Buckle Up

Chapter 21 — Jiminy Cricket

The problem with inheriting English sensibilities is that an English conscience comes with the package. The problem is compounded if the type of English conscience you happened to have inherited turns out to be the outdated 19th century model and wholly unfit for the England of the 21st.

This is not a whimsical conceit. The Last Outpost of the British Empire was also the last place to get the message that Empire was over.

In those dark ages before the invention of the internet, culture shifted as slowly as molasses oozing into the dairy troughs on a freezing winter morning at New Dell. Between England and South Africa in 1965 only jet travel, The Beatles and the news suggested a shared contemporaneity. In every other respect — in our schools, our administrative institutions, our religious instruction, our cultural references, our family traditions, our preferred literature, our speech, our assumed morality and our manners, the Natal Midlands was frozen in a version of English consciousness that condensed everything between and including Oliver Twist and VE Day in 1945 into a concurrent reality.

So in the boarding establishments at Estcourt High School the fags would rise early to warm the toilet seats for their prefects on winter mornings. An untidy locker cost you two of the best; a word of dissent cost you six. The punishment for not being able to recite correctly the names and positions of the First XV cost you humiliations the least shameful of which involved the chewing and swallowing of chunks of Estcourt aloe. We wore our fathers’ army issue greatcoats still unlaundered of the dust of Tobruk to keep us from hypothermic collapse as we marked the lines of the rugby fields with tin cans of lime held in shivering hands at four in the morning. Errors of alignment were treated with cabbage sticks on exposed buttocks until they broke. Gloves had not yet been invented except as expensive fashion accessories for gentlemen farmers. You were a perverted queer is you preferred girls to rugby.

In summer we knocked in the cricket bats of the First XI until our wrists were limp and useless. We wore grey shorts and blazers and bashers. We sang Gaudeamus Igitur at the top of our voices before breaking up for the Christmas hols. A few of us knew that it translated to “Let us rejoice, therefore, while we are young; after a pleasant youth, after a troubling old age the earth will have us” but we didn’t dwell on its ironies. On a midsummer day we decorated the Christmas tree with balls of cotton-wool for snow. When we were done with arranging the baubles and the plastic reindeer and the Father Christmas on his glittering sled and the Faerie Queen on top, my mother said, “That’s the finest Christmas tree we’ve ever had!”

Such news as we received occasionally from the actual England of 1965 was understood as occurring in a parallel English universe, contemporaneous with, but qualitatively distinct from, the present reality of England’s Natal Midlands. And indeed, in the case of my mother, the particular quality of that difference was perceived and interpreted most usually as aberrant or illegitimate — as discontinuous, at the very least, with our kind of Englishness; as if the Englishness that produced Churchill could not possibly have produced a Harold Wilson or a Mick Jagger.

I should say also that the illusion was all the more convincing, and could be more easily sustained, because the Natal Midlands with its green hills, evening mists, and a climate unconducive to the cultivation of bougainvillea, harked back in its poetic effect to Merrie Olde England, that fictional construction of hawthorn hedgerows, thatched cottages and rural romances created in the imaginations of 19th century English poets and the philosophers as a nostalgic antidote to the ugliness of the Industrial Revolution. This medieval fantasy would have been in our imaginations too, passed down by Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne and others, but their fiction was our fact: their “Surrey of the mind” was the landscape unfolding before our eyes on the old road between Mooi River and Howick; my parents’ dear friends Tom and Wendy Smith lived in a thatched cottage at the side of the stream Kenneth Grahame was obliged to invent, and apartheid had conveniently hidden the incongruity of the Zulu kayas behind hedgerows of mayflower and pink wild roses.

Only this conception of Englishness could explain how our Victorian boarding school customs of fagging and flogging could co-exist in historical time with Strawberry Fields; how our respect for the authority of our schoolmasters was so little diminished by our experience of their wilful brutality, and not much less diminished, in some cases, by incontestable evidence of their pederasty; or how we could sing What a Friend We Have in Jesus in school assembly without questioning why there was not a single black face among us, as if our English virtues made us immune from moral contamination by the racism that all around us served self-evidently to support our privileges.

It is this last point, the presumption of virtue that is central to the English conscience — a conscience that assumes its virtue by virtue of its Englishness alone — that has recently begun to occupy my thoughts. Perhaps Americans think of themselves as virtuous simply because they’re American. Perhaps all national cultures, to the extent that they believe they are a force for good in the wider world, inevitably imbue in their citizens a presumption of virtue commensurate with the depth and strength of that national belief, derived again on the basis of their citizenship alone.

Usually, if the history of territorial or cultural aggrandisements is anything to go by, some sort of moral principle will usually be invoked to justify the participation of less enthusiastic participants. Sometimes, as it was in case of the Crusades, it is avowedly religious; sometimes it is overtly and maniacally religious, as in the case of the Islamic State. But, with sufficient inculcation, racial superiority can become a proxy for moral superiority, and the same thing can be done with any shared aspect of a national or a supra-national culture, especially language, tribe, political (read: economic) orientation, or a belief in an historical right to territory or revenge.

It is where several of these aspects are accidentally or deliberately conjoined that we find the world’s most intractable political issues: in Israel and Palestine where race, religion, territory and historical precedent have combined to full effect on both sides of the political divide; in Syria where the number and nature of the competing claims to the higher moral ground are so diffuse and complex as to have become virtually unintelligible; and in Northern Ireland where the absence of a racial or a language divide provides hope that the territorial, historical and religious rivalries can continue to be managed towards some future resolution.

Likewise, the relatively smooth transition of South Africa from apartheid to democracy was lubricated by the absence of religious friction, but political tensions persist because territory, now in the form of property and wealth, has been revealed as a divide at least as pernicious as division by race.

Thanks to the example of Blair’s fictional WMDs and others like it, we are no longer disposed to accept the pretexts of imperialism at face value. We are even less willing to excuse international adventurism if its authors claim its justification on religious, racial or historical grounds. So it is ironic that nationalism for nationalism’s sake, that is, nationalism without a moral motive adduced to justify its adventurism, strikes us now, in the form of North Korea, as peculiarly repugnant.

The “presumption of virtue” strategy, has the advantage of circumventing the need for flimsy pretexts while simultaneously disguising bare-faced nationalism as moral prerogative. Absenting the usual appeals to religion, etc., the challenge of persuading someone to get out of his armchair and travel half way around the world to kill people he doesn’t know on behalf of his nation is made easier if he can be led to believe that everything his nation does is morally justifiable simply because it is his nation, that is, by conflating national character with moral superiority. This is the logically unsustainable but cognitively assonant assumption that he must be doing the right thing because his nation always does the right thing, and, to illustrate the full circle of this thinking, it is because he and thousands like him, as citizens of a nation that always does the right thing, are comittted doing the right thing for his nation, that he knows that his nation always does the right thing.

Nowhere have I found this more elegantly expressed than here:

“The great principle upon which the British Empire has been built up is that all men are equal before the law, and that all civilised races stand upon precisely the same footing. As we profoundly believe, not that we English are the favoured people of God, but that so long as we are faithful to the noblest call of duty and to the higher instincts which are in us as a race, we are helping the cause of progress, which is the cause of God, we know that, whatever checks, whatever vicissitudes, whatever disappointments may befall, we march to victory. Our cause is the cause of liberty and of the right.”

This is H.W. Wilson in With the Flag to Pretoria. It was written in 1900 but it describes with embarrassing precision the shape and contents of my conscience in 1965, the conscience I inherited as a child of Empire, and that is now so unfit for purpose in 21st century England.

The Calvinist conscience, as I understand it, is felt as a fierce authoritarian constantly reminding its subject of the sharp limits that circumscribe permissible thoughts and behaviours. The Catholic conscience, again only to the extent that I can imagine it, is a very thoughtful but very distant presence occupied with matters far weightier than the mess you may be making of your trivial life. Judgement will come in time, but you have faith in the high likelihood of being excused on a technicality. My conscience, by contrast, presumed, just as H.W. Wilson did in respect of England’s intervention in South Africa, that I would do the right thing simply because I was who I was. It was neither a moral watchdog nor an implacable judge — it was an assumption of goodness hard-wired into my brain, assuring me that whatever I did would be good because I was good. This “goodness” had none of the flavour of moral righteousness, nor did it demand any effort of introspection. The only thing that seemed to make it raise an eyebrow was an unnecessary display of passion.

Before it matured into this settled abstraction of intrinsic goodness I had, as most children probably do, a personification of my conscience as someone who was part of, but also apart from, my mental construction of self. I also remember having a clear appreciation of where it stood in relation to the workings of the other parts of my consciousness.

It inhabited the phenomenological space between the brightly lit foreground activities of the things I had to think about and the unlit area backstage where the things I wanted to think about gathered dust in the locked props cupboard. It had the persona of a prompter at an amateur production of Pride and Prejudice, always alert to the possibility that Fitzwilliam Darcy might forget his lines or cues; or a fastidious prefect, or an invigilator pacing the floor of a silent hall during a school exam: of someone, at least, who was a slightly wiser version of myself, not necessarily smarter, but certainly nicer, and certainly a better judge of moral and social appropriateness; very English and very Anglican, firm but fair, and very forgiving, too, in that English and Anglican sort of way. The sum of all these parts would closely approximate the young priest who arrived with a guitar at St Matthew’s in Estcourt in 1969 and sang Bridge over Troubled Water.

I suppose that most of us think of conscience as existing in degrees, distributed across the population in a symmetrical bell curve, like height, weight and intelligence. Some of us have more of it, some have less, but all of us have some of it. Only the pathologically crippled display none of it, but we like to think that it’s buried somewhere inside of them, and with enough care, kindness and medication we can entice it back to the foreground of socially acceptable behaviour.

My neo-Victorian Simon and Garfunkel version of conscience sat at the comfortable average of the bell curve. There wasn’t too little of it and there most definitely wasn’t too much of it. It waited patiently in the queue for lukewarm tea and a dry scone in the church hall after communion. In England in 2000 it found itself in the company of like-minded moderates; the difference was only in the length of the queue. And from this I extrapolated an entire nation of people who were moderately inclined in their religion, their social arrangements and their politics — and whose lukewarm participation in the European Union was explained by their lukewarm regard for anything that demanded a public show of feeling outside of Twickenham, Lord’s and the Queen’s Jubilees.

What it couldn’t explain was the stridency of the voices raised in protest against H.W. Wilson’s denial that “we English are the favoured people of God”, in 21st century language of course, but invoking nevertheless his unexamined faith in England’s God-given and exclusive ownership of “the cause of liberty and right”.

But the nationalist fervour of it, the very un-English nationalist outrage of it, became explicable — became reconcilable with my fixed belief that England’s national conscience was the same conscience I had inherited intact alongside my English language and my English sensibilities — when I realised that my “presumption of virtue” had been the equivalent, in practical terms, of not having a conscience at all.

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