Le jour de gloire est arrivé!

Here’s Severine Dupelloux singing the French national anthem to open the Winter Olympics at Albertville in 1992:

The link popped up in my twitterstream this morning, and I was very pleased to see it, not only because of the (sort of) appropriate Bastille Day / Olympics mash-up effect, but also because this was the legendary performance–a sweet ten-year old French girl from the Savoie singing unaccompanied before the TV cameras of the world–that inspired Danielle Mitterrand and others to embark on their ludicrous campaign (le Comité pour une Marseillaise de la Fraternité, no less) to rewrite the words of the Marseillaise to make them a little less bloodthirsty. Happily, nothing came of it, and the French continue to enjoy the finest national anthem in the world.

Other Stoa Marseillaise links, some possibly still functional, over here.

[It was somewhat appropriate to have a British cyclist win–David Millar–win yesterday’s stage of the Tour de France, on the 45th anniversary of Tom Simpson’s death on Mont Ventoux. (If you haven’t read it already, William Fotheringham’s book about Simpson’s death, Put Me Back on my Bike, is marvellous.) But today, it should be turn of a Frenchman.]

TCB: Lit Crit

Some of you will have seen this before–it appeared on Facebook a while ago–but I think it deserves a second outing: this is–I am afraid to say–Ptolemy’s reaction to my book, Philosophic Pride.

It’s been charitably suggested that he isn’t so much yawning as roaring his approval, but when the photo was taken the only vocalisation that Ptolemy could really produce was a still-surprisingly-kittenish “mew!” (though he now has a noise which I first thought meant, “I am dissatisfied”, but I now realise means, quite specifically, “I am disappointed in you”).

From the Archive: House of Lords Reform

I posted this on the Stoa a decade ago, and I’ll reprint it here, as it’s suddenly topical again, and I still more or less agree with it.

I used to think that the problem of the House of Lords was badly posed, and that the sensible thing to do was for the UK to become unicameral, and that this would be the one development which would force the House of Commons to get its one house (or House) in order, and develop sensible systems for scrutinising and revising legislation, etc. But I don’t think I think that any longer. The example of unicameral legislatures around the world (e.g. New Zealand) is too depressing, and the thought of having even more power in the hands of the whipped, drilled and disciplined Government majority is depressing, too. And I’m no longer optimistic that the change would force sensible change in the way the Commons went about its work. So perhaps the status quo is better than outright abolition of the House of Lords. (Don’t worry: I’m not going soft on the monarchy in my old age: the British monarchy remains vile, both in theory and in practice.)

The problems in the way of sensible Lords reform remain quite large, of course. A wholly elected chamber might challenge the supremacy of the Commons, which nobody seems to want; people who like the standard of debate in the Lords – which is often alleged to be relatively higher than that in the Commons – worry that having too many elected politicians in the place will devalue it of its worth; some worry that if some are elected, but not all, then the elected ones will have a kind of political legitimacy which the others lack; and virtually any mechanism of appointment or selection seems pretty ghastly to justify. And so on. The usual, familiar stuff.

So, here’s a solution, which seems to me to attenuate many of the outstanding problems. At any rate, I haven’t yet seen what’s wrong with it.

Hold elections for (all of the) membership in the House of Lords, using some kind of PR list system. (It doesn’t have to be with national, closed lists, but they make exposition easier). Voters have the choice of voting for the various party lists, but instead of voting for a party list, they can tick the box marked “Cross-Bench / Independent”, or something similar. And then, if 15% of voters check this box, then the House of Lords appointments commission (which gave us the so-called People’s Peers), would be permitted to fill 15% of the seats with the kind of people it appoints (earnest scientists, ex-police chiefs, Geoffrey Howe’s wife Elspeth, etc.)

Instead of a two-tier chamber, then, in which some owed their election to appointment and others to election, everyone in the Lords would owe their election to a combination of the two: either they were selected by a party elite to get on a list, and got elected from that list; or the people voted to have members selected by an appointments commission. Under this system, if the political parties did just put up lists of dreary party hacks, they would effectively be inviting voters to vote for the supposedly independent (in fact, of course, centrist and middle-class) peers which the appointments commission would generate. And if voters genuinely do want their legislators in the revising chamber to have a non-party-political background, they can cast a positive vote for this kind of person.

Notice that this doesn’t answer all of the questions one might have: how long should Lords be elected for?, how often should elections be held?, and so on. A variety of answers to these questions is entirely possible, and compatible with this electoral mechanism. It would even be possible to elect people to a life term, and then at periodic elections simply to fill the vacancies that existed at the time. It isn’t an argument about the powers of the second chamber, but merely about its composition. And it certainly isn’t an ideal system — the appointments commission is terribly problematic. But it is an argument that seeks to produce a chamber which has a certain kind of democratic legitimacy and which gives everybody an equally-weighted vote, but which allows the voters to prevent the House from being simply a bunch of politicadoes marking time and dutifully obeying their political paymasters as they wait for a seat in the Commons, and which won’t produce a Lords with a single-party majority, and which gives us an electoral mechanism – and one better than the mayoral ballots ever do – of assessing just how much the national party elites are alienating the voters.

Lewis Carroll, Photographer

Anne, in comments below, reminds me that this weekend is, apparently, Alice Weekend here in Oxford. That would explain why there’s a rather good picture of the Mock Turtle just inside the Bodleian Library this week.

Lewis Carroll didn’t just write the Alice books, of course. He also liked to take photographs of young girls–a subject on which Kate Middleton, curiously enough, is an authority, as it was the subject of her undergraduate dissertation at St Andrews. Here’s one of them:

And these are three of my great-great aunts: Honor, Evelyn, and Olive Brooke. (Photo reproduced from over here.)

Honor, the oldest girl here, is the one I’m interested in. She first crossed my radar screen when I came across a footnote in Yvonne Kapp’s classic life of Eleanor Marx, reporting that Brooke, Marx and Edith Lees (later Mrs Havelock Ellis) addressed a rally to support the strike in Silvertown on 29 November 1889. I don’t know anything else about any connection she had to Marx, outside of the information reported in this post, but she was for a time very close to Lees, with Havelock Ellis writing that, “I do not know how they met, but I know that Miss Brooke, with a self-sacrificing devotion and skill that called out Edith’s deep love, nursed her back to health” after a nervous breakdown. And she features in a passage by Lees that is occasionally reprinted in studies of late ninteenth-century feminism:

How well I remember, after the first performance of Ibsen’s drama [A Doll’s House] in London, with Janet Achurch as Nora, when a few of us collected outside the theater breathless with excitement. Olive Schreiner was there and Dolly Radford the poetess, Dr. Alice Corthorn, Honor Brooke (Stopford Brooke’s eldest daughter,) Mrs. Holman Hunt and Eleanor Marx. We were restive and impetuous and almost savage in our arguments. This was either the end of the world or the beginning of a new world for women. What did it mean? Was there hope or despair in the banging of that door? Was it life or death for women? Was it joy or sorrow for men? Was it revelation or disaster? We almost cantered home. I remember that I was literally prostrate with excitement because of the new revelation.

Edith Lees / Ellis later wrote a novel, Attainment, with a lightly fictionalised account of the Brooke family in it, ‘Stanley Evans’ a barely disguised Stopford Brooke–who, I have now come to realise, was basically the Rev. Giles Fraser of his day (though he doesn’t come out of the novel especially well).

It’s not, however, a terribly good novel, all things considered. Here is a typical passage, from one of the heroine’s letters home, after she has recently fallen in with ‘Robert Dane’, i.e., William Morris:

I came to Stanley Evans to help to reform the masses. I must be on the verge of delirium, for I feel that the masses are reforming me. I am ashamed to go and offer my patronage any more to these desperately tired people. I try to shake myself free from the convictions that are creeping over me, but they won’t go. Who is Karl Marx, Daddy? What does he know about the poor?

Bonus Kate Middleton-themed bit of trivia (since this has ended up being a post about Victorian feminist aunts): she’s Harriet Martineau’s great-great-great-great-great niece. (Ah–I see in fact that the Daily Telegraph has covered this already, reporting that there is ‘more than a passing resemblance’, apparently.)

On Michael Gove

Just as Alec Douglas-Home was ultimately the chief beneficiary of Tony Benn’s campaign to disclaim his life peerage, I now find myself wondering whether Michael Gove is the one who stands to gain the most from Ed Miliband’s current politicking.

Gove’s main problem in becoming leader of his party, it seems to me, is that he looks a bit odd, and the conventional wisdom in British politics for twenty years now has worked against the interests of people who aren’t conventionally telegenic and blandly Anglo. But Miliband looks a bit odd, too, and clearly part of his strategy at the moment is to get voters used to the idea that a Prime Minister might look a bit odd. Hence, for example, the passage about looking like Wallace from Wallace & Gromit in his speech on Englishness a few weeks ago.

If Miliband loses the 2015 election, then the conventional wisdom that odd-looking people don’t succeed in British electoral politics will be reinforced. And if the Tories unambiguously win that election, then there’s less likely to be a leadership vacancy any time soon. But if Miliband wins, Gove will be in an excellent place to succeed to Cameron’s throne. Miliband will have demonstrated that fortysomething men who look a bit funny can win elections, and presumably Osborne’s star will also be continuing to fall in the political firmament, since it’s hard to see how the chap who has been running the British economy could come out of an electoral beating looking like a decent prospect for the future.

Asked by crazy right-wing magazine Standpoint whether he was going to be leader one day, Gove replied:

“No, I’m constitutionally incapable of it. There’s a special extra quality you need that is indefinable, and I know I don’t have it. There’s an equanimity, an impermeability and a courage that you need. There are some things in life you know it’s better not to try.”

But I’m inclined to discount this almost to zero. Gove can’t use the Heseltine formula–that he cannot foresee the circumstances in which he might run–as that’s universally understood these days as code that he’s itching to be party leader; and if I’m right that Gove depends on Miliband to succeed in the medium term for his own political fortunes to flourish over the longer run, he has a particularly strong interest in not being publicly associated with such an ambition, since it’d be tantamount to declaring his own interest in seeing his own party soundly beaten at the polls.

And things seem to be going in the right direction for him. His own political stock seems to be rising in the party, he isn’t associated with economic policy, and even if Miliband isn’t yet on course to win the election in 2015, Cameron is very clearly on course to lose.

Let Him Go, Let Him Tarry

I’ve been familiar with the song, “Let him go, let him tarry”   since childhood, as it’s one whose very catchy chorus my mother liked to sing:

Let him go, let him tarry, let him sink or let him swim
He doesn’t care for me and I don’t care for him
He can go and find another that I hope he will enjoy
For I’m going to marry a far nicer boy

And while no-one would, I think, mistake it for a feminist anthem—the song is sung, after all, from the point of view of someone who looks forward confidently to conventional heterosexual matrimony—there seems to me to be an admirable defiance to the song, and its message, roughly speaking, is the thoroughly commendable one that women shouldn’t put up with crap from the men in their lives.

I don’t know much at all about the song’s origins. It’s often described as “trad.” or “Irish”, but I haven’t come across anything that counts as real evidence for either label, and I suppose I’m inclined (again, on the basis of no evidence) to agree with people, like whoever wrote this, who think it probably emerged through the music hall tradition some time in the later nineteenth or early twentieth century. I think the oldest recorded version I’ve heard is by Gracie Fields, who sang it as part of a medley or other Irish (or supposedly Irish, at least) songs, though I don’t know what the date of that recording is. It sounds really old (and it’s on Spotify, for people who do that).

“Let him go, let him tarry” became huge, however, in 1945. That’s well documented. (My mother, from whom I learned the song, was born in 1939, which may be significant.) In England, I suspect the breakthrough moment was this scene in the film The Way to the Stars, where the singer is the 16-year old Jean Simmons:

Various websites tell me that “Let Him Go Let Him Tarry” by Joe Loss & Nat Gonella was #1 on the sheet music charts for the week of 26th August 1945, and there’s a nice reminiscence from this discussion of the song from someone who reports that they “First heard this at a VE Day party at Tabley House in Mid Cheshire, sung by one of the daughters of the house (a Miss Leicester-Warren) to her own piano accompaniment.”

But the detail I’m interested in–that motivates the post, and that I’ve never seen discussed anywhere else–is that 1945 is also the year when the song seems to bifurcate. In the United States, Evelyn Knight and the Jesters recorded their version—which is repackaged in a way that changes the song’s message. The first two verses were dropped, and in their place came, first of all, a 3rd-person prologue setting the scene, beginning with the words, “Bridget was a colleen with an independent air…” Well, you know things are going to go wrong from there. And what happens this time round is that Miss Bridget (also my mother’s name, as it happens, not that it matters) spends her later years bemoaning her earlier attitude, for, in the new final verse to the song:

The years rolled on and left poor Bridget high upon the shelf
And often in the evening when she’s sitting by herself
She remembers that young fellow, so debonair and gay
And wishes oh, so often, he’d never heard her say…

Let him go (etc.)…

… Thereby completely transforming the message of the song, which is now a warning to young women that they should put up with crap from the men in their lives, lest they end up like “poor Bridget high upon the shelf”.

I don’t know where what I take to be the new lyrics come from. In my prejudiced way I suppose I assume that they are American in origin—the faux Irishness of “Bridget was a colleen” strikes me as the kind of thing an American would be much more likely to perpetrate, and the only reason I can see for turning a fine song like this inside out is to pander to reactionary taste for commercial purposes, and the Evelyn Knight record is clearly a piece of commercial popular music. But I don’t really know; this seems to be a world where solid evidence is hard to come by, and my “research” doesn’t extend further than the internet. And I also don’t know the 1945 sequencing in any detail, either: the sheet music that was so popular in Britain that Summer was associated with Joe Loss & Nat Gonella, and their recordings—both made, I think, in this country—also have these alternative words.

Nowadays, it seems that both versions circulate. I very much prefer what I think must be the older version. Here, for example, is a video of Eleanor Shanley singing it in concert not so long ago—she starts off with one of her signature songs, “Still I Love Him”, and starts on “Let Him Go ” at 2’50” or so, and although neither the audio nor the video are especially good, it’s clear what a spirited song it still can be:

It’s Always 2004 at the Virtual Stoa

Very faithful readers will remember Paul “The Thinker” Richards, who lit up the world of blogs in 2003-4. He recently tried to become Paul “The Police Commissioner” Richards, but unfortunately the Sussex Labour Party failed to pick him as its candidate. Still, his propaganda was distributed along the South Coast, and since I seem to be posting things my brother has sent to me, here’s a copy of his election leaflet: