Oxford Street begins to reawaken

It is a start. Not so long since, the major shopping street of the West End was silent, empty, and even at what should have been peak times there may have been just one or two souls visible on it, not using the vast emporia ranged along it but just taking it as a way for exercise, not even ‘a way between the one tavern and the one shop that leads nowhere and fails at the top’ as there was no tavern open nor shop.

Then this week they appeared: the shoppers, absent before, now in multiples. Shops have opened – not all of them by any means, but some – expressing a piety about social distancing that most of us gave up months ago, and little queues are seen along the pavements (except for those little, practical shops we know where they take these things is a better spirit and let us get on with buying things, but say not a word).

However the shops are still starved of their due.

Commuters are few:  the trains even in the rush hour carry a mere drizzle passengers, and even those lines where I would usually be crushed in the door, my face pressed against the glass, are carrying just a few per carriage. On the journeys into town all are now in masks in a variety of styles from the clinical to the black professional to those that would not seem out of place being fumbled on hurriedly in a trench at Ypres – masks that are whipped off though for long mobile conversations or a good coughing fit, on trains provided in a fitful, lackadaisical manner.

The customers are not coming. Without them, the shops will die. They need the commuters and they need those who just come into the big town for a shopping trip or a gawp, but they will not come when any doubt is a hesitation is a cancellation. The Chinese are absent too, and their credit cards. It will be a lean summer.

Much could be clawed back if the pubs and restaurants were open again. People with open wallets will not come in from the suburbs and the farther towns if they have to go home again for lunch and the loo, but tempt them to stay all day and into the evening and the tills will ring: the closure of pubs, cafés and restaurants does not just beggar their owners but all the shops in the town.

On that sector of the economy the rest hinges. Licensing rules then should be under the spotlight: if the government are still afeared to open everything, then councils can at least allow the most entrepreneurial bar-owners and restaurateurs to open in new ways. They have started to do so in Westminster, apparently to the horror of the council’s jacks-in-office, by opening up on the street and serving eager customers by waiter service or through hatches.  Good for them.

Licences can be flexible. In the old days, you were either allowed to open or not, with a single sheet of paper as a licence and everyone had the same rules and so everyone was banned from novelty.  The reformed system is thanks to Mr Blair’s team (and I rarely say that) and it gives almost infinite flexibility through the imposition of detailed conditions appropriate to the business, premises and location. Councils as licensing authorities early on allowed take-away service where there had been none, and that is a good start, but what else do proprietors want to be able to do? They must listen and react, and grant temporary alterations to licensing conditions, or at least letters of comfort about non-enforcement of the more stringent conditions if that is what it takes.

We need to hear the roar return, from the bars and the restaurants, and as soon as can be, the theatres. Small towns may be working again, but the great cities which are the great workhouses of the national economy, work to a different dynamic and for them, the politicians should come to a realisation that it is no use reopening the shops unless you reopen the stream of customers.

See also

The Eighteenth of June

A fine day for marking British-French relations, as the President of the French Republic visits London, to mark 80 years since Charles De Gaulle summoned all patriotic Frenchmen to resist the Germans.

De Gaulle was a most remarkable man, and reading of him, his actions, his personality and his certaine idée de la France, one can only admire him, in a way it is hard to do for any other Frenchman: he was the epitome of what France aspires to be.

It is another anniversary that came to mind more readily on the 18th of June: Waterloo. It was a climactic date indeed for British-French relations: renowned as the army’s greatest victory in a long history of crushing victories, the monstrous, breaking wave of the war that brought the calm withdrawal to peace.

It was stout-hearted men who won the victory, with the unbending line of musket, rifle and bayonet, the two sides commanded by the greatest generals of the age – Napoleon and Wellington, meeting for the first and only time on this field. Such a meeting could be nothing more than heroic, vast and calamitous.

All you young girls with sweethearts out yonder,
Go you gaily and buy the black gown –
Here’s ten thousand to one I would lay you
That he fell on the eighteenth of June.

The victory overwhelming and bloody.

After Waterloo, there was some skirmishing all the way to Paris and a few redoubts to be persuaded into surrender, but nothing great: twenty-three years of war were effectively over on the eighteenth of June. Not for another ninety-nine years were British arms engaged on the continent of Europe.

It ended the mad tumult of ideas and tyranny that the French Revolution set off, and enabled the birth of the new, greater British Empire with a civilising, liberating mission across the world. Now surely that is to be celebrated each year on this day?

The Salisbury Poisonings – a review

It was well done. I will not pretend to have enjoyed it greatly, though I would have been worried if I had. It was tightly produced and meant well, but so soon after the events it had no drama, because we all remember what happened.

Realising this, the writer pitched it as a human drama, and that is all it could be given its constraints. The Salisbury Poisonings was the BBC’s most promoted drama of the week and must have swallowed a sizable budget for what is essentially a series of internalised tensions, not even inter-personal ones.

The series is primarily not about the poisonings at all, but about the personal struggle of Tracy Daszkiewicz, Wiltshire’s public health supremo, feeling all the responsibility that could come from slipping up just once, and over-reacting perhaps or using her influence to stop others underreacting. That is for the viewer to decide. In addition we have other individuals and households, each with their own dramas, arising from the same events but barely interacting with any linked plot. That is hardly a fair complaint though: this is the reality of how we live and this is a series about real, named people and real, horrible, deathly events and so they interact and fail to interact just as we normal people do, and as they actually did at the time.

Therein lies a difficulty: the familiarity pops the tension that a miniseries like this needs. Had it been fiction, then the scene where Dawn’s boyfriend picks a perfume bottle up from a bin (when the cross-narrative makes clear what it contains) could have been a moment of tense drama, with her future hovering between happiness and death, the audience screaming at the screen ‘Don’t do it!’; but as we know what happened, as a moment of tension it fell flat: sometimes background music is not enough. It is a pity that moment did not quite work, because it really was the moment Dawn’s life was doomed, in silence because reality has no sound-track or looming thunder.

Perhaps it is as well that Saul Dibb had this show.  Another approach, with a different writer, would have been to create an actual drama, to run it like a Frederick Forsyth piece; semi-fictionalised, following the Russians from the moment the order was given in Moscow, plotting, infiltration, execution, exfiltration (and generally spitting on the memories of those actually affected by romanticising the villains). Actually, I cannot imagine Frederick Forsyth writing about a plot so stupidly executed. Had the killers done the job properly, with a tiny dab on the neck and disappearing in the night with evidence, their target (who, mercifully, is still alive) would have passed away alone and his death put down to natural causes. Instead, we got a drama in real life which engulfed the whole of one of Britain’s most beautiful cities.

Within those limits then, it was done well – plotted, scripted, acted. The piece only really showed its depth in the third and last episode, as much of the first and second episodes were filled with the search and decontamination panic, which swallowed too much screen time, serving though to show how much trouble was caused by a tiny smear of fluid on a door handle – in the third episode, with all that done with, the piece could concentrating on the effect on people: Dawn killed and Charlie nearly so, Sergeant Bailey recovered in body but not in mind, and Tracy Daszkiewicz again with the unbearable weight of responsibility upon her and the families torn.

Those involved, both those portrayed and many others, were facing something unwonted and horrible, stepping out of the bland, box-ticking ordinariness of their bureaucratic offices: they were facing the Russian military machine, and they prevailed.

It was only two years ago and these were not paper people conjured from a script. The point was made at the very end when the dramatization was finished and to face the audience they brought the actual individuals portrayed so we could see they and their sufferings were real. If there was no traditional drama it is because that sort of drama is not real life, but they are.

Let us make a reparation to Africa

Handing the commentary over to William Wilberforce, in the words he urged on the House of Commons in 1789:

When we consider the vastness of the continent of Africa; when we reflect how all other countries have for some centuries past been advancing in happiness and civilization; when we think how in this same period all improvement in Africa has been defeated by her intercourse with Britain; when we reflect it is we ourselves that have degraded them to that wretched brutishness and barbarity which we now plead as the justification of our guilt; how the slave trade has enslaved their minds, blackened their character, and sunk them so low in the scale of animal beings that some think the apes are of a higher class, and fancy the orangutan has given them the go-by. What a mortification must we feel at having so long neglected to think of our guilt, or to attempt any reparation!

It seems, indeed, as if we had determined to forbear from all interference until the measure of our folly and wickedness was so full and complete, until the impolicy which eventually belongs to vice, was become so plain and glaring that not an individual in the country should refuse to join in the abolition; it seems as if we had waited until the persons most interested should be tired out with the folly and nefariousness of the trade, and should unite in petitioning against it.

The mischiefs we have done…

Let us then make such amends as we can for the mischiefs we have done to that unhappy continent.

Let us recollect what Europe itself was no longer ago than three or four centuries. What if I should be able to show this House that in a civilized part of Europe, in the time of our Henry VII, there were people who actually sold their own children? What if I should tell them that England itself was that country? What if I should point out to them that the very place where this inhuman traffic was carried on was the city of Bristol? Ireland at that time used to drive a considerable trade in slaves with these neighbouring barbarians; but a great plague having infested the country, the Irish were struck with a panic, suspected (I am sure very properly) that the plague was a punishment sent from Heaven, for the sin of the slave trade, and therefore abolished it.

All I ask, therefore, of the people of Bristol is, that they would become as civilized now as Irishmen were four hundred years ago. Let us put an end at once to this inhuman traffic. Let us stop this effusion of human blood. The true way to virtue is by withdrawing from temptation. Let us then withdraw from these wretched Africans those temptations to fraud, violence, cruelty, and injustice, which the slave trade furnishes.

Wherever the sun shines, let us go round the world with him, diffusing our beneficence; but let us not traffic, only that we may set kings against their subjects, subjects against their kings, sowing discord in every village, fear and terror in every family, setting millions of our fellow-creatures a hunting each other for slaves, creating fairs and markets for human flesh, through one whole continent of the world, and, under the name of policy, concealing from ourselves all the baseness and iniquity of such a traffic.

Hans-towns established on the coast of Africa…

Why may we not hope, ere long, to see Hans-towns established on the coast of Africa as they were on the Baltic? It is said the Africans are idle, but they are not too idle, at least, to catch one another. Seven hundred to one thousand tons of rice are annually bought of them. By the same rule, why should we not buy more? At Gambia one thousand of them are seen continually at work. Why should not some more thousands be set to work in the same manner? It is the slave trade that causes their idleness and every other mischief. We are told by one witness, “They sell one another as they can.” And while they can get brandy by catching one another, no wonder they are too idle for any regular work.

Total abolition…

I have one word more to add upon a most material point. But it is a point so self-evident that I shall be extremely short.

It will appear from everything which I have said, that it is not regulation, it is not mere palliatives, that can cure this enormous evil. Total abolition is the only possible cure for it.

The Jamaica report, indeed, admits much of the evil, but recommends it to us so to regulate the trade, that no persons should be kidnapped or made slaves contrary to the custom of Africa. But may they not be made slaves unjustly, and yet by no means contrary to the custom of Africa? I have shown they may; for all the customs of Africa are rendered savage and unjust through the influence of this trade; besides, how can we discriminate between the slaves justly and unjustly made? Can we know them by physiognomy? Or, if we could, does any man believe that the British captains can, by any regulation in this country, be prevailed upon to refuse all such slaves as have not been fairly, honestly, and uprightly enslaved? But granting even that they should do this, yet how would the rejected slaves be recompensed? They are brought, as we are told, from three or four thousand miles off, and exchanged like cattle from one hand to another, until they reach the coast.

We see then that it is the existence of the slave trade that is the spring of all this internal traffic, and that the remedy cannot be applied without abolition.

Again, as to the middle passage, the evil is radical there also; the merchant’s profit depends upon the number that can be crowded together, and upon the shortness of their allowance. Astringents, escarotics, and all the other arts of making them up for sale, are of the very essence of the trade; these arts will be concealed both from the purchaser and the legislature. They are necessary to the owner’s profit, and they will be practiced. Again, chains and arbitrary treatment must be used in transporting them; our seamen must be taught to play the tyrant, and that depravation of manners among them (which some very judicious persons have treated of as the very worst part of the business) cannot be hindered, while the trade itself continues.

As to the slave merchants, they have already told you that if two slaves to a ton are not permitted, the trade cannot continue; so that the objections are done away by themselves on this quarter; and in the West Indies, I have shown that the abolition is the only possible stimulus whereby a regard to population, and consequently to the happiness of the negroes, can be effectually excited in those islands.

I trust, therefore, I have shown that upon every ground the total abolition ought to take place.

I have urged many things which are not my own leading motives for proposing it, since I have wished to show every description of gentlemen, and particularly the West India planters, who deserve every attention, that the abolition is politic upon their own principles also.

A principle above everything…

Policy, however, sir, is not my principle, and I am not ashamed to say it. There is a principle above everything that is political; and when I reflect on the command which says, “Thou shalt do no murder,” believing the authority to be divine, how can I dare to set up any reasonings of my own against it? And, sir, when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God.

Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it; for it is brought now so directly before our eyes that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decision.

A society has been established for the abolition of this trade, in which dissenters, Quakers, churchmen, in which the most conscientious of all persuasions have all united, and made a common cause in this great question.

Let not Parliament be the only body that is insensible to the principles of national justice.

Let us make a reparation to Africa…

Let us make a reparation to Africa, so far as we can, by establishing a trade upon true commercial principles, and we shall soon find the rectitude of our conduct rewarded by the benefits of a regular and a growing commerce.

Books

We are better than this

This is not Weimar Germany, and the ugly scenes on the streets of our cities need not be the precursor to the overthrow of state and society which happened there. In 1920s Germany, the new republic was a patched-together job which served for the moment, but many imagined its replacement by one system or other – a return of the old order or one of the rival brands of socialism. That is when the street battles began.

Last week, Konstantin Kisin in a Twitter thread (not a fixed article, which is disappointing) set out a likely course of events following the communist attacks on monuments that week.  It was grim reading but at once began to be proven accurate: the backlash by skinhead groups, the differential coverage by the media (“27 police hurt in largely peaceful protest” v “27 police inured by far-right violence”), reaction, counter-reaction and so it goes on, as long as the sun is shining and there are no jobs to go to.

It all begins to look familiar from the history books of a hundred years ago, which shows that humanity has not changed, nor has humanity changed since the Palaeolithic clans battled over rule of the tribe and their own visions of the future.

The seduction practised by the rival political gangs of 1920s Germany was a simple one:  so to dominate newspaper and radio coverage that change to one version of socialism or the other seemed inevitable. It was no longer a law-and-order issue, even for a nation so keen on order; it was the feeling of inevitability.  The Weimar state was a system in which few believed, and disorder indicated that its end was close, so it was just a question of choosing a side.  The Nazis played it well as the team to join if you opposed the Communists who wanted to destroy everything: it must have been easy to turn a blind eye to the foul stuff they preached just to dispose of the Communists, or to think they could never do the unthinkable. It gained the earlier Nazis a following of admirers at home and abroad, who dropped away very quickly when they learned something of the truth, but by then it was too late.

The street-fighting was between two brands of socialists – the international socialists and the national socialists. Their dual monopoly, the desire to end the violence however it could be done and the feeling of inevitability sapping away at the soul worked its way and placed one set of murderous socialists on top, though it could as easily have been the other.

There may have been genuine grievances to be exploited skilfully by each side, but the activists are there to exploit, not support, like the abuser who claims to like kittens in order to get his feet under the table. Honestly intended marches expressing despair about the treatment of individuals because of their race were exploited the same way. We must not confuse the slogan with the motive though – those who tore the statue down have not wish to heal racial division but to expand and exploit it.

It is, as Hobbes described, part of “a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death“.

A history book is not a good guide to every future. This is not Weimar Germany with its air of unreality and the temporary: we are in Britain and the House of Commons, when it meets, contains a stonking majority of the ‘party of law and order’. Now it needs to make itself felt.

The necrosis of political society comes in the deceit that one must choose sides, from a choice of just two, when both are evil. In truth, there is a third side, namely common freedom under the law.

A memorandum was issued last week by Oliver Dowden. Secretary of State for Culture, Media and for some reason Sport, which was a masterclass in government not politics. It did not take a side on the issue of statues and plaques but recited the law: private property, listed structures, planning permission, due process etc. In short, ask for statues to be removed if you wish, but there are necessary procedures and owners may not agree, and if you do not get your wish, to keep or to topple, you accept that and may not take the law into your own hands.

In the circumstances, the Dowden memorandum is the perfect stand to take, as it asserts simply the rule of law, which is the side we should all be on. A political response might have been one like that issued by Emmanuel Macron in France that his republic “will not erase any name from its history. It will forget none of its artworks, it won’t take down statues” – yes, a good, laudable stance and one I could stand behind, a retort to the destroyers – but the fundamental issue is not the likenesses in bronze but the rule of law, which is equally capable of removing a statue as of protecting one, but all according to due process.

Unless there is enforceable law, then the only rule is the force of the strongest gang on the street. Then you do have to choose sides, or form your own.

In the meantime, until it starts to rain and cools the ardour of the fighting youths, there are two sets of indistinguishable thugs facing off in the streets, but we choose neither: we choose law and order.

See also

Books