Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On Failing The Citizenship Test

Dear Reader,

Yesterday I took - and failed - the British Citizenship Test.

My initial response was bemusement.

I have spent nearly 40 years in this country, and I would have thought I would have picked up enough to answer the various questions on politics, history, government, entitlements, and culture.

In particular, I would have hoped that having spent the first half of my life on council estates and in various unloved state schools, and the second half at a famous university and then qualifying and practising as a lawyer, would leave a certain awareness of the shape and nature of our society.

And, although I do not have an ounce of patriotism, I would have expected some things would have stuck, just through mere experience or familiarity.

But no; I failed.

I twittered about this, stating (somewhat pompously, I admit) that if an Oxford History Graduate who actually advises on the areas of law relevant to some of the questions cannot pass this wretched and pointless exam, who could?

And then to my astonishment, nobody at all was passing.

Amongst those who also failed were:

- one of UK's most eminent and sensible cultural critics;
- a talented and liberal prospective Tory MP;
- a distinguished professor of science at London University;

and so on.

Dozens and dozens of articulate and accomplished people were failing this barmy test, from all sorts of backgrounds.

One brilliant satirist even got less than 50% - so I suppose we know who the test is aimed at most excluding.

The only person who passed confessed to guessing half the answers. And he was a Twitter follower of a Twitter follower.

It turns out that this test is based on book learning: you buy and memorise the accompanying book, you then answer the questions by rote.

But in what useful way does that test anything relevant to a citizenship? Especially, when an entire range of British citizens do not themselves know the same things.

One may as well learn a telephone directory off by heart.

The test serves no actual purpose other than to sell the related book.

And so I am now just a citizen of the world.

I much prefer this, though I would have hoped it would have been achieved in a more elegant way.

Yours sincerely,

Jack of Kent

Sunday, August 2, 2009

At Brighton Pride

Dear Reader,

I went along to Brighton Pride yesterday.

I have never been to a Pride before, but it seemed a good idea after a dull and depressing week.

So off the London train, and in the drizzle, I followed the crowds to the park venue.

It was still only mid-afternoon, but some apartments were putting up balcony shows for the passers by. Men dressed as sailors and policemen waved and blew kisses.

Down below, the mood in the crowds was light-hearted.

By the time I got to the soggy park I was springing forward and cheerful. And I actually stayed in this mood all day.

The park was a cross between a fancy dress fete and a November 5th fairground.

I quickly became used to same-sex couples holding hands; so much so that after one hour I looked twice at a mixed-sex couple holding hands.

However, the event at the park had no focus. I did not see a main stage. Perhaps it was the wrong time of day.

It was just people milling around.

Brighton Pride did not really seem to be an event; it was a grand day out.

So I also milled about.

A lovely old man was in his electric chair, with a sign attached: "The Oldest Gay in the Village". He chatted happily to some delighted teenage girls. I posed for a photo outside the Christian tent. I ate a god-awful Veggie burger. I walked past the kilt stall doing its brisk business. I gave a half-hearted hard stare at the police recruitment lorry.

And I got on the bus just before it started pissing down.

Back in the centre of Brighton I ended up at a lesbian pub and watched some great stand-up from Claire Parker, an excellent comedienne wittily reflecting on her transgender journey.

After the show I talked with Claire and her girlfriends, and I heard this absolute gem.

Lemmy from Motorhead is called by a tabloid journalist.

Scandal, he is told, will lead the following day's edition. Indeed, a scandal about this very man who has supposedly slept with thousands of women.

The paper can reveal that Lemmy has - shock horror - slept with a transsexual.

But Lemmy couldn't care less.

"If she has got the balls to cut them off, then I certainly have got the balls to fuck her".

And the paper didn't bother with the story.

Everyone was happy on the train back. I am a veteran of last-trains-home from around the UK; and this was perhaps he jolliest, though for once I felt sorry for a ticket inspector, as he reasoned with Anthony (with a "fer") who simply waved his belt of plastic bullets in First Class.

It was all great fun, but I suppose I expected more - some - politics. I did not hear a speech, or see a slogan, or even a single red ribbon. Pride - like Bonfire Night - may have been in its origin a political festival; now - again like Bonfire Night - it is a colourful date in the diary.

I do not know whether this shift is a good development or not; but, insofar as there was joy and liberalism in almost everything I saw, Pride is undeniably a very good thing.

Yours sincerely,
Jack of Kent.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

On Why Weren't The "Good Guys" Celebrated?

Why are the "good guys" not celebrated in English folklore and popular culture? At least, not before the 1900s?

It is a difficult question, but this is my theory.

Until the 1900s, it was the "bad guys" - the law breakers - who were celebrated rather than those who enforced it.

Take for example the thief Robin Hood:

Or the highwayman Dick Turpin:

Or even the underworld king Jonathan Wild:

In contrast, those charged with upholding the law were the villains. For example, the Sheriff of Nottingham:

Or the witchfinder Mathew Hopkins:

And the hanging Judge Jeffries:

Even the literary character Sherlock Holmes was a private operator, usually working independent of (or in spite of) the officials who enforced the law.

So, in view of the lack of a tradition of the law enforcers as "good guys", it is perhaps not a surprise that the first popular police screen characters were the slapstick Keystone Cops, and not anything more dignified:

Indeed, it was only the cinema and television age, with a fictional invention such as Dixon of Dock Green - following the American wild west sheriff and Elliot Ness traditions - that there appears any popular sense in England as a law enforcer as a good guy:

Why was this?

I think the answer lies in a sense of the law's legitimacy. Before the 1900s, legislation was associated with the "them" and not "us". Even though the sheriff of Nottingham, Hopkins, and Jeffries were on the side of law and order, and that Robin Hood, Turpin, and Wild were dishonest law breakers, the latter somehow had more legitimacy when the tales were told.

As such, perhaps the popularity of the criminal as folklore - or literary - hero is perhaps a good barometer of the popular sense of legitimacy of law itself.

All because the bad guys are often starkly without merit, that does not mean that those who wield the State's immense power get instant easy support.

The legitimacy of State power always has to be earned. The State does not, and should not, get it by default.

Why did George Orwell call his novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four"?

The usual explanation for the choice of title of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it was a play on the last two digits of 1948, the year the manuscript was finished.

This has never convinced me. I think there may be a better explanation, which comes from George Orwell's intellectual hostility to the Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton.

This post sets out this alternative explanation as to why Orwell did give his novel the title Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is culled from work I did some time ago when I was considering a higher degree. Although the coincidence on which it is based has been noticed before, I am not aware of any other attempt to assess the alternative explanation that I offer.

A choice of title

In autumn 1948, Orwell is uncertain as to the title of his new novel. He has two titles in mind, and he asks at least two people for their view. In a letter dated 22 October 1948, Orwell explains the dilemma to his literary agent:

“…I have not definitely decided on the title. I am inclined to call it either NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE, but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two.”

On the same day he also writes to his new publisher and makes the same unsure admission:

“…I haven’t definitely fixed on the title but I am hesitating between NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR and THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE.”

However, within a month, the first of these two titles appears to have stuck. At least other people had taken it up. In December 1948, the publisher had compiled a report on the novel, calling it “1984”, as did one of the professional readers.

By 17 January 1949, Orwell himself has clearly made his choice of title and was now discussing whether it should be entitled “1984” or “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

The book was published later that year.

The conventional explanation

The conventional account is now almost an urban myth. Everybody knows it, so to speak.

This 1948 explanation, although widely adopted, is actually not that well attested. For example, I have not found it stated anywhere by Orwell or by anyone with whom he conversed.

So far, I have only been able to trace the 1948 explanation to an American publisher called Robert Giroux, who saw Nineteen Eighty-Four through the press for the US edition.

However, Orwell was not particularly close to Giroux, and there is no reason to believe that Giroux was privy to any special information about Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although there is some correspondence between Orwell and Giroux, I have not seen any mention in that correspondence of why the book had this title.

In passing, I note that Orwell complained that he did not like what Giroux was doing to the book in the US edition. Nor did he appreciate the unsolicited requests for writing blurbs.

An alternative explanation?

If the 1948 theory is possibly not correct, why did Orwell choose to set his dystopia in the year 1984? My alternative explanation brings us to G.K. Chesterton, an earlier and very different writer to Orwell.

Chesterton was, of course, the writer of the Father Brown stories, as well as a prolific poet and journalist. But it is one of his two famous novels (the other being The Man Who Was Thursday) with which I am concerned here: The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a fantasy set in a future London. (As a fantasy writer, Chesterton has the deserved admiration of modern fantasy writers such as Neil Gaiman.) The hero is Auberon Quin, a well-meaning eccentric who suddenly becomes King. The political context for all this is set out when the story begins:

VERY few words are needed to explain why London, a hundred years hence, will be very like it is now, or rather, since I must slip into a prophetic past, why London, when my story opens, was very like it was in those enviable days when I was still alive.

The reason can be stated in one sentence. The people had absolutely lost faith in revolutions. All revolutions are doctrinal...such as the French one, or the one that introduced Christianity.

For it stands to common sense that you cannot upset all existing things, customs, and compromises, unless you believe in something outside them, something positive and divine. Now, England, during this century, lost all belief in this. It believed in a thing called Evolution. And it said, "All theoretic changes have ended in blood and ennui. If we change, we must change slowly and safely, as the animals do. Nature's revolutions are the only successful ones. There has been no conservative reaction in favour of tails.”

And some things did change. Things that were not much thought of dropped out of sight. Things that had not often happened did not happen at all. Thus, for instance, the actual physical force ruling the country, the soldiers and police, grew smaller and smaller, and at last vanished almost to a point. The people combined could have swept the few policemen away in ten minutes: they did not,because they did not believe it would do them the least good. They had lost faith in revolutions.

Democracy was dead; for no one minded the governing class governing. England was now practically a despotism, but not an hereditary one. Some one in the official class was made King. No one cared how; no one cared who. He was merely an universal secretary.

In this manner it happened that everything in London was very quiet. That vague and somewhat depressed reliance upon things happening as they have always happened, which is with all Londoners a mood, had become an assumed condition. There was really no reason for any man doing anything but the thing he had done the day before.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is, however, now more famous for its preface, entitled Introductory Remarks on the Art of Prophecy. Only a few hundred words long, it is a much-quoted source of Chestertonian wit. (It begins wonderfully with “THE human race, to which so many of my readers belong…”.)

The preface is not used to introduce the story but to undermine both modernist pretensions and radical predictions. Chesterton ridicules in turn H. G. Wells, Edward Carpenter (the early environmentalist), Leo Tolstoy, Cecil Rhodes, Benjamin Kidd ( a sociologist), W. T. Stead (a campaigning journalist), and Sidney Webb. In each instance their views are stated and then juxtaposed with an absurdly exaggerated view of an invented eccentric.

For example:

There was Mr. Sidney Webb, also, who said that the future would see a continuously increasing order and neatness in the life of the people, and his poor friend Fipps, who went mad and ran about the country with an axe, hacking branches off the trees whenever there were not the same number on both sides.

And so on. Chesterton then concludes the preface with a provocative challenge to every other forecaster or prophet. They would err as every such pundit had erred:

All these clever men were prophesying with every variety of ingenuity what would happen soon, and they all did it in the same way, by taking something they saw ‘going strong’, as the saying is, and carrying it as far as ever their imagination could stretch.


When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was published in 1904; the curtain therefore goes up in 1984.

Orwell and Chesterton

Orwell intellectually loathed GK Chesterton and other Catholic conservative writers.

If this aspect of Orwell’s thought is less appreciated today, it is perhaps because the debates changed. However, Orwell's criticism of the intellectual and moral dishonesty of Catholic conservatives was a common theme in Orwell’s journalism and other published writing, and he often bracketed Catholic conservatism and his other bugbear, Stalinism.

Indeed, one can often swap his comments on Stalinism and Catholic conservatism. They are almost invariably interchangeable.

Orwell wrote only one major political essay in 1945 (the year he started Nineteen Eighty-Four. This was Notes on Nationalism. This influential essay sets out how certain ideologies (or “nationalisms”) can undermine clear political and moral thinking. And only one writer or politician is examined in this context: Chesterton.

In the essay, Orwell introduces both Chesterton and his long held attitudes towards him:

Ten or twenty years ago, the form of nationalism most corresponding to Communism today was political Catholicism. Its most outstanding exponent - though he was perhaps an extreme case rather than a typical one - was G. K. Chesterton.

Orwell characterises Chesterton:

Chesterton was a master of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda.

And Chesterton’s method:

Every book that he wrote, every paragraph, every sentence, every incident in every story, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the Pagan.

In a Tribune column in February 1944, Orwell specifically attacked Chesterton's assertions about change over time:

It is not very difficult to see that this idea is rooted in the fear of progress. If there is nothing new under the sun, if the past in some shape or another always returns, then the future when it comes will be something familiar.

Orwell continues by contrasting Chesterton's Catholic conservatism with his own democratic socialism:

At any rate what will never come - since it has never come before - is that hated, dreaded thing, a world of free and equal human beings.

Orwell and Catholic conservatism

Orwell's hostility to Chesterton has to be seen in the context of his disdain for other Catholic conservative writers. In a book review as early as 1932, Orwell is dissing Catholic writers:

Our English Catholic apologists are unrivalled masters of debate, but they are on their guard against saying anything genuinely informative.

Later, a central theme of Orwell's hostility towards ‘political Catholicism’ was its close relationship with Fascism. In 1944, he notes almost in passing,

Outside its own ranks, the Catholic Church is almost universally regarded as pro-Fascist, both objectively and subjectively.

And in a Tribune column of 1945,

The Catholics who said ‘Don’t offend Franco because it helps Hitler’ had more or less consciously helping Hitler for years beforehand.

Animosity towards ‘Catholic conservatism’ was perhaps most obvious in his weekly Tribune column. For example, two favourite straw-dollies were the right-wing, Roman Catholic journalists ‘Timothy Shy’ and ‘Beachcomber’. In 1944, Orwell warned readers that,

their general ‘line’ will be familiar to anyone who has read Chesterton and kindred writers. Its essential note is denigration of England and of Protestant countries generally.

And therefore,

It is a mistake to regard these two as comics pure and simple. Every word they write is intended as Catholic propaganda.

In a Tribune column in October 1944, Orwell discussed the writing and broadcasting of C.S. Lewis :

[I was] reading, a week or two ago, Mr C. S. Lewis’s recently-published book, Beyond Personality…The idea, of course, is to persuade the suspicious reader, or listener, that one can be a Christian and a ‘jolly good chap’ at the same time. I don’t imagine that the attempt would have much success…but Mr. Lewis’s vogue at this moment, the time allowed to him on the air and the exaggerated praise he has received, are bad symptoms and worth noticing…

A kind of book that has been endemic in England for quite sixty years is the silly-clever religious book, which goes on the principle not of threatening the unbeliever with Hell, but of showing him up as an illogical ass, incapable of clear thought and unaware that everything he says has been says has been refuted before. This school of literature started with W. H. Mallock’s New Republic, which must have been written about 1880, and it has a long line of practitioners - R. H. Benson, Chesterton, Father Knox, ‘Beachcomber’ and others, most of them Catholics, but some, like Dr Cyril Allington and (I suspect) Mr Lewis himself, Anglicans.

The line of attack is always the same. Every heresy has been uttered before (with the implication that it has been refuted before); and theology is only understood by theologians (with the implication that you should leave your thinking to the priests)…

One reason for the extravagant boosting that these people get in the press is that their political affiliations are invariably reactionary. Some of them were frank admirers of Fascism as long as it was safe to be so. That is why I draw attention to Mr C. S. Lewis and his chummy little wireless talks, of which no doubt there will be more. They are not really so unpolitical as they are meant to look

Most relevant for the purpose of connecting Orwell to The Napoleon of Notting Hill is his 1946 book review of The Democrat at the Supper Table, where Orwell forcefully attacks the author’s conservative politics and the sophistry of the novel’s central character:

Without actually imitating Chesterton, Mr. Brogan has obviously been influenced by him, and his central character has a Father Brown-like capacity for getting the better of an argument, and also for surrounding himself with fools and scoundrels whose function is to lead up to his wisecracks.

When a clergyman wrote to complain about the tone of Orwell's review, the reply elaborated on the initial attack:

Ever since W. H. Mallock’s ‘New Republic’ there has been a continuous stream of what one might call ‘clever Conservative’ books, opposing the current trend without being able to offer any viable programme in its place.

Orwell continued, appearing to have in mind the Preface to The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

If you look back twenty years, you will find people like Ronald Knox, Cyril Alington, Chesterton himself and his many followers, talking as though such things as Socialism, Industrialism, the theory of evolution, psycho-therapy, universal compulsory education, radio, aeroplanes and what-not could be simply laughed out of existence.

So did Orwell take the year 1984 from The Napoleon of Notting Hill?

Taking the stories as a whole it is not too much of a strain to see Nineteen Eighty-Four as a riposte to The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There are many points of comparison. Both books show that a belief in revolution that appears to have gone wrong, and both focus on the frustrations of a sympathetic central character as he attempts to challenge the prevailing system. Both are utopian/dystopian visions, containing prophecies extrapolated from current trends.

There are also many telling contrasts. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is written from the point of view of a Catholic populist and Nineteen Eighty-Four is by an almost secular social democrat.

It is, in many ways, a plausible explanation.

However, this alternative explanation has gaps.

For example, even though Orwell has a clear disdain for Chesterton and is antipathetic to the prophetic pretensions of Chesterton and other religious conservative writers, there is actually no direct evidence that Orwell either had read or even possessed The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

One feels he "must have done" as it is one of Chesteron's three best-known works and probably his most quoted, but one cannot invent convenient evidence. The best I can say is that it difficult to imagine Orwell committing his attacks in Notes on Nationalism without being aware of Chesterton's clearest and best known statement against "progress".

Subject to further research, the final position on the question must be inconclusive though fascinating.

However, the possibility that the title of Nineteen Eighty-Four was derived from The Napoleon of Notting Hill does allows us to explore an often overlooked part of Orwell’s political outlook: the deep hostility of a decent and progressive liberal to the intellectual and moral dishonesty of religious conservatives.



Below is the (rather laboured) conclusion to my original academic draft paper with the same title. So much work went into it, I think it surely deserves the light of day! :-) :

It is demonstrable that a literary preoccupation of Orwell in the mid-1940s becomes G. K. Chesterton, a writer whom he had always found fascinating and repulsive, and also associated writers. The relationship between Orwell and Chesterton has been often overlooked (and is sometimes - bizarrely - completely neglected); and there appears to still be no systematic study of Orwell’s attitudes towards writers, such as Chesterton, that he identified as being on the political Right. During this later period, Orwell's journalism and private writing demonstrated a deep and informed hostility towards the ‘Catholic conservatism’ of Chesterton and related writers. The failure by scholars to explore the possible significance of Chesterton's earlier use of that year is only partly because there is no major work on Orwell’s relations with the Right.

It cannot however be conclusively proved that the duplication of the date was deliberate, as Chesterton's novel is not amongst those known to be possessed or read by Orwell, even during the period of preoccupation with Chesterton’s thinking and prophecies.

On the balance of probability, Orwell at least read the Preface. Orwell often generalises confidently about Chesterton's (lack of) prophetic prowess and, in a 1944 Tribune column, there is perhaps a near paraphrase of Chesterton's famous preface to the novel. Moreover, Chesterton is often attacked, criticised, quoted and mentioned in passing, as well as being the main subject of the major 1945 essay.

Chesterton was for Orwell a powerful (if negative) influence. It is therefore arguable that Orwell at least read the famous Preface outlining Chesterton's prophetic claims. Even if this duplication of date (and setting) was a mere coincidence, it is nonetheless clear that Orwell was preoccupied with the figure of Chesterton as the exemplar of intellectual dishonesty during the conception and writing.

Indeed from around 1944 onwards, a clear theme in Orwell's writing is the re-emergence of his earlier opposition to the politics of Chesterton and related writers: the very array of attitudes that had helped Orwell towards a form of socialism in the early to mid 1930s.


References and citations available on request. I acknowedge use of copyrighted material. If such quotations are actually a substantial part of the original works, they are used for the non-commercial purpose of criticism of Orwell and Chesterton's works. Other exemptions may also apply. Please contact me at jackofkent [at]