Cold War Nairobi and the Thing that calls itself I

5 May

So this Swindon Festival of Literature evening involved a spot of dancing to a cheesy tune, being stuck in a car park, and a wild-ish haired professor. Sounds like a good plot for a book.

Which leads into the first event’s theme, Poetry Swindon 78s, where the Richard Jefferies Museum’s writing class used scratchy old 78 RPM vinyl records as a creative prompt. At Swindon Central Library, we heard the tunes and the writers read their work.

Nairobi, a bubbly 1958 Tommy Steele number, became a Cold War spy tale by Ben Holloway. Ben’s nervous rapid delivery and breath-catching apologetic gaps suited the memories of a paranoid molehunt.

I had enough time to catch Anna-May Laugher’s Ready for the River from a 1928 track by The Rollickers – ‘Want to drown my troubles / and leave just the bubbles’. I was glad I bought the accompanying 78s book and could get to know this poem: a five-part account of a river, a living thing, accepting and eating anything thrown in it – dead things, oar cuts, memories – before it is consumed by drought.

Regretfully, I crept out and then spent 10 minutes stuck listening to the bleep of a Swindon car park help button (‘hanging on the help button’ flash fiction coming up) before I could head up to the Arts Centre, which meant I missed the first half of Roger Scruton. So apologies if crucial information is notable by its absence.

The first impression of Prof Roger Scruton is of a stumbling, scruffy academic, a bit of a cliche, though host and festival organiser Matt Holland described him as tough as old boots and told us to ‘ask him what you like’ – a request for a controversial audience question which never came.

His philosophy is a little like his appearance; dusty, two feet in the past, a wee bit uncomfortable with itself. Judge for yourself the metaphor within his tale of inheriting Enoch Powell’s hunting garb – ‘I picked it up from his house…it fell apart the first time I wore it.’

The aged audience seemed to love him, laughing in the right places, ‘He knows the difference between solemn and serious’ said Matt. There’s few crowd-pleasing Cameron jibes, because either they agreed or he had the audacity to criticise. I feel out of place and entirely the wrong sort to comment on his talk (not least because I missed half of it). I’m a liberal-socialist-feminist – possibly the kind he thinks he’s been railing against his whole life.

Back in a 2010 interview The Guardian said, “The puzzle about Scruton has always been the way in which humane, often elegant argument – recognisable as such whether one agrees with him or not – co-exists with outbreaks of cranky, ungrounded nonsense.” Having read a little of the book he’s promoting, The Soul of the World, this nails it for me. If ever there was a case of using philosophy to justify one’s deeply cherished beliefs rather than grow yours and others view of the world, this is it.

He mentions a previous work of fiction, The Disappeared; I surreptitiously Google it. One of the characters jumps out at me: Justin, an environmentalist and heavy metal fan. I know writing can take the writer and reader out of their own situation and good research makes up for lack of personal experience but I’m wondering what business has a university professor in his 70s writing about such a music genre? Which makes me wonder about the rest of the book – does he use his skills in prose to create ‘representative’ characters, rather than writing individuals? There’s a word for this. Or maybe he’s a closet Metallica fan? (I’ve just had a quick skim of the book’s sample. Seems like a lot of depressing pronouncements on people, a one-step-away survey of imaginary world views he doesn’t agree with, rather than characterisation: “But he knew that a sinking heart is a sign of maturity, and that it was up to him to make the most of a life that had so far done nothing much to justify itself.”)

The Soul of the World talks of the difference between the how of science and the why of religion and art. He describes himself as ‘the thing that knows itself as I’, the thing that science cannot describe and, believes Scruton, never will. He calls human beings a ’tissue of rights, duties and responsibilities’. Perhaps I missed ‘joy’ and ‘love’. He talks of the sacredness of sexual relations; like others of his theories, I have no idea what this looks like in practical terms.

He throws in a cutting comment of contemporary life, selfies: ‘Notre Dame [etc] becomes the background to the same trivial face. It’s a kind of narcism.’ It raises a laugh but it feels quite Nietzschean to describe ordinary people expressing awe and wonder (the theme of the question) in their own way, as ‘trivial’.

I wished I’d had a chance to do more research in advance and ask a Proper Question about his Cold War days, or his research for The Disappeared or delve more into his philosophy.

According to Wikipedia, at 16 years old he was expelled from school shortly after winning a scholarship to Cambridge. I wonder if he merely runs out of energy for his own arguments, or, like that younger school version of himself, not enough intellectually challenged – this time by his political views – leading him into trolling behaviour rather than brilliance.

I’m disappointed; I don’t often come across right wing philosophers – though I’ll admit I’m not well read – but, in the spirit of the search for enlightenment, I’d hoped for more of a Moriarty.

Poetry Swindon 78s took place at Swindon Central Library and Roger Scruton at Swindon Arts Centre, 4 May 2016. 78s, the accompanying book, is available from the Richard Jefferies Museum.

Written by Louisa Davison.

Louisa Davison founded Festival Chronicle and is also known as Agent Louisa of Secret Agent Marketing.

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One Response to “Cold War Nairobi and the Thing that calls itself I”

  1. Ben Holloway 6th May 2016 at 7:37 am #

    Thanks for being kind about my very poor delivery!

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