Friday, 18 May 2012

The Quarrel of the Universe

On campus, I overheard something recently that touched a nerve.  Two overseas students were in an exchange with a British student.  One of the two was saying, "... and the English have always done it.  No, it's true!  The English ...  the English have always fucked over everybody".

The British student's reaction -- he was tall, lean and ginger-haired -- was to double over and laugh, loud and exaggeratedly.  "Yes", he seemed to be acknowledging, "That's us, perfidious Albion, world leaders in duplicity and treachery!  I love it!  Don't you love it?"  Though, actually, I doubt that he had ever heard the expression "perfidious Albion", much less given it any thought.

"Why do you laugh so much?  Do you think it is a joke?" asked the earnest overseas student, reproachfully, with a hint of contempt, even menace.  It was the edge in that remark that touched the nerve in me.

As a nation, we are in the habit of casting ourselves as the good guys.  Not without justification: we have much to be proud of, and our contribution to the improvement of life on the planet has not been negligible.  But there is, and there has always been, a Dark Side.  Anyone who thinks that the British Empire and its foreign policies were regarded as a benign force in the world by those who experienced them first hand is a blinkered idiot.

Dear readers, once again, I have to confess that in my youth I was a blinkered idiot.

Student radicalism is no longer the force that it once was.  When I became a student in that unsettling Dreamtime we call the 1970s, real "revolution" really was on the agenda -- the cobblestones thrown in Paris in 1968 were still, metaphorically, in the air.  This was the Baader-Meinhof era of kidnappings, communiqués and killings.  These were the years when striking miners managed to cut off Britain's power supply, forcing the Cabinet to meet -- by candlelight! -- to agree to their demands.  Not forgetting The Troubles in Northern Ireland, or The Birmingham Pub Bombings. This was also the time of Watergate, and the CIA-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende's elected socialist government in Chile.  Incredibly, there were still fascist dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece -- popular holiday destinations for newly-affluent Brits.

A lot seemed to be at stake.  History was visibly in a raw, malleable state.

To the committed student radicals I knew, the world was made up of many local instances of the same global struggle with Capital.  Revolution was the only solution.  It was important to be informed, to be international, to show solidarity with revolutionaries and activists world-wide.  It never ceased to amaze me how much more than me my fellow students already knew about the world -- names, places, dates, events -- and I was constantly shamed by my ignorance.

It was that disconcerting feeling of ignorance exposed that came back to me, overhearing that recent rebuke.

But, of course, in 1972 I was little more than a small-town boy who happened to be bright and good at taking exams.  My world was school, girls, music, and the dedicated pursuit of intoxication.  I knew what I knew about the world from my school lessons, but was otherwise astonishingly ignorant.  In our family no daily newspaper was read, and the TV news was simply an opportunity to get the kettle on, or a sleep-inducing sedative before bed-time.

I was happy to be British.  It seemed self-evident that, if not world champions at everything, we were always contenders.  But  -- to take just one example  -- back then I had never heard of Palestine, Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate, the Stern Gang, Black September, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, though I can recall supporting the Israelis in the Six Day War of 1967, as if were a cup final, and I knew there was a novel by Aldous Huxley called Eyeless in Gaza which I had not read.  "Gaza" was simply an agreeably exotic name, like "Zappa" or "Kafka".

It came as a surprise to me, therefore, that it was common ground among my new friends that to be British was not a source of pride but a matter for cynicism, guilt and atonement.  I learned that, as self-aware sinners, they had been sanctified by alignment with the struggles of the oppressed around the world.  They possessed a solemn sense of justification (in the theological sense) that was both deeply cool and intensely annoying.  As, in the main, they had been privately educated and were the privileged children of prominent members of the establishment, you could see the appeal of this particular theology.

My most transformative encounters were not with Oxbridge radicals, however, but with two African postgraduate students at the University of East Anglia.  One -- from Malawi, I think -- I only ever knew as The Native.  This, I hasten to add, was his own chosen nom de guerre, based on his perception that, to most Brits, the citizens of sub-Saharan African countries were still, simply, the natives.

For some reason, he would often gravitate to my table in the bar, and try to educate me about African politics and the evils of colonialism.  "Hello, it's me again, The Native!"   I think my main attraction was that I had learned enough by then to shut up, and had little to say on his pet subjects.  He was an angry man, delivering impassioned rants about places and politicians that meant nothing to me.  I think he took my beery silence as a form of solidarity, which I suppose it was.

Abdi, by contrast, was one of the serenest human beings I have ever met.  He was from Somalia, studying for a PhD in Oceanography.  He was tall and graceful, and resembled Peter Tosh of the Wailers, with incipient dreadlocks and an expression of permanent amusement.  He didn't drink alcohol, but had no objections to rendering himself horizontal with a chillum pipe.

His story was -- to me, with my conveyor-belt progress through life -- a fable.  When I asked him where his family lived, he replied that he could only give me some map co-ordinates: until the age of ten he had been a nomadic goat-herder in the Ogaden Desert.  The government had instituted a programme of identifying and educating bright children and, well, here he was.

His view of Britain's colonial villainy couldn't have been more different from that of The Native.  I got the impression that to an inhabitant of the Horn of Africa the long view of mankind's history comes naturally, and the to-ings and fro-ings of rulers and ruled, and the behaviour of one towards the other, are all explicable and forgivable as variable expressions of a constant: human nature.  To be "British" or "Somali" is a convenient label, a state in time, not an essence.

This may be my inner "orientalist" speaking, but I felt there was something of Omar Khayyam about his view of life:
But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub couch'd,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward FitzGerald
I'm still not much of a follower of current affairs, but whenever some fresh tragedy unfolds in that region, I remember Abdi.  My hope has always been -- for his sake -- that he never returned to suffer the subsequent history of his unhappy homeland.  It would seem a cruelly ironic punishment for his sunny, forgiving optimism, so different to The Native's glowering grudges. 

But to return to where we started, I sincerely hope that, when our many overseas students do return home, they take back with them a more nuanced view of this country than the one they came with.  If nothing else, yes, we are a people who find our own capacity for self-interested wickedness amusing, and that, my solemn friends, is a strangely redeeming feature, and one of the reasons we are still worth your best attention.


Tony_C said...


I was just last night reminiscing with friends about Frank ZAPPA's Mothers of Invention's album, We're Only in it for the Money, and in particular the track, The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny, based on Franz KAFKA's In the Penal Colony!

Do you suppose the officer in that story was meant to be British. Definitely European, don't you think?

Mike C. said...


I always imagined he's meant to be a German -- don't forget, they had a go at the colonial thing, too, and are even less fondly remembered than we are.


Kent Wiley said...

Don't beat yourself up too much, Mike. I think those of us in the US are even more deluded about our privileges, our rights to the resources of the world, and the manner in which they are acquired. I do wonder how well today's youth - my daughter included - are going to make a transition from their "conveyor belt lives" to being even marginally aware of what Capitalism has done in its pursuit of the American Empire, and has in store for them.

Mike C. said...


I hadn't thought I was beating myself up, particularly, but maybe it reads that way.

America? Most of your compatriots don't even realise there *is* an American Empire, and think the goods and cheap oil keep flowing because they are blessed and deserve it.

It's a hard rain gonna fall...


Martyn Cornell said...

Considering what the French did in West and North Africa and Indochina, the Belgians in the Congo, the Germans in South West Africa (and let's not even mention the war), the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, the Spanish in South America and the Philippines, the Italians in Libya and Ethiopia, the Dutch in Indonesia etc etc, I don't think the British have any greater right to be berated/feel guilty about the colonial crimes of their great-great-grandfathers than anyone else. And anyway, my great-great grandparents were mostly members of the agricultural underclass, thanks, and certainly not colonial oppressors.

There's definitely an undergraduate essay to be had on "contrast and compare late 20th/early 21st century 'American exceptionalism' with 19th century British 'imperial destiny'", though.

Mike C. said...


I agree -- in fact, despite some appalling lapses like Mau Mau, etc., I think history will show we were, on balance, a benign force compared to the more incompetent Euro-imperialists, who can't even manage asingle currency between them.

Americans are a puzzle to me. Do you follow Doonesbury? I thought the recent scenario, where Melissa rang home from Afghanistan, and her brother-in-law (?) wasn't even aware there were still US troops over there, was very telling.


Martyn Cornell said...

Yes: I think Garry Trudeau's take on the ordinary military is one of the best elements in the series, particularly poor Ray Hightower, and Toggle. The closest we have to Trudeau in the UK is Steve Bell, but brilliant though Bell is, he doesn't have the almost Dickensian (almost? hell, it IS Dickensian, in its use of a huge team of characters) sweep of Doonesbury.

Mike C. said...


I'm a big Doonesbury fan -- he is the living refutation (along with Cheers, Friends, House, The Wire, etc., etc.) of that absurd accusation that "Americans can't do irony". Oh, really?

However, I am in the tiny minority (?) of regular Guardian readers who find Steve Bell puerile, unfunny, and about as insightful into politics and society as Bernard Manning. He was quite good on the Falklands War, but that was 30 years ago...

He also CAN'T DRAW and can't make a frame sequence that works which offends me even more. It is beyond me why a national daily can't find someone better.



Martyn Cornell said...

That's interesting: yes, technically Trudeau is a far better cartoonist (his used of silhouettes is brilliant) but I enjoy the way Steve Bell is clearly mad, in two senses of the word, and I enjoy his inventiveness: John Major as a rubbish Superman, Tony Blair as a mad-eyed triangle with sticky-out ears. Though his condom/jelly/Little Lord Fauntleroy David Cameron doesn't work, perhaps because the real thing is such an amorphous blob of shite he's beyond parody.

Mike C. said...


Sure, but that's exactly why he's puerile -- compare Trudeau's artful skewering of the likes of Mitt Romney (based on his actual words and policies) with Bell's blunt-instrument assaults on our politicians. Steve Bell has a playground sensibility, where calling someone a "A BIG BALD FATTY!" passes for satire.

But, as I say, I'm in a minority, and SB is clearly heading for inviolable "national treasure" status.