We went to the first night of the Proms last week. Thinking it was all over, we left the auditorium just before Igor Levit came back on for a delayed encore in which he played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (transcribed by Liszt) as an anti-Brexit gesture. We loved Levit’s earlier rendering of a Beethoven piano concerto, but were spared his political views, so it was a perfect evening. Two nights later, Daniel Barenboim took advantage of the Proms conductor’s podium to make an unscheduled speech in which he deplored ‘isolation tendencies’. All good Brexiteers deplore isolation tendencies, which is one of the reasons we don’t like a European Union with a tariff wall, but of course Brexit was the great conductor’s target. Leaving aside the right and wrongs of the Brexit debate, why do so many people just now feel entitled to use their non-political position to try to effect political change?
The disease is everywhere. On Tuesday, Sir Michael Marmot, a health don, reported that the rate at which life expectancy was improving in this country had ‘just about halved’ since 2010 — a story which quickly slipped into the media suggestion that life expectancy is actually falling. Sir Michael’s non-medical explanation was ‘austerity’ (guess who came into power in 2010) and ‘miserly’ increases in health spending. Possible non-political explanations like the poor health effects of more old people living alone, or some of the special health problems associated with higher immigration, did not feature.
On the same day, the Advertising Standards Authority decided that it will ban advertisements which ‘reinforce harmful gender stereotypes’, such as women using soft soap or little girls dreaming of being ballerinas. Again, the question is not whether gender stereotypes are harmful — a good subject for debate — but, by what right does a regulatory body annex this political space? The ASA used to apply a simple (though not always easy) test: was an advertisement ‘legal, decent and truthful’? Now it seeks to turn the industry into a tool for promoting its version of a just society. Does it have this power? If so, who let it grab it?
In theory, it is open to conservative-minded people to hijack some public position to unburden themselves of their views. A right-wing health panjandrum (if there were such a person) could pronounce that we are all getting too fat because we don’t sit round a table for meals and say grace before them. The weather presenter could break off from talking about ‘spits and spots of rain’ to say how much sunnier it will be after Brexit. A patriotic Supreme Court judge could diverge from the case before him to enthuse about the prospect of the English law becoming, once again, supreme. In practice, though, it doesn’t happen, partly because the public space is being deliberately made a cold house for anyone who does not share a certain set of views, but also because the conservative approach to life holds that there is ‘a time and a place for everything’. The left thinks it is always the time and always the place for the same thing.
The Electoral Commission is finally sidling up to the consequences of its failure to police voting registration. It finds the thought that lots of young people may have voted twice ‘troubling’. Why is it that students are allowed to register in their place of study as well as their home? After all, they rarely stay long enough to live with the consequences of their decision.
The BBC reporter told us about Theresa May addressing her MPs on Monday night: ‘“The choice,” she said, “is me or Jeremy Corbyn, and nobody wants that.”’ Presumably, Mrs May meant that no one wants Jeremy Corbyn, but the actual grammar of her sentence summed up the problem more exactly: people don’t want that choice.
The words ‘Reith Lectures’ rarely promise pleasure or enlightenment, but you will surely derive both from Hilary Mantel’s, recently finished. I recommend listening to them on iPlayer, because Mantel’s high voice is expressive of her capacity for horror, spikiness, wit and (half-concealed by the other qualities) compassion. She is the mistress of the striking analogy and the haunting example. The imagination and the intellect are equally stirred. Her subject, under the title ‘Resurrection: the Art and the Craft’, is historical fiction. I like very much her discussion of how we see the past now. The present in every age turns the past to its particular uses, but Mantel thinks our own era is particularly condescending to what has gone before. As she puts it, the word ‘“modern” is laden with value judgments, mostly in our favour’. We are shocked at the cruelties of the past and blind to our own. She thinks our ancestors had more respect for the past than we because they tried to balance ‘the claims of time and of eternity’. For them, time was ‘not an arrow pointing forward, but a candle burning down’: ‘We have climate change, and they have sin.’
To understand the past, Hilary Mantel goes on, we must recognise that, for those who inhabited it, it was ‘not a rehearsal, but the show itself’. The dead are ‘not our employees’. We need to show a certain respect. She recalls going on a tour of Robben Island, the prison — now a museum — which once incarcerated Nelson Mandela. Her guide was himself an ex-inmate. At each empty cell, he would knock on the door, as if seeking permission. She advocates such ‘hesitation on the threshold’. I shall bear this in mind as I work on the final volume of my biography of Margaret Thatcher. When you approach the famous door of 10 Downing Street, it usually opens without your having to knock, because the doorman within is warned of your approach. So you don’t hesitate on the threshold; but Hilary Mantel is right — for historical purposes, you should.