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Under the dreaming spires – Oxford University, England
In his book The Intellectuals and The Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary
Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (review - Google Books) John Carey comments on the elitism and
intellectual snobbery of leading left wing academics and writers from the late
nineteenth to the mid twentieth century.
Professor Carey's book identifies modernism as a way of thinking born out of a
snobbish revulsion among people in the higher levels of society to the spread of
literacy and popular culture among the working classes. Modernism, Carey says, is
less a cultural movement motivated by certain aesthetic and spiritual imperatives than
a closing of ranks by social cabal. Its chief ambition is to exclude people from outside
the cultural and intellectual elites from the enjoyment and understanding of culture,
music, literature and such. To this end the self-appointed elitists of culture, commerce
and politics may bask in their imagined superiority which is affirmed every time they
look down from their lofty heights at 'the little people.'
Or, to put it in a colloquial phrase we can easily tell the cultural value of a thing:
If a lot of people like it, it must be crap. In this sense, modernism is fundamentally
"antidemocratic" and quite possibly veering sharply towards a kind of fascism.
"Intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining
literacy," Professor Carey explains. "But they could prevent them reading literature
by making it too difficult for them to understand - and this is what they did. The early
twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligensia,
to exclude the masses from culture."
Quite true. Most modern poetry that earns the acclaim of literature professors and
the kind of critics who set the standards for this new elite is so deliberately obscure,
so brutal in its torturing of language, as to defy any attempt to make sense of it. I am
a fan of poetry and have seen my own published published and yet am mystified by
the egomaniacal babbling of most modernists. Their work has no structure of theme,
mostly it is a self indulgent experiment in analysing the poet's own psyche.
The literary experiments of Mallarme, Eliot, Joyce, Virginia Woolf and others of
that ilk were undertaken not with the intention of communicating ideas to a wide
audience or for any aesthetic or spiritual reason but simply as an exercise in
obfuscation. Though Joyce's Ulysses is regarded by many intellectuals in th e field of
literature as the greatest novel of the twentieth century the modern Irosh writer Roddy
Doyle who is (or perhaps was?) highly regarded in literary circles confessed he could
not be bothered with the book which he found deliberately obscure, self indulgent and
boring. Doyle went on to compound his blasphemy by going on to describe joye's
unreadable “masterpiece” Finegans Wake as a waste of time.
Compare Joyce's arrogance towards his readers and the acclaim in which
intellectuals hold him because of it with T S Eliot's response to complaints that his
work was incomprehensible. Eliot's attitude was that if people could not understand
his poetry it only proved they were of inferior intellect to him. Was there any better
way of ensuring his work was read by people who resembled characters in The
Emperor's New Clothes fairy story?
Literature is not unique in self congratultory posturing, how many of us can make
any sense of the "installations" of modern artists and what is the point of an artwork
if it requires a thousand - word explanation to give the viewer a clue about that it
illustrates? Literature, books and poetry, does hold a special place in the weaponry of
the new elite. If we cannot read and comprehend we can do little else.
Books and poetry have the ability to educate and entertain simultaneously. Who
among us has not at some time in their live loved a poem as much for it's rhythm and
use of language as for it's message or moral. Even if it is a Dr. Seuss rhyme,
something like Green Eggs and Ham, or a bit of nonesense like Lewis Carrol's
Jabberwocky, there is a love of words, rhythm and variation of pace and tone to be
gained from them.
The new elite, the "progressives" as they like to style themselves, like to sneer at
popular fiction. They are wrong, it is the literary fiction presented as having superior
quality they should despise. People who followed Bernard Cornwell's "Sharpe" series
will have not only learned about Wellington's Iberian Campaign against Napoleon
Bonaparte's French Empire and about early nineteenth century weapons, military
tactics and politics, they will have also been offered some insights into how ordinary
people fared in that brutal war. Likewise the books of John Steinbeck give us a vivid
and quite accurate picture of California in and just after the Great depression,
delivering the message in a more engaging way than some weighty social history
written by the type of person who would sneer at Steinbeck's populism.
For those who would rather get a broad picture of history from an enjoyable
novel than a detailed but dry and dusty text book I can recommend Cornwell's books
on the Hundred Years War, Azincourt or Harequin (U S title The Archer's Tale )
describing events leading to and the actual siege of Crécy and Azincourt obviously
about the well known, thanks to Shakespeare, battle of Agincourt.
This intellectual snobbery is not purely a conceit of overdeveloped egos. Academic
elitism is one of the most potent forces at work in society today and it'd long term
goals should disturb us all. The very last thing this new elite wants is is an educated
working class asking difficult questions. Academics spend all their lives with noses
buried in books so who understands better than they the effect raising the illiterate
peasantry out of ignorance had on the old aristocratic oligarchs.
The left's social engineering programme goes back a long way. Early in the
twentieth century, seeing that the enfranchisement of the working classes and women
would create a voting bloc capable of swaying every election, those who perceived
themselves part of the elite but who were regarded as inferior by the old aristocracy
and "old money" made a concerted effort to infiltrate the new political movements
that represented the lower classes with the aim of creating a new political hegemony,
a political and academic class sustained in power by the massive electoral clout of
working class votes.
Clearly the masses aren't uniformly dull witted although perhaps viewed from the
ivory towers intellectuals place themselves in, it is easy to perceive uniformity where
there is in fact rich diversity . Anyone who doubts this need only visit Wanlochhead
in Scotland. but as that is a rather expensive exercise, I'll go into travelogue mode and
give you the quick tour.
Wanlockhead, where until the
mid-20th century miners toiled to
extract lead. Photograph: AA
World Travel Library/Alamy
Picture: undiscovered scotland
Pretty little Wanlockhead (link below) is the highest village in Scotland,
Dumfries and Galloway the tourist information tells us. Approach it on a sunny day
and it looks delightful, the tiny white-painted cottages nestling in the among the hills
by fast flowing burns of clear water, the fibrous grass cropped short by sheep that
wander freely, knowing the sparse traffic poses no threat. The reason most people
come here is to see the lead mining museum.
It is no good looking for the museum
building as you enter the village though, you're
already in it. No lead has been extracted from
the local mines since the mid-20th century,
even though rich seams of the stuff, and other
minerals run through the bedrock. The seams
are too deep even for modern technology to
make them either economic or safe. All that
Visit the lead mine if you're not claustrophobic.
Wanlockhead has left is its pub, and its heritage. Hardly anyone lives there any
longer, and it relies on its status as a mining museum – run by a village consortium –
to pull in tourists.
This is the best type of museum because rather than selected exhibits the
infrastructure of that old life is all still there, intact. After taking a look at some of the
cottages, decked out as they would have been in the early 18th, 19th and 20th
centuries , visitors led by a guide whose accent was made for reading aloud the
poetry of Robert Burns venture 150 yards into the mine. The guide's Scottish accent
reverberates with indignation as he describes what conditions were like for the
Wanlockhead's mine when it was till a working enterprise
The men worked in the tunnels for
10 hours a day, six days a week were,
in the early nineteenth century, paid
£20 a year. From that they had to
provide their own tools, their own
explosives, even their own candles, so
it was dark, very dark. They began
Illustration 1: Miners at the mine head
their working lives at eight years old.
Many of the miners died in accidents. Because the material mined was lead there
was no risk of firedamp, the explosive gas feared by coal miners, but lead holds more
stealthy dangers. The inhabitants of this early industrial Klondyke who survived
accidents died of lead poisoning. In Wanlockhead, back then, a 35-year-old was very
The early workers built the walls of their cottages from stone, freely available in
this landscape. But they had to get permission to take the turf and the heather to put
on a roof. That belonged to the estate. If the estate wanted you out, they had the right
to burn you out by setting the roof on fire; the roof that belonged to them. Even as we
mock the politically correct posturings of the modern left it does no harm to
remember the type of treatment dealt out by the powerful that caused Trade Unionism
and Socialist movements to come into existence.
Then as now however the elite despised the lower orders and regarded them as
pitiable imbeciles not capable of being educated, behaving in civilised ways or
appreciating the finer things in life.
As we reflect on those things they bring us to the real reason for our coming here.
What ought to be becoming clear is that far from the dull witted brutes their remote
and aloof masters imagined them to be, these people possessed an astonishing
resilience that, with the help of their Presbyterian faith enabled them to work together
together in community whose spirit acted to mitigate the adversities that life flung at
them and to aspire to change things for the better.
The best way to get a sense of this in Wanlockhead is to spend some time looking
in the library, the second oldest miners' subscription library in the world. Its eclectic
collection of books was assembled by men who lived and worked in appalling
conditions, endured soul destroying poverty and died young. Against the odds they
managed to set money aside for books and for a place where these books could be
kept, read, and shared.
The library building also hosted meetings of the village's silver band, its quoits
club and its curling club. Literature, music, sport, leisure – all these were nurtured,
and paid for, by the miners themselves. No government grants in those days but that
worked in their favour. There was no Nanny State to tell them what to think, no
patronising social workers to sap their get-up-and-go, you see. No welfare, no rights,
no easy distractions to featherbed them all and make them indolent.
The books in the library tell us these uneducated miners took their autodidactism
seriously. There is little of a frivolous nature and few novels. The tourist guide
explains there were dire punishments for those who suggested the acquisition of
books deemed unsuitable by the strict Protestant pastors who wielded the moral
power in the village. She suggests that brave soul who argued for, and won the right
to read The Origin of Species might have made a better living in a circus, putting his
head in the lion's mouth.
It was not just in the reading tastes of Wanlockhead's miners that we can observe
the vast gulf between the actual lives of working class people and the assumptions of
moneyed gentry and left wing intellectuals who self righteously set about "saving the
masses from deprivation and despair." The evidence is everywhere. During the
industrial revolution that caused a great shift from rural areas to the towns just as a
new middle class sprang up, the bourgeoisie or lower middle class, so new sub
classes of the working classes merged. One of these was what became known as "the
aspirational working class". When the Labour politician Ernest Bevin (1881 - 1951) gave
us the line "Poverty of aspiration leads to poverty of spirit," he was not talking about
modern aspirations, to live in a bigger house or own a car (in his lifetime any car was
a luxury for many) but of a more spiritual aspiration, to make oneself a better person
either by learning, changing one's values or by being an active member of the
All through the stratified working class people were active, in politics, cultural
activities, hobbies and by being members of clubs and churches. In my part of
England there was a great musical tradition, the Brass Bands. These were established
by workers in coal mines and cotton mills, often sponsored by the owners, and
achieved an extraordinarily high level of musical excellence. These bands which
played a mix of classical, church and traditional music, were part of the fabric of
community. Brass Band concerts on the bandstand in the park or sometimes in the
town square were free entertainment for families. Often the origins of the bands were
reflected in the names, The Grimethorpe Colliery Band, The Leigh Miners Welfare
Band and (I'm not kidding now) The Back Dyke Mills Band comprised of workers at
Black Dyke Woollen Mills in Queensbury, Yorkshire. The mills are closed now but
with the word Mills dropped from the name they continue, (despite protests from the
Politically Correct Thought Police) as the Black Dyke Band, insisting that they had the
name before dyke meant anything but man made drainage ditch. The British movie
Brassed Off starring Ewan McGregor and the late Pete Postlethwaite, though it may
be too left wing in its sentiments for some, tells of the role the Brass Band played in
those small industrial communities.
Orange Juice (Concerto d' Aranjuez) from Brassed off with Tara Fitzgerald looking lovely but
not really playing.
There were other cultural cultural activities going on too. Even small town could
claim several dramatic, operatic or choral societies, there were Scientific clubs that
usually met in the Mechanics Hall or a function room in a Working Men's club to talk
about the latest developments in science and technology, groups for artists and
photographers, football and cricket teams of various levels and of course the churches
which played an enormous role in holding communities together and also supported
cultural and sporting activity (my wife first stepped out on stage in a production by
St. Mary's amateur Operatic Society) as well as charitable work and supporting
individuals and families through emotional crises. And all these things were open to
everybody regardless of income or education. Far from a brutish rabble who were
condemned by their ignorance to live in misery and despair the working classes lived
in a vibrant society. There were the drunks, gamblers and wasters of course, those
things are part of life but for the most part, people understood that not everybody can
be a doctor, lawyer, business owner, consultant, college lecturer or celebrity. They
had the grace to accept their lot and just get on with making the best of the hand life
dealt them. And what they hated far more than their bosses were the patronising
paternaslistic lefties who presumed to tell them how they should live their lives.
The real Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band in action
Another illustration of this elitist prejudice concerns literature. Music Hall
comedians had long made fun of the industrial areas, the ugliness of the towns, the
way soot from factory chimneys blackened everything, the strange, guttural accents
that owe as much to the old Viking and Celtic languages as to The Queens English
and to the fact that thanks to our Viking and Celtic heritage many northern place
names just sound funny. Oswaldtwistle, Barnoldswick, Cleckheaton and
Mytholmroyd could be names of places where goblins live in a Tolkein story but they
are real (my wife was born in Oswaldtwistle.)
The ultimate joke town was
Wigan. Wigan was synonymous
with poverty, pies (meat and potato
pies,the staple diet of mine and mill
workers) and a brand of daftness
that owed more to unworldliness
that stupidity. The best joke about
Pooles Pies, Wigan.( the world champions)
Wigan was it's pier. To late
Victorian and early twentieth century audiences the word pier conjured up images of
the gaudy pleasure piers at costal resorts, cast iron structure built out over the sea
where in season there was always some kind of show it the pavilion at the end and
along the length of which fortune tellers, ice cream vendors, souvenir merchants,
tattooed ladies and tacky freak shows were arrayed. Wigan, 40 miles inland, boasted
no such attractions, the "pier" was a landing stage on the Leeds and Liverpool canal,
an older usage of the word.
Wiganers took it in all good part and laughed at the jokes but the bohemian left of
the metropolitan elite took it on board as literal truth. In the finest bleeding heart
style they elected themselves to be the new leaders of the labour movement and help
the unfortunate wretches who knew no better than to live like brutes. In the 1930s
members of the Left Book Club decided what Wiganers really needed to raise their
consciousness was somebody to write a book about them, a sociological tome
describing their poverty and brutish hopelessness.
These London based intellectuals commissioned a young man
from a well to do family who after a very expensive private education
had worked as a colonial servant in India before moving to Paris to
pursue a career as a writer to live in Wigan, study the lives of the poor
and write something that would raise awareness of their plight.
The writer's name was Eric Blair and in lodging with several
families in the town he was appalled at what he saw. Not at the
Eric Blair - left
vulgarity or brutishness of the people but at the appalling treatment they endured with
a certain nobility. I have read many books that describe similar conditions endured by
the urban and rural poor in Scotland (as we have seen above) southern and eastern
England, the USA and in Europe so such deprivation and the ability of the human
spirit to overcome it were not unique to Wigan. The problem was that everybody
knew how terrible the slums were, everybody was aware of the suffering caused by
bad working conditions, damp homes and lack of facilities. And everyone thought
something ought to be done about it ... by somebody else.
This was the start of the era of big government. Power was being centralised in
national government departments and municipalities, Church Parish Councils and
local charities were being squeezed out of the picture. The one-size-fits-all solutions
of big government seldom fit anybody properly, local problems need local solutions.
It was also the start of the era of corporatism. Instead of factories and mines being
owned by local families who lived in the community close to their workers,
businesses were now owned by anonymous shareholders who lived miles away and
had no sense of what was going on. That is not to say the local capitalists were
perfect but the mean spirited tightwads subject to pressure because of the more
acceptable conditions offered by some of their competitors.
Eric Blair was the opposite of a modern left winger, raging about equal rights or
homophobia or the evils of smoking and alcohol but too delicate to address the innate
conservatism of the working class, the problems of race or the failure of the education
system, he had no time for what we would now call political correctness and its close
kin multiculturalism and moral relativism, instead he wrote of what he observed with
a cold fury but saved for the people of Wigan that he came to know, a warm
admiration as he described their resilience and cheerfulness.
Of one man whose family he lodged with he said "That he can, after ten hours
working a thin seam (a coal mining term describing a task that involved lying on ones
belly in a tunnel probably no more that two and a half feet high, chipping coal with a
pick and pushing it backwards mole - like for others to load into skips) he can
converse jovially or sit and read Dickens, Hardy or translations of Zola or listen to
plays and discussions on their radios is a testament to the nobility of the human spirit.
His sympathies lay not with the intellectuals who might pass resolutions about the
need for change but would do nothing or if they did would only make matters worse
because they did not understand the problem. He supported they guys who lay on
their stomachs in cold, dank, blackness, with coal dust clogging their lungs as they
chipped at the seam.
His book, which he called The Road To Wigan
Pier though Wigan is not a coastal resort, where the
Victorian pleasure piers were hugely popular at the
time nor has it a major river. The pier of the title was
a local joke, a reference to a loading platform on the
canal that passed through town. People who could not
afford a trip to Blackpool or Morecambe on holidays
would say they were having a day out at Wigan Pier,
such self mocking humour mystified the elitists.
George Orwell libertarian
The book was rejected by the Left Book Club, it
committed the unforgivable sin of challenging their assumptions so it had to
be wrong. Eric wasn't discouraged however, he took it to a commercial
publisher and under the title The Road To Wigan Pier it became famous. Eric
did too but only after he changed is name to George Orwell. A couple of his
books which predict the kind of authoritarian regime the members of the Left
book Club covertly yearned for became best sellers and are still in print today.
I have to say at this stage that of the two great predictions of totalitarian
dystopia written in the 1930s, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World has proved the
more accurate. Rather than forcing oppression through the brutal oppression of
Orwell's Big Brother regime, in Brave New World the government buys
compliance by relieving people from personal responsibility and indulging
their desires for sex, drugs, and gadgets.
Wigan Pier, a photo from when Orwell was in
Orwell believed in the miners of Wigan and Tennessee, the cotton mill workers of
Lancashire and the plantation labourers of Louisiana, Luxor and Lahore. The problem
was not that the steelworkers of Pittsburgh, Ravenscraig, Sheffield and Saarbruken
were brurtes, they were brutalised by their environment. George Orwell understood
that what those people needed was not a do gooder fussing over them, a social worker
of government official telling them what was good for them but for those busybodies
to get of their backs, let the cream rise to the top through natural forces and provide a
safety net so those who could not rise by their own devices did not fall into
destitution in times of hardship. Government could not solve the problem because
government was the problem.
Another point Orwell made was to highlight the stoicism of the working class,
they way they accepted their lot in life and, to use a Lancashire phrase, just got on
with it. No amount of self righteous wailing and gnashing of teeth will ever make it
possible for everybody to be born into privilege. The workers understood this, some
drank themselves to oblivion others took refuge in other, less destructive pleasures, in
making music with the brass band or local choral society, in membership of the
Mechanic's Institute or Philosophical Societies that flourished in every town and
some, let's call them the aspirational working class, took responsibility for raising
their own level of intellect and understanding even if raising their social status was
not possible. It is worth noting in connection with the philosophical society reference
that the abuse of term science is a recent phenomenon, on the web page of the Leeds
Philosophical and Literary Society, specifies the organisations aims as "To promote the
advancement of science, literature and the arts in the City of Leeds and elsewhere, and to
hold, give or provide for meetings, lectures, classes, and entertainments of a scientific,
literary or artistic nature".
When next you hear aristocratic David Cameron prattling about his "big society"
or the vacuous windbag Obama blethering about "community organising" reflect on
the library at Wanlockhead where people who had few choices took responsibility for
educating themselves and thus enhancing their own ability to provide better
opportunities for their children. There we find what is missing from modern society.
It is not the finger wagging admonitions of Nanny State or the scaremongering of her
cohorts in the pseudo - science lobby that chivvy us into being good members of
society, but adversity. It was not ordinary people of Wanlockhead who needed strong
governance to keep them in line, their awe inspiring religious leaders did that. It was
the ruling elite, who abused their power without restraint, that made "big
government" necessary, mainly to save the necks of the elite as the French revolution
demonstrated. But as we now know, big government by scientific and managerial
elites does not work any better than the elitism of the feudal system.
In some ways the old aristocratic system was superior because among those
aristocrats who had a sense of duty (and many did) there existed the concept of
'noblesse obligé' the obligation of the elite to exercise pastoral care over their wards
who were less able to survive without support. This was a relic of the old Roman
patrician class and their supervisory function large parts of which had been taken on
by the churches. The modern meritocrats are quite happy to wash their hands of any
duty to people who don't conform to the official edicts and bureaucratic 'guidelines'
handed down from the central authority. Hence we hear politicians discussing the
possibility of withholding healthcare from those who smoke, drink alcohol, use
illegal recreational drugs or allow themselves to become obese, whether their
condition is due to a failure of those people to take responsibility for their own health
or not. Indeed, the ultimate hypocrisy of these paternalistic 'liberals' is to promise to
care for the individual from the cradle to the grave and then renege on that promise in
a petulant reaction to a person's failure to shape their life according to the official
Only small government and minimal interference with individual independence
works, wherever an all powerful, hierarchic central authority has been established it
has resulted in social catastrophe. Small government at municipal level and
provincial level based on the ideal of community service, without party politics and
the influence of big money and without the 'one-size-fits-all solutions of socialists
and paternalistic 'liberals'. Only by returning to that and to the principle that our
representatives are elected to serve the interests of their constituents and not those of
political parties or vested interests can we start to tackle the problems of society.
In a bizarre turnround it is now the left that seeks to exercise via big government,
the kind of power the masters of the past relied on and to infantilize and marginalise
the lower classes. Those who style themselves 'the left' have assumed the
authoritarian mantle of the political right. This is because the elitists of the modern
left are as remote from and ignorant of the lives and the mindset of ordinary people as
were the moneyed elite they have displaced.
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