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  • Writer's pictureMike O'Driscoll

England's Weird Dream of Oppression.

Updated: May 14

I've just returned from the Dolomites in Northern Italy, where myself and Yvonne hiked the 120 kilometre Alta Via 1 route from Lago di Braies in the north, to La Pissa in the south. I usally take 3 or 4 paperbacks on vacation, but given we were traipsing up and down mountain for 10 days, the need to keep the load down to under 10 kgs, entailed me buying my first Kindle to take along. And though I managed with a rucksack load adding up to 9kg, towards the end of each long day I found myself pondering the need for so many gadgets: Go pro and a digital camera; mobile phone and a powerpack; ipod, binoculars and kindle - did I really need to hump all this stuff up a total of 6800 metres?

Of course the Kindle was necessary, and rereading William Gibson's final book in the Sprawl trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive was a seductive blast from the (future) past; a rather more bucolic pleasure lay in Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree - one of the few Hardy's I had not previously read. It's altogether different in tone from the more well known Wessex novels like Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge or Tess of the D'Urbevilles, and yet, for all its innocent charms, it contains a significant portent of the later novels' preoccupation with the erosion of old customs and traditions by the huge social displacements caused by the industrail revolution, seen in the eviction of the Mellstock Quire (a group of musicians, mostly of stringed instruments, that were commonplace in rural communities in the early and mid 19th century) from their central role in providing music for church services, replaced by the organ installed by the new vicar. Best of all was a reread of what may be the late Peter Straub's best novel, Koko, a rare example of a genuinely literary thriller. It's evocations of Vietnam and the heightened sense of alienation and paranoia that can lead to an atrocity such as My Lai, as well as the struggle to adapt and reinsert onself into a normal mode of life has rarely been equalled in crime or horror fiction.

But none of these are what prompted this belated update. One of the substacks I subscribe to (Nick Cohen's Writing from London) contained a piece on the philosopher Roger Scruton and his baleful influence on right wing commentators and politicians. I read the piece (it's here) while in Venice, for a few days after completing our hike, and while it's a thoughtful and impassioned refutation of Scruton's yearning for the kind of pastoral England that rarely existed outside his imagination (Thomas Hardy, a firm believer in the liberating effects of technology--especially for the poor and working class--would have laughed at Scruton's fevered imaginings), what was more interesting was the link Cohen's essay contains to a piece from 2018 by the great Irish journalist and essayist, Fintan O'Toole. The essay is called 'The Paranoid Fantasy Behind Brexit' (extracted from a book length study), first published in the Guardian, O'Toole cites two alternate histories--Len Deighton's SS-GB, and Robert Harris' Fatherland--in a discussion of the delusional thinking that led us to Brexit. Among the themes explored in these novels are the fear of an English identity being subsumed into some kind of cosmopolitan 'European'; the peculiarly imperialist notion that the world and its peoples can only be viewed as "the dominant and the submissive , the coloniser and the colonised". O'Toole sees this kind of dichotomy as still pervasive among Brexit's prosletizers and those who voted for it.

The essay, powerfully and persuasively argued, goes on to dissect the complex emotional forces at play in the Brexit campaign, and finds their seeds in the contrary and contradictory sense of English exceptionalism and despair that took root in the minds of those who mourned the post WW1 and WW2 loss of empire. Being on the winning side in both cases was not enough, it seems. In fact, as O'Toole suggests, the victor, "England", had been surpassed by the losers; "Why not", as he states, "draw a topsy-turvy conclusion: in a dark stratum of the reactionary mind, we must think of ourselves as a defeated nation? And if Britain was to be defeated, the EU must be its invasive oppressor." The absurdity of this doublethink is the mechanism that led the proto-Brexiteers to the paranoid counter-factual truth that the Europeans "hate us because we saved them."

It's a fascinating and compelling essay that made me reflect more deeply on the three novels I'd just read, and allowed me to see in the works of those three disparate novelists, echoes and iterations of many of the ideas that O'Toole was laying bare: the vision of an idyllic, pastoral England betrayed by liberal and 'foreign' modernisers; the struggle a nation-state has to come to terms with in its diminished role on the world stage; and, looking to the future, how one might begin to adjust to a world in which technology appears to be leaving humanity behind.

You can read O'Toole's essay here.

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