Thurifer finds quotations from Hazlitt an appropriate expression of the 2017 political scene
For fellow political junkies this has been a vintage year. As if the Referendum in 2016 and the subsequent month of high jinks had not been enough to satisfy us, this year has seen hopes confounded, expectations exceeded and general disarray in the General Election campaign and its outcome: and then to cap it, the “sex pest” scandal. The commentariat has been suitably excitable, falling over their metaphors and similes. Politicians have had to dig deep into their bag of clichés, and mint a few new ones. My favourite joke was from Hugh Dennis, son of an episcopal palace, commentating on the suggestion that anti-Corbynista Labour MPs (perhaps the most confounded of all) might face de-selection, said that he thought they might have to undergo some re-education on a “collective allotment”. This sharp observation perfectly captured that mixture of sinister bonhomie and ruthless, self-righteous blokeyness of the man himself.
All this brought to mind my favourite political commentator, William Hazlitt: not a name very familiar nowadays; I cannot remember hearing him mentioned on any political or cultural programme for years. One of his devotees was Michael Foot. Like Mr Foot, Hazlitt was a Radical, and he was as eloquent in the written word as Mr Foot was in his oratory. Hazlitt was born in 1778 and at the height of his powers was among the finest critics and essayists of his time, or any time. His critiques of Shakespeare and on performances of his plays still stand the test of time. In his political writing he was a coruscating polemicist. Here he is on the Tories: “A Tory is one who is governed by sense and habit alone. He considers not what is possible, but what is real; he gives might the preference over right … He says what others say; he does as he is promoted by his own advantage … Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth to Reform, but broad is the way that leadeth to Corruption, and multitudes there are that walk therein. The Tory is sure to be in the thickest of them … He has no principles himself, nor does he profess to have any, but will cut your throat for differing with any of his bigoted dogmas, or for objecting to any act of power that he supposes necessary to his interest. He will take his Bible-oath that black is white, and that whatever is, is right, if it is for his convenience. He is for having a slice in the loan, a share in a borough, a situation in Church or State, or for standing well with those who have … He is styed in his prejudices – he wallows in the mire of his senses – he cannot get beyond the trough of his sordid appetites, whether it is of gold, or wood. Truth and falsehood are to him something to buy and sell; principle and conscience, something to eat and drink. He tramples on the plea of Humanity, and lives like a caterpillar on the decay of the public good.”
In the interest of political balance, here he is on the Whigs: “A Whig is properly what is called a Trimmer – that is, a coward to both sides of a question, who dare not be a knave nor an honest man, but is a sort of whiffling, shuffling, cunning, silly, contemptible, unmeaning negation of the two. He is a poor purblind creature, who halts between two opinions, and complains that he cannot get any two people to think alike. He is a cloak for corruption, and a mar-plot to freedom. He will neither do anything himself, not let any one else do it. He is on bad terms with the Government, and not on good ones with the people. He is an impertinence and a contradiction in the state.” Hazlitt died in 1830: that he should be living at this hour! Perhaps the nearest to Hazlitt in more recent years was the journalist, drama critic and columnist, Bernard Levin. Read The Pendulum Years to see what I mean.
As I seem to be in the quoting vein, another memory was triggered when I was listening to a recording by the Amadeus String Quartet of Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132. I had heard them play it one Saturday morning in Leith Town Hall during the Edinburgh Festival over thirty years ago. I remembered that I had noted in a commonplace book that I have kept, intermittently, since 1968 a paragraph by Samuel Langford, Music Critic of the Manchester Guardian from 1906 until his death in 1927 (his tenure was between two better known critics, Ernest Newman and Neville Cardus) where he wrote about the Last Quartets. “If these beauties were born of human weakness and frailty, and have come from the hardness of physical crisis, as the slow movement of thanksgiving for the recovery from sickness in the closing quartet so touchingly depicts, then there is something to be said even for weakness and sickness as an inspiration in the arts. And when with that weakness goes gigantic spiritual strength as the over-towering attempts of these last quartets show, then we may regard with solemn pride the human nature which is capable of such efforts in such extremes. It is something to belong to the same race of beings as Beethoven.”
That seems as good a note as any to wish you a happy and richly blessed Christmas and a New Year of Grace.