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 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.
…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?)
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 https://www.britishtelephones.com is one of the best and most comprehensively informative (so a good starting point – it has many useful links, too) while http://www.samhallas.co.uk/ 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..
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 https://www.rotatone.co.uk/) 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 https://www.britishtelephones.com 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.
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:
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:
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
‘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.
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 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.
A catchpenny headline, I grant you, but I hope to persuade you of the truth of it.
By any measure, yesterday in parliament was an extraordinary spectacle. Here we had the least successful prime minister of all time, whose government has not won a single vote since he came to office, who has lost his majority live on television then compounded that loss by expelling more than a score of his party’s most loyal members (a band later joined by a defector from his own cabinet) – thereby rendering himself incapable of governing – who had the day before been the subject of an utterly damning defeat in the Supreme Court which judged him to have acted unlawfully in proroguing parliament for five weeks instead of the usual few days at a time of national crisis, yet in the face of all that, he was brazenly unabashed.
The warm-up act was his loud-voiced Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who in an extraordinary demonstration of what psychiatrists call ‘negative projection’ attributed to the benches opposite every fault that was true, a fortiori, of his own government – that they were paralysed, incapable of coming to a decision, a dead parliament, a disgrace, a zombie parliament without the moral authority to occupy the benches they sat on; he charged them with cowardice for failing to call a general election when his own government is so powerless that it cannot even do that for itself – he actually called on them to move a vote of confidence, not because he thought they would lose, but because he was sure his own government would be defeated.
Then came the main act. The tone was set early on when the Prime Minister asserted that he meant no disrespect to the Supreme Court when he said that they were wrong – this is a man who speaks in conundrums and contradictions, who likes nothing better than to deliver a sentence where the second part flatly contradicts the first and to move rapidly on while mouths are still gaping at the sheer brazenness of it – did he really say that? It was the same with the most infamous episode, where he dismissed as ‘humbug’ the plea by Jo Cox’s successor to moderate his language because it would inflame violence and put MPs’ lives at risk; while people were still fuming at that, he went on to suggest that the best way of honouring Jo Cox was ‘to get Brexit done’.
Given that Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death in the street, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, by a man who shouted ‘Britain First’ as he murdered her and later gave his name in court as ‘Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain’, it is difficult to find a scale of inappropriateness on which the Prime Minister’s remark can be measured.
And yet there will have been those looking on who thought, not in spite of this shocking behaviour but because of it, that here was a man who could win an election.
In that they will have been emboldened by the success of Donald Trump on whose behaviour Boris Johnson has increasingly modelled his own, as last night’s performance demonstrates – and be in no doubt that a performance is what it was, cynically calculated to play well with pro-leave voters as it is conveyed to them through the sewers of The Daily Mail and The Sun and the other conduits of feculence that form their views. Those rags will present it as ‘the people’s champion’ standing up to the ‘Liberal Remainer Establishment’ – a term that encompasses Parliament, the Supreme Court, experts and anyone who is capable of articulating a reasoned argument to show that we are better off in the EU.
And this is where the Conservative party faces a stark choice. Across the Atlantic, the Republican Party ushered in the reign of chaos by throwing in their lot with a man they knew to be dangerously unfit for office, whose political credentials as a genuine Republican were doubtful at best, all because they thought he could win and keep them in power. That act of ignoble self-interest has not only served their country badly, it has made the world a more dangerous, unstable place.
If the Conservative party back Johnson because they think he can win and he does, then they will find themselves prisoners of their choice in precisely the way that the Republicans have in backing Trump: we will be out of Europe (on bad and economically-damaging terms), trying to stand alone against economic superpowers – China, USA, India and indeed the EU – and our government will be in the pockets of a small band of very rich men. It will suit the likes of Mogg, Duncan Smith, Johnson and the wealthy, privileged elite they count as friends but the notion that it will be a victory for ‘the people’ is a very sick joke indeed.
‘Let us remind ourselves of the foundations of our constitution. We live in a representative democracy. The House of Commons exists because the people have elected its members. The Government is not directly elected by the people (unlike the position in some other democracies). The Government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that.’
Once you start talking, as an MP, in terms of ‘people versus parliament’ you are disavowing the very thing that gave you authority to speak in the first place and espousing gangsterism – the gangsterism of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Putin and Trump. There are, I am sure, enough decent Conservatives who are deeply worried by the direction in which Johnson and his advisers are taking their party, and who are as appalled as any decent people would be by his shameful and cynical conduct last night.
Now is the time for them to put Country before Party. Johnson has to go, and it is they who should take the lead in ousting him.
As I have pointed out before, Bernard Jenkin is given to lying to the public (see Liars in public places). It’s not a habit he’s cured, if what he said today on BBC Radio 4 is anything to go by:
“We’ve got two democratic systems of deciding things in the modern constitution: one is by representative democracy and the other is by direct democracy. What we have is a collision between two forms of legitimacy,” he adds. “The Supreme Court has clearly chosen the parliamentary, they don’t address the question of the direct mandate.”
There is a good reason why the Supreme Court did not address the question of the ‘direct mandate’ – there is none in this country. There are three branches of government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Jenkin himself is part of the second: he is elected to the house to scrutinise and pass the laws which the executive propose and the courts then interpret. For him to suggest that there is a second ‘democratic system of deciding things’ – ‘direct democracy’ that is one of ‘two forms of legitimacy’ is simply a lie.
It is a particularly brazen one, given that he had heard (and who could fail to hear Mr Cox?) the Attorney General not long before confirm, in answer to a question on its legal force, that the referendum had none; it was not binding.
But he should have needed no reminder – it is incumbent on all parliamentarians and those outside parliament who make its doings their business to know that in this country we have no provision for a binding referendum save the sort that brings into force legislation already passed by an Act of Parliament, as was the case with the 2011 UK Alternative vote referendum (see detail here), a point I discussed in The Real Enemies of the People.
Commons Briefing Paper 7212, giving background on the European Union Referendum Bill, could not be clearer on this point:
‘This Bill requires a referendum to be held on the question of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) before the end of 2017. It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.’
So, Jenkin is lying when he says ‘we’ve got two democratic systems of deciding things in the modern constitution’ just as he was lying when he said ‘the country voted overwhelmingly to leave’ in the 2016 referendum, when in fact only 17.4 million out of an electorate of 46.5 million did so. By implying that the Supreme Court ought to have addressed this ‘direct mandate’ and second ‘form of legitimacy’ (which he has just invented) he promotes the pernicious narrative that casts the present crisis as ‘The People v. The Remainer Elite’ with the Judiciary ranked among the latter (along with, curiously, the very Parliament of which he is a member, whose sovereignty he has sworn to uphold).
This is the new way of doing politics: invent ‘alternative facts’ and inject them into the mainstream discourse, where, if unchallenged, they rapidly gain currency. Journalists, do your job: call it out at every turn.
The use and abuse of language has been critical to the continuing political crisis initiated by David Cameron’s ill-judged and badly-executed attempt to stem the flow of votes from his party to UKIP in the 2015 General Election.
Recently I remarked on how ‘just get on with it’ and kindred expressions had been subverted to serve the Brexit cause. There are, I suggested, a great many ordinary people – burden bearers, we might call them – who are the ones who keep things going from day to day, who make sure the mundane things happen – that the bills are paid, that there is food on the table, that the children are clothed and fed and got off to school. For them, the phrase ‘just get on with it’ has a peculiar resonance – it is what they do, day in, day out; it carries with it an implication that a whole lot of other things might be all very well if there was time to indulge in them, but life being as it is, we must just get on with it and get what needs doing done. As I pointed out, the phrase might well be one that we would agree with in everyday circumstances, but not in the particular case where you found yourself on a strange road in the fog with the growing sense that you might be about to walk over a precipice.
In the same way, an expression central to the debate (it may even have featured in Mrs May’s manifesto in 2017) has been hijacked from the everyday context where it makes sense and slyly introduced to one where it makes no sense at all, with deliberate intent to deceive: I mean the oft-repeated mantra ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’
When is no deal better than a bad deal?
Always, I would say with confidence – and that is what makes the particular use to which the term has been put recently so pernicious, cynical and downright wicked.
Consider an instance. I set off for Italy because there is a special car there that I want to buy – an old classic Lancia, perhaps. The owner knows that I have come from abroad so can gauge the extent of my commitment – I am serious about wanting this car. He considers that this puts him in a strong bargaining position so holds out for a far higher price than he would otherwise ask because he is confident that I will not walk away, having come so far. But I consider that at this price I would be paying way over the odds – the car needs work done and further expenditure to make it presentable, so the price should reflect that. As it stands, this is a bad deal. I say as much. ‘Then it’s no deal,’ says the owner, in a last attempt to persuade me. ‘No deal is better than a bad deal,’ I say, and walk away.
There has been no transaction: the situation remains as it was – he has the car, I have my money (though I have to put down my expenditure to experience, the price I am willing to pay to achieve my desire). I tell myself that there will be other cars, or indeed that I could learn to live without one.
If we try to map this case onto our present one – leaving the EU – a peculiar thing emerges: no deal is indeed better than a bad deal, but only provided we resume the status quo – in other words, that we walk away, not from the EU, but from the idea of leaving it – on the very good ground that we cannot get a deal better than the one we already have, so we’ll just stick with what we’ve got, thanks, and put the time and money we have spent down to experience.
But that is not what is on offer here: rather it is a choice between a bad deal that is at least orderly and leaves us on good terms with our neighbours (though not as good as those we currently enjoy, which is what makes it bad) and a deal that is a great deal worse, because it involves our crashing out in a disorderly fashion, breaking all sorts of commitments in the process (such as paying our debts)and tying ourselves to WTO rules that will prove economically disastrous for the country as a whole and will ruin many businesses individually.
So yes, no deal is better than a bad deal and very much better than a worse one. So let us not make any deal to leave, but rather stay as we are.
An odd collocation: I came home from a visit to Stanley Mills to find that Dominic Cummings had said he wanted to ‘get away from rich remainers’ and ‘talk to ordinary people.’ As many were quick to point out, Cummings himself is exceedingly wealthy, as are his closest allies in the Brexit camp; so this was clearly a bit of ‘projection’ on his part, the device where you attribute to your enemies the very fault you yourself are guilty of – if one thing is evident from the whole affair, it is that Brexit is being driven by wealthy men. But what is the connection with Stanley Mills?
Stanley Mills typify a period in the early industrial revolution, when energetic entrepreneurs saw the moneymaking potential of the mechanisation of weaving that happened in the 18th century. This led to the construction of vast multi-storey mills which were essentially huge complex machines for processing cotton from raw material to finished goods under one roof, generally driven by water power.
These mills required a numerous workforce so their construction was accompanied by the building of houses and related infrastructure for the workers and their families (many of the millworkers were young children, small enough and nimble enough to get in below the machinery to help keep it working by clearing away waste, etc.).
Thus, the construction of a mill was also the creation of a community, with the millowners providing not only housing but schools, shops and churches. There was no doubt that the living conditions (and pay) were an improvement on anything the workers had known previously – most of them would have been agricultural workers – though the working conditions were in a variety of ways hazardous to health, from the perils of unguarded machinery, the deafening noise of the mill and the atmosphere thick with lung-threatening dust.
However, it was certainly possible for the millowners to consider themselves benefactors, giving their workforce clean, modern housing with sanitation, providing education and meeting their spiritual and material needs; and it is probable that many of their workers would have shared that opinion, especially if they still had relations toiling on the land and living in primitive conditions. But another aspect of this set-up was that the relationship between community and millowner was one of total dependence – they were relatively well-off and certainly well-provided-for, and as long as they did what the mill-owner wanted (working hard and causing no trouble) it would stay that way. And of course the millowner had a vested interest in treating his workforce well, since they in turn made him rich.
This looks, from some angles, to be what the Americans call a ‘win-win situation’: the workers get a secure livelihood and all sorts of benefits while the owner not only gets rich, but gets to feel good about doing so – ‘what’s not to like?’ as they say.
Well, the inherent inequality of the relationship, which for all its apparent modernity has a strong whiff of the feudal about it – the mill-owner holds the lives of his workers (and they are ‘his’ in every sense of the word) in the palm of his hand: all is in his gift.
The counter-argument is to say that this is all right as long as the owner is well-disposed, as he has every incentive to be – the better he treats his work-force, the more the rewards for him; and in any case, are there not strong social constraints among the mill-owners as a body, who see themselves not only as enlightened men who are benefitting the whole country through the application of modern ideas but generally as pious, upright Christians, with a strong sense of decency?
We will leave aside what happens when forces beyond the owner’s control – the American Civil War and its effect on the supply of cotton, for instance – lead to an economic downturn which imperils the livelihoods of the millworkers, and concentrate instead on the relationship between these two distinct classes of people, one of which is responsible for the livelihood – indeed, in many ways, the very lives – of the other.
It is an old-fashioned patriarchal model: the father provides for his children, who in turn do him proper respect and give him his place – which is in charge, naturally enough: the responsibility for direction and decision-making falls to him.It seems obvious: after all, has he not created all this through his own acumen, built it up by his shrewdness, to the benefit of all (though most of all himself)? And everyone does well out of it, as long as they all know their place in the scheme of things.
This, I think, is the model that Johnson, Cummings and his fellow wealthy ‘Brexiteers’ are aiming for (and doesn’t the swagger of that title, ‘Brexiteer’, with its echo of ‘musketeer’ and ‘buccaneer’, fit perfectly here?). Look at recent history: the painful wake of the collapse of Soviet communism led not to the promised democracy but an oligarchy allied to political dictatorship – and did so by allowing the seizure of what were hitherto state assets (in theory, at least, the people’s assets) by private individuals, who have profited massively from exploiting them. [though advocates of free-market capitalism will doubtless recast this as proof that what becomes moribund under the dead hand of state control has its potential realised by enterprising individuals]
Look at what Trump is doing: weakening legislative power and state regulation in every direction, and benefitting the super-rich who already control so much of the American economy. He aims to revive the days of the ‘Robber Barons’– Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller et al. before anti-trust laws brought them under some sort of control. The ambiguity with which America still regards the effects of concentrated wealth is neatly expressed in this lesson plan, quoted in the Wikipedia article on ‘Robber Barons’:
‘In this lesson, you and your students will attempt to establish a distinction between robber barons and captains of industry. Students will uncover some of the less honorable deeds as well as the shrewd business moves and highly charitable acts of the great industrialists and financiers. It has been argued that only because such people were able to amass great amounts of capital could our country become the world’s greatest industrial power. Some of the actions of these men, which could only happen in a period of economic laissez faire, resulted in poor conditions for workers, but in the end, may also have enabled our present day standard of living.’
The key that links all these groups – from eighteenth century mill-owners to Cummings and the gang – is the sense that large affairs of state are best left in the hands of a few wealthy individuals, as untrammelled as possible by any state regulation or legislation, whom the great mass of ordinary people (who know little of such things) should trust to do what is best. Of course they will get even richer as a result, but we should not worry about that – isn’t it their just reward? In any case, doesn’t it mean we’ll all be better off in the long term (just as long as we all remember our proper place in the scheme of things and don’t get ideas above our station)?
Viewed in that light, that bastion of democratically-agreed legislation and regulation, the European Union, for all its faults, looks very much the safest refuge in an increasingly dangerous world for ‘ordinary people’who ‘just want to get on with it’.
A useful test is to ask whether the account that people give of events is consistent with the events themselves.
If it were really the case that in the 2016 referendum ‘the country voted overwhelmingly to leave’ (to quote the chronically untruthful Bernard Jenkin, MP*) is that at all consistent with the point we have now reached, and the path we have followed to get there?
If that were the case, is it conceivable that Theresa May, boldly flying her banner with a strange device – ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – would have lost her majority when she called an election expressly to increase it, so finding herself reliant on the ‘support’ of the DUP, which proved fatal not only to her Brexit deal, but ultimately to her premiership?
Would we not rather have expected her to be swept to power by the 80% of the electorate that supposedly support Brexit, according to the convoluted casuistry of the congenitally mendacious Jake Mogg? **
From such a position of strength, her deal would have passed first time, complete with Irish backstop, and we would have left the EU on the date originally intended.
But Mrs May did lose her majority, her Brexit deal and finally her job; yet if all this was the fault of a treacherous Remainer parliament determined to thwart the will of the British people, why did Mrs May and her successor consistently rule out a ‘People’s Vote’, i.e. a second referendum on the subject of EU membership?
If it were the case that ‘the country voted overwhelmingly to leave’ then a second referendum could only confirm the first, leaving those Remainer elite MPs without a leg to stand on, nor any rag to cover their shame. Surely – if the facts were as Jenkin, Johnson, Mogg, Gove and the rest pretend – it would be the Leavers who would take to the street in their millions demanding a People’s Vote? Why would the Remainers call for something that would only confirm once more that theirs was a lost cause?
And if there really was a solid majority in favour of leaving the EU would we not already have left in an orderly fashion under Mrs May, rather than have reached the present pass where a Prime Minister appointed by 92,153 people to lead a population of 65.5 million issues a public statement that “the claim that the govt is considering proroguing parliament in Sept … is entirely false.’’ when in fact he has already decided to do so (as was demonstrated at the Court of Session in Scotland today)?
And would the same Prime Minister have to maintain the threadbare pretence that, by ruling out the Irish backstop – which the EU have made clear is not negotiable – and by taking the position that the UK will leave on 31 October ‘with or without a deal’, he is genuinely engaged in trying to negotiate a better deal with EU rather than intentionally precipitating a no-deal Brexit? (an outcome that is generally agreed to be calamitous for the country)
I suggest that, if Messrs Jenkin, Johnson, Gove, Mogg and the rest were actually telling the truth when they said (as they have repeatedly) that the British people voted for Brexit, then events would not have played out as they have to bring us to our present predicament. I therefore conclude that those ‘honourable gentlemen’ have not been telling the truth and that our present situation is quite the opposite from what they claim it to be: far from a recalcitrant Remainer elite group of MPsattempting to thwart the will of the people, the reality is that a small gang of unscrupulous and self-interested MPs have hijacked the government of our country and are determined to force through an outcome that has only ever been supported in any form by a minority of people and in this latest form – a disorderly Brexit with no arrangements in place – has few supporters if any.***
They appear to be hellbent on steering the ship of state onto the rocks, in some cases at least (the egregious Mogg) for personal gain: it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that their behaviour is both criminal and treasonable.
*as I have pointed out many times before, there are around 65.5 million British people, of whom 46.5 million were eligible to vote in the 2016 referendum. Only 17.4 million expressed a desire to leave the EU and so change a status quo that is all that half the population has known since birth (according to the most recent census data (2011) over half the population were 39 or younger at a time when Britain had been in the EU for 38 years; it is safe to say that it was certainly the case that by 2016 more than half the British people had grown up as EU citizens) It is therefore impossible to sustain with any truth the claim that the British people (or even a majority of them) voted to leave. The great majority of the electorate (62%) expressed no desire to do so. For a closer examination of this point, see ‘Liars in Public Places‘.
**In a brief interview of extraordinary mendacity, the egregious Mogg attempted to claim that there was no need of a further referendum because ‘We had an election in 2017 where over 80% of people voted for parties committed to leaving’. He conveniently overlooks the fact that it has been the norm for the last hundred years for the great majority to vote for the same two parties, and also that many who voted for those parties did so for reasons other than their Brexit stance.
***No less an authority than the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster himself, plucky Michael Gove, has assured us that ‘no-one voted for no deal’