Some Atavisms

Listening to Lord Lawson, on this morning’s Today programme on Radio 4, holding forth on the absurd issue of climate change – and listening to my own reactions to the man – that wincing from the gut at the sound of that portly-Tory-poured-into-comfortable-armchair kind of voice, that run-along-Nigella-darling-Daddy’s-busy-with-important-things kind of voice, indeed the voice that for so many ages was used by fathers to keep down silly little girls and is now well employed in silencing the squawking cohorts of climate-change believers – listening to this, as I say, I got thinking about atavisms and the extent to which they govern the political life of nations.

Atavisms? Is there such a word? My old dominie TS Eliot wrote what I think is a pretty good description of an atavism:

….the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

An atavism is my name for a deep-seated knot of anxiety or trauma or neurosis – a Ragged Rock indeed, how can one put it better? – in the collective psyche; it’s based on something-ish and it doesn’t want to go away, indeed it may have managed to weave itself into the communal or even individual DNA. You got, and still get, lots of atavisms in the farming community, for example based around particular animals – wolves, rats, badgers: the badger-TB link in this sense was a total boon to the farmers, who could now justifiably cry: See? What have we always said? Kill them all! Save us from this scourge!

Today – wild-ish and grey, but by no means abnormally so here in the north – today not only saw Lord Lawson torily pronouncing on the radio on what needed to be done about all the water in England, but also George Osborne laying it down like it is in Edinburgh, and how if the Scots think they’re going to get our Queen on their coins they can take etc etc

Interestingly, just after Lord Lawson – yes, we do listen to a lot of Radio Four, it’s because of English cultural domination – there came along the warm Horlicksy voice of Melvyn Bragg, who was talking with his pals about the chivalric code of the 11th century, to which I suppose true-blue Toryism can be traced. My interest in this subject actually goes back to its prehistory in the Dark Ages, all because of a pretty neat theory I came across some while ago, which traced chivalry – the cabal, or guild, or lodge of mounted knights (dragoons would be their somewhat updated label) – back to the mounted Asiatic mercenaries employed by the Roman Empire on their more remote and hard-to-police borders. Three Roman “kingdoms” remained, straddling what’s now the English-Scottish border, after the Romans left and Britain started filling up with Angles and Saxons. I think the inference of the theory was that the Anglo-Saxon populations not only halted their northward drive but remained pretty much scared shitless of these northern neighbours, who frequently mounted punitive raids, and represented a fearsome combination of Roman military discipline, Asiatic barbarity and Celtic barmpot-ness – not to mention their unfair use of bag-like dragon-banners which would boom spookily when the wind filled them at full gallop. So not only did these guys, who eventually moved off down to obscurity in Wales, leave behind the consoling legend of Arthur Pen-dragon and his brotherhood of knights, they also left behind an atavism which has governed a lot of Anglo-Saxon thinking ever since.

So, basically, when the winds get wild and the waters rise, English suspicions of their northern neighbours become exposed again, as raw and unsettling as in ancient times, despite our nice Mr Salmond’s comforting reassurances that there is nothing to fear and we can really all get along in a modern and grown-up way.

I’m not finished on this subject, let me give fair warning, but for now my short attention span, in the guise of our rampant need for split firewood, has got the better of me…

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