What it is to introduce a new text into the world free from the fret of fear and hate I have seen the sycamore the beech and silver birch stripped to their boughs as a wind blew in from the East and a flurry of tiny birds caught in a sudden gust before their final departure
This is autumnal abandonment the first shivers of the year end plumes of smoke rising above the houses as every step hastens one would hope homeward to a smile and a warm supper
In the woodlands the last chromatic burst has been neutralized and expectation now rests on the buried seed that will rise to pierce the transparent air in spring
And yet the withered rose it would seem has outstayed its welcome as nature reinvents itself in the guise of the poor of the dispossessed of those by force of circumstance obliged to live colourless thankless lives
What currency rules this bitter world of inequalities ? What canker lies at the heart of communities that disown their own ? And where are we to find the necessary angels of the earth those not stiffened by the pangs of greed those with uncurdled hearts who believe in the reality of harsh realities ?
Nature is the great leveller and months of austerity will yield in time to the bliss of abundance the speech of truth will thrive and the peace of intelligence will dismount the stars and share the fruits of their energy among one and all and nothing will be lost
In these austere times, when one of the world’s richest countries calls upon some of its poorest citizens to bear the brunt of national debt repayment, it is salutary to re-read Thomas More’s Utopia. The word ‘utopian’ has long passed into the language, but these days relatively few people take the trouble to read More’s text which was originally published in Latin by his friend Erasmus in 1516 – note the 500th anniversary comes up next year. The text of Utopia first appeared in English translation in 1551 after More had been royally executed by Henry VIII.
Utopia takes the form of a discussion between More himself and his learned friend, the narrator/traveller, Raphael Hythlodaeus, based on the character of Erasmus. They discuss the ills of contemporary Antwerp, and describe the social and political structures prevailing in the imaginary island country of Utopia. The name Utopia is normally understood to mean “no place”, somewhere which does not exist; but the term is in fact a Greek pun signifying simultaneously ‘no place’ and ‘good place’. Utopia compares the contentious social life of European states with the perfectly orderly, reasonable social arrangements of Utopia and its environs.
In Utopia, there are no lawyers because of the simplicity of its laws and because social gatherings are in public view, thus encouraging participants to behave well; communal ownership replaces private property; men and women are educated alike; and there is almost complete religious tolerance. Readers of More’s humanist work will also notice in the enlightened communities he describes, the complete absence of zero hours contracts, food banks and poverty and social injustice. Salutary reading for our times, methinks!
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) was a lawyer and a councillor to Henry VIII in addition to being a noted Renaissance scholar. Disagreement with the king on a point of Canon law led to him being tried and executed for treason. Below is an extract from More’s masterpiece, but readers can access the full text at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2130/pg2130.txt.
UTOPIA, by Sir Thomas More (extract)
“Is not that government both unjust and ungrateful, that is so prodigal of its favours to those that are called gentlemen, or goldsmiths, or such others who are idle, or live either by flattery or by contriving the arts of vain pleasure, and, on the other hand, takes no care of those of a meaner sort, such as ploughmen, colliers, and smiths, without whom it could not subsist? But after the public has reaped all the advantage of their service, and they come to be oppressed with age, sickness, and want, all their labours and the good they have done is forgotten, and all the recompense given them is that they are left to die in great misery. The richer sort are often endeavouring to bring the hire of labourers lower, not only by their fraudulent practices, but by the laws which they procure to be made to that effect, so that though it is a thing most unjust in itself to give such small rewards to those who deserve so well of the public, yet they have given those hardships the name and colour of justice, by procuring laws to be made for regulating them.”
“Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please; and if they can but prevail to get these contrivances established by the show of public authority, which is considered as the representative of the whole people, then they are accounted laws; yet these wicked men, after they have, by a most insatiable covetousness, divided that among themselves with which all the rest might have been well supplied, are far from that happiness that is enjoyed among the Utopians; for the use as well as the desire of money being extinguished, much anxiety and great occasions of mischief is cut off with it, and who does not see that the frauds, thefts, robberies, quarrels, tumults, contentions, seditions, murders, treacheries, and witchcrafts, which are, indeed, rather punished than restrained by the seventies of law, would all fall off, if money were not any more valued by the world? Men’s fears, solicitudes, cares, labours, and watching’s would all perish in the same moment with the value of money; even poverty itself, for the relief of which money seems most necessary, would fall. But, in order to grasp this correctly, take one instance:
“Consider any year, that has been so unfruitful that many thousands have died of hunger; and yet if, at the end of that year, a survey was made of the granaries of all the rich men that have hoarded up the corn, it would-be found that there was enough among them to have prevented all that consumption of men that perished in misery; and that, if it had been distributed among them, none would have felt the terrible effects of that scarcity: so easy a thing would it be to supply all the necessities of life, if that blessed thing called money, which is pretended to be invented for procuring them was not really the only thing that obstructed their being procured!
So two old friends, Erasmus and Tom More, are sitting one sunny afternoon in the Fox and Hounds, lovely little Chelsea pub just off Sloane Square. The two mates are ensconced in the cosy blue sofas right at the back, near the dartboard, and they’ve already a had a few, so a nice little argy-bargy is developing. Erasmus is sipping on one of those non-descript completely characterless continental lagers, could have come from anywhere, which is why Tom calls them ‘bastard beers’. He always sticks to the same old same old pint of Irish stout (no names please).
TOM MORE: So what I’m saying is. Is. . . ERASMUS: I heard you the first time. TOM MORE: No listen, listen up. What I’m saying is that during the War, you know, 1945 and all that, the housing stock was bombed to blazes, right? So come peace, not enough houses, right? Temporary accommodation on all sides, right? ERASMUS: Yeah, s’ppose so. TOM MORE: So emergency house building programme, right? Local authority housing going up left, right and centre. ERASMUS: Yeah, I know but what’s your point, what is your point? Tom takes a long swig of his beer, emptying it with a final gulp and a belch. He then places his glass down and stares into it for a moment, as though the answer lies at the bottom of the glass, in the dregs. TOM MORE: My point is. . . my point is this. Who caused the recession? Go on, who caused it? Who caused the banking crisis, go on, go on, who was it? ERASMUS: You’re going to blame the bankers aren’t you? TOM MORE: Dead right I am. Look at state of the country, look at what they did. But did they go to the wall? They did not. We baled them out and they still got banks today, ain’t they, us taxpayers baled them out. And then what do we get? In the wake, so to speak? We get bloody austerity, more and more of it. Left, right and centre. And food banks, and more and more kids living in poverty and people unable to afford a decent home to rent, never mind buy. ERASMUS: But you can’t blame everything on the bankers, it’s a much more complicated situation and you just simplify everything like you did in that dreadful book of yours. Utopia. No-hopia, I call it, more like, cloud-cuckoo land, biggest load of. TOM MORE: Well there you’re wrong see. I don’t just blame the bankers, no I don’t. I don’t. I blame the politicians too, see. Who allowed the bankers to do what they did, run rings round us, get away with blue murder, although in fact the bankers’ books were all in the red (little joke, sorry)? ERASMUS: Come off it, what about the world economy, the world downturn, what about Greece, and Spain and God knows where, and China and what about Ireland, yeah what about Ireland? TOM MORE: Now don’t get personal, leave Ireland out of it for the mo, right, no need to get personal, did I say Netherlands, did I? What I’m saying is this. Is austerity an emergency or not? Is rising child poverty an emergency or not? Is the lack of available affordable housing an emergency or not? Answer me that. What is and is not socially acceptable in this bloody day and age? ERASMUS: O for God’s sake. TOM MORE: Answer the bloody question, will you, yes or no? ERASMUS: No, now let’s change the subject. TOM MORE: What you mean no? How can you say that? What I’m saying. . . I’ll just say this. . . no. . . no let me finish. . . no please let me finish. What I’m saying, and it’s the last thing I’ll say, promise, what I’m saying is quite simple. War time, they bomb the country to bits, right? Smithereens, economy in ruins, rations, the works. So what do we get? Emergency rebuilding, homes up in record time, free school milk, welfare state and all that. Sixty odd years later the bankers bomb the economy to smithereens and what do we get? Go on. . . tell me. . . what do we get? Zilch, nothing, niets, nichts, nada. Last election, economy on the mend, so-called, and what do we get? More austerity, you couldn’t make it up. And they win, they get elected. . . Jesus wept!
Great little pub, by the way. Won’t hear a word said against. Staff very friendly!
The name Labour Party, for instance, the party that grew out of the Labour Movement to represent the interests of labour, of trade unions, and those working people who actually built this country’s infrastructure and prosperity, often with their bare hands. The surge of grassroots support for Jeremy Corbyn has nothing to do with nostalgia, although there are those among us who do pine for the days when there were no food banks, when housing was affordable for all, when access to higher education was free, when the unemployed were not being constantly harassed, when disabilities were not always being poked to see if they were genuine, when NHS waiting lists were not so horrendously long, when there was, in short, a momentum in the country to move towards an ever fairer society, in real terms.
Year in year out we witness the pomp of parades in honour of those who died in the two World Wars. How easy it is to pay lip service at such events. Did these men and women make their sacrifices in the name of child poverty, zero hours contracts, austerity measures that employ the devices of hunger and lack of heating in order to whip the so-called workshy into excruciatingly low paid jobs? In times of war there was austerity for all: nowadays it is targeted using the latest computer technologies like the latest cruise missiles and our very language is corroded by the use of truly nauseating terms, “the working poor” for example.
The Labour Party did not perform badly at the last election, it seems to me: for the most part, the Labour Party did not participate in the last election. Where was the voice of working people? Under the Miliband band of brothers it seemed more like a Conservative Party by any other name. Career or conviction politics, you pay your money (taxes) and you make your choice. And don’t even think of mentioning Chilcot, or the banking debacle.
As I have said in a previous post, my own politics developed purely out of literature, and the aesthetics of John Keats and the beauty and truth arguments. These views were later bolstered by the Justice and Peace movement and liberation theology. I still have a book on my shelves written by José Porfirio Miranda, a Mexican Jesuit, entitled Marx and the Bible. It presents an extremely erudite and persuasive linguistic analysis of the Bible, highlighting its true prophetic role, which had nothing to do with predicting the future and everything to do with the promotion of social justice, defence of the orphan, the widowed, the dispossessed.
The British National Assistance Act of 1948 heralded the greatest social revolution the world has ever known, with not a single bullet fired. The values enshrined in that legislation are the values for which I believe our servicemen and women fought in those World Wars and for which so many died. We dishonour them by turning the clock back. Under austerity, child poverty is expected to grow in this most powerful of world class economies. What Labour Party in its right mind (and conscience) could possibly even consider not opposing such measures with all its might? So bring it on, Jeremy, we have nothing to lose but our deep sense of shame.