The book’s title mocks the author’s own position. It comes from a newspaper column of 1985 in which he attacked what he saw as ‘the retreat from politics’ into nihilistic spectatorship, and thus passivity. ‘Games with shadows and changing reflections threaten the citizen’s most elementary weapon of self-defence: memory.’ Acutely and characteristically, he links passivity to unemployment, and the argument moves off from the dubious ‘politics of spectacle’ into the world Ascherson so insistently dissects, the one in which most people are without power, where social participation is not a right but a privilege. But then, by using the phrase as title, he implicitly turns part of the attack on himself and his kind. This isn’t self-deprecation, rather a stubborn stoicism which seems to mean: take it or leave it, this is all I can do. It asks us to think about the apparent political impotence of mere writers and readers; if writing and reading are all we can do, we must either gamble on their validity or surrender.
The restoration of memory is part of Ascherson’s long-running commitment: so from battle-zones which are often continents and centuries apart, he gathers up his anecdotes of long-uncelebrated resistance. They fully deserve his attention, and ours, but what shouldn’t be underestimated now is the kind of resistance represented by the making of this book itself. It is as though a small but brilliant flag broke out on an outpost long given over to barbarian darkness, meaning: it’s not all over with print journalism – not yet; down this track, there are still adventures worth having.
The darkness is there, not only because so much of the press is crass, vicious, tepid, compromised – you name it – and, of course, turned into an odd kind of multinational commerce, a ballpark for corporate raiding. It’s also the depression of journalists and other communicators, who no longer know how to defend what remains worth defending, let alone begin re-inventing newspapers for those print futures which are now possible, technologically at least. A couple of years ago, in a cranny of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a suggestion came up for a weekly radio commentary on newspapers: something a bit like the weekly film review, attending to styles and messages, editorial postures and devices, as well as the manoeuvrings of big business around the newspaper as product. But the producer, generally an alert and imaginative lady, didn’t see the point. She responded tiredly: ‘My God, why? When you’ve gone through the usual boring litany about ownership and control, and what Rupert bought last week, what else is there to say?’
The short answer is everything – particularly about the liberal press and its contradictions. The anecdote typifies the attitude widespread now on the left and among left-liberals, something more negative than despair. People are deeply, appallingly inured, on a level of boredom – with newspapers themselves, and equally with the supposedly exhausted issues of ownership, control, content, ideology and so on – so deep that productive discussion can’t even begin. There’s no sense of possibility, no talk of different ways of doing things – for example, of changing the relations, through format, of foreign and local news, so that readers might more easily sense themselves as people of the globe; of conceiving reviewing and arts news differently, to spread the power out from stars, authors and critics to the larger populations of makers and audiences.
Such changes become unimaginable; the Seventies dream of an alternative press has faded everywhere. The press-as-it-is has become the cultural badlands, no more readily curable than pollution. It is many editorial generations since the newspaper was seen as an expressive form for citizens, rather as video, super-8 mm film and public radio are becoming now. One part of the problem is that journalists rarely reflect on their own positions – no group, generally, is less interested in newspaper history or analysis.
Another is that newspapers talk about themselves only on the financial pages, and thus consent to being trampled down in the wholesale subordination of communication to commodity. For careers in academic media studies, TV – festooned with satellite and laser technology – is always sexier; ‘information studies’ means computerology; radio and the popular music industry make it to the fringes of curricula; but print is dowdy – who’d make students read, when they could be watching and listening?
Indifference means impotence. Back in the late Sixties and through the Seventies, we developed our attacks on the liberal-pluralist media, precisely for their liberalism and pluralism, and we got stuck there, intellectually and politically. On the grimmer terrain of the present, it has been hard to see the need for changed alignments; the need, for instance, to defend those beleaguered national broadcasting organisations, despite the sense that Thatcherite governments are hanging them for lambs rather than sheep; and the need now to defend the kind of press which still, in its interstices, makes space for writers like Neal Ascherson.
It’s not just that Murdoch and his ilk own so much of the mainstream press. Neither bad nor benevolent ownership accounts for everything you read in a newspaper, and the difference isn’t entirely a matter of tabloid versus broadsheet. What matters is that the newspaper, and the journalist, should actually trust the readers to be capable of no smaller an understanding than themselves.
Few managers or editors, and consequently few of their writers, exercise that sort of trust. Most media organisations are permeated by the general feeling, sometimes delivered quite explicitly as doctrine, that the audience is an alien mass, a huge undifferentiated beast with a million heads. It’s ‘the people’, as in ‘giving the people what they want’ – that perennial excuse on which Ascherson has no mercy. ‘The people’ are supposedly both incomprehensible and dumb; without a huge and costly market research apparatus, there can be no access to their preferences or responses. Too many on the left unthinkingly share the ingrained mistrust to be found among moguls and their number-crunchers, and that mistrust is the ground of their cultural pessimism.
Ascherson’s Observer columns on the press itself challenge us to clear up those dangerously foggy areas of policy and belief. In one treasurable piece, ‘Coals in the Bath, Sun on the Brain’, he bites the bullet properly: ‘why, in the late 20th century, do millions of British people go on reading tabloids whose mental level would not strain the intellect of an oversexed gnat?’ From there, Ascherson makes his own contribution to a progressive theory of the audience. He suggests that ‘the reader of the Star, whose life may otherwise feel like the bottom of the heap’, sees through the parade of supposed information and recognises it for what it is, a fairly crude performance: ‘and this recognition, this small daily feat of seeing through the cheeky buggers, is a daily source of satisfaction.’
That suits a theory of the popular press as endless comic-strip, salacious vaudeville, which only half-pretends to be anything else. But Ascherson knows it can’t rest there: ‘reading newspapers you despise is ... a bad habit, not only because it wastes time and money ... It is also bad for liberty.’ The flickering farce – screaming headlines, titillation and pseudo-crises – is no mere circus; it does carry political meanings; in the absence of contesting messages, it engenders a dangerous indifference. Junk journalism forms a huge swamp, in which too much articulate resistance is submerged; it’s part of Ascherson’s map of contemporary Britain. He was passionate, and uncompromising, about Wapping:
He stuck a gun in their buck. Sign here, he said, or it’s the bullet. You aren’t worth negotiation, and I’m in a hurry ... Some readers, I know, will say that those who write for the Sun and the News of the World have no self-respect to lose. All the same there is a stink of loss at Wapping.
He refuses to condemn the complicit journalists either for taking those jobs in the first place, or for voting, at the crunch, to hang on to them. Moralism is cheap; projecting imaginable alternatives takes sense and daring. It means pushing against all that inertia, but Ascherson does so repeatedly – insisting that the junk habits, both in production and reception, can be broken, that new technology offers ways now to ‘a politically varied and responsible’ press not dependent on advertising for revenue. It is because ‘that free press of the possible future will need men and women with guts and high spirits to write it’ that the collective humiliation of Wapping was a tragedy.
Meanwhile the press which empowers him, the literate liberal press of the West, has become a thinly scattered archipelago from which, every so often, one more island disappears. Ascherson works from a highly privileged atoll. The relative freedom of its space has turned him from chronicler into essayist. Not in the old sense, when the essay meant well-tempered, linear ‘reflection’ from a fixed and generally superior position; the contemporary essay has evolved from Benjamin and Brecht into a mode now vitally unstable, less for reflection than engagement. It is through that mode that intellectual writing, critical work on the world, is now released from seminar-rooms and laboratories to find larger readerships. Thus Ascherson joins the oddly-assorted, lively company of Primo Levi, Oliver Sacks, John Berger, Edward Said and Germaine Greer – but from a slippery starting-point: the journalist is a specialist in nothing.
Sometimes he seems to know that only too well, and to underrate his own contribution. Calling for work on the growing power of an undemocratic state by an active, unashamed English intelligentsia, he writes: ‘It’s time that England raised a mirror to itself, and tried seriously to recognise this changed, present face which the past has been fashioning. Journalists can only give glimpses. It takes intellectuals to make a mirror.’ It seems for a moment as though he doesn’t recognise his own analyses for the dynamically intellectual work they are; perhaps he, like so many others, conflates ‘intellectual’ with ‘academic’. But it takes intellectuals who are also journalists – whether they are employed academically or not – to fight back against anti-intellectual hostility, and to perceive its workings where governments begin to starve out the universities and let national education systems go to pieces. Academics aren’t conducting their own fight too well – particularly when so many, Marxist cultural critics though they are, blanket their ammunition in elaborately technical verbiage, as though it should be defended rather than used. They need journalism urgently, seductive and disreputable as it is: but it challenges the precious disciplinary boundaries, and the vocabularies which shore them up. As a university teacher, I was sometimes asked, by new colleagues or visitors: ‘But weren’t you a journalist?’ (their italics). Bloody-minded, I could never resist answering: ‘I hope I still am.’
The deeply ambivalent professional relations of the academy with the press are another story. But they feed the general damaging reluctance to understand that any print journalism worth reading must by the same token be writing, in its own genre, with its own craft, its own demanding aesthetics and athletics. Asking the obvious questions, and getting the answers right: but to get the questions right in the first place you must know some history, as Ascherson always does. Then the perilous business of balancing clarity with compression, at perpetual risk to both; keeping to your word-length without short-changing either fact or truth; explaining without losing momentum – it’s not for nothing that feature articles, as well as news reports, are still called stories. Sometimes people talk of ‘high journalism’: but for the genre at large – both as relatively modest reporting and in its more discursive and extravagant operations ... we could summon up a better term: intelligence, working its richer and older senses together with new ones. Information; news; investigation, enquiry; illumination; the extension of understanding.
What’s badly missing now, from organised curricula as well as from the general consciousness, is an active belief in journalism on that level: in public writing as something to train for and do, a form of work with language at least as potent as the fancy stuff that gets you short-listed for the Booker. Orwell used to preach such a belief as he practised it: writing 42 years ago on language and politics, he attacked the way euphemism ‘falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details ... When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.’ He believed that ‘the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language,’ and that work on language could therefore be important political work, that now and again, ‘if one jeers loudly enough’, the jeering might discredit not only ponderous clichés, but also the antique regimes they belong to.
Neal Ascherson, who probably wouldn’t disown the snow and cuttlefish similes, also ‘jeers loudly enough’, especially at the rhetorics of fraudulent nationalisms and the histories manufactured to match them. He has a lot of fun with the phrase ‘the forging of a nation’, sorting out the serviceable forgeries from the rest. As an essayist he is also a story-teller, moving across a Europe marked out by contesting notions of history as much as by national boundaries; various national pasts, sequences of defeat and resurgence, become his funds of allegory, ways of talking more forcefully about England or Scotland in the present. The allegory always works two ways: one learns about Czechoslovakia and Poland in extended discussions which proceed from Scotland and return to it, via Central and Eastern Europe. Along the way, we are provoked into sorting out what’s phoney in any small country’s quest for nationhood from what is morally imperative; in this of all years, it’s a healthy sermon for Australians.
He goes in for outrageously extended metaphors, sometimes pages long, and they work. An essay about class and money begins: ‘Think of a great, sere countryside. Scattered over its surface there lives a peasantry divided into two races.’ He gives an account of middle-class affluence and inheritance as a water-table underlying dry terrain, in a drought-plagued country where some people live in stone houses and draw from long-established wells, while the rest are shanty-dwellers depending on rainfall. From these vaguely African images, he leaps over to the London of young couples like ‘Charles and Melissa Heigho’ – entirely secure behind their tasteful shabbiness, prospective parents for the public schools, banking and bureaucracy – to analyse ‘the most discreet, sophisticated and effective system of wealth transmission the world has ever seen’. He considers its patrilineal sexism, its curious outward austerity, and the crucial recurrence of death, ‘the Spring Festival of rentier capitalism’, the ritual moment for the redistribution of money, the reorganisation of the quasi-sacred family trust. He revives the water-table metaphor to consider political and economic fluctuations; sometimes it’s harder to get the water to ground-level. For their owners, however, the wells are always there, even under Labour governments; they have no need to create wealth, only to maintain and manage it.
This brings Ascherson back to a favourite trope, the Druids: ‘No wonder the English middle-class took over the Druid legends as their myth of origin’ – he has rather more time for the way the Romanians took over Dracula. ‘The kindness and tolerance of the English middle class ... is born of the confidence of an Order, a melancholy Druidic caste, and not from a sense of individual vigour.’ There he identifies a special contradiction in Thatcherism: despite the constant insistence on individual enterprise, the British businessman’s ‘appetite for commerce and competition is still curiously weak’, and ‘well-born English businessmen will convey that they make money out of reluctant duty rather than because they want to be rich.’
Druidism is fed by different kinds of ‘historical nonsense’: not only the almost-comic opera of militaristic panoply, but also the superior ‘heritage values’ of people like the Heighos or their variants, ‘James and Lavinia Yupsley’, the gentrifiers of Stoke Newington, or the new colonists, ‘caring’ though they are, of the Argyll coast. No room here for the poetic view that ‘the past is another country’: Ascherson, like Marx, finds it pressing intolerably on the present – but also an open repository, always there for political raiding and appropriation.
He does his own raiding, calling on Gladstonian debates more than a century old to plead for a revival of confidence against hopelessly fossilised traditions. The 1886 act which gave the Highland crofters security of tenure would be, he argues, unthinkable now – limited reform though it was. Then he draws lessons from Gladstone’s debacle of the same year, the First Home Rule Bill. You can’t blame its failure for the century of mess and violence in between, but its comparative flexibility rebukes the present, when
we live in a State whose constitutional arrangements are stiff with age, but treated – in a superstitious, dogmatic way – as untouchable. A hundred years ago, those arrangements still had spring left in their timber ... Gladstone was ready to knock down walls. But the ancestors of our modern preservationists, who are too awed to change a coal-scuttle of the Ancient British system, knocked him down instead.
That is Ascherson’s central thesis on Britain, that its once-liberal institutions, ‘the whole gaudy old heritage’, can only work now to sustain privilege and to prevent – not merely obstruct – the redistribution of power. You can’t hope to build democratic socialism within the rigid, rusted scaffolding: from that position, he finds British Labour fatally patriotic. History and contemporary analysis meet and merge in the argument; symbolically, he detonates that comfortable boundary-fence, strung somewhere across the middle distance, where we tend to believe that the past finishes and the present, as our own domain, begins.
Two sections of the book’s five assemble his work on Western and Eastern Europe, ‘the barbaric continent’. While that arrangement acknowledges the great political divide, the writing works across it. He describes the Berlin Wall as a ‘holy monster’:
It continues to horrify millions, who come to see it and to peer across ... The Berliners have grown used to it ... But the monstrosity of the barrier, the sense of inhumanity and crime, remain. Living in Berlin is like inhabiting the map of ancient cartographers: not only ‘here be dragons,’ but the feeling that if you stray too far, you come to the edge of the world: the blank white face of concrete across the street, the rails sawn off suddenly as they enter a purposeful curve.
On each side of the jagged border, the live questions concern liberty, the struggles against political and economic oppressions, the rights to resist the nation-state or to affirm its sovereignty. France threatens everyone with the bicentenary of its revolution (well may Australians groan), and Ascherson asks the right question: what will emerge from the rising tide of critical dissent? He dissects the meanings of the 40th anniversary of VE Day, pulls apart booksful of Holocaust memories, contemplates statues and ‘rehabilitations’, and goes off to the extremes of public action to consider spies, traitors, terrorists and heroes.
An uncanny kind of tact marks all his writing about persons. Sinners or saints, he will neither psychologise nor judge them, nor try to possess their souls in words. Motives matter less than consequences: thus, in ‘Witness’, he honours the memory of Friedrich Spee (d. 1635), a Jesuit who acted as confessor to some two hundred victims of the 17th-century German witch-hunt, then recoiled to do good works and write a book, Cautio Criminalis, denouncing the whole apparatus of trial and torture. Ascherson links Spee with the ‘humane’ doctors at Auschwitz, whose better actions, like his, proceeded from their guilt. The moral paradoxes can only be recognised, and allowed to stand. What Ascherson cares about is the courage it takes to swim against the tides: no matter that you began by swimming with them. What makes him angry is the kind of dull, callous misperception of history that allows a survival of the unspeakable Malleus Maleficarum – ‘that discharge of woman-hate and cruelty’ – while Spee’s heroically rational Cautio goes unregarded.
Other contemporary journalists, on the Observer and elsewhere, write as clearly and vividly as Ascherson. (And sometimes he just fulminates, sometimes the occasions seem trivial – at least, at the distance from which I write; sometimes he seems to have chucked in everything he thought of on the train back from Edinburgh; and the column recedes, to become just another field in the paper’s huge mosaic.) His own singular, irreplaceable gift is to write through the moments of near and further history so that they are re-constellated, strung and linked across improbable gulfs of geography and time. He does it fiercely, with the classic citizen’s passion. It’s not so much about bringing analysis and emotion together: this is writing which, cunningly, refuses to know the difference.
Thus argument is also narrative, tracked by a moving spot of light named ‘I’. And ‘I’ – now you see him, now you don’t – is not quite a character: sometimes an elusive instigator, more often the good reporter, calling on business, stopping on the threshold unless you ask him in. He is as much in shadow as Thompson in Citizen Kane, if not quite as modest – some of the name-droppings are fantastic. ‘I used to carry Kim Philby’s typewriter for him around this office, because he seemed so frail.’ ‘The other day, I found myself in a taxi-queue with Anthony Blunt.’ ‘I’ is enviably mobile and privileged – ‘when I lived in Berlin’, ‘I happened to be in Italy when ...’, ‘Many years ago, in British Columbia, I remember ... ’ It is excellent that now, in the late Eighties, anyone can begin a newspaper column like a thriller: ‘Not long ago – last autumn, in fact – a small, uncanny thing happened to me in Prague. I was in a museum of ancient musical instruments, housed in a baroque palace down by the river, and paused to lean on the window-sill ... ’
And from ‘Requiem for an Old Piano Banger’: ‘I was lucky enough to be in Gdansk that bitter night in 1980.’ There and then he was among thousands outside the shipyard gate, listening to the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Penderecki’s Polish Requiem, played in memory of workers killed in the riots often years earlier. The composer told him that liturgical music is not merely religious, but also ‘a way for composers to show which side they are on’.
So, of course, are other kinds of public performance. The radical columnist’s essays come to us cheek-by-jowl with designer advertising from the money markets, the consumerist seductions of the colour-supplements – which, with all their liberal language, are arguably more effective as conservative propaganda than most Times editorials – and the genteel prattle about royalty which not even the Observer can refuse. That context doesn’t defuse Ascherson’s work – although the pessimists would insist otherwise, and talk of incorporation. For others, it’s a matter of enjoying what he offers and using it: in the first place, to know which side you’re on.