No Surprises

"After a year such as this, even shocks now fail to surprise"

I spent the night of the US election in Watford, listening to the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. Nothing is more dispiriting than election night parties, with similarly sozzled hacks repeating the same swiftly disproved points of psephology. In any case, having returned from California a few days earlier I was certain that Hillary Clinton had it in the bag and had no particular desire to watch her coronation in real time. Although large numbers of people were clearly disinclined to vote for either candidate, too few people — it seemed to me — were willing to jump from Clinton to Trump. And so it proved: they stayed at home. So I sat ecstatically listening to Dvořák in a hall that was barely a third full, mulling over the inadequacies of American democracy and why an appreciation of serious culture seems to be dying outside London.


After a year such as this, even shocks now fail to surprise. So the news that once again the thing that nobody had expected to happen had happened sank in a little easier than last time. The most obvious source of joy lay in the pain of the virtue-signalling classes. Twitter and other social media had been filled for months with people calling Trump an animal, an idiot and much else that cannot be printed in a family magazine. People who I used to take seriously joined in with all this, certain that they were helping to send The Donald to electoral oblivion. And yet here he is as their President-elect. Will any of these people feel remorse about the way they behaved during the campaign? I hope so. It is telling that the modern expression of liberal politics preaches tolerance for everyone except people who disagree with your politics. The flaw is that the people who keep disagreeing with the “liberal” matrons keep turning out to be a majority. Cause for some pause, one would have thought, or at least a pivot away from insult as the sole form of engagement.


One thing that did strike me in California the week before the election was the way in which the Democrats remained in denial. For better or worse, Republicans had got used to their candidate.  When a new “gaffe” or tape emerged they thought, “Well, we did nominate the man who ran Miss Universe and not a vestal virgin.” On the other hand, when the FBI announced that it was reopening its investigation into the Clinton email scandal in the days before the election the Democrats reacted as though this was the grossest surprise in their history. Since their candidate had been under investigation by the FBI when they made her their candidate this should not have come as such a shock.


An equally bizarre form of denial occurred once I was back on this side of the Atlantic. The Sunday before the US election there was a rare screening at the Royal Festival Hall in London of Abel Gance’s Napoleon. I had longed to see this 1927 masterpiece of silent cinema and at the South Bank the epic was screened with a specially commissioned live score conducted by its composer, Carl Davis. With a couple of intervals we were there for eight hours in total. But the vast crowd scenes, the glorious 18th-century-ness of the actors’ faces, the terrifyingly visceral depiction of the Assembly and the Terror, all lifted the capacity crowd several feet off the ground. But in the last hour a curious expression of mania burst out. As Napoleon stood before the empty Assembly, preparing to invade Italy, the screen flashed up a quote of him saying something along the lines of a dream of “a united Europe, free of borders”. Suddenly, spontaneously, about half of the Festival Hall burst into applause. I turned to the person I was with and, baffled, asked, “What was that?” Only later did I learn that there had been some booing too in response to the clapping.  Gloriously, the booing turned out to be led by Napoleon’s latest biographer, Andrew Roberts. But what did this South Bank audience think they were doing? Still raw from June 23, sure. But what excuse is there to jump from being a supporter of the EU to admiring the continental vision of Napoleon?


My own growing instinct is that politics has become too important to some people. Not that it is not important. But it is not personal happiness, nor a replacement for culture. In Britain and America a class of person has arisen who claim to be “literally crying” when an election or referendum doesn’t go their way. It is the wrong way to approach politics. Politics matters only because the culture matters and you can get the culture right even — perhaps especially — when the politics isn’t going your way. People should live a little more and react a little less.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"