steam Machine: a paradigm of primitive speech

Let us suppose a beat-boxer, one of those gifted with the skill to reproduce a whole orchestra of percussive instruments using only his voice, and let us have him put in charge of a large and complicated steam-driven machine of the sort which has something fed in at one end, processes it, and puts the finished article out at the other, all the while whistling and hissing and clanking with various rods and cranks and and cogs and arms moving up and down and round and round. It is not entirely automatic, so the beat-boxer has to dance about it, furbishing it here, oiling it there, pulling this lever, turning that valve, as well as loading it at the start and unloading it at the end of each cycle.

Engines of PS Savoie, Lac Leman, built by Sulzer of Winterthur

As he moves, he accompanies himself with a soundtrack of his own improvising, which imitates the rhythm and the sounds of the machine, with some interjections of his own, and punctuated with movements and gestures. If he has a purpose at all in doing this, it is primarily aesthetic: he does it for the joy of it. But that is not to deny that it is useful to him: it keeps him attuned to the rhythm of the machine and serves as a kind of mnemonic (maybe the noises of his own that he inserts correspond to different actions that he performs at various points in the cycle). You might even imagine a circumstance where he uses his beat-box track as a tool to instruct someone else in operating the machine, because there is a correspondence between it and the various stages of the process of operating it.

If you recorded the beat-boxer going about his business, you could analyse the sound-track to bring out that correspondence, identifying elements of the track that corresponded to this movement of the machine, or that part of the process, or this action on the part of the operator. In this world of viral videos on Tik-tok and YouTube you could imagine him expanding his repertoire to include other kinds of machinery, different sorts of operation, each with its own soundtrack. The soundtracks on their own would, in a sense, embody the operations – an instance of the true sense of synecdoche, where a whole is conjured by a part. Yet at the same time each soundtrack would be an improvisation, not consciously devised, only incidentally having a structure that corresponded to something else.

This, I would suggest, serves as a paradigm for how human speech could incidentally evolve a structure corresponding to the world in which it was created, a structure that (once discovered) could be parsed and analysed into elements that correspond to things in that world, standing in relations that correspond to the relations in that world – and yet at no time is there a conscious ‘naming of parts’, no ostensive definition where we say a word and point to what it means.

This is the solution, for me, of a problem that has troubled me in a theory I have been evolving for some time. My thesis is that Language, as we know it today, is an artefact of writing, specifically of writing used to transcribe speech (something that does not happen till about a thousand years after writing is invented). My reasoning is that it is only when speech is made visible and we have a chance to study it that we can discover the structure that underlies it, a structure we can then analyse into words and grammatical relations.

The question that requires to be answered is where that structure came from, and how does it come to be made up of elements that correspond to things in the world, if it was not expressly devised to do so? And that, I believe, is the question that my example of the beat-boxer and the steam machine answers. Speech in its initial form, I suggest, is no more than the soundtrack of specific human activities, bound up with a larger pattern of gesture, movement and expression that comes naturally to humans engaged in any activity. Its key element is probably rhythm and its character is largely mimetic (or interpretive, if you like): we bind ourselves to the task in hand by improvising sounds and gestures to accompany it. It is, I would suggest, a pleasurable activity, akin to music-making, and its primary motivation is aesthetic: it expresses how it feels to be doing whatever it is – or if you like a larger canvas, how it feels to be human, in this world, doing this thing.

Tens, or probably hundreds, of thousands of years of human activity (which is probably of a fairly consistent character, given that it’s the same sort of creatures living in the same world doing the same sorts of things) will render the improvisation of such soundtracks a matter of instinct and intuition, much like birdsong, with the young attuned to learn it from their elders. And of course I say ‘soundtracks’ only to emphasise the role played by speech – in reality, it is an expressive performance, led by facial expression, gesture and movement, in which speech plays only a contributory part, one very much bound up with the rest and only separable from it when, much later on, the invention of writing (eventually) provides the means of making speech visible – and so capable of study.

Ringing in the New Year

My recent passion for bakelite telephones, recounted here, has led to a new and unusual doorbell, though the route was somewhat circuitous.

I developed a personal dislike of wireless doorbells in our last house, an upper maisonette flat, where answering the door involved descending one and sometimes two sets of stairs. Soon after we moved in, the doorbell we inherited became insane and took to ringing on its own initiative, so that I would go plunging down the stairs to open the door and find no-one there. My solution there was to rig an old-fashioned ‘butler’s bell’, the sort that is hung on a coil spring and rung via system of pulleys connecting it to a brass bell-pull at the font door.

Our new house came with a wireless bell that needed only a new battery to make it work and it served well enough but with a couple of drawbacks. One is a peculiarity of the house, which is effectively back-to-front, with the entrance from the street being via the back door, which gives onto a convoluted passage with three right angle turns before you reach the main hall via another internal door which is usually shut. This means that the wireless receiver needs to be in line with the back door, where the bell push is, which puts it at some remove from the main part of the house and on the wrong side of the internal door. Add to this a sonorous chime sufficiently musical to be masked by the radio in the kitchen if (as is usual when I am there) it is playing Radio 3, and you breed high levels of doorbell-related anxiety (exacerbated by a further peculiarity of the house which is that the entrance described above is not on the same street as the house address but actually round the corner on the next street).

My first preference was to replace the wireless bell with something similar to the mechanical bell I had used in our previous house, but butler’s bells had evidently become an object of desire in the interim and the prices were absurd, so I decided to put up with the hard-to-hear wireless bell in the meantime.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, my bakelite telephone researches had led me to an article entitled ‘Build your own ring generator for testing!’ which centred round a ‘black magic box’ made by Cambridge Electronics Laboratories in the USA. This device, powered by a suitable battery, would send AC current of the right frequency to cause a telephone connected to it to ring just as it would if its number had been dialled. Picture my surprise when, shortly after reading the article, I came across just such a Black Magic Box entirely by chance on eBay. This was so evidently a sign – and the price so reasonable – that I promptly bought it, along with various other components, in order to build myself a ring generator (even though I did not really need one).

That was in mid-November. When the various parts arrived, it became evident that something was amiss. Although I had followed the specifications in the original posting, the black magic box would not fit in the black plastic box that I had ordered to contain it and the battery. When I looked more closely, I saw that I had bought a different and slightly larger version of the ringing generator; what was more, while the original required a single 12v battery, this one required four.

[Before you begin to have visions of this small box wired up to four car batteries, let me assure you that these 12V batteries – designated A23 – are astonishingly small:

(they are actually made up of a stack of eight 1.5V button cells in series enclosed in a wrapper)]

So I had to order three more batteries (together with three more wee mounting boxes to put them in). No sooner had I done that (my eBay records show) than my eye was caught by something else phone-related, to wit, a no.41 Bellset:

The bellset as it originally appeared: note the black oxidised gongs, which are actually copper. Though they look quite well in the original, I was unable to resist taking them back to the bare metal.

It had a low opening price – £10 – and I stuck in a minimal bid. No-one else was interested and I won it. By the time it had arrived, the thought had crossed my mind that not only could I use my black magic box to make it ring, but I could rig the whole thing as a doorbell.

It is curious how often you can have all the major components of a grand scheme in place only to be thwarted from executing it by some tiny detail. In this case, it was the bell-push. The original ring-generator called for a push-button (or ‘momentary’) switch, and though I had one, I wasn’t sure it had the gravitas for a front door bell (even if our front door was actually the back door):

Furthermore, there was the problem of locating it – the door in question is of the modern sort, lacking the ample wooden jambs of the traditional kind in which a bell-push might be housed. That does not matter for the present bell, which being wireless, can be stuck to the jamb with no need to penetrate it.

Then it occurred to me that there was, in the turn of the hall, the remnants of an earlier bell, which evidently had not been wireless:

Might the original wiring still be intact? A little detective work showed that it was, with the wires emerging at a point concealed by the present stick-on wireless bell. Flushed with success, I attached the bell-set to a makeshift arrangement that housed the black magic box and its batteries, ran a wire from the box to one terminal of the old bell, then attached the two bell wires to one another outside the door (rather than through the bell push, to save me from having to operate it when I wanted to be at the other end of the business) then completed the circuit by touching the other wire from the black magic box to the second terminal in the old bell-box.

The bell-set rang!

It was at just this point, all obstacles removed and problems solved, poised on the verge of success, that things took a baffling turn. The entire set-up, from the connections to the bellset to the black magic box to the batteries, was makeshift, with bared wire simply looped round terminals and in some cases held down with blu-tack – I wanted to be sure that it worked in principle before making the effort to solder on proper connections and the like, knowing that when I did, I could be sure that everything would work as it should. So I set to and made proper permanent connections and put it all firmly together.

And it did not work.

Not a cheep could I get out of it!

I checked and rechecked the connections: they were all tight and where they should be. I checked the batteries: the total voltage was a little down, but surely not enough to account for such complete absence of response? To be sure, I added another battery in series, but still nothing. At this point I became convinced that I had done something foolish and somehow managed to wreck the black box: I recalled there were warnings about polarity, and about incorporating a resistor in the circuit to protect against short-circuits (which I had not done). I began to realise how limited my understanding of electricity really was. Had I, in the moment of my triumph when I made it ring using the old bell circuit, somehow contrived to do it irreparable damage? There had been no bangs, flashes or sparks, but it was certainly now as dead as a dodo, and had been, apparently, since that single, triumphant ring.

Having slept on it, I woke convinced that the explanation was probably less dramatic. I tested the batteries again, this time individually, rather than as a group. Three were fine, but the other was some way below what it should be. I recalled that batteries wired in series (a bit like Christmas lights) were only as strong as their weakest link. I decided to buy some more batteries, but those available locally were exorbitant so I ordered some more (postage free) from eBay, and for good measure, a holder that would take four at time, rather than the ramshackle arrangement I had concocted myself:

on the left, the original box, with a vacant space where the black box was located, and four separate battery containers wired in series using gold wire saved off a bottle of Rioja. On the right, a proprietary quadruple-battery holder.

But while I was waiting for the batteries to arrive, I fell to thinking. If fresh batteries solved the problem, just how practical would this doorbell prove in service? all it took was for one battery to fail a little and it would cease to operate. And how long would the batteries last, anyway? Might I not become ensnared in a downward spiral of anxiety, perpetually concerned that the bell might have stopped working, so always checking it, only to wonder if by doing so I was actually running the batteries down?

Then I saw this:

It is a hand-cranked magneto, designated GPO generator 26AP, and its sole purpose in life is to make telephone bells ring. I watched it closely and saw it was attracting little interest on eBay and was able to secure it with a minimal bid of £9.99 (though the postage actually cost more than that – it’s a heavy little article, but it did arrive very promptly.) With this, I reasoned, I could always be certain that the bell would ring – all you had to do was turn the handle; and there would be no batteries to run out.

The only practical problem was where and how to mount it, since it was somewhat larger than a conventional bell-push. After some investigation (involving drilling holes and a knitting needle) I was able to confirm my surmise that there was a gap of some four inches or so between the cladding of the outer porch and the wall of the house. Since the generator was about five inches front to back, this meant that if I sawed a suitable hole, it could sit on a wee shelf, with most of its bulk concealed and only the face with the handle protruding. After an initial false start when I discovered that an iron rone pipe was already occupying half the space behind the first hole I created, I moved the scene of operations some way to the right and cut a second hole. This was one was unencumbered, and the only difficult was leading the wire to the generator. My first thought was to use the existing wires and add extensions to them at either end, but since they were already old and had at least one dodgy join in them, I reasoned it would be best to use a fresh cable. This was thicker than the old wires and it took a lot of patient work to enlarge the somewhat crooked passage that they followed to allow the new cable through.

But eventually, it was done.

L-R: new cable entering enlarged hole on inner door jamb; emerging at the other side and passing behind the cladding; the initial abandoned hole in the process of repair, with the generator to the left.

And it works, giving me an absurd amount of pleasure when it does. Sometimes I ring it just for fun.

the little gold arrow, in the best tradition, is manufactured from gold foil taken from the top of a wine bottle

The one drawback is that it sounds exactly like the telephone, but since it is in a different place and in any case only rings two or three times (depending on the vigour with which the handle is turned) that does not really matter. And it makes me smile whenever I see it.

Bellset in situ, with the gongs taken back to the bare metal. The box deserves a new coat of varnish.

‘Strange fits of passion have I known’

…but none stranger than my recently-conceived passion for bakelite telephones. Three months ago, I knew nothing about them, beyond faint memories of the telephone in the first house I properly remember: its number was Perth 284 (the code for Perth was OPE8, as I recall, which later became 0738).

Now I have these:

Both work, having been rewired by me to operate on a modern phone line; indeed the one with the natty red cord has been converted by a clever bit of wizardry from pulse dialling (which rotary phones generally have) to tone dialling (which is what your modern touchtone phone with its electronic bleeps has).

As you can see from that liberal spray of technical know-how, my little store of knowledge has increased, in respect of telephones at least, these past three months. For instance, I can tell you that the one with the red cord – which bears all the appearance of being a standard GPO model 332 – is in fact an ATM L.11560 manufactured by the Strowger works in Edge Lane, Liverpool (the black-painted brass 24c dial is diagnostic). Strowger specialised in automatic exchanges at a time when the GPO used human operators, hence the abbreviation ATM, which stands for Automatic Telephone Manufacturing. In fact, it is to the resoundingly named Almon B. Strowger of Kansas City USA that we owe the original concept of the automatic exchange, which he invented in 1889.

I can also tell you that the iconic British black bakelite telephone is in fact a Swedish* [Norwegian actually – see footnote] design, originally made by Ericsson, and distributed throughout the world – including New Zealand, where the dials run backward – who knew? (and isn’t that a lovely shade of green?)

I can also tell you that the iconic British black bakelite telephone is in fact a Swedish* [Norwegian actually – see footnote] design, originally made by Ericsson, and distributed throughout the world – including New Zealand, where the dials run backward – who knew? (and isn’t that a lovely shade of green?)

(photo courtesy of

The second telephone – even blacker than the first – is a German Krone W48. This was a classic e-Bay purchase, bought on the ‘green tandem principle’ which I should briefly explain. A long time ago I saw on eBay a rather handsome pre-war tandem, possibly a Claud Butler, in a distinctive shade of light green. I did not bid on it and it went for £130, which I would happily have paid. Ever since then, I have resolved to make a minimum bid on any item that I would regret letting slip if it went for a low price. Such was the case with the Krone, which I secured quite unexpectedly for a penny under £25, which postage raised to just under £31 (if you look on eBay just now, you will see that the typical range is from two to three times as much).

The classic 332 and its variants show an extraordinary range of price. The coloured ones – jade green and red especially, but also ivory – command a premium and generally sell for several hundred pounds (indeed, there is currently a jade green 332 with a ‘buy it now’ price of £1800 and another with a more modest opening bid of £500 though asking and selling are two different things, of course) The once ubiquitous black ones are numerous and can be had much cheaper, with a starting price from around £50 and a good way upwards, depending on condition (a well polished bakelite telephone can be made to look very alluring). However, since they are heavy articles (around 6lbs/2.7kg) the postage adds a fair bit.

So when I saw one that offered free postage – effectively a discount – at a low starting price, I kept a close watch on it. The competition was another 332 with a buy-it-now price of £54.99 which postage boosted to a couple of pennies under £68 and at the time of watching that was by some distance the cheapest on offer (interestingly, it is still available – and it has a drawer, too, the one thing that mine lacks). So I was very pleased to secure mine for a penny under £45 all in. From subsequent observations, that remains a good price.

I was of course taking something of a punt, since no claim was made for the phone (beyond that it had not been tampered with) and I had no first-hand knowledge whatever about telephones. What I did have, however, was the internet, and this is one of those areas where it comes into its own. If you have some skill and judgement in research – i.e. you have a clear sense of what you are looking for, and do not take everything you read as gospel – then you can acquire a remarkable amount of knowledge in a fairly short time – and one of the basic points is that your bakelite telephone is a robust article that seldom goes wrong (though faulty dials can be tricky) and spares are available.

This cornucopia of free knowledge is thanks to those good souls who, having developed a passion for something, are happy to share it with the world. There is clearly a large old-telephone community and it has produced not a few excellent websites of which is one of the best and most comprehensively informative (so a good starting point – it has many useful links, too) while is very useful on the practical technical side, particularly the section entitled ‘let’s take a phone to bits‘ which I found very useful. There is also a good range of dealers in bakelite telephones and related items, which gives a good idea of what is available in the way of spare parts and what things cost – from which you can infer what is a reasonable price on eBay..

Some that I have found very useful are and the excellent who make the beautiful cords that now adorn my phone. (Another source of superb hand-made cords is Geoff Mawdsley, whose rather underdeveloped website is here: Both can be found on eBay) while is another good site (where I first heard tell of the RotaTone pulse-to-tone conversion).

What drew me down this curious pathway in the first place – having never given a thought to bakelite telephones in my adult life – was the fact that we were shortly to move house and I was determined that one thing we would not persevere with was our modern two-station cordless wifi telephone.

It is hard to account for the animus that I have built up for this particular bit of plastic over my twelve years of ownership, but it does embody, to my mind, all that is worst in modern design. Its neat compactness may look well but it is ergonomically unsound, consisting of a short straight bar that stretches from your ear to about half-way down your cheek: it may well be that the microphone is well-positioned to pick up the human voice from there, but it doesn’t feel that way. Furthermore, all the buttons that operate it are located on the front of this bar, which makes them inaccessible when you are on a call. If, as is often the case these days, you find yourself negotiating a maze of non-human respondents before you reach a human being (generally on the other side of twenty-five minutes of tedious music if it is Virgin you have the misfortune to be calling) then you repeatedly have to take the phone from your ear to press the number that takes you to the next level.

There is also the possibility that you can inadvertently operate these buttons by pressing them with cheekbone or chin – my poor dear mother used to regularly mute herself halfway through a conversation by that very means. Additionally, these wretched machines need batteries to operate, which can be guaranteed to run out at the least convenient time, and in old age they become temperamental and will simply stop working in the course of a call, leaving you talking to yourself for some minutes before you realise that no-one is hearing you.

The bakelite telephone, on the other hand, has a sensible separation of functions: the dial that operates it – pleasing to use and soothing to hear – remains in front of you on the table, while the ergonomic handset is pleasing to the touch and fits snugly from ear to mouth; the whole looks damn good and has a lovely ring and requires no electric current to operate, save what comes down the line to make it ring.

Its only drawback is that the lovely rotary dial operates by a method –pulse-dialling – which is obsolescent: basically, for each number, it sends the equivalent number of pulses down the line, which the exchange can then convert back into a number – which is why dialling takes much longer. A modern phone uses tone-dialling (though no actual dial is involved these days, only an array of buttons) where each number is transmitted as an electronic bleep (the singsong bleeping you hear if you press ‘last number redial’ or use a single button to speed-dial a stored number). At the moment, all BT lines still support pulse-dialling but cable operators (such as Virgin) do not.

Since it looked as if we would probably persevere with Virgin (though I hate them too) I decided to invest in a RotaTone conversion kit (details here a clever little electronic module that fits between the dial and the line and converts its pulses into tones.

In the event, this precaution proved unnecessary, since Virgin refused to connect our new property (despite there being a cable box right outside our window) and we went with Vodafone, who operate over BT (or OpenReach) lines. Old telephones still require to be rewired to use a modern line, but fortunately there are detailed instructions on how to do this on the internet – most notably the site, which is the one I used.

The most useful bit of advice (and here I must allow that the mobile phone has some advantages) is to take pictures of the original wiring before you change anything. As you can see, my ATM L11560 had led a pretty dirty life (owing, no doubt, to coal fires) and the original colour of the various cords took close inspection to discern:

The German phone was altogether cleaner inside:

I did the British phone first, and although it took a little time, I eventually got it set up to make outgoing calls and ring when it received incoming ones, though its ring at first was rather feeble, and sounded as if it was about to expire. As I gained more confidence from working on it, I saw how to adjust the gong mechanism, and the replacement of the original rather decrepit cords with lovely red new ones restored a healthy ring.

the sonorous if mildly diffident voice of the L11560, like an apologetic butler’s cough

Now that I had it working, I rather baulked at embarking on the further complication of installing the now unnecessary RotaTone, so instead I transferred the cheap conversion kit I had bought on eBay (then replaced on the L11560/332 with the gorgeous red cords from Vintage Telephony) to the Krone and (again with the aid of detailed instructions from the British Telephones site) was able to render it fully operational – there was a considerable pleasure in hearing its ‘voice’ for the first time – it has quite a distinctive ring, more urgent to my ear than the British phone:

the peremptory shrill of the Krone W48

Buoyed with this success, I returned to the RotaTone, reasoning that since I had bought it, I might as well use it. What had daunted me was that I needed to acquire some new skills to fit it, namely heat-shrinking insulation onto leads and soldering eyelets onto their ends. Fortunately there are plenty idiot’s guides on the internet for that, too, and for the fitting itself there were admirably clear instructions here which made a useful supplement to the illustrated ones here

I will not say it was straightforward, but it was ultimately satisfying, since by dint of reason I was able to accommodate differences in the 24c dial with which the L11560 is fitted to the instructions for the standard 332, which has a different dial (two of the wires are transposed). I rather surprised myself by my patience in repeatedly dismantling and reassembling the phone with different wiring combinations till at last I hit on the right one. And fitting all the components is rather fiddly work:

the bridge rectifier sprawled like half an octopus across the terminal block

But there you are, I did it, and it works – even if I do not actually need it and – to be honest – am not sure I really like it: bakelite phones are no place for such electronic bleepery, and who needs speed dialling when proper dialling is such a calming pleasure? Long may pulse dialling continue!

  • My apologies for the misinformation: ‘In 1932 L M Ericssons put a new telephone into production, their DBH1001. It was designed by Johan Christian Bjerknes of Elektrisk Bureau, LME’s Norwegian company. Styling was by leading Norwegian designer Jean Heiberg.’ – thanks to Bob’s Old Phones

Out of Season

‘Never should ha’ reopened that.’
‘Pretty line though.’
‘In summer.’
‘Autumn too I reckon, what with the trees.’
‘Wouldn’t catch me there out of season – nor anyone with sense.’
‘When they do their winter maintenance, then? Best part of preserved steam, that is – no public to bother with.’
‘They squeeze it in, I suppose. Chap who works there told me that about mid to late October someone says ‘reckon that’s it till Spring, now’ and they all just down tools and go – as a body, like, as if no-one wants to be the one left behind on his own.’
‘I heard that.’
‘Like I said, never should ha’ reopened it.’

It’s surprising how you can tune into a conversation where no names are mentioned, yet know exactly what (or where) is being talked about. It made me draw my coat closer about me and sit nearer the fire with my pint. The potter’s valley was the name I gave it, though it isn’t called that on the map. When I heard them talk I made a vain effort to think of pleasant days on the canal – summer days – but November was always the month I came back to; out of season, as the man said.

I had a friend – a potter, hence my name for it – who lived in that valley all year round, though he took precautions: the entrance to his house was guarded by a little stream. He had a drawbridge that he lowered when a visitor rang the bell that hung on a post. He treated it as a joke, of course, a bit of fine English eccentricity to please American visitors, but I don’t think it was, really. It was from him that I learned about the railway, with its strictly-observed season.

‘So, why do they leave?’ I asked.
‘I doubt if they could tell you,’ was his reply. ‘It’s just a feeling they have, that they should be gone, that they ought not to stay around.’
‘But you stay around.’
He shrugged.
‘I’m careful. And maybe my trade gives me a better understanding of these things – working with the elements, you know – earth, fire, water – air, too’ (he touched the leather-lunged bellows he used to blow up his fire) ‘ – you can always come to an accommodation.’
He spoke in a lighthearted way, as if he did not expect to be taken seriously.
‘You don’t mind living here, then – out of season, I mean?’
‘No – not at all. Indeed, that’s when I do some of my best work. There’s a kind of magic to it,’ he added, with an impish grin.
‘You don’t feel isolated?’
He smiled at that and took me outside. I have already mentioned his little ceremony with the drawbridge; now he took me round the side of the house, where a waterfall plunging down a cliff powered an ancient slow-turning waterwheel with a shaft that ran through the gable of the house.
‘I still use that to drive some of my equipment,’ he said. ‘It’s wonderfully reliable and of course it costs nothing.’

The stream that flowed past his front door came from the pool at the foot of the waterfall, but as he now showed me, there was a second branch that ran round the rear of the house.

‘The stream effectively flows across the canal,’ he told me. ‘You can see how the water runs over that concrete lip on the other side. Of course, this house was here long before the canal – it’s over four hundred years old – and in those days, the two streams joined again on this side of it’ (we had walked round to the canal side by this time) ‘ – so yes, I am isolated, if you take the word in its literal sense: my house stands on an island. Its name on old maps is Ait House. An ait or eyot is a little island.’

‘I can see why you like it here.’
‘It wouldn’t suit everyone,’ he replied, ‘but it has a lot to recommend it. Of course, you have to make sacrifices.’

It was the sort of thing that anyone might say, but it lodged in my mind, though at the time I made a joke of it. ‘Ah yes – the definition of an idyll: where someone else lives. No-one ever allows the perfection of their own place. If you mean that it gets lonely at Christmas time, I‘d be happy to come down and help you be convivial.’
His response to this startled me.
‘Don’t you dare!’ he said, with real force, then tried to back-pedal as soon as he realised what he had said. ‘What I mean is, you’d risk your neck coming here – the canal would be frozen and the road’s a death-trap even when it’s not blocked with snow – and besides, you’d find me dull company. I don’t really do Christmas.’
‘All right, then, if you don’t want me to come,’ I said.
I didn’t add that he had offered rather more excuses than seemed at all necessary; instead, I asked, ‘Do you get a lot of snow in winter, here?’
‘You’d be surprised,’ he said, glad to move away from the subject. ‘The weather here can be peculiar – quite unlike the surrounding district, even just a few miles away.’ he fell into a muse. ‘It’s the influence of the valley, I suppose,’ he added, after a time, more to himself than me.
‘You mean it has a sort of micro-climate?’ I queried.
His mind must have been running on other things: he stared at me blankly for a moment, then said, ‘Yes, that’s it – that’s just what I meant’ – though his tone suggested it was not what he meant at all.

I never did go there for Christmas, but a strong curiosity to visit that valley out of season ran like a deep current under the normal surface of my life; it often came to me in the sort of outlandish places my work took me to. I’m a man who’s knocked about the world a bit and done some things I shouldn’t, generally for money. When you’re in dark and dangerous places it’s important to have an escape, a sort of star to steer by, some sort of vision to pull you through, something to keep going for. For some men it’s a woman or a family but I never spent long enough in the places where such attachments are formed when I was young and as you get older the time for making them is past. Besides, I don’t know that I’d make a very good long-term companion for anyone, so instead I have my boat.

She’s not your usual canal boat, Amethyst – she’s steam-powered, for a start, and though handy enough for one man to manage through a lock, something about her lines suggests a life spent on less sheltered waters – those sturdy navigation lights are not what you expect on an inland waterway, and the big bow searchlight (on a mounting that might double as a gun emplacement) hints at clandestine visits to quiet coves, landing unusual cargoes or picking up irregular passengers; but that was in the past, and now, like me, she’s retired from active service.

It’s a ritual for me, going on the canal: it has to be done properly. It starts with getting away: there’s an art to that – it can’t be done abruptly. You need to put conscious distance between yourself and the world. A car is best avoided: too swift, too easy to pack too much, ‘just in case.’ Getting down from a train at a wayside halt is better, especially if you have a bicycle. Then you have had to pack your bags with care, to take only what you need, because you cannot carry much. And because the wayside halt is deserted and the train pulls away to leave you in the rural silence that is made up of a thousand tiny sounds you can fancy yourself already stepped back to an earlier age, the age when your big old-fashioned bicycle was new. And a car could not easily penetrate the narrow overhung lane that you turn down and a driver would scarcely notice the gate in the hedgerow so dilapidated and askew it surely cannot function and besides who would want to enter that narrow strip of field grown up with rusty bracken and bounded with a sombre fringe of trees?

And yet the gate does open and the foot finds a path the eye cannot see along which a bicycle can be wheeled up to that gap in the trees that might be an entrance to the wood…
The boathouse is almost drowned in a sea of ivy and creepers. You’d think it ruinous, but it’s sound enough. In summer it almost seems underwater in the subaqueous green light that filters through the trees but in the time I had given up trying to put from my mind it was November and the light had already begun to fail, so that I found my way by touch as much as sight. Inside, it is dry and weather tight. It takes time to get light because the lamps are acetylene; they started life on some grand motor-car of an earlier age. No electric here: that’s another important part of the ritual, the slipping back in time.

Canal life is strange, slow-paced: you can spend all day covering a distance you might drive in minutes in a car; a brisk walker on the towpath can overtake you. Negotiating a lock can take as long as sailing a mile, so that is the general rule of thumb for reckoning a journey – actual miles plus lock-miles. With your copy of Nicholson’s Canal Guide and a shrewd estimate of your average speed (between 3 and 4 miles per hour) you can reckon fairly accurately at the start of a day’s sailing where you will be at the end.

That matters more in November when the days are short: you need to think where you might find a mooring for the night from around four o’clock in the afternoon or even sooner, because the light fails rapidly and mooring in the dark can be a pain – more so, in fact, than sailing in the dark, if you have a big searchlight, as I did. So when my slowness in raising steam in the morning persuaded me that I was unlikely to make my intended destination in daylight that day, I checked and found that there was a full moon later. That meant that if I sailed on for a bit in the dark, I could moor by moonlight – people these days forget how bright the moon can be: you can see very well by its unaided light, once your eyes have grown accustomed to the dark.

Once realised, the idea took my fancy – the potter’s valley was a good day’s sailing at the height of summer, so I had originally planned to go half-way this time and complete the journey on the morrow; but now with the prospect of a full moon I saw that I could do the whole thing in a single trip, and the appeal of sailing by moonlight, when all the world was asleep, strengthened the notion of slipping back into the past.

Canals are resolutely unmodern: their architecture is ancient, even where it has been restored – a replacement lock-gate that is ten years old looks and works like its predecessor of two centuries before. They were built in the age of pick and shovel, when a galloping horse was the greatest speed a man might attain, and they wind through the countryside along contour lines to avoid unnecessary changes of height; even more than railways, they go around the back of things and their likeness to rivers harmonises them with nature more than any other form of transport.

In summer this music of the past makes a pleasing counterpoint with the modernity that encapsulates and overlies it: the fibreglass pleasurecraft, the other boaters with their range of competences, from the awkward hire-boat daytrippers steering with nervous smiles to the old hands who seem like fitments on their boats; the noisy beergardens and the honk of car-horns at every hump-backed bridge. It runs like a deep strain of otherness under the surface of everyday sights and sounds – like something, as Eliot puts it, ‘heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea.’

But now, in November, the canal had a different aspect: the leafy canopies of summer were gone and the trees stood bare and elegant, side-lit by the low sun; you could see deeper into the woods on either side. The ground was carpeted with bronze and gold. Fewer people were about, on the roads above or down below on the canal: such boats as as I saw were moored up for winter, either happed in tarpaulin, locked and shuttered, or with cosy curtains drawn and a curl of smoke going up from the stove chimney and piles of firewood stacked along the roof. The world above seemed to have gone to sleep, and down on the canal the sense of being submerged in the past was strong. Even at noon the sun struck at a low angle, creating a glare from the water and the metal surfaces of the boat that made me shield my eyes; a figure that looked in upon me as I entered a deep lock had no face, only a dark outline tinged with golden fire, and was gone by the time I scrambled up the ladder to close the gate and work the paddles.

The arm that led to the potter’s valley started in scenes of urban dereliction, old abandoned warehouses and the occasional flat-backed tower-like kiln preserved as industrial heritage among modern housing developments; it was not till the passage of a couple of swing-bridges and some fixed ones with very little headroom (for which I took the precaution of lowering the funnel) that its true character became evident. Then it swung in leisurely curves among fields till the fact of being in a valley gradually forced itself on your consciousness: you noticed that the broad flat floor was flanked – distantly, as yet – by low hills; in the middle of it, marked by a sinuous line of trees, a river was evident; beyond that, higher up, you could pick out the line of the preserved steam railway.

As the sun dropped lower, the character of the valley began to alter: the hills now were more numerous, shaped like long barrows, suggesting ancient glaciation; they seemed to crowd in, forcing the canal, the river and the railway ever closer as the valley sides grew steeper and the shadow deepened. At the same time, the sense of abandonment grew: here and there, rows of lime-kilns reared up, like the ramparts of long-forgotten fortresses; and one particular lock, dank and gloomy with a dark tunnel-like approach under a railway bridge, had landing steps green with moss, the lowest of them awash as if the lock itself was slowly sinking. I had already been up to the lock to empty it and open the gate: the railway passed close beside it, coming over the bridge that darkened the approach then running on the other side of the by-wash amid birch trees, its sleepers buried in a carpet of brown leaves. This image of human industry overwhelmed by nature made the place seem all the more desolate.

As I drove deeper into the valley the cliffs rose up on either side and soon the declining sun caught only the topmost ridge of the eastern heights; all below was cast in deep shadow. I lit the powerful searchlight and sent its beam ahead. A light mist was rising from the river that now ran close by on the left hand side; owls hooted in the woods. The valley floor grew narrower and after a time it became clear that canal, river and railway could not continue to run together but must converge. It was the canal that gave way: a narrow lock marked the point where it ended, dropping down to become a river navigation with the railway running close alongside. Beneath the foot-bridge at the lower lock-gate a gauge was painted on the wall, red above and green below; when the water has risen into the red sector, you are advised not to proceed, as dangerous conditions may exist.

It was wholly dark within the lock and when the searchlight picked out the gauge the water was risen to the top of the green, perhaps a little way into the red, but I did not hesitate: after all, I had ample reserves of power, and there was no evidence of recent heavy rain that might cause a flood. The river had a smooth, deceptive look: as soon as I entered it, I was aware of being borne along, as the current – absent from the level canal – took hold. The greater depth meant the boat went with more speed, though still leisurely enough. The search light swept the wooded banks as we swung along, at one point picking out another wall of lime-kilns agains the steep declivity on the right hand side, then some way further on, an unusual structure in a wood: a rectangular stone pillar about the size of a telephone box, with a pyramidal top and a metal door on one side – it reminded me oddly of a sanctuary of some sort, and I wondered what lay beyond the door – a set of stairs, perhaps, leading to an underground shelter.

The river was broader than the canal and had quite a different feel to it, wild and unregulated. It wound in lazy curves, the railway hemmed in beside it, running among the trees on the left; I thought what a fine thing it would be to see a steam train running so close by. I recalled that there was a station up ahead, where the canal once more departed from the river, which ran on over a weir under the arches of a bridge. The canal resumed as a branch off to the left, under a railway bridge, and between it and the river stood the station, which was built in part above the canal, one of its platforms and a waiting room being cantilevered out over the water.

By the time I reached it, the moon was up, and the station and its buildings stood out eerily bone-white, a man-made island between the still canal and the river plunging noisily over the weir. It had about it a strange air of expectancy, like an empty stage waiting for something to be enacted. Overhead, it was a fine night of stars; the sides of the valley mounted up like dark shoulders on each side and the moon shone down above the treetops – the whole had a sort of hypnotic charm about it, and I eased Amethyst in under the overhanging platform, tied her to the steel supports and clambered up to the station. Once I was there, standing among the deserted buildings, the sense of something impending was stronger than ever: in my oddly detached mood, I mused that the painted sign saying ‘waiting room’ was curiously apt – not only the little wooden building that hung over the canal but the entire station was just that.

Though I was awake and fully conscious, my state of mind was like something out of a dream – I looked at the ordinary things about me with a sense of their deep inner significance; I could not say if I actually heard it, or only imagined it vividly, but I had the impression of a sonorous chime, as if something was being announced. At the same time, I seemed to be at once where I stood (I could see the strong shadow I cast in the moonlight angling across the platform) and somehow outside myself, and the detached part of my mind recalled that this was the literal meaning of the Greek term ‘ecstasy’. Thus, I seemed to see myself as a figure standing on that moonlit stage yet at the same time I was that figure, aware of all that was going on around me.

The air above my heard seemed pregnant with sound – I can think of no other way to put it – as if, at any moment, it might break out in a chorus of some sort, whether the twittering of birds or human voices I did not know; while up ahead, beyond the station, I saw two separate points of light appear, a good distance apart. As I watched, each seemed to multiply, becoming a column of bobbing lights, and my mind formed the thought that these were two lines of torchbearers advancing towards me, one following the railway, the other the towpath which passed my friend the potter’s house – and I found myself wondering (again, with complete detachment) whether he had the drawbridge up, and if he was at his window, watching the column of torchbearers go by.

The thought that there might be witnesses to this spectacle caused me to look up to the far side of the valley, where the dark outline of a house thrust up above the trees at the very top of the cliff. A single lit window stood out brightly and I fancied there was a figure behind it, looking out, though at such a distance it was impossible to tell. I wondered if the watcher could see me far below, a dark figure on the bone-white platform. For a moment I experienced a curious transposition, and it was as if I was in the house myself, looking down on the valley from a safe height, able to gaze into it without being in it. Then from my own viewpoint on the platform I saw the window alter shape, one half becoming dark, and I knew a shutter had been closed across it; a moment later, the other side was closed too, and the window went as dark as the rest of the house.

For a second it was as if I still lingered up there and felt, like the owner of the house, that I had looked long enough. Strangely, it was that one small detail – the shuttering of the window – that brought me back to the present and a sense of my own immediate danger: from what or whom I could not tell, but I felt a powerful urge to get away. The spell was broken: I scrambled down to the boat, unmoored her, and went astern. Why I did that I cannot say: it was not a conscious decision. I had some notion (bound up, perhaps, with the idea of crossing running water) that to be safe again I would need to go back up the river navigation to the canal lock.

I soon found it was not going to be easy. In the time that I had been ashore, the river had risen considerably: I had to put on full power to keep myself off the weir, which swept under the old bridge, its arches barred with huge beams suspended on chains – I could see that these floated much higher than had been the case when I came down. It was difficult to steer going astern and made harder by the fact that I had to go across the current first then turn into it. I was aware over my shoulder that the intensity of light in the vicinity of the station had increased, but I did not look back: if I lost concentration for a moment, the boat would be swept to the weir and pinned there by the force of the water.

Inch by inch I fought her round for what seemed an age and at last her stern pointed up stream and the waters flowed past her flanks rather than driving against her side. My situation was eased, but only slightly – even with the engine on full power, progress was difficult – we clawed our way forward against the inexplicable flood. It was like fighting a living thing. At the back of my mind was the fear that I might not have sufficient fuel to maintain such a course for long, yet if I eased back I would not make any headway at all – but if I lost power before I reached the safety of the lock, I would be at the mercy of the flood. In the end, the sheer force of the current decided it for me – nothing less than full power would serve, and if it failed, it failed…

All the while I fought I was aware that there was a light at my back – I could see it reflected on the water – and, above the rush of the weir, a sound like many voices singing; the more I struggled to get away from them, the more a giant hand seemed to force me back. Time slowed, and how long we hung there, battling against the current, I could not say – it seemed like hours; when at length I risked a glance at the pressure gauge, I saw to my horror that it had begun to fall. Behind me, I heard the voices rise in climax, culminating in what seemed a single cry or shout, and in that instant the whole valley was lit as if by a lightning flash, though no thunder followed – instead the voices fell in a long, mournful wail, and as they did, the force of the water against the boat eased and we began to move steadily up the river navigation.

When I risked a backward glance, the station was in darkness. In the woods, the owls resumed. I made the lock and went up it, tied up at the lock moorings, and dog-tired, fell asleep. Next morning seemed such an ordinary day that I had few qualms about descending the lock again. The river gauge was well in the green. The station, as I passed, seemed no more than an abandoned country station, quaintly situated. At my friend the potter’s house, the drawbridge was down and the door was open; the house, as I expected, was empty.

I have not been back since. But now I am older – in the November of my life, indeed – I wonder if perhaps I was mistaken. That last cry I heard – was it terror? It might have been ecstasy. ‘You have to make sacrifices,’ my friend had said. And as the year wears on, I ponder a final out-of-season trip on the canal.

The question that Johnson must answer about Cummings

Either Dominic Cummings’s action in driving to Durham from London had some justification that excused it or it had not.

That it requires excuse is unarguable, since the guidelines state clearly that infected households must isolate at once and that even healthy people should leave the house only for a narrow range of reasons and should not travel to stay elsewhere.

Mary Wakefield’s account of her own and her husband’s illness, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and published in The Spectator, is mendacious, since it makes no mention of their travelling to Durham and implies that they remained in London (suppressio veri, suggestio falsi : to suppress the truth is to suggest a lie). However, the details it supplies may be accurate. If they are, then Cummings fell ill within 24 hours of being seen hurrying from Downing St. which happened around midday on 27 March:

‘My husband did rush home to look after me…But 24 hours later he said “I feel weird” and collapsed. I felt breathless, sometimes achy, but Dom couldn’t get out of bed.’

Since from that point

‘for ten days he had a high fever, with spasms that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs. 
He could breathe but only in a limited shallow way’

it is evident that he could not have driven anywhere*.

We know from Durham Police that he was already in the city by 31 March, so the inference is that he travelled north either on the same day he left Downing St (27 March) or, at the very latest, on the morning of the next day.

10 Downing St issued a statement on 30 March saying that Cummings was self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms. It is scarcely credible that Downing St, and Boris Johnson, did not at that point know that Cummings was in Durham (if they did not, then Cummings must have lied to them, or at the very least concealed the fact that he had travelled).

We now come to the central point of the matter. If Boris Johnson knew that Cummings had travelled to Durham, in breach of general government guidelines on travel, and had done so with an infected person and possibly when infected himself, then either he was persuaded that the action was excusable or he was not. If he was not so persuaded, then he has colluded in concealing Cummings’s wrongdoing at the time and has lied about it since it came out, and persuaded members of the cabinet to repeat his lie.

But if he believed it was excusable, then he still colluded in concealing it. Why?

This is the crux of the matter. When Downing St announced on 30 March that Cummings was self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms, why did it suppress the fact that he was doing so in Durham?

If, as the Prime Minister now maintains, Cummings ‘acted legally and with integrity,’ then he would have saved himself and his colleagues a great deal of trouble if he had said so at the time. Indeed, given the furore that has been generated by it now, it would surely have been politically expedient to do so; unless –

and here we come to the sequels. Both Catherine Calderwood and Neil Ferguson were high-profile figures making a valuable contribution to managing the pandemic. Both were dismissed for trivial breaches of government guidelines when those came to light – Calderwood for making a non-essential journey, Ferguson for allowing someone to visit him. In neither case was any public good served in dismissing them – quite the reverse – since their contribution was valuable and important. The reason both had to go was the same: it looked bad.

It looked bad that two such high-profile figures who were very much part of the campaign to persuade the public to accept draconian restrictions on their freedom had flouted them. As Nicola Sturgeon said, ‘I know it is tough to lose a trusted adviser at the height of crisis, but when it’s a choice of that or integrity of vital public health advice, the latter must come first.’

If Boris Johnson is telling the truth – and given his record of public mendacity and faithlessness in private life, that is a big ‘if’ – then he sincerely believes that Cummings ‘acted legally and with integrity’ in travelling the length of England with an infected wife. So why did he not say so at the time?

If the answer is that ‘the public wouldn’t accept it’ (and remember that this was just a week into lockdown) then that is the same reason that both Calderwood and Ferguson were later dismissed – because what they did, though trivial in itself, was publicly unacceptable. What Cummings did was certainly more serious – he knew his wife was infected and that it was quite likely he was too – yet he broke both the guidelines on isolation and on travel. It would have looked very bad at the time had it come to light, even if there was some excuse.

That raises the question of timing. The story has come out two months into lockdown, when restrictions are already being eased in England and to a lesser extent elsewhere, seven weeks or more after it happened. It is evident from Mary Wakefield’s dishonest account – which her husband later corroborated – that she hoped it would not come out at all, since her version is expressly concocted to give the impression that they remained in London. Was it Boris Johnson’s hope that in suppressing it – as he did – that the passage of time and the possible easing of lockdown would render it, if not acceptable, at least less unacceptable than would have been the case on 30 March?

If that is the case – that (despite believing Cummings had done nothing wrong) he feared public outrage if it was made known at the time – then, besides showing his own cowardice and want of integrity, that is tantamount to saying that Cummings’s action was unacceptable in precisely the same way as Ferguson’s and Calderwood’s were – that it was not the breach of guidance that mattered, but its being discovered – and that he therefore colluded in concealing it.

If, on the other hand, he believes that Cummings ‘acted legally and with integrity’ it is hard to see what other reason he could have for concealing the fact that he travelled to Durham. If it is justifiable now, it was justifiable then. If Cummings has not already gone by the end of today, and if the Prime Minister does not shirk the five o’clock briefing – both distinct possibilities – the question he must be pressed to answer (and not allowed to dodge) is ’why, if you believe Mr Cummings to have acted legally and with integrity, did you not make public the fact that he had travelled to Durham when it was announced that he was in isolation with symptoms of coronavirus on 30 March?’

Supplement: well, I think my question remains the one to ask.

Cummings appeared half an hour late and gave a statement that bore all the hallmarks of being contrived to meet the needs of the moment, in the sense that it provided an explanation for each of the points of controversy that were in the public domain. Some explanations were less credible than others, but the key point for me remains the same: when did the Prime Minister learn that Cummings had travelled to Durham and at what point did he form the conviction that in doing so he had ‘acted legally and with integrity’?

We know, from Cummings himself, that he did not ask Johnson before he went, which was on the evening of 27 March, as I surmised. Cummings said that ‘arguably, this was a mistake’. It would be interesting to know why he thinks that. He says that ‘at some time in that first week when we were both ill and in bed I spoke to the prime minister and told him what I had done. Unsurprisingly, given the condition we were in, neither of us remember the conversation in any detail.’ [my emphasis]

Since that is a key point in the whole affair it seems particularly unfortunate that neither man can recall it in detail nor when it happened (a cynic might observe that it might as well not have occurred at all). At all events it occurred ‘in the first week’ [i.e. of Cummings’s isolation] at a time when both men were ill and in bed. That puts it between 28 March and 5 April when Johnson was admitted to hospital.

That means that for over seven weeks Boris Johnson has known that his chief aide ostensibly broke the guidelines on isolation and on travel that he was instrumental in imposing on the general public. Even in his fevered state, that must have been a matter of concern to him, more so when Catherine Calderwood was forced to resign for very similar reasons on 5 April, the day Johnson was admitted to hospital. When Johnson was discharged from hospital a week later (April 12) to recuperate at Chequers, he must have been fully aware that a serious situation existed with regard to his chief aide’s actions. (Was anyone else aware?)

Cummings returned to work in London on 14 April and at some point after that went to Chequers to see Johnson. I do not know when that was, but Johnson returned to Downing St on Monday 27 April. It is inconceivable that Cummings would have met Johnson at Chequers without discussing the difficulties entailed in his travelling to Durham instead of complying with the guidelines that everyone else had to follow.

If Johnson is telling the truth when he says that he believes Cummings to have ‘acted legally and with integrity’ then the inference is that he has believed that to be the case for nearly a month – yet he said nothing till 24 May.

On Saturday 25 April The Spectator published an article by Mary Wakefield in which she said  “we emerged from quarantine into the almost comical uncertainty of London lockdown” omitting the fact that they had emerged in Durham and then driven 260 miles to London. She had already broadcast the substance of this article, if not its entirety, on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day that morning. (curiously, this is not available on BBC Sounds, though all subsequent and some previous ones are. It is my distinct recollection that the London reference formed part of the broadcast, which I heard. I do not take The Spectator)

It is difficult to believe that the Prime Minister can have been unaware of that article and that broadcast especially as it was seen at the time as a deliberate distraction from the revelation that Cummings attended SAGE meetings. It is also difficult to believe that the mendacious implication that the Cummings family had spent their isolation in London can have escaped him.

In other words, a month ago the Prime Minister knew both that his chief aide had travelled to Durham in apparent contravention of both isolation and lockdown guidelines and that his wife had published an article and made a broadcast implying that they had remained in London. At the very least he must have seen that the situation called for some explanation. But if we are to believe him, he also thought that Cummings had ‘acted legally and with integrity.’

So why did he wait a month to say so, and then only because he was forced?

It is surely always wiser to control a difficult situation by forestalling it than to wait till you are forced to respond, provided you are in the right and your actions are defensible.

Otherwise you are liable to look as if you are not in the right and that your defence is a desperate contrivance to excuse something you had hoped would not come to light.

*Yet by his own account, he did – to drive his son to hospital, in another highly implausible set of circumstances. Despite having others to hand who could have done it for him (including, I believe, his wife), and the availability of taxis (which Cummings denies but taxi drivers and hospital dispute), he rose from his sickbed and took his wife and son – at a point when he had reason to believe that all three were infectious – by car to hospital. Still, I did say that his wife’s account is mendacious, and presumably she suppressed the bit about the journey to hospital as it might have identified their whereabouts.

The Magic Money Tree: is Covid-19 a game-changer?

The idea of ‘convention’ and its associated activity of ‘deeming’ are fundamental to human activity, as I think I have said elsewhere.

By ‘convention’ I mean the agreement to be bound by something, to deem it to have a power which in reality resides with us.

The paradigm of this concept is when a child, in the course of a game, goes through the motions of tying you up with imaginary rope, then says, ‘there now, you’re my prisoner and you can’t escape’. Both child and adult know, on one level, that this is not the case (being called to the tea-table will dissolve it in an instant) but also that there is a space ‘in the game’ where it holds good, where you both agree to act as if you were bound.

There are two important things to note here: the paradox at the heart of this activity, and its origin in childhood, which suggests that it is ancient, instinctive and intuitive.

The paradox is that the power which we deem the external thing to have is actually our own: we are bound only by our own agreement to follow the rules; it is something which, in theory at least, we can shrug off at any time (though habit can be coercive). The fact that adult conventions are backed by a system of law and enforcement is proof of this: yes, I can be fined or sent to jail if I transgress certain rules that society has agreed, but that requirement for added enforcement is an admission that the conventions, of themselves, have no power to compel.

When children play games and set out the rules, they are not imitating adult behaviour; the reverse is actually the case – the use we make of convention and deeming in adult life derives, I would argue, from that instinctive childhood behaviour. Imposing order on the external world, structuring our lives by giving ourselves rules to follow, is, I would suggest, a method we have evolved that allows us to make sense of experience and manage the problem of existence; but how we do it is up to us.

And that brings us to the magic money tree and these extraordinary times we are living through. It was Theresa May, I think, who said that there was ‘no magic money tree’ in response to a question raised about funding the NHS. As many have since remarked in the recent turn of world events brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the government now seems to have found an entire magic forest.

If we deconstruct the expression ‘magic money tree’ as Theresa May deployed it, we find it is shorthand for the notion that ‘no matter how worthy the cause (e.g. nurses’ pay) the government can’t just conjure up money to pay for it.’ The implication is that the government is bound by some iron necessity which it could not disobey no matter how much it wanted to; but that is simply not true – the necessity exists only within the conventions of the game – as recent events have shown, there is a magic money tree, if the game has reached a stage where one is needed to keep it going.

The truth is that our economy (by which I mean global free market capitalism, which obtains generally) has no basis in necessity: it is simply a grand and elaborate game, a set of conventions that can be reduced to the notion that people must work (in providing goods and services) in order to earn money to pay for the good and services which people work to produce, in order to earn money, etc. – but we do not have to live this way.

To be sure, there are necessities within the global freemarket economy (I must have money in order to survive) but those are – literally, not metaphorically – just the rules of the game: its logic is internal; it is not founded on any external necessity – there is, ultimately, no reason for it. The fact that we do not have to live this way is demonstrated by the fact that not everyone does, even now, and not so long ago, no-one did – civilisation, living in settled communities supported by agriculture, accounts for only ten thousand of the 200,000 years our particular species has been on earth; in other words, for 95% of human existence we have lived very differently from the way we do now.

Take the case of Richard Branson, one of those who have played the present economic game with such skill that they have amassed a vast pile of the magic leaves we call money, yet who is calling on his airline staff to make sacrifices, which led one Liam Young to tweet the other day

‘Virgin Atlantic have 8,500 employees and Branson has asked them to take 8 weeks unpaid leave. It would cost £4.2 million to pay all of these employees £500 a week to cover this leave. In total that’s a cost of £34 million for 8 weeks. Richard Branson is worth £4 billion.’

[in percentage terms, £34 million is 0.85% of £4 billion, so the implication is that even after doing this, Branson’s wealth would be 99.15% intact]

Now, there are various points for comment here: on the face of it, there seems a great unfairness to ask others to give up their income when you yourself have plenty, even if (as people have pointed out) having a net worth of £4 billion does not mean you have that amount at your immediate disposal; and it is the fact of people working at such and such a cost to provide such and such a service that makes that net worth what it is.

The most succinct summation of the matter was offered by the person who commented, ‘Branson didn’t get his £4 billion by paying staff any more than he absolutely had to.’

No doubt she meant this critically, but it expresses an important truth. For Branson to pay his employees for not working is to play a different game from the one that made him so absurdly rich. That game depends on paying the market rate (which is, by definition, as low as you can get away with) for people to provide goods and services which you sell at a profit. To pay them for unproductive activity is (again, literally, not metaphorically) as if the person who wins at Monopoly, having amassed all the money and ruined everyone else, then says ‘let’s just keep playing, and if you land on my property, I’ll pay you till you’ve all got some money again.’ And of course you can do that if you want, but it’s a different game (and one that completely subverts the point of the original).

I expect, when all this is done, that the world will settle into a new shape, and perhaps a surprising one: habits and customs, once broken, may not be resumed; we may come to see that we need not do what we always have. At the moment it is clear that the present game – global free market capitalism – is in serious danger of failing, so the various participants (i.e. national governments) are willing to abandon the rules, at least temporarily – hence the magic money forest – in order to maintain a semblance of economic activity till we are in a position to start again in earnest; but what they may find, after this, is that people don’t want to play that game any more.