'Debate' and 'A Debate'

Johnson and Corbyn: not much of a ding-dong. Climate debate: somehow, a pair of melting ice made everyone else look bad. These debates have become a standard feature in British elections. So much the worse.

I suppose it was inevitable. Throughout the ‘90s and 2000s at every election the leader of the opposition would challenge the prime minister to a televised duel. The prime minister would refuse, rightly supposing that whilst it would look good for his opponent, it would not look good for him. The exception to the rule was John Major, prime minister who was the challenger, because he was so far behind in the race. His opponent, opposition leader Tony Blair, this time refused: being so far ahead of Major as he was, it was not as though he had anything to gain.

The result was always that the party of the refused would send a man dressed as a chicken to follow the other one around. Blair turned down four: he was proper chicken.

Then Cameron happened. As the man seeking power, he challenged Brown to a duel. Brown had nothing to lose, so he said yes. Snookered, Cameron had to go ahead with it. He underperformed and threw his majority away.

So I suppose it was inevitable they would happen eventually. But do we, the public, benefit at all? I would say, not. Indeed, I would go further: I think they have become a poison in the political well. First, there is the fuss: what format? Which channels? Who will be involved? Who will be excluded? This year, the Libs and the SNP went to court over this.

And the public yawn.

Then they happen. Only, they do not happen, not in any meaningful sense. The competitors churn out their soundbites in tightly allocated time slots, the intention being to produce something they can package into a tweet. They scrap without analysing each other, pontificate without developing ideas, and your life ticks away irreversibly.

Then the spin. ‘Who won?’

‘Boris won.’

‘Jeremy won.’

As though it were a game.

And the public ask: is that it?

But the most frustrating dimension is the shallow justifications for it all. That the leaders need to be ‘held to account’; or that the public have the right to see for themselves; that debates are essential to a functioning democracy.

Putting aside the fact the Johnson and Corbyn debate each other in the Commons every week, these arguments fail to distinguish between debate, and a debate. The former is a conversation with the public: it involves print, interviews, the modern trend for fact-checking, good ol’fashioned door-knocking, speaking to voters face-to-face. And it takes time, which is why we have a campaign of several weeks for such a debate to evolve. It is also local: we are a parliamentary system, not presidential, with six hundred and fifty constituencies each choosing their local MP. They have local issues, local concerns and local priorities which they need to discuss amongst themselves and the local candidates. These different dimensions create a public-wide discussion that involve engagement and reflection as well as finely tuned messaging.

A set-piece debate can be a useful thing, if properly run. A misleading argument put forward in print or online can go about the world before a response can even be devised, whereas in a set-piece it can be challenged in the moment. Speech can be persuasive in ways that print cannot (and vice-versa). It can also be an opportunity to witness personalities under pressure, though we can also see this in deep interviews that are televised. But a set-piece works best when it is a clash of ideas advanced by thoughtful advocates who wish to win a principle, rather than power. If the purpose of the debate is not the principle but rather the personality, then it will only be a personality contest. Badly moderated, sound-bitten exercises in rhetorical skirmishing do nothing to illuminate the public, showing politicians at their worst and further eroding what little trust remains in them. At the next election, I hope, but do not expect, for the party leaders to call time on this deranging experiment.

On Writing ‘A January Tale’


I have nearly finished the typed draft of a new story, despite having been struck down and delayed with flu. I won’t be able to show it to you for some time as I shall first seek some organ or other in which to publish it. If no one wants it, it will go here.


It tells the story of two friends who have long been estranged but who are seeking to rebuild their relationship, not really knowing how. The only thing they know is alcohol and the old habits through which they first became close, including a drinking game in which as students they used to compete to show their superior knowledge of literature. The game has many expressions, but in this case it involves naming the most iconic moments in literature. Before long, they begin naming moments that the other friend thinks is a loaded suggestion, and this soon becomes deliberate in a sequence of strike and counter-strike. So they launch their coded broadsides at each other through these proxy references, not knowing if they are killing something long sick, or else purging the body of its poison.


I have written before about friendship, especially male, and the idea has weighed on my mind since. After receiving recommendations from colleagues, including At Swim, Two Boys and The Body, I went for a long, late evening walk, as is my wont, wracking my mind. Eventually, as I was coming back to my flat, seemingly empty-headed, the idea of two chaps standing outside under the porch together coalesced with all the old stories I had been raking over as well as with the ideas about loneliness and distance that I had thought about for the recent blog post.


The story clearly had legs. Firstly, it seemed to touch upon miscommunication, particularly of the male type, with which I am intimately familiar. There’s that reluctance between men to open up and discuss anything, especially if it needs discussing, without the assistance of alcohol. It also touched upon that root of so much manipulation as well as miscommunication: the ability to pour your own meaning into something wide open to interpretation.  

But it also offered a glimpse into what often brings men together in the first place, that of the shared endeavour or activity. Such a preposterous little game would seem odd to a casual observer, but like any game, it has rivalry, frisson and, above all, something in common. Being particular to a small group, or a pair, would only recommend it to them even more as something unique, their own little world.

It is part of the question of the story: will it be enough? It might have been when they were under-ripe undergraduates, but much has passed since then. It is part of my own experience to find the things that as a student I thought were the most important things in the world don’t really matter any more, and the games we played have been locked away with all our other toys. There’s also a part of me, a very big part (some might suggest the greater part) that is still more boy than man, even if I do have a mortgage now. Reviving an old game like this might be desperate, and it might be too late; it might also work.

This game, and all else that such men might have in common, opens up an opportunity to explore something else I have long been thinking about, which is a kind of negative capability, the author putting things out of view, making something that is visible to the reader or audience still mysterious and private between the characters. (I shall write more extensively on this idea later.) When both characters speak through proxy references, they hint at things which we can, at best, only partially understand, either because we have insight already, or else because we know the content of the literary references. Yet we can’t know, unless I reveal to us, quite what these references mean to each man, or why one would be conciliatory and another be provoking. 

Next steps

The foul hand manuscript all done, the typescripts half done, and the leg-work in finding a place to send it not yet done, and the waiting that follows not nearly begun, it will be a while before anyone sees it. Most organs take three months, sometimes as much as six, to ignore you and not reply, so you have to keep close watch on all your submissions. None has yet accepted one of my submissions so I hold no great hope. But that can always change.

Can Writing Heal the Brexit Wounds?

Channel 4: Uncivil War

I have not seen the recent Channel 4 drama, Uncivil War. I doubt I will. I expect it will be too painful. But I have heard much in its praise, especially from partisan sources on social media which suggest it does not take sides and that it paints no one in a particularly flattering light. One comment I saw – from a leave supporter – suggested that anyone who was able to watch it without reflecting upon their own position was beyond reason. 

This got me thinking about how art might start to respond to events. It has to respond at some point, but because we are still undergoing the process, it is less able to do so, unable as I think we are to take a clear perspective on things. But perhaps the time is arriving, and this drama in particular is the first sign of art trying to help us process the pain?


Some kind of healing will be necessary. The archbishop of Canterbury has called for some government leadership in order to facilitate this, though I wonder if, rather than imploring the government, it were better the church seize the initiative and do it instead. Either way, he is right that this mood cannot be allowed to fester. He has a model to follow in this in the Church of Scotland, which held a service of unity following the 2014 referendum, though I know of none of its work in this area since that time. 

But what of the rest of us? Just as I argue Welby cannot simply wait for the government to take the lead but should seize the initiative himself, so too I argue the rest of us have a duty to do the same, whatever our place in society. If I am right about Uncivil War, then television and drama might already have made a start here. 


There is, of course, a danger. Words can heal, and words can harm. A cursory glance over social media should reveal just how ghastly some people are determined to be right now. Even in more formal work, there will be a number of people who relish opening fire at those who vote differently to them, or share a different vision. Such behaviour is the outcome of a petty mind, impossible to reason with; the product of character that desires not to reconcile but only to denounce. Most recently, the BBC version of Poirot at new year falsified history in order to associate the leave vote with fascism, so it has already started. I therefore state, with total confidence, that poisonous, tendentious and polemical work will naturally constitute the weakest work, most worthy to be disposed.

The form it should take

As suggested above, the perspective that time lends to us will enable us better to make sense of what we have been through, and I don’t believe we are securely in that place, even if one good drama has made a start. Sometimes, these events will need to be tackled head on. At other times, it might help to explore these things through allegory.

It is easy to conjecture how. Take some of the factors of these times:

  • long term friends falling out
  • irreconcilable interests between different parties, factions or groups
  • paranoia, denunciation, suspicion
  • political rhetoric and its power for good and ill
  • identity
  • borders

and anything else you care to mention. All of these things can be discussed in drama, literature, art, music, whatever, without having to revive the myriad ghosts that lurk behind the spectre of Brexit, and this might help to reduce the inflammation. 

My own contribution

I have a first draft of a novel which does some of what I argue for, totally by accident. The story requires a hard political border and tension between two states. I invented a parallel world in which one of those states is the former capital city of the other, but which seceded several generations before. I conceived of the idea before the 2015 general election, when Brexit had not come into view, whilst out walking on Southborough common, soaking up the beauty of the place in the sunshine and contemplating the difference between my life in Kent and my old life in London. But if anyone were to read it now, not knowing these things, they would naturally see Brexit in it. I am comfortable with that. My world being a false creation, I can present secession without presenting a view on it, or alienating those who do come to it with their own views. 

Now I just need to redraft and get the blasted thing published.


It helps that I conceived of this story before Brexit, for I might not have been able to handle it so dispassionately in this atmosphere. But that only makes it more urgent that we try: feeding feuds and despising your neighbour, chewing the gristle of old grudge – this is easy, even satisfying; to reconcile requires good will and determination, which is in short supply at present. That is why Welby, and all of us who desire to reconcile, should find ways, including ans especially in writing, to seize the initiative, for otherwise we will be in the power of those who relish discord.

Publishing my writing on this site

I am still going without success in getting my work published in other places. More on that another time. For now, I have decided that some – and only a little some – of what I have done shall go up here. I write so that I may be read, naturally, but it would be a pity if all that I have done should stay in the drawer whilst other of my work wait upon the decisions of unknown gatekeepers.

To begin, I have put up a gothic pastiche called O’Nealius which I wrote in order to entertain, and also instruct, the younger of my pupils when studying the gothic genre. I have also put up something I think I must have written about a decade ago, which I now call The Last Word, and which I can barely remember composing. I found it squirrelled away when I began preparing to move house, amongst other hand-written pieces. It was the only one of several that had aged at all well.

In poetry, under the title Verses from my Youth, I have a number of pieces which I composed mostly when I was a student in thrall to verse. At this distance, I can hardly comprehend the work as my own, but that perhaps is why I feel able to publish it now. I shall be adding to this page as I unearth more of these dusty old lines. The first, Aurora, was my first artistic success, and still holds up well. I faintly remember writing it by candlelight in my flat in Aberdeen, during some bitter winter, whilst listening to Mike Oldfield’s Music of the Spheres. 

Iconography of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’

Ophelia and water

Probably the most influential depiction of Ophelia is the painting by Sir John Everett Millais, 1852:

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

The image is interesting for that it is slightly unexpected: Ophelia’s death is not seen onstage, merely reported by Queen Gertrude in the following lines from IV.7:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up.
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Millais’ picture is thus a tribute to the visual potency of Shakespeare’s words. It is also the source of an amusing array of imitation ‘art’ as its own tribute. A Google image search for ‘Ophelia’ will provide you with an idea of the range such imitations take, many of which are rather bad, as the screenshot below will demonstrate:

Ophelia tribute art


Ophelia on film

The influence of Millais’ Ophelia is visible in the 1948 film version of Hamlet directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, who chose to use this vision of Ophelia’s death as the backdrop to Queen Gertrude’s speech:

Ophelia Jean Simmons


Literary parallels in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’

As a work rich in symbolism and allusion, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles contains innumerable references, motifs and symbols borrowed from a variety of places. The possibilities listed below are few of an inexhaustible many.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Tess begs the vicar that her child be given a Christian burial. The child was not baptised by the vicar before it died, and was conceived and born out of wedlock. For reasons less to do with scripture or doctrine than social propriety, the vicar refuses and Tess leaves him with her curses.

In 5.i of Hamlet, Ophelia’s coffin is brought to the newly dug grave. Hamlet is unaware of whose funeral it is but he guesses by the want of obsequies (funeral rites) that whoever it is must have died by their own hand, as suicide is a cardinal sin and orthodoxy would not permit full honours fur such a burial. Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, demands more from the priest, and getting nothing, gives curses in return.

Enter Priest, & c. in procession; the Corpse of OPHELIA, LAERTES and Mourners following; KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, their trains, &c.

The queen, the courtiers: who is this they follow?
And with such maimed rites? This doth betoken
The corse they follow did with desperate hand
Fordo its own life, ’twas of some estate.
Couch we awhile, and mark.

Retiring with HORATIO

What ceremony else?

That is Laertes,
A very noble youth, mark.

What ceremony else?

Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warranty. Her death was doubtful,
And, but that great command o’ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet, for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her.
Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.

Must there no more be done?

No more be done?
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.

Lay her i’ the earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling.

The influence of religion upon Angel Clare in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’

Angel Clare’s father, Reverend Clare, is low church. This means his faith is very Protestant in nature, which emphasises plainness, simplicity and the word of God as found in the Bible. One is able to tell they are a ‘low church’ family by their plain clothes and furnishings and by the father’s aversion to alcohol. One of the outcomes of this version of Christianity is that the words of the Bible are likelier to be taken literally, including those of the Old Testament.

When Angel Clare discovers that Tess had been raped, he says of the rapist that he is her ‘natural husband’. Even for a Victorian, there is something unexpected in this cruel remark, knowing as he does that she did not make a sexual union with Alec D’Urberville of her own choice. However, there is Biblical precedent in Deuteronomy for his remarks, one of the books of the pentateuch (which together make the Mosaic law):

25 “But if a man finds a betrothed young woman in the countryside, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; there is in the young woman no sin deserving of death, for just as when a man rises against his neighbor and kills him, even so is this matter. 27 For he found her in the countryside, and the betrothed young woman cried out, but there was no one to save her.

28 “If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days.

The actions of the novel fall between these two instances: Tess is not betrothed when she is raped, but she does get raped in a forest. Verses 25, 26 and 27 concern themselves with blame, laying it at the rapist’s door because the secluded location made the betrothed virgin defenceless: Alec is to blame.

Verses 28 and 29 do something rather different. If women be conceived of as chattels (and the tenth commandment makes clear that they are) then part of the rapist’s crime is the destruction of another man’s contract, as his betrothed is now of no value. This carries the death penalty. However, if the virgin be not betrothed already, then no contract has been violated and no penalty of death is warranted. The law appears still to recognise the rape as a violation of another man’s property – her father’s – but this violation may be redeemed financially and by the rapist taking such a contract upon himself.

This appears to be where Angel locates the idea of Tess now being ‘naturally’ married to her rapist. That she was raped in the forest allows him to accept she is blameless, but the fact that she was not affianced at the time of the rape means that, no contract having been broken in the rape, a de facto contract must now exist between Tess and the first man to have sex with her. Tess’ failure to divulge these things to Angel before they married therefore, according to his understanding of things, represents a grotesque violation of God’s law on many levels and is the mark of ‘degeneracy’ he thinks he sees in her.