Holy Smoke

Oct. 18th, 2016 08:09 am
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On Sunday afternoon I was working in one my habitual cafés, a pot of green tea at my elbow, when I became aware of the smell of burning. So did several other people. Indeed, some us stuck our noses outside and looked up and down the Gloucester Rd., but saw no blaze.

It turns out that it was the smell of St Michael the Archangel on the Mount Without, the gloriously named (but much neglected) church at the bottom of St Michael's Hill, a mile and half to the south, going up in flames. It looks as if the fifteenth-century tower has survived, but not much else.

In happier days....
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Yesterday one of my Japanese language partners asked me about the "故事" (koji) used in English. What are koji, you ask (as I did)? Apparently they are "idioms derived from historical events or classical literature of China". Did British history yield many idioms in common use?

I have to admit, my mind went blank. It's easy enough to come up with idioms swiped from literature, notably Shakespeare, but history? Most English idioms seem to come from common experiences, crafts and professions, the natural world, and so on. They don't tend to involve famous people or events - or, if they do, they don't stretch beyond a single word (Canutian, anyone?). The best I've come up with so far is "met his Waterloo".

There are some from the classical world - which stands to Britain much as classical China to Japan: "cut the Gordian knot", "Caesar's wife", or even "a cobbler should stick to his last". I could probably think of a few more, but it's still surprisingly thin pickings.

It's not that my mind is badly stocked with interesting facts and anecdotes (many of questionable veracity) about British and classical history, but that they've somehow failed to morph into idioms. We know about Alfred and the cakes, for example, or Robert the Bruce and the spider, but there isn't any common idiom derived from either encounter that might be muttered by people in similar circumstances.

Is there a rich vein of such sayings that has somehow slipped my mind? I would of course be happy to hear suggested examples!
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Chris Wood has a new album out, and I'd like to make two recommendations from it.

First, here's his setting of Housman's poem about Victoria's Golden Jubilee, "1887" - a work that's not as straightforwardly patriotic as may first appear. I mention it here particularly, though, because my brother worked on the setting with him, and accompanies him on the track.

Also, there's "Shallow End", which I heard him perform live a couple of years ago, and loved. It's just as good now.
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Today is my ten years anniversary of being on LJ/DW. Looking back, I see that my first ever entry was about someone who'd covered some Beatles songs in Cornish. There's a now-broken link to the site. "Ah, so many links have been broken!" I sigh, more or less automatically. But as many new ones have been forged, and reforged, through being on social media. I'm grateful to everyone who's been here (both online and off) in the last decade. It's definitely enriched my life.

On the other hand, I suppose I have to admit:

Number of novels published in the decade before I took up LJ - 6.
Number of novels published in the decade since I took up LJ - 0.

Correlation is not of course causation, though, and there were other things going on in my life that got in the way of novelling. I officially transitioned 5 years ago last month, almost exactly halfway through my LJ career to date, and of course a move like that doesn't come out of the blue; it was preceded by years of anguish and drama of a kind that I had and have no wish to splurge abroad. Still, even if social media is considered as a symptom of my spiritual condition rather than a cause, it's a striking statistic.

Or perhaps writing novels in the first place was the symptom? One of its functions was certainly to act as a kind of safety valve (a role currently played by learning Japanese), a place I could go to when other things became a bit grim. And it gave me opportunities for expression otherwise denied me: it's no coincidence that all my first-person characters were female.

Anyway, taken as a whole, I think it's worth celebrating these ten years, and in that spirit I made an impulse buy yesterday, at a children's-book art exhibition. It's Paul Howard's cover art for the 2008 edition of Tom's Midnight Garden, which I've always liked but is far more beautiful without the writing and bar codes. It's in pastels, and has a depth in reality that my crappy camera struggles to convey. I particularly like the combination of wonder and forlorn vulnerability in Tom, dwarfed as he is in this wider perspective by the house and its trees. (It would be idle to deny that I also like his pyjamas.)

Tom's Midnight Garden

book cover

I'm embarrassed to say how much it cost, but arguably I couldn't afford it.
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In default of a proper post, here's my latest Awfully Big Blog Adventure post, which is on "voice" in children's literature, and especially Jacqueline Wilson. I tried to row back on the whole Boothian apparatus in this not-especially-scholarly piece, but even so, the phrases "Milnean voice" and "Christophoric ear" are never entirely absent from my mind when I write on this subject...
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It's my mother's 92nd birthday this weekend. My brother is doing the cooking, so I've been put in charge of the booze, an equitable division. With this October's augustness in mind I went to a proper wine shop rather than the bargain shelf of the Co-op (my usual resort). I'd meant to buy some champagne, but on a whim decided to get English Sparkling Wine - a first for me. Eventually I found one made in the Test valley, where I grew up and where my mother still lives. The chalk soil is perfect for the job, the label tells me, producing "English effervescence". I just hope it won't taste too Brexity.


The other bottle was more obviously topical. It cost more than I usually pay, but even what I consider an expensive bottle of wine is still far too cheap to trouble the attention of a banker, so perhaps the makers were safe in using the label (front and back) as a place to sound off about the bankers who refused to lend them the money to get their business off the ground, a refusal made on the basis that wine is "not a seizable asset" (why not?).


It seems a rather eccentric use of a label - a space more normally reserved to describe the wine itself - but I imagine these little piggies know their market. If we feel that we're somehow getting one over on the bankers we'll buy half a case, and the overdraft be damned!
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Immigration may not be the only relevant issue here, but it's the obvious one - not least because it reportedly played such a large role in the Brexit vote.

Immigration is one of those cases where the evidence seems to be almost all on one side, and perception very largely on the other. Without immigrants, the NHS (and plenty of other services and industries, not least in agriculture) would fall over tomorrow. Immigrants more than pay their way in taxes: they're an economic good. Where immigration has led to problems (for example in Lincolnshire) it's because immigrants are perceived to be taking houses, school places, hospital beds, and other things from people who already live here. But, since it's the job of government to provide those things (with the taxes that immigrants among others pay), shouldn't the government rather than immigrants be getting the blame?

That is the burden of Corbyn's song, and it seems a no-brainer to me. However, while many people in Labour would agree on the facts, they argue that the perception matters more. These people believe that the general population is too stupid, or too racist, to be persuaded - that they are in fact intractable in their opposition to immigration and that, this being the case, the Labour party must set out its stall against immigration too, as a sop to the ignorance and prejudice of its core demographic.

This is called realism - or triangulation, if you prefer. To me it seems a hugely patronising attitude. It also seems like appeasement, if not of racism then of ignorance, but more likely both. It's a doomed strategy too, because no matter how "tough" Labour may be on immigrants UKIP will always be tougher: there's no winning on that wicket. It's lazy, because it foregoes the tough job of trying to persuade people in favour of making "the right noises." It's fundamentally dishonest, because it involves blaming immigrants for a situation that these people know (and privately acknowledge) is the result of government policy. Finally, it's just plain wicked, because no matter how anodyne a packaging you wrap it in, it's going to sow mistrust and almost certainly abuse and violence too (those things the right wing of Labour has spent all summer decrying) - all in the hope of swiping a few, halfhearted votes. And the people who advocate it know this.
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Three factoids I picked up from three different conversations with my Japanese friends on italki.com this week.


When Japanese women give birth, it is customary for the hospital to take the umbilical cord and put it in a little box. The mother is then presented with it as a memento on leaving the hospital.


There is a kami who specialises in straightening out badly behaved children. His twisted staffs symbolise the crooked behaviour of the children he has to deal with, usually as a result of a prayer of the parents.

mami kami

Also, he gets to ride on a fox.

Man's Estate

Whenever a train is late and it is deemed to be the driver's fault, the driver is made to write a letter of apology to the customers. However, whenever a Japanese salaryman feels that it's all too much and throws himself in the path of a speeding shinkansen (as happens all too often), the family is made to pay a large amount of compensation to the train company - pour encourager les autres, presumably.
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Ever since Corbyn was first elected leader, I've heard a lot from the right wing of the party (and thence the media) about the threat of deselection of sitting MPs. It hasn't actually happened, though - to anyone. Whereas there has been a very messy attempt to "deselect" Jeremy Corbyn, and what one can only conclude was a systematic attempt to prevent his supporters from voting in the leadership election - another form of deselection, if you will.

(Digression: that attempt was so blatant yet has been so under-reported that it's worth bringing out the key facts here, for reference. Here are the voting participation figures, first for members and then for registered supporters - i.e. those who paid £25 in order to take part:

non-voting members

As you will see, only just over half of members are counted among the votes in the contest. We don't know how many of those were due to suspension, exclusion, "lost" ballots, etc., but even allowing for the fact that some members would have decided not to take part that seems that an awfully low percentage of the electorate for such an important vote. But the real killer is the figures for registered supporters. These are people who paid precisely in order to be able to vote, so one would expect turnout among this group to close to 100%. In fact, however, more than a third - that's 62,000 - are recorded as "without a vote". The NEC compliance unit were working their Delete keys into the night, one might reasonably surmise. As a former foe of Trots once said, it's not who gets to vote, it's who gets to count the votes...)

Sometimes it seems that the right wing of the Party is a little paranoid, because it fears that the left will behave in the same undemocratic way that it's shown itself so capable of. (Indeed, back in the days of Blair I seem to remember the NEC itself drawing up lists of left-wingers for deselection...)

Corbyn doesn't seem at all keen on mandatory reselection, in fact - unsurprisingly, if he's trying to build a consensus (or at least a modus vivendi) in Parliament. The issue is probably only going to arise when boundary changes are introduced by the Tories - but even then, convention dictates that where two MPs are unseated by the disappearance of their seat and are forced to compete for a new one, only sitting MPs are considered. In most cases, the Labour CLPs will be given a choice between two people who voted to get rid of Corbyn. There will also be a few cases, no doubt, where there is a choice between a pro-Corbyn and and anti-Corbyn MP. In those, it's true, a left-leaning CLP may well opt for the former. I don't see how that's an affront to democracy, to be honest, or anything that the party at large should be losing its shit over. If MPs' numbers are being reduced by 50 and fewer than 50 MPs are willing to bow out, then obviously choices will be made, and if not by the local parties then by whom? But I expect to hear much, much more in the coming months about how this is the worst thing since the Terror - and nothing at all about the purge of the Labour electorate.
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St Werburgh's is just a five-minute walk from my house, by a path between the allotments and the railway line, and (as I think I've mentioned before here) it's quite a different world. An inner city enclave formed by the convergence of several railway embankments, this area of Bristol is almost inaccessible by car - and certainly not a place you would just "stumble across" if you were exploring the city in any conventional way. I've promised in the past to try to describe it, but I don't think I can quite do it justice here. However, these brief entries should give you something of the feel. As you might guess, it's the perfect place to have a Wicker Man event.

I went last night with my friend Marie, and we approached down this long tunnel, which was lit with candles along its length, as one would expect.

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I wore my horse's head mask, and I'd lent Marie a garland left over from one of my magical jaunts to the Gower last year. Beyond the tunnel, the woodland amphitheatre that the Werburgh folk made for themselves a few years ago had been kitted out with a screen, but first there was a "trail" to follow through the woods. There we came across many an unworldly scene, including a couple of naked women (and one man) making much of a bonfire. They plucked a late apple and offered it to me, and sent us down towards a place where a rather stern priestess was making runic gestures, and occasionally screaming as if she had been kanchoed by the gods. Elsewhere we sat in a roundhouse (a permanent feature) and listened to a really excellent harpist, dressed in something approximating Venetian masked ball garb (she neighed at me as she played, recognising in me no doubt a devotee of Epona). And here and there, lit by red and green lights and hundreds of candles, strange moppets and scarecrows and gibbets abounded, throwing their eldritch shadows against the leafy canopy. The isle was full of noises.

The trail was also punctuated by woodland screens, hung between branches perhaps like the webs of giants spiders, showing clips from 1970s documentaries about the supernatural and paranormal. A Devon dowser demonstrated his craft. A pair of Glastonbury hippies (this was 1970) explained that St Michael's chapel was built on Glastonbury Tor in order to discourage UFO visitations. A Sgt. Howie-ish policeman emphasised that the ritual slaughter of sheep on Dartmoor was just not on.

After a visit to the compost toilet (scatter your own sawdust!) we settled down to watch the main feature in the amphitheatre, cider in hand, and very thoroughly softened up we felt too. Not that the film needs any preparation to work its reliable magic. The final shot of the Wicker Man's head tumbling from its torso to reveal the westering sun was matched by the introduction of flames onto the stage, and a couple of fire workers - half jugglers, half shamanic ritualists - rounded off the evening's entertainment. After which there was a general invitation to the Miner's Arms.

An excellent evening, all told. There's one more evening to go of this event, and if you can go, I highly recommend it.
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Yesterday, the Today programme celebrated the equinox by having Juliet Stevenson read Keats' "To Autumn", which was probably my favourite poem when I was a teenager (when autumn was my favourite season, and when the water meadows near Winchester - which inspired the poem - were among my favourite haunts). I still love it. Has anyone ever made better use of the word "clammy" than in these lines, for example?

to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

But I slightly digress. After the reading, they produced Prof. Peter Swaab of UCL to talk about the poem. At one point he and Stevenson had a slight disagreement about the tone of the final line, "And gathering swallows twitter in the skies." You can hear it from 2.26.00 on the link above, but I've written the relevant part out for your convenience. Swaab was making the point that the final stanza includes positive and livelier notes along with the expected elegaic, and cited the "gathering swallows" (along with the gnats and the lambs) as "assertive and vigorous" voices competing with and counterbalancing the poet's own sense of decline.

JS: I don't know though, you know that "gathering swallows" thing is about departure, it's about leaving, and going south, and heading off to a completely different... It's always about the end of summer, isn't it, seeing the swallows gather, so I don't know that it's... I don't think it is that cheerful, I think it's...

PS: If you're a swallow, though, you're going to summer south.

[Presenter]: You're going to other things, you're looking forward to your holiday.

JS: But it's not written from the swallows' point of view, is it?

PS [audibly trying not to tell Stevenson she's stupid]: Well, it's in there, I think.

Personally I'm with Juliet Stevenson on this. Also, I don't really see "full-grown lambs" as a positive image. They're going to be slaughtered soon, after all! (If indeed we're being asked to look at it from the animals' point of view.) And as for the gnats...

But soft, what's that about the swallows going south for the winter? I mean, yes they do, but isn't that a rather anachronistic piece of knowledge? After all, solid evidence about patterns of bird migration only dates from 1822 (three years after the poem was written), and the remarkable discovery of a stork in Mecklenburg with an African spear through its neck (for pics and the whole story, see here). Where migratory birds went in the winter was, before that date, something of a mystery, as I understand it. I'm sure some people had considered the possibility that they migrated somewhere, but I doubt whether "gathering swallows" would have had the same "package holiday" connotations for Keats that it has for the Today presenter or indeed for Prof. Swaab.

(On the other hand... what if the swallow used a strand of creeper, held under the guiding dorsal feathers?)
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Perhaps, like me, you've often seen memes mocking fundamentalist Christians who condemn homosexuality or crossdressing because they're banned in Leviticus or Deuteronomy, while blithely ignoring other practices outlawed in the same places, such as eating shellfish, mixing linen and wool, wearing tattoos, etc.

Where did this meme begin? I don't know, but I give you a contender for the earliest example: Sir Richard Baker, Theatrum Redivivum, or, the Theatre Vindicated (1662):

Indeed, he cites a text of scripture for it, Deut. xxii. 5: 'The women shall not wear that which pertaineth to the man, neither shall a man put on a woman's raiment.' A pregnant place indeed, but where finds he this precept? Even in the same place where he finds also that we must not wear clothes of linsey-woolsey; and seeing we lawfully now wear clothes of linsey-woolsey, why may it not be as lawful for men to put on women's garments? But if he will have this precept to stand in force, though it be no part of the moral law, yet because it may have a moral construction; how will he then defend his own eating of black-puddings against the precept for the eating of blood? For this precept against eating of blood hath a stronger tie than that for wearing of garments.

There is nothing new under the sun, sayeth the Preacher.
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I have a question about the proposal for a second Brexit referendum - as backed by many, including I think the LibDems and well-known Brocialist Owen Smith.

The question isn't about the principle. As I've mentioned here before, personally I'm against it on democratic grounds. (Yes, the Leave campaign lied, but then so did the Remain campaign - remember George Osborne's emergency budget? Nick Clegg lied about tuition fees, David Cameron lied about being green and not mucking around with the school system, Tony Blair lied about - well, take your pick. That didn't make their governments unconstitutional.)

No, my question is about procedure. As I understand it, the idea is that the British people should be given a vote on whether they accept the terms that have been negotiated for Brexit by the Government. But substantive negotiations won't even begin until after Article 50 has been triggered, and once that has happened there's no way (as I understand it) to untrigger it. The clock is ticking inexorably down an exit two years later.

Of course, it might be that the rest of the EU would be willing to have the UK back and to waive Article 50, but it would be under no obligation to do so on the same terms, surely, with the whole panoply of opt-outs and rebates that the UK has enjoyed until now? Would a UK that changed its mind be allowed to stay out of the Euro, for example? Or wouldn't it more resemble that moment in The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock realises he's not going to get away with taking his pound of flesh:

SHYLOCK: Give me my principal, and let me go.
PORTIA: He hath refused it in the open court:
He shall have merely justice and his bond.

In short, aren't people calling for a post-negotiation second referendum misunderstanding the legal position entirely? Or is that me?
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In 1666, the Great Fire of London started because of a fire at a baker's in Pudding Lane. Apparently Alfred the Great was on duty.

Just nine years earlier, the Great Fire of Edo began when a priest attempted to cremate a haunted kimono. It had belonged to several girls in turn, all of whom died before being able to wear it. As the kimono burned, wind caught the flames and set fire to the city.

From the ashes of London rose the dome of St Paul's. From the ashes of Edo rose Tsukiji Market, foaming like Aphrodite - for the land had to be reclaimed from the sea, and sea and land have held joint custody ever since.

My keenest regret about my trip to Japan in April was that I didn't visit Tsukiji and try the world's best sushi, especially as I knew the market was due to move to a new site this autumn. That's now been put on hold, however, so perhaps I'll get to see it in its classic location after all...
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I find the sight of people wearing lanyards depressing, especially en masse. When I passed my son's old school at lunchtime today, and saw scores of pupils (and some staff) wandering out for a break, 90% of whom had lanyards dangling from their necks like so many cow bells, a huge distaste rose within me. I bless the child who took hers off and stuffed it in her pocket. She may have been doing it for safety reasons rather than to reclaim her individuality from the corporate Borg, but whatever the reason the gesture warmed my desiccated old heart.

At my old university, I saw the lanyard habit spread inexorably as the years passed, especially once cards became mandatory for swipe access at every door and floor, but I never considered keeping my own card anywhere but my pocket or purse, out of sight. There's something feudal about wearing your school's livery (or your employer's).

I'm reminded of an old Charlie Brown cartoon (I suppose they're all old by now) in which a neighbour explains that his father has renamed all his children with numbers. "Is it his way of protesting against the system?" asks Charlie Brown. "No, it's his way of giving in."

The truth is, my gut despises the lanyard wearers.

Before I run to Portmeirion shouting "I am not a number!", I should add that I realise my gut's reaction is over the top. It comes (as they say) from a very young place. I'm particularly suspicious of it because it feels much like the visceral resistance I used to have to having my fingerprints taken or retina scanned, which prevented me from going to the States for almost a decade. That dissipated like magic when I transitioned, and therein lies a big clue, I think. As a trans person in the climate of a small town in the '70s secrecy was instinctive, and it's easy now to forget how that secrecy dominated my first 44 years. So, perhaps my distaste for seeing people happily proclaiming their identities on lanyards has to do with that - it's a kind of retrospective jealousy dressed as individualism?

I still don't like them, though.
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Damn you, kanji! I just tried to write "kumamoto no jishin" (熊本の地震, Kumamoto earthquake), got one letter wrong and ended up with "kuramoto no jishin" (蔵元の自信 - i.e. "self-confidence of the brewery").

Japanese is full of traps for the unwary. My other regular from earlier in my Japanese study was "henji wo arigatou" (返事をありがとう "Thank you for your reply"), which for some reason I actually wrote "henshi wo arigatou" (変死をありがとう "Thanks for the unnatural death").

Aubergines cropped up a lot in those early emails, too.

Always proofread, people!
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In my Marie-Kondo-fuelled rage for tidying I came across some material from the Diana Wynne Jones 2009 conference that [personal profile] fjm, [profile] chilperic, [personal profile] lady_schrapnell and I organised at UWE, Bristol. This included a copy of the message Diana recorded for the conference, since (because of illness) she was unable to attend personally - something I know she regretted. In it she reads the beginning of the (then still unpublished) novel, Enchanted Glass.

I thought that this might be of interest to some people here, especially those of us who miss her.

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I'm not really a foodie, but last night I went with my friend Marie to a proper posh restaurant, the Historical Dining Rooms in south Bristol. You can find the menu here, which describes what was on offer much better than I could. The main idea, as you can see, is that they make recipes from various numbers of centuries ago - although I should add that the presentation of same is entirely 21st century. I'd add photographs, but ones I took with my crappy phone turned out badly in the low light, so you'll have to make do with me sipping a delicious aperitif in the form of Mrs Beeton's lemonade, heavily dosed (the drink, that is) with oloroso and topped with egg white and flower petals.


I got the impression that this restaurant (discreetly located above a pub) hasn't yet got the attention it deserves, in part because it's new and in part because it's south of the river. So, if unlike me you're a proper foodie and live in Bristol, do give it a try, and do tell them I sent you. (They won't know what you're talking about, but it will make me feel important.) You won't regret it.
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According to my mother, who worked at Geoffrey Bles at the time, when C. S. Lewis handed in the MS of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe he regarded it simply as a working title, and asked them to supply a better one. It took some persuading to make him believe that it was already very good. I can see why he was doubtful, but it is good, of course; not least because of its riddling conjunction of three apparently unrelated objects: one adventurous, one supernatural, one resolutely domestic. The unusual rhythm helps too: three amphibrachs. Threes work well in Western culture, anyway - it gives the structure to so many of our jokes and folk tales.

I learned in conversation with my friend Chiho today that in Japan this book is simply called The Lion and the Witch (ライオンと魔女). The wardrobe has disappeared! Presumably this seemed a good idea to whoever translated it, back in the day, but I wish I knew what had gone through their head, and what canons of Japanese taste this version satisfies that the original did not.

I fear for other truncated titles: E. Nesbit's Five Children; Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher, etc. I'm sure you can supply more...
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I suppose people have always insulted their political opponents: "Tory scum" is hardly a new coinage. But it's only recently (in this country, at least) that people seem to have started suggesting that their political opponents are so irresponsible/evil/stupid that they should not be allowed to vote, or that their votes should be ignored.

I won't say it began with Brexit, but it's been very noticeable in its wake. The narrative that those who voted Leave should be overruled because they were a) too racist, b) too stupid, c) have probably changed their minds by now, etc., kicked in pretty much immediately after the vote. Even if all these things were true, though, it doesn't change the result: in a democracy, even stupid people get a say. If you don't like it, then why not just come out and say honestly that you would rather have a different kind of political system - a government of technocrats, for example, like Mario Monti's or Xi Jinping's? A case could be made, I'm sure. What you don't get to do is call the result democratic. Yet, in a wonderful but it seems unconscious irony, one of the movements to overturn the referendum result and take the power to decide on Brexit away from the voters has named itself "the People's Challenge". That kind of double-think is not untypical of political discourse in the UK today.

The result of the last Labour leadership election (and probably the next) is another case in point. The determination of many people not to see Corbyn's victory as legitimate, except in the trifling and legalistic sense that he got more votes than anyone else, is bolstered by a move to delegitimize the views of those who voted (or intend to vote) for him. Here I don't refer to the literal disenfranchisement of 130,000 Labour members by the NEC, though that's not irrelevant, but to the dismissive way in which those who support Corbyn's position are routinely described: they are members of a cult, they are bewitched, they are too young to understand the issues, they have had their arms twisted by Trots, they are Trots, they are "Nazi stormtroopers", or simply (as Financial Times journalist Janan Ganesh has it) "as thick as pigshit". Otherwise, they wouldn't be voting for a "lunatic",* would they? Given that, their views and votes can be safely ignored, and we can start undermining the result the day after it's announced, secure in the knowledge that we are defending democracy, war is peace, freedom is slavery, etc.

* Copyright Owen Smith.


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