I dreamed I was at an event to remember Frank Kermode and then found myself in the dark basement of a London restaurant, or rather a deep cellar adjoining a basement in which some kind of political party seemed to be taking place. Although it was hard to see and even harder to hear, the figure of Nigel Farage could be glimpsed standing in a corner at the far side of the gathering. For some reason his red tie stood out even though, if I remember correctly, there were also brightly coloured balloons and party poppers – or perhaps it was just more of the fairy lights that also graced our table – strung across the vast room. As we ate our first course, trapped in our enclave, music gave way to speeches and we realised that we were in the middle of some kind of Bulgarian nationalist event. It was very hard to work out what the grounds of alliance between the leader of Ukip and these partygoers might be. After all, Farage would slander the Bulgarians and Romanians in his party conference speech the next day. We weren’t sure what any of us were doing, why they, or indeed we, were there.
Gradually it became clear that this was a meeting of minds of a sort, that the assembled people shared a rhetoric and a dread. The Bulgarians wanted their nation restored to its glorious past. Like Farage, they were purists. On the eve of England opening its doors to the Bulgarian people, it turned out that, like Ukip, these Bulgarians hated the thought of migration, of mixed peoples and vulnerable borders. I felt as if I was watching a group of people clear their way through the debris of an abandoned house while pretending to host an elegant dinner party – or polishing the walls of a dungeon. They were trying to get rid of something (Europe). They had been told many times, not least by Farage, that those whom they, like Farage, most despised – criminals, the unemployed, Roma – were about to pour out of their country in search of a better life. And again like Farage, they now seemed at a loss to know what to do with the fact that the predicted flood will probably not take place. Whether that will be a relief or a dreadful disappointment is unclear. Their world was a hall of mirrors. They wanted only people like themselves – bright, articulate, comfortably off – to live on their respective shores.
This dream, which was not a dream, left me – in this it was much like a dream – in a state of suspended curiosity, thinking about forms of language which have the power, or are intended to have the power, to bend the world to one’s will. When Farage travelled to Bulgaria earlier this year with Jonathan Rugman for a Channel 4 News special report, what was most striking was how far he was trapped by his own style. He smiles a lot, and laughs, especially when he thinks he has been clever, as, for example, when he points to the former Communist Party headquarters, which now houses the EU Commission, and jokes (no joke of course, he is deadly serious): ‘It’s exactly the same thing!’ Farage’s rhetoric relies on his identifying with the people he most fears: ‘If it was me, I’d be getting out.’ In fact, it relies on his persuading these people that they really want to do the one thing he least wants them to do: ‘I’d pack my bags and go.’ So he stands inside Fakulteta, one of Bulgaria’s largest Roma camps (just seeing him in that setting continues the surreal experience), or sits in a seminar room at Sofia University and insists that life is so dire in Bulgaria that anyone in their right mind would want to leave for Great Britain. (‘Great Britain’, by the way, is crucial: at the party conference he described Mandelson, Ashdown and Clarke as ‘the true voices of Little England’, whereas ‘We speak for Great Britain.’)
When the Roma explain that none of them will want to leave – ‘We love our homeland and wish to continue living here’ – he doesn’t seem to get it, though they are appealing to the sentiments that drive his party. ‘Every stone,’ as one of the Roma puts it, ‘has a place to rest.’ Why is he surprised? ‘However bloody poor they are,’ he puzzles to Rugman as they drive away from the camp (one of the mothers had described rummaging through garbage in search of bread for her children), ‘the family, tradition, are really strong.’ A student tells him she is insulted by his assumption she would want to leave for Britain. Another puts it more bluntly: ‘Culture there is lower than here, even though the people are richer.’
Only at one point during the trip is he left speechless. The host of Bulgaria’s most important TV chat show opens the discussion: ‘Isn’t it true that your country has developed historically by stealing the wealth and resources of others? By colonising their cheap labour?’ Faced with Farage’s stunned silence, she asks him the origins of his name, at which point he bursts into life: ‘We were persecuted Protestants from France who fled in fear of our lives and were welcomed in by England.’ As with Nicolas Sarkozy, who never lets his part-Jewish ancestry or Carla Bruni’s status as an Italian immigrant stand in the way of his anti-immigration policies, Farage doesn’t register the irony of his own migrant history. Presumably the fact that his family were French, and not ‘economic migrants’ but fleeing for their lives, makes all the difference. At this point the interview veers into the truly unreal. Isn’t it true, the host puts to him without a trace of irony, that ‘without immigrants, women would grow moustaches by having to marry their first cousins?’
At the party conference last month, the hateful – or as Farage himself put it the ‘even darker’ – side of this rhetoric was made much clearer. ‘No doubt,’ he warms up, he will be ‘severely criticised’ for what he is about to say (this is meant to add to the excitement). London, he pronounces, is already experiencing a Romanian crime wave: an ‘astounding’ 27,500 arrests in the Metropolitan Police area alone in the past five years; 92 per cent of ATM crime committed by Romanian gangs. Farage is ‘strong’ on figures, he likes them a lot: five million economic migrants into Britain in the past five years, ten thousand a week, half a million a year. In fact he is often way off the mark. It’s explained to him that the average monthly salary in Bulgaria is double what he says it is, and the poverty level roughly half. But not being sure of the figures is a rhetorical advantage: ‘How many take advantage … no one knows. The Home Office don’t have any idea at all. The previous estimate was 13,000 in total [sarcastic laugh]. Migration Watch thinks 50,000 a year. It could be many times that … We should not welcome foreign criminal gangs.’ Earlier he spoke of rapists and murderers, but by now the difference between rape, murder and ATM crime seems to have been lost. ‘Mr Cameron, Clegg, Miliband – are you listening? We demand action.’ The assembly applauds with passion, as it does throughout his forty-minute speech.
At the tribute to Frank Kermode, I had spoken about The Sense of an Ending, and the extent to which it is part of a political argument about totalitarianism in which words almost instantly translate into deeds. I had forgotten how central Hannah Arendt was to his analysis, especially her description of Nazi propositions erasing time by immediately dissolving ‘every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose’. For Kermode there is a potentially dangerous affinity between literature and totalitarianism since both rely for their validity on their effective force or inventiveness; on persuading us to suspend any questioning of the literal truth of what they are trying to make us see. But there is a difference. Anti-semitism he called a ‘degenerate fiction’ because it presupposes ‘total and adequate explanations of things as they are’. In this it is unlike literature – his example was King Lear – where there are no ‘futures equivocally offered’ in totalitarian time. That is one reason, perhaps a central reason, why literary criticism was so vital and urgent for him: by opening a text to the endless process of interpretation, it gives pause to any utterance that might wish to enact itself too quickly and brutally in the world, and it prevents us from thinking that the world can be made perfect by stopping it – stopping a flood of migrants entering Britain for example – in its tracks.
There was, I realised, for me at least, a profound link between the beginning of the evening and the end. As we walked out of the restaurant, Farage was standing outside on the pavement. We told him how offended we were by what we had heard, how angered at having been co-opted, as it felt, by his party. He insisted he had only just arrived and knew nothing. But we had all seen him standing there, silently bathing the ugly proceedings in his authority.