Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Brief Argument for English Independence

A Brief Argument for English Independence
by Sean Gabb

The normal English response to Scottish nationalism is to ignore it, or to see it as an irritation, or to try shouting it down with reminders of all that shared history, or to point out the value of English subsidies and to wait for common sense to win the argument. None of these, I suggest, is an appropriate response. None takes into account that England and Scotland are different nations, and that the loudest and most energetic part of the Scottish nation has decided that the current union of the nations is not in Scottish interests. This does not make it inevitable that the union will be dissolved. It does, however, make this desirable. Scotland may or may not have suffered from the union. But the union has done much to bring England to the point of collapse, and it strikes me as reasonable to say that England can never be safe while there are Scottish members in the Westminster Parliament. Read more

ConservativeHome’s Local Government Blog: From Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column


From Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column

Interesting item about Labour controlled Lewisham Council in the Rotten Boroughs column of the current issue of Private Eye. It concerns their Staying Put scheme. This is the scheme where home improvements are funded so that disabled people can remain at home – which they generally prefer than institutional care which would also be much more expensive to the taxpayer.

However, Private Eye adds:

That’s the theory. But after David and Sepi Peckover, from south London. applied to Lewisham Council for help building a loft extension so that their son, who from suffers asperger’s syndrome, could be cared for at home they ended up homeless with their house an uninhabitable wreck. Seven years after their nightmare began they are still living in ‘temporary’ accommodation with nod idea when they will be able to return to their home. And they reckon the saga has cost taxpayers at least £300,000 – so far.

The item goes on to detail years of delay with the Council’s Staying Put team and the Council’s Planning Department blaming each other for failure to produce the correct drawings. Calls went answered. Staff illness was blamed. More delay.

Eventually, work started in 2006, three years after the process began. But failure by the council to pay for the work on time led to the builders downing tools while the roof was off – leaving the interior exposed to heavy rain in the winter of 2007 which rendered the house uninhabitable. The council’s building control officers then expressed grave concerns about the substandard work their own grant surveyor colleagues had released money for. Three years later the Peckover’s house remains a wreck and they are reduced to living on benefits.

ConservativeHome’s Local Government Blog: From Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column

Precious: Film Review by Robert Henderson


Precious little to celebrate

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire

 Main characters
Gabourey Sidibe as Claireece Precious Jones
Mo’Nique as Mary Lee Johnston
Paula Patton as Ms. Blu Rain
Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss
Lenny Kravitz as Nurse John McFadden 

Director : Lee Daniels

Film Review
Robert Henderson

If  Joseph Goebbels was alive today and  wanted to make a propaganda film depicting  blacks as untermenschen, how would he go about it?  Well, the first thing he would do is  make the central characters  physical grotesques . They would be unambiguously black .   Their  behaviour would be gross and feckless, their living conditions slovenly.  Their intellectual incapacity  would probably  be demonstrated by showing  a  black character struggling with  an IQ  test.   They would be generally  portrayed as  unable to either attend to their own lives or be anything than other than a drain on society

As counters to the blacks,  Goebbels might place whites in positions of authority over the black characters and, a subtle touch this, have a hierarchy of  mixed race characters between the black characters and the whites to project the idea  that the whiter the person the nearer they are to being fully fledged human beings. This would be done by ensuring that the  whiter the mixed race character,  the higher their status, the better educated, the  more physically attractive and  the better behaved they are.  

To put the cherry on the cake, Goebbels could show the black lead character  longing for what she cannot have, namely, to be white. The overarching propaganda message would be that blacks are incapable of living independent lives without white supervision and maintenance.

Well, Goebbels is not alive but Lee Daniels is.  His  lead character Precious  is a sixteen year old who is pregnant with her second child. She  is grotesquely fat, ugly  and very black.  Her mother (Mo’Nique) is someone whose life revolves around the maintenance of her benefits and  whose natural method of discourse with her daughter is one of screeching abuse and violence. When not engaging in such pleasantries, she lolls around eating junk food, drinking and watching TV (Precious has much the same tastes when it comes to filling in her spare time).  She positively doesn’t want to work.  The flat Precious and her mother  live in is disordered and dirty. 

Precious’ father is absent but appears occasionally to rape her. The rapes have resulted in a Downs Syndrome child and  the pregnancy which occurs during the film. Precious’ mother fraudulently claims benefits for the child who is looked after by its grandmother.

The unambiguous blacks who provide the background music against which the main characters enact their dismal lives are all similarly uncontrolled  in their behaviour and hopeless in their present condition and prospects.

There is a constant lurking atmosphere  of violence and verbal abuse. Precious herself unthinkingly resorts to it when it suits her, throwing a young child to the ground for no greater crime than asking her a harmless question when she is in a bad mood or thumping a black boy in her mainstream school class who is causing uproar.

Precious wants to be white. Her  sexual fantasies revolve around  her white teacher and later a male nurse who is as good as white, When she looks in the mirror she see herself transformed into a slim blonde.

As for intellectual  incompetence, Precious is depicted as at  least functionally illiterate. When she takes an IQ test  and makes a complete mess of it, she is heard thinking to herself how she never could get on with “them tests”.   (This is more than a little absurd because Precious is portrayed at the beginning of the film as having a talent for maths. It is improbable that someone would have a talent for maths and struggle unduly with IQ tests).

Daniels uses colour-coding for status in much the  same way as British directors used  class in the forties and fifties, where,for example,  a police drama would  almost invariably cast  the beat coppers as working class, the inspectors as middle class and the chief constables as toffs.

White authority  appears in  the unlikely form of  Mariah Carey as Precious’ social worker, Ms Weiss. IN  a surprisingly  convincing performance  Carey adroitly captures the clinically detached and terminally irritating manner beloved of  those who write social work manuals. She behaves towards  Precious as an anthropologist would a girl belonging to a recently discovered deep jungle tribe whose mores have yet to be neatly catalogued and whose behaviour  elicits no emotional response beyond that of curiosity. 

The intermediate racial coding message is primarily transmitted  through Precious’ attendance at the  special school which she attends after leaving her mainstream school early in the film following the discovery of her  pregnancy.  None of her fellow students there is white or as unambiguously black as Precious herself .

Her  teacher at the school is  played by Paula Patton, an actress towards the extreme end of  what thorough going blacks would describe as “honky“,  with light skin,  Caucasian features and a manner and accent that would not to frighten the middle class white liberal horses should she be invited to one of their dinner parties.  (Ever noticed how the “blacks” who achieve celebrity in the US  and Britain are overwhelmingly those with a very heavy admixture of white blood? Think Thandie Newton in the world of films and Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice in politics) . The only thing unambiguously black about Patton’s character is her absurd name, Blu Rain.

Ms Rain does not merely act as Precious’ educational mentor, she turns into an ersatz social worker when Precious finds herself homeless after a fight with her mother, giving her temporary accommodation and finding her a permanent place to live.  Once again, Precious plays  the dependant of someone less black than herself.

You might imagine from my description that the film was the child of white supremacists. Now here is an extraordinary  thing,   Daniels is black. Why is a black director portraying blacks in such a depressing way and demeaning way? One answer might be that he is simply trying to ingratiate himself with his white film making peers. Or the film could even be seen as a dark satire on the view of blacks which blacks think whites hold of them.

Those are pretty implausible explanations. Try this instead : Daniels has lost patience with blacks who aren‘t middleclass and educated or at least blacks who conform to the stereotype of wastrel blacks.    The most celebrated black American  director Spike Lee  did so some time ago, a fact he signalled with  his film  Jungle Fever in which an educated  black aspiring successfully to a professional career is constantly fearful of  being dragged back to his ghetto origins by his junkie brother and is assailed with doubts about how far the middle class white world really accepts him as an equal whatever their outward attitudes may be. 

A parallel can be found in the English radical film maker Mike Leigh.  Leigh’s equivalent of the black underclass is the white working class.  Like many white middle class intellectuals on the British post-war left,  Leigh wanted the white working class to remain true to their proletarian roots. He started by  conscientiously making unashamedly  agitprop films  such as  High Hopes and Naked! but gradually lost heart in the ideal of  an eternal proletarian purity as the English  working class  stubbornly failed to resist the temptations of aspiring to at least the material fruits of a middle class life . Today he makes films which commonly depict the working class as losers who are  barely able to survive in the modern world

But if Daniels has lost patience with the black underclass he hasn’t  jettisoned his sense of black victimhood.  He  may find the black underclass unsavoury, but instead of  blaming  them he prefers to peddle that most potent drug, the prisoner of circumstance apologia. The  film’s message is the black underclass is what it is because of forces beyond their control.   Precious is the prisoner of her mother but her mother is the prisoner of guess what,  the ol’ whitey devised (and largely funded benefits system.) To make sure you get the point the white social worker Ms Weiss says to Precious “Look at what benefits have done to your mother”.

The film just about restrains itself from saying overtly that  welfare is  a white plot to  debilitate and control blacks along the lines of  the widely believed fantasies (widely believed by American blacks) that  Aids and crack cocaine were foisted on blacks by the white American elite, but that is the implied message.

The film ends on what is  meant to be an uplifting note, but bottom line is that Precious is still massively obese, ugly,  an unmarried teenage mother with two children, one of whom is severely disabled, no man,  dependent on benefits  and  under the supervision of her white social worker, a rather  strange set of circumstances  to lift the spirits.

 If I was an American black I think I would be more than a mite put out by this portrayal of black American society, not simply because of the brutality and hopelessness of the lives depicted, but at the unspoken message:  blacks are prisoners of circumstantial chains  which few of them can break. 

None of this is to say it’s a bad film. It is  well acted, moves  at a decent pace with (thankfully) little sentimentality or preaching.  There is also a certain massive doggedness about the character of Precious which engenders sympathy. 

There is one glaring storyline implausibility.  Both Precious and her horror of a mother are depicted as being  vehemently anti-drug, despite living in a social slot where drugs are the norm. The idea that they would both have not only resisted using   drugs but be positively evangelical about their evils is  ludicrous. 

I saw the film in London’s West End, an area with dozens of cinemas, many of them multiplexes.  Despite its recent release and the very extensive favourable media coverage it has received in Britain,  I could only find two screens, both in multiplexes, showing the film.  That speaks volumes about the assessment of British distributors  of the commercial potential of the film.

Postscript:  At the viewing of Precious there was a trailer for another film out of the same “what do we do about the black underclass” stable , The Blind Side.  This dealt with a white liberal family taking in a black “troubled”  youth. The trailer suggests  it is wondrously patronising (of blacks).  If I can summon up the will to drag myself through it, I will  write a review of it.

Robert Henderson 28 2 2010

The Blind Side – Film Review by Robert Henderson

There is none so blind that can PeeCee.

The Blind Side

128 minutes

Main cast: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw, Kathy |Bates, Jae Head, Lily Collins

Director John Lee Hancock

If you require a primer on the white liberal mentality in general and their perception of blacks in particular this is your film,

“The blind Side” ploughs the same rescuing-the-black-underclass furrow as “Precious” . But where “Precious” depicts the central character in the context of her day-to-day ghetto life and allows her to have some distinctly rough and unappealing edges, her equivalent in “The Blind Side” is a paragon, albeit one so bloodless as to be next to transparent. , Both films are fairy stories:  “Precious” is one by the Brothers Grimm, “The Blind Side”  a  white liberal version of  “And they all lived happily ever after”.

So off we go. Once upon a time there was a  rich white family consisting of Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw), a son of about eight known as SJ (Jae Head) and a teenage daughter who decide to take in a homeless black adolescent named Michael Oyers (Quinton Aaron) despite being (shock, horror!) Republicans, Christians and Southerners.

As befits a fairy story, Michael is a truly fabulous creature.  At the beginning of the film he is sixteen or seventeen. We are told that his mother is a hopeless crack addict who has borne  ” twelve children… or maybe more”  to  many of  whom she cannot  put a father  (when the mother fleetingly   appears she is the healthiest looking long  term crack user and  high-volume producer of offspring you ever did see.)

Michael’s childhood has supposedly been a mixture of physical, material and emotional insecurity in a classic  black ghetto – a violent, drug infested world – , glimpses of which were are shown as he occasionally revisits the projects where he grew up.  At the beginning of the film we are told that his  education has been next to non-existent and  his IQ has tested as a lowly 80. .  However, Michael has two things going for him: he is very large and very athletic. This gets him  into a decent private school where he encounters the Tuohys, whose children attend the school,  and eventually to university and a professional American football career.

Despite his upbringing  Michael is conscientiously non-violent, won’t look at a drug, finds alcohol distasteful and, Heaven forefend,  shows no apparent sexual interest in girls, despite being a teenager  with presumably raging hormones.   Even more amazing he has perfect manners. After his first  night at the Tuohys,   he immaculately  folds the bedclothes he has been given before leaving the house.  A little later there is an unintentionally hilarious scene when the family celebrates Thanksgiving. While  the Tuohys  take their plates and sit around the television, Michael, bless his ghetto etiquette educated heart, takes his plate to eat from the dining table.  Leigh Anne sees this and the Tuohys are  immediately shepherded  to the dining table to follow the superior manners of  their remarkable  guest.

The family are equally unbelievable in their reception of Michael. Leigh Anne is a veritable modern Mrs Jellaby, the terminally disagreeable character in Dickens’ Bleak House  who is  deeply concerned with the benighted natives of Africa and  negligent  of her own children.  She does not go to Africa for her benighted native, she finds him on her doorstep, the boy being  invited into the house  in the most casual way when she encounters him walking along a road,  never having previously spoken to the boy . From that  wildly  implausible start, Michael becomes a permanent fixture in the home without any meaningful discussion amongst the family as to whether he should do so.  Not only does no  word of protest about this gross intrusion into their lives fall  from the lips of the husband or children,  the family  immediately re-orients their lives to make Michael the focus of their family and fall over themselves to be nice to him – the son SJ does this in an extravagantly  precocious manner which would incline one to forgive Herod if the wretched child  had been included in the slaughter of the first-born.   Most wondrously, the  children  show no resentment or jealously  no matter how extravagantly their parents pander to Michael and, boy, do they pander.

Michael  is given his own newly furnished room, fed and clothed, provided with a private tutor (Kathy Bates) to help him get the grades he needs to take up a football scholarship, is taught to drive  and on his birthday receives as a present from the family a brand-new sports-utility vehicle.

When Michael celebrates his new car by taking the Tuohys’ son for a ride he crashes due to his wilful  inattention and injures SJ.  Leigh Anne far from being in a rage about the injury to her only son is all concern for Michael’s feelings and rushes to assure him it wasn’t his fault. The rest of the family don’t refer to the accident. The final cherry on the let’s-be-nice-to-Michael-at-any-cost-cake is the Tuoys offering to be Michael’s guardian, something which is met with universal  hyperbolic family joy.
This eerily unreal air of ecstatic jubilation at Michael’s very existence exuded by the Touhys seeps over into the parade of university reps who come to try to persuade Michael to  attend their university.

The  white liberal guilt trip rises to a crescendo when Michael is interviewed by a public official about why he wants to go to a certain university. The official is a black woman who is concerned that ol’ whitey is up to his evil ways by trying to emotionally capture black boys with athletic talent  who they can then direct to their own satisfaction. . She suggests to Michael that the only reason the Tuohys have done all that they have done for him is because they wish to direct his athletic  prowess to their old university. Notwithstanding the preternatural generosity shown him, Michael immediately becomes outraged at this shocking thought and  turns on Leigh Anne before going missing. Cue for  Leigh Anne  agonising about whether she and her family  have been trying to make choices for him, She frantically seeks Michael out and, wait for it, apologises for  even suggesting that he might want to go to a university for which she had affection.

But the  liberal  desire to wallow in guilt is a form of masochism, and like all masochists they wish to control the pain. They are happy to humiliate themselves only on their terms,   This means Apart from a few snatches of ghetto life “The Blind Side” takes place in a remarkably white world  of white home, white school, white tutor, white football coach. If there is an abuse of Michael it is his almost complete removal from people of his own race.  What the Tuohys want is a Michael  made in their image. .

There are three important  sub-plots. The first concerns anyone Leigh Anne knows or meets who makes any suggestion which can be interpreted as racist, a word which in the strange world liberals have foisted upon us can mean virtually any expression of opinion which is other than wildly enthusiastic about the joy of diversity. Leigh Anne’s lunching club female friends who have the temerity to suggest that she might be biting off more than she can chew or that this is just her latest worthy cause, are first reprimanded then cast into the outer darkness after one of them is rash enough to suggest there might be just a hint of danger in having a large black male adolescent in their house when they have an attractive  teenage daughter. This, of course, panders to another primary white liberal trait, an intense desire to play the role of the morally superior being.;

The second involves Michael’s education.  As already mentioned,  his IQ is   a “tested 80” , a surprising intrusion of realism into the film because  the average IQ of American blacks is 85 .  However, that is where the realism ends about Michael’s intellectual ability  because he then proceeds with the help of a special tutor to gain the necessary grades for university entrance.

 The film does not actually say so, but the clear implication is that those pesky old IQ tests which are always showing blacks with a substantially lower average IQ than whites or Far East Asians such as the Chinese are really just indicators of social circumstances. (Interestingly, “Precious”  uses the same device with the central character making a mess of an IQ test early in the film).  This is an unpersuasive argument because ,despite the vast amount of money and manpower put into schemes such as Head Start, there has never been a proven case of IQ being substantially and permanently raised by teaching.  There is also the glaring fact that if it were possible to raise IQ substantially and permanently by teaching  the rich would long ago have purchased the privilege for their children. They have not because no such teaching exists.

The upshot is we are left with the startling idea that someone with an IQ of 80 can handle a degree course, startling because an IQ of 80 is the point at which most psychologists working in the field of intelligence testing think that an individual begins to struggle to live an independent life in a developed economy such as the USA.  Just to add to the wonder of it all, Michael, someone who supposedly has had no meaningful education until he is sixteen or thereabouts, is writing fluently about his life not long after we first  meet him  and before he has a personal tutor.

The third  sub-plot is the absurd portrayal of  Leigh Anne as a dominant woman.  The white men she meets throughout the film are wet in the extreme, an amazing fact as the main white male characters are all southerners, folk not generally noted for their subservience to the gentler sex.  .  Leigh Anne  addresses them as if they were naughty schoolboys in the manner of  a dominatrix with  the type of  shouty all purpose  “Southern” accent that is the American equivalent of the English “Mummerset”, To this  abuse  these Southern males merely bow their heads meekly and gaze in wonder at the marvel of the woman.  The nonsense reaches its apogee when at the end of the film she is searching for the missing Michael and ventures into the ghetto from which Michael has supposedly come. Here she harangues  a distinctly nasty looking gang of “rude boys” who cringe before her threats.  In the real world she would most probably have ended up dead or raped or both.

There are other problems with the film. The Tuohy family seem to live in a world of  not only almost perpetual circumstantial light, but of light which is dazzling. Nothing but nothing brings gloom and doom, not even SJ’s injury.   The characterisation is one-dimensional with Michael being  little more than a looming physical presence who acts as a reflecting board for the white liberal mentality.

The screenplay has been written by numbers with frequent exchanges of brute sentimentality.  The writers fondly imagine that they have been subtle in putting in the odd scene which clashes with the general air of undiluted worship of Michael, for example, on  the boy’s  first night in the Tuohys’ house  Leigh Anne makes a show of wondering if he is going to steal form them or wreck the place.  However, when such scenes arise, and they are very occasional, the non-pc thought is immediately squashed by a another scene which shows how ridiculous and racist is the very idea of Michael behaving badly .

 The screenplay’s cringe-making quality  is epitomised by the exchange when Michael is asked whether he wants the Tuohys to become his guardians: “Would you like to become part of the family, Michael?”. Michael: “I thought I already was”. There are plenty of other saccharine gems like that so those diligent enough to see the film are advised not to eat anything before viewing.

That this ridiculous piece of  political correct agitprop should have not only been an Oscar contender,  but landed Sandra Bullock the Oscar for best actress (no pc whining about gender specific awards when it suits the feminists note) demonstrates the grip which political correctness has on the US elite. . Unlike “Precious” which was a powerful film, this is simply feeble failing on every important criterion by which a film is judged: plot, screenplay, characterisation, and  acting. If you must see it, go as a duty to see what the multicultural  enemy is up to  not for recreation.

Why do white liberals behave in this grotesquely patronising fashion? Simple, blacks are their clients not their friends. Liberals do not see blacks as equals or even as fully fledged human beings. They relate to them in much the same way they might view an exotic animal which has become a fashionable pet.

 The problem with being a client of those with power and influence is that fashions change. In Britain forty years ago the role of liberal client  was played by the white working class, now the position is filled by a growing army of ethnic minorities.  The white working class lost their position by  disgracing  themselves in white liberal eyes through their failure to accept that they should  remain as pristine proletarians jealously guarding their working class culture without any aspiration to become middle class and  because of their growing hostility to the consequences of the white liberal policy of mass immigration, consequences which those who promoted the immigration ensured they avoided.

What would an interesting film involving white liberals acting as Lady Bountiful  to the black underclass be like in these pc times? How about this, a white liberal  family  takes in an adolescent  black ghetto gang member  who is heavily into drugs and guns, is functionally illiterate, has no inclination to be educated and  is sexually incontinent.

The white family then go on one of those  “journeys”  beloved of progressives,  from liberal fantasists to  race realists as the erstwhile gang member introduces the children to drugs, gets the teenage daughter pregnant, robs the family, beats up the parents and reduces the family home to ashes in an act of arson before being gunned down after re-joining his  ghetto  gang , I am not saying that would represent everyday reality, but it would be a good deal more plausible than “The Blind Side.”

Somehow I doubt whether that film will ever see the light of day.

Robert Henderson
31 3 2010

Zorba the Greek: Avoid the Film, Avoid Crete

Sean Gabb

Like many “classics of the cinema”, this film is best avoided by anyone who just wants to be entertained. The film itself is boring. And the portrayal of Cretan culture has put me so much off the island that I never plan to go there again. Most peasant cultures are vile. Cretan peasant culture is probably about as vile as Sicilian. Search me why the Turks so wanted to hold onto the place.

Next time I have a choice between Zorba the Greek and some black and white film in Swedish about lesbians dying of consumption, I’ll take the latter.

Democratic Art: The Non-Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy

Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 186
10th September 2009
Linking url:
Available for debate on LA Blog at

Democratic Art: The Non-Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy
by Sean Gabb

Last week, I sent out a brief note, lamenting the seventieth anniversary of our declaration of war on Germany. Most of the replies were positive, and I suspect that the burden of proof is now shifting to those who still believe in the absolute rightness of the second world war. However, this is not a matter I wish here to discuss. One of my correspondents sent me a link to what he described as a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, who is the new Poet Laureate. He suggested that I might find it agreeable.

Let me give the piece in full. It was written to commemorate the death of the last known British veteran of the Great War, who received a state funeral in August this year. As published in The Times, it goes as follows:

Last Post Carol Ann Duffy

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud . . .
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home —
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce — No — Decorum — No — Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too —
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert —
and light a cigarette.
There’s coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would

I do agree with the sentiment. I wish the Asquith Government had told the French and the Belgians to look to themselves in August 1914. Failing that, I wish we had made peace at the end of 1916. Failing that, I wish Tsar Nicholas had not been the only projector of the Great War to meet his just end. I wish, at the end of 1918, all the politicians who had rushed us into the catastrophe, and all the generals who had coordinated it, and all the newspaper editors who had jollied things along, and all the businessmen who had financed or built and fed the guns, and all the priests who had blessed them, could have been put up against a wall and machine gunned to death. But for the lunacy that began in Sarajevo, Lenin would have died a refugee in Geneva, Stalin would eventually have been caught and hanged for his bank robberies, and pictures modestly signed “AH” would be turning up now and again in the less prestigious auction rooms.

But if I agree with Miss Duffy that war is evil, I do not find her means of saying it in the least agreeable. I do not share my correspondent’s belief that she is a great poet. I do not even believe she is a bad poet. If Last Post is a fair sample of her work, I can only say that she no poet at all. She may have been appointed to an office previously filled by Dryden and Wordsworth and Tennyson. But she seems to stand in a tradition that reaches back through Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound to at least the 1920s. This makes her yet another poetic equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Now, in making such a claim, I accept that the burden of proof is on me. The critics and, it appears, much of the reading public agree that Miss Duffy is a poet. I disagree. I need, therefore, to explain myself.

I will begin by defining poetry as an exalted, rhythmical speech. This is not an arbitrary definition, but is true both historically and by necessity.  In every civilisation of which I know, poetry has been the earliest literature. Without writing, a text can be preserved, over many generations, only by composing it in a language somewhat removed from that ordinarily spoken, and by arranging the words into regular and predictable patterns. It can then be memorised. It can be handed down with a minimum of corruption, because its form allows corruptions to be easily found and corrected.

The spread of literacy allows the development of prose. This does not mean that rhythm and other poetic devices can be ignored. Good prose can be as carefully written as poetry. In the best Greek and Latin and English prose, obvious attention has been given to the choice and patterning of words. The difference is that the rhythmical patterning of prose is less intended to aid memorisation than add to its meaning, and so can be more open.

Nor does the development of prose make poetry redundant. The authority of the earliest literature will have created a tradition within which some writers choose to continue. It will also be found that certain kinds of utterance remain more suited to poetry. In a literate age, the natural medium of philosophy and the sciences will be prose, and writers such as Lucretius and Erasmus Darwin will be regarded as more or less eccentric. But for certain kinds of narrative, and for the expression of powerful emotions, poetry will remain the natural medium.

This is an historical matter. The necessity follows from the meaning of words. If the word “poetry” is to have any meaning, it needs to be kept distinct in its forms from prose. There is no reason in itself why I should not call the first paragraph of this article a sonnet. There is no reason in itself why I should not define a fugue as a piece of music that has one theme in the tonic, another in the dominant, a development passage, and then a recapitulation of both themes in the tonic. For that matter, I could define a triangle as a quadrilateral with four right angles, or a cactus as a small arthropod animal, having an adult stage characterized by three pairs of legs and a body segmented into head, thorax, and abdomen. I could do all of this. But the result would be an intellectual mess. So far as I impressed my definitions on other minds, it would lessen the value of our language as a means of communication. Therefore, while much of the Old Testament was composed as poetry, the Authorised Version in English – however exalted in tone, or beautiful, or “poetic” – is prose.

Having said what it is not, I will now return to the matter of what poetry is. Of course, it is not the same as mathematics. In every language, its forms will be different. Even so, it is always a rhythmical composition more or less heightened by the use of other devices. These various devices can be isolated and analysed. Let me illustrate this definition with an example. I will take the first of the Shropshire Lad poems by A.E. Housman, which is similar in theme to Miss Duffy’s Last Post.

From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.

Look left, look right, the hills are bright,
The dales are light between,
Because ’tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.

Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod,
Lads, we’ll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save.

It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.

We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.

“God save the Queen” we living sing,
From height to height ’tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you’ve been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.

The most obvious device of this poem is its patterning of stresses. It is generally made up of alternating iambic tetrameters and trimeters – or we could say it consists of alternating lines of eight and six syllables, the stresses falling generally on the even. Thus:

from CLEE to HEAVEN the BEAcon BURNS,
the SHIRES have SEEN it PLAIN….

The rhyme scheme is important, but can be left aside for the moment as of less immediate notice than the patterning within each verse. This is not completely regular. Complete regularity has its place for achieving certain effects, but, in this kind of poem, will be monotonous. Instead, there is regularity throughout the first two stanzas – and see how “heaven” is contracted in the first verse to one syllable, or two very short and slurred syllables – until the rhythm has been set. This being done, Housman begins, in his third stanza, to vary the scheme, occasionally reversing an iambus into a trochee. Thus:

NOW when the FLAME they WATCH not TOWERS
aBOVE the SOIL they TROD….

This is to produce a more open, or dactylic, effect. It also marks a deviation of the theme from what the opening stanzas are intended to create. But I will come to this in a moment. For the present, I am interested only in the patterning of words. I have dealt with the obvious stress patterns. But there is also the quantitative patterning – that is, in the length of individual syllables, as determined by their nature or position. In Latin poetry, quantity provides the main rhythmical patterning, and stress, though important – see, for example, the last two feet of an hexameter verse – is subsidiary. In English poetry, the relationship is reversed, though quantity remains important. Because there is a tendency in English for stressed syllables also to be long, quantity can be as overlooked in poetic criticism as stress often is in Latin. But, if there is a tendency for the two to coincide, it is no more than a tendency. Take, for example, words like “however”. Looking at stress, it is an amphibrach. Looking at quantity, it is a dactyl.

In the Housman poem, there is, in the first two stanzas, a complete and therefore unusual coincidence of stress and quantity. The result is that the words have the steady, processional rhythm associated with state occasions. They lead naturally to the apparently triumphant and untroubled affirmation

That God has saved the Queen.

Add to this the avoidance of hiatus between the words and of combinations of sounds within words that might disrupt the rhythm. I mean by this words like “crisps” or “asterisk” or “Monckton”. There is perhaps no word that does not have a place somewhere in poetry. But words like this, in this poem, would break up the smooth flow.

Then there is onomatopoeia, or the use of words that imitate the sounds of or otherwise suggest in their sounds the things they describe. Except where animal or machine noises are concerned, this will often be more a matter of association within a particular language than direct imitation. But it seems to me that certain letters have a brighter or darker sound than others. Thus, the letter “l” reminds me of brightness, as does the diphthong “ai” and the long vowel sounds in “fair” and in “mean”. This may be a chance association, or it may derive from the traditions of the English language, or it may be universal to mankind. Whatever its cause, it is there. We can see this very cleverly used by Housman in his fifty third Shropshire Lad poem:

Light was the air beneath the sky,
But dark under the shade….

Under the stars the air was light
But dark below the boughs,

But we see it also in the first poem. Thus, we have, in the first stanza the “bright” words “Clee”, “beacon”, “shires”, “seen”. Their overall effect is to contrast the underlying ceremonial rhythm with an impression of beacons flaming in the night sky.

An unusual feature of this poem is the relative absence of imagery. It is largely from the choice and placing of the words that we know the setting to be the English countryside – a countryside still untouched – and therefore not yet frozen and not yet demystified – by the modern British State. Perhaps something is added here by the modern reader, who knows and laments what happened in the twentieth century. But I think much the same effect was produced in the mind of the first readers, who were carried back by the talk of “fifty years” to an age when the English countryside was a still wilder and more mysterious place outside the towns. And Housman does this with barely a mention of scenery. He does it all with the sounds and associations of his words

I turn briefly to rhyme. This is one of the less important poetic devices. The Greeks and Romans used it hardly at all. Milton grew to despise it in English, and most verse plays in English are unrhymed. Used other than in lyrics or in ballad narratives, it can be an annoyance in English – though this is not to deny the frequent wit and polish of the heroic couplet. Otherwise, it aids memorisation, and is another of those technical devices that allows a good poet to shine when he makes it appear natural. In this poem, the rhyme scheme “abab, cdcd” etc is there largely because it is expected in this particular form, and to emphasise alternating length of the verses.

The rhyme scheme also prevents a corruption I once read when a verse was quoted by itself. This went:

From Clee to heaven the beacon FLARES….

This is obviously wrong, as “flares” does not rhyme with “returns”. It is also wrong irrespective of the rhyme scheme. As the verse is written by Housman, no single word stands out from the whole. Change “burns” to “flares”, and undue attention is drawn to this word, thereby destroying the balance of the verse. It also creates an expectation that is not delivered in what follows. The word has too much brightness, and exaggerates an effect that Housman makes just strong enough to do its work. I think it was Cicero who said of Demosthenes that the speeches were so perfectly written that to change a single word would destroy the effect of the whole. This applies in all great literature – and naturally applies in this poem.

Moving away slightly from the sound of the words to their overall effect, it can be seen that Housman intends an ironic deflation of Queen Victoria’s first Jubilee. He never says that the dead were a useless or scandalous sacrifice. But he does remind you that the kind of national greatness celebrated in the Golden Jubilee rests on the death of young men, and that talk of God’s Blessing is but a euphemism for their death. Well before the last verse, with its repetition of saving the Queen, we know that this is not something any Victorian Poet Laureate would have been expected to produce. How the Shropshire Lad poems became so popular in the trenches is not something I can explain. Then again, great poetry says something different to every reader.

With even a short poem of this quality, it would be possible to write page after page of analysis and commentary, and still not finish the subject. But I will make only one more main point. This is the fifth stanza:

It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.

What this achieves is to admit the remarkable achievement of Victorian England by associating it with the Roman Empire – and then perhaps to warn where it was leading. Talk of Asia and the Nile carry the mind back to the conquests of Caesar and Pompey. This is immediately followed by a mentioning of rivers that spill their overflow. This is an echo of the Third Satire of Juvenal

– quamvis quota portio faecis Achaei?
iam pridem Syrus in Tiberim defluxit Orontes
et linguam et mores et cum tibicine chordas
obliquas nec non gentilia tympana secum
vexit et ad circum iussas prostare puellas.

Which is translated by Dryden as:

Nor Greeks alone, but Syrians here abound;
Obscene Orontes, diving under ground, [110]
Conveys his wealth to Tiber’s hungry shores,
And fattens Italy with foreign whores:
Hither their crooked harps and customs come;
All find receipt in hospitable Rome.

Is this intended as a prediction of how empire may destroy a nation? It may be interesting that one of Housman’s last students was Enoch Powell – who fell so entirely for a while under the older man’s influence that he wrote a volume of Housmanesque poetry.

In general, this is one of the last great poems written in English. And every effect that I have described is consciously intended. Housman was no unlettered balladeer, turning out works of beauty without ever knowing the means he used. As well as the last great English poet, he was one of the greatest textual critics of Latin. He knew the techniques of poetry as well as Schubert understood the techniques of setting poetry to music. He is the nearest, I think, to an English Catullus – poetic genius fused with perfect scholarship. I wish he were better regarded by the critics. Certainly, if his poetry has not found its way into any A Level Literature syllabus, his poems have never been out of print, and can be found in the poetry section of any moderately large bookshop in England, if not elsewhere in the English world.

I turn now back to Last Post. Now, what can I say about this? Where is the exalted language? Where is the known rhythmical pattern? The first two verses are a quotation, I think, from Wilfred Owen. He was at best a minor poet. His fame rests on his being the spokesman for a generation of young men tricked or bullied from their homes to be blown to mincemeat and rags. We have almost a duty to admire him. But he does not stand a close reading. Once, however, we are through this quotation, there is nothing at all that strikes me as poetic.

There are a few poetic conceits. There is one attempt at pathos that does almost work:

kiss the photographs from home —
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers….

But does this work because it really is poetic? Or am I simply primed to explode at every mention of slaughter in the trenches?

There is an occasional attempt at rhyme – “mud” – “blood”, “bread” – “dead”. But these could easily by the chance rhymes that come up in prose. With “bled bad blood”, there is a nod at alliteration. But this strikes me as clumsy in both sound and meaning. Blood can be bled – just as a boiler can boil and a clothes iron can be used for ironing. But this is the sort of verbal trick that entertains children at infant school, or foreign learners of English who need to memorise the various word forms.

The whole piece, indeed, could easily be colloquial prose formatted with an unjustified right margin. When I copied and pasted the piece from The Times website, I looked at it and wondered if some of the lines had been accidentally broken by the subeditor. They looked too short. I had to check the version I had against another on the BBC website. The two corresponded in their formatting. But is this how Miss Duffy wrote the piece? Or is this an error copied on both websites from a single corrupt source? Because there is no recognisable structure, the only answer to this question would be to look for a printed version, or to write directly to Miss Duffy.

When I was a young man, I came on the Shropshire Lad poems. I will not bore you with a telling of what effect they had on me. But a first reading was enough to stamp verses and whole stanzas on my mind. It took very little effort to commit around a third of the poems to memory, where they remain a quarter of a century later. I have read Miss Duffy’s piece several times. As I write, I cannot recall a single verse.

What we have here is not poetry. Its lack of rhythmical structure aside, there is nothing beautiful or memorable about it. What reason is there for just about any of the words not to be changed? Take, for example, the verse

to die and die and die.

Is there any reason why this should not be changed to

to fall and bleed and die?

Or is there any reason why

a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd

should not be changed to

a lad plays Pack up Your Troubles to the crowd?

I make no claim that my variations improve the piece. But I cannot see how either of them changes, let alone damages, the effect in the same way as changing “burns” to “flares” would wreck the Housman poem.

Am I missing something? There are endless examples of how novelty has been taken at first as perversity or incompetence. When Mozart sent the score of his Dissonnance Quartet to his father, he got back a letter accusing the copyists of mangling some of the parts. It took fifty years after his death for Mahler to be accepted as a great composer. Perhaps I am some poetic Beckmesser – too obsessed with form to see the beautiful substance.

But I doubt this. Miss Duffy is not a fresh voice, striking up against a background of flat Tennyson imitations. She stands within what counts nowadays as the poetic mainstream. As said, she she is another Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath or Ezra Pound. And if there are some who would regard this as high praise, I do not intend it as anything but a bored moan when confronted with more of the same. I have reached an age where I feel reasonably sure of my artistic judgments. I say that Last Post is not poetry and is mediocre as prose. If Miss Duffy had called it a translation from the French of Apollinaire Cendrier, I promise I would not be running off to Kensington to look him up in the French bookshops there.

Why, then, is this stuff turned out by the ream? Why particularly has diligence in turning it out raised Miss Duffy to an office that Housman never filled? I want to think it is because she is Scottish. England is run by a clique of Scotchmen whose only similarity to their more illustrious forebears is nepotism and hatred of  their southern neighbour. It also helps that she is a woman. And I may have read somewhere that she is a lesbian. Except that she has a white face, she has all the qualifications nowadays needed for the office she fills. But, if this is the reason, why the unforced gusts of praise that attended her elevation? When Caligula made his horse a Consul, it was prudent not to laugh. But I cannot understand how anyone could, without a gun to the head, have written this about Miss Duffy:

Her poems are accessible and entertaining, yet her form is classical, her technique razor-sharp. She is read by people who don’t really read poetry, yet she maintains the respect of her peers. Reviewers praise her touching, sensitive, witty evocations of love, loss, dislocation, nostalgia; fans talk of greeting her at readings ‘with claps and cheers that would not sound out of place at a pop concert’. [Katharine Viner, writing in The Guardian on the 25th September 1999}

The answer, I think, to Miss Duffy’s popularity and official endorsement is the democratisation of the arts. The modern movement was motivated in part by a snobbish elite that wanted things to praise that ordinary people could not appreciate. Since then, however, the idea has taken hold that anything that everyone cannot do should be shunned. When the Victorians spoke of bringing the arts to the people, what they had in mind was Beethoven at sixpence a head in the Crystal Palace. What it means today is praising stuff that anyone could have created.

Of all the arts, music perhaps has suffered least. This is because most people still have some idea that music should entertain, and because composing and performing involve technical complexities that cannot be set aside. It may be that popular composes like Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson had no musical education, and had to hum their songs for others to write down and arrange. But these people had an ear for melody and a natural feeling for scales and intervals and time signatures. And, now the influence of Schoenberg has waned, classical composition has recovered to a tuneful mediocrity.

The visual arts passed though a decline that involved accomplished charlatans like Picasso and Henry Moore, who began with some ability to work in the traditional forms, but soon found there was money in merely pretending to be artists. They then settled into a scandalous trough dominated by Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin. But no one without a degree in fine arts really believes these people are artists; and ordinary people prefer to spend their own money on hanging up framed prints by Jack Vettriano.

The full horror is in poetry. Here we find the verbal equivalents of Tracey Emin and a universal insistence that what they write is poetry. What makes Carol Ann Duffy so popular is the knowledge that anyone else might have written her works. Writing in her style needs nothing more than a word processor with the spelling checker turned on. Her nationality, sex and possible sexuality aside, she is the ideal poet for an age that calls itself democratic – and, in a debased sense, probably is.

I have never read any modern literature in French, which is the only modern language I know very well. I have never found anything notable in poetry of any period in Czech or Slovak. This leaves me with trying to guess future trends in English alone.

But I believe that my language long since passed out of its classical period. In prose as in poetry, there are no great living writers. Sooner or later, there will be a reaction in public taste against everything written during the past half century, and against much writing in the half century before then. All the “great” modern writers now force fed to children in the schools will then be confined to the cheap bins in second hand bookshops, and there will be a recovery of interest in real literature. From that moment, literary English will be purged of distasteful modernisms, and will enter its Byzantine phase – growing ever more remote from the language spoken by the people. Then, with great labour, and a nervous examination of every word and its pronunciation, poetry will be written again that is not simply embarrassing. It will mostly be stale and rigid in its forms. But there will, every so often, be something new to add to the lower reaches of the classics.

This may happen just in time for the collapse of our technical civilisation – when the ruling class finally gets its hands on the ten per cent of the wealth owned by the rest of us and stops all further progress in the sciences. This may not be a cheerful prediction. At least it will mean, however, that no one will be expected to read Carol Ann Duffy a hundred years from now.

NB—Sean Gabb’s book, Cultural Revolution, Culture War: How Conservatives Lost England, and How to Get It Back, can be downloaded for free from

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