My newsletter gets sent out 8 times a year – you can subscribe here. This is the newsletter that was sent on 23 September 2019…
Higgs’ Blind Octannual Manual #14
A six-and-a-bit-weekly newsletter from author John Higgs
Autumn Equinox 2019
Happy autumn equinox all! The wheel of the year grinds ever on…
Huge thanks to all who came to the launch of my short book William Blake Now at the Social last Monday. Special thanks to Salon London
for organising it at the last minute and to the die-hards who came to
sing and proclaim at the spot where Blake was born afterwards – that was
a real joy.
thanks to Richard Norris for the above photo, in which our gathering is
blessed by a very Blakean thread of golden light. Slightly fewer thanks
to Flinton Chalk for the following picture, of me at Tate Britain’s new
Blake exhibition deep in contemplation of the genitals of the giant
The Tate exhibition is an overwhelming experience which I urge you all to catch if geography allows. Keep an eye out for William Blake Now in the Tate gift shop – or indeed pick up the paperback, ebook or audiobook version online, if that pleases.
SOME WORDS ON OUR BLIND SPOTS…
school, Hanif Kureishi was taught that the Beatles did not write their
own songs. Those songs were really composed, his music teacher told him,
by the well-spoken Brian Epstein and George Martin.
Kureishi’s teacher was expressing the delusion of class superiority. If you believe you are automatically superior to a bunch of scruffy Scouse herberts, then a lot of cognitive dissonance will be created when some of those Scouse herberts produce work far in advance of anything you or your peers could ever dream of. In those circumstances the teacher’s brain took refuge in a conspiracy theory, because this took the pressure off his model of reality.
Note that the teacher was probably unaware he was doing this. His belief in class superiority would have been imprinted upon him as a child. It was buried so deep, and framed so much of his worldview, that he would have been entirely unaware of it. It resided in his mind’s blind spot. It is hard to correct delusions that are invisible to us.
We all have a blind spot. None of us
really know the delusions that lurk there. For all we may want to
condemn Kureishi’s teacher, we are not that different oursleves. In the
forecourt of the temple of the Delphic Oracle was carved the command
‘Know Thyself’, but illuminating the darkest shadows of our reality
tunnels is hard. Often the best we can do is hope that our delusions are
not harming others, and that reality doesn’t intrude to create the
cognitive dissonance that so troubled Kureishi’s teacher.
The collision between invisible delusions and reality is typically expressed as unexpected anger, for which the explanations given seem irrational and incoherent. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there is a lot of this about at the moment in Britain. In many cases, the invisible delusion in question is British Exceptionalism.
My apologies to non-UK readers for dwelling on this subject, but this country is working through some issues at the moment at it seems important to look at them. For the past year or so, ever since Theresa May brought her EU deal back to parliament, British Exceptionalism and political reality have clashed head-on. They have been aggressively grinding against each other ever since, and while political reality is unaltered, British Exceptionalism has been shredded beyond repair.
British Exceptionalism is, for historical reasons, the polite term for English exceptionalism. It is the belief that Britishness is by definition best, and that Britain is automatically superior to other countries. It looks ridiculous when it is written down and brought into the light, which is perhaps why this is rarely done. For many, it is imprinted so deeply into their reality tunnels that it is invisible and unquestioned. It is, in the words of Lord Victor Adebowale, the Empire of the Mind. For example, there are many who were appalled that Russian spies took a nerve agent to Salisbury and killed Sergei Skripal and others, but they will happily watch James Bond killing people in whatever country he wants and see this as entirely reasonable.
(I’m capitalising British Exceptionalism, incidentally, to distinguish it from actual British exceptional things, which are terrific and worthy of celebration. The work of J.R.R. Tolkien, Alan Moore or David Bowie, to give a few random examples, are all British and exceptional. But this is because of the quality of the work itself – it is not true by default based on who their parents were.)
The real nature of Britain is a
politely pagan surreal circus, a fact that is entirely obvious to the
majority of those of us who live here. This is what we like about the
place. Those imprinted with British Exceptionalism had to invent a mask
to put over this – they needed to deny the country’s true character,
because it’s easier to feel superior if you pretend that you’re Downton Abbey rather than acknowledge that you’re Monty Python. The utter inappropriateness of the dutiful, stable, decent Downton Abbey mask is of course extremely funny, which does give some insight into the actual nature of Britain.
The Downton Abbey mask, however, has been all but destroyed by the Brexit process. Or at least, it has in the eyes of observers in other countries. Many were shocked to discover that Britain, which they thought of as being largely stable, dutiful, competent and decent, is in fact none of those things. A reputation can be destroyed quickly in the twenty-first century. It does not tend to recover.
Will British Exceptionalism survive?
One way to check its health is to check the current status of our folk
heroes James Bond and Lara Croft, because both Bond and Croft have
British Exceptionalism embedded in their character.
Lara Croft’s last game Shadow of the Tomb Raider tackled the issue head on. It made it explicit that she was the bad guy. Croft uses her wealth and privilege to travel to South America, damage their heritage and steal a cultural artefact, which triggers a tsunami and kills thousands. To make amends, Croft offers herself up as a sacrifice at the end of the game. She willingly lets the ‘Tomb Raider’ be killed. After coming back to life – er, somehow – she vows that she will change. She will no longer probe the mysteries of the world, but protect them instead. Quite how this will play out in future games remains to be seen, but it’s encouraging that the next Tomb Raider film is being made by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump.
Bond is trickier, as he is essentially British Exceptionalism personified. If the gossip surrounding the next Bond film is true, the intended director Danny Boyle was taken off the project after delivering a script in which Bond died. For producers with a cash-cow to protect, that was clearly unacceptable. Yet given the current disintegration of British Exceptionalism, I’d argue that Boyle’s approach was entirely logical. What else could he have done with the character?
Boyle has now
left the project and the Phoebe Waller-Bridge is now working on the
script. Waller-Bridge’s achievements with Fleabag have been unfairly
overshadowed by debate about her class, but that subject does seem
relevant here. She seems a perfect hire for producers wanting make Bond
relevant in the #MeToo era, but who are afraid of tackling the deeper
and more taboo issue of unquestioned superiority.
Away from Croft and Bond, there has been a creative surge of work that looks at English or British identity without being nationalistic, or by being actively anti-nationalistic. Danny Boyle’s and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s opening ceremony to the 2012 London Olympics is an obvious example, as is Stormzy headlining Glastonbury’s pyramid stage wearing Banky’s union flag stab vest. You also have artists such as Jeremy Deller and @ColdWar_Steve, musicians including Richard Dawson and Slowthai, comics like Kieron Gillen’s Once and Future and writers such as Jez Butterworth, who gave us both the play Jerusalem and the series Britannia. Looking further afield, you find things like the open-source folk horror project Hookland, the film A Field in England by Lara Croft’s new parents Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, and the New Weird Britain Movement.
All this is a reminder that, creatively, British Exceptionalism is unwanted baggage. There’s far more interesting stuff being done without it. To drag it out into the light where it can be dismissed is going to be a painful process for many, but I doubt the process can be stopped. It seems to me that life in our politely pagan surreal circus will be all the better once it is over.
Keep on, pilgrim,