On my recent holiday I had a crap internet connection. Unable to play Drawsome with distant friends, or watch the Test Match, I settled in to what people always used to do on their holidays, which was read a good book. My habit was to take a stock of books on holiday – some thrillers or factual books to have on the beach or in the garden (or whilst sheltering from the rain), plus a great book that I know I would be forced to read when all the easy stuff gave out. That’s how I got into Joseph Conrad, and one day will help me into Dickens.
The good book this time was the collection of Christopher Hitchens’ essays, called “Arguably”. I got it in hardback form as a Christmas gift, and as there are 107 longish essays, it’s a pretty weighty tome in gravitational as well as intellectual terms. You couldn’t read it in bed. Arnold Schwarzenegger might have the biceps for the job, but this collection is, I suspect, not his line of country. But you don’t need it in bed, for there is no thriller plot to keep up with, and an essay can be taken at a sitting. I really enjoyed Hitchens’ style and attitude and rationality. Clive James is the only other current author who I think shows such unforced intelligence, whose references lead you on to other delights and lead you to challenge your own views. Hitchens was, I know, controversial, with his robust atheism and his support for the Iraq war, but I don’t think I would have been locked in my armchair for quite so long with a Guardian or Telegraph editorialist with a pre-packed suite of views.
Anyway, it’s out in paperback and Kindle now so you can read and make your own mind up. One essay I particularly liked – on Dr Johnson – drew attention to the way that expressions and names often end up denoting things that are not at all what was originally meant. King Canute is now a term used to describe an arrogant bureaucrat who imagines he can stand against natural forces or unconquerable social trends. But King Canute was exactly the opposite – he asked to be taken to the beach to show that even a powerful monarch could not stand against the unstoppable. Hitchens gives other examples – such as Romeo. This name is now used to describe a promiscuous womanizer, whereas the Shakespearean character was actually a one-girl guy, faithful unto death.
Taking expressions and arguments the wrong way is pretty common in public discourse, and I have a small collection of politicians who have been traduced. Some have not, of course. Look at Margaret Thatcher’s view that “there is no such thing as society”, and it is pretty close to what people think it is. But others are not. When Harold Macmillan said “you’ve never had it so good” (well, actually, “most of our people have never had it so good”) it was not a complacent appeal to selfishness. The text of his speech is hard to find, even in these internet days, but his statement that people were better off than ever before – which was true – was followed by a warning that this state of affairs would not continue unless the country could become more competitive, and address the problem of inflation. I don’t believe when Harold Wilson said devaluation will not affect “the pound in your pocket” he wanted people to believe that changing the exchange rate would have no impact on import prices: he was, after all, a brilliant Oxbridge don before entering Parliament. I think he was trying to reassure people who might worry that they would suffer an internal devaluation, as had happened in France or Germany. Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quotation about the difference between known unknowns and unknown unknowns may be filed under ‘dumbest quotations of the Bush era’, but it has always struck me as a pretty sensible distinction. When John Major said of restrictive monetary policy “if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working”, well, he was right, wasn’t he ? How do you squeeze inflation out of the system without people spending less and banks lending less ? There are even people now who look back on Gordon Brown’s gaffe about saving the world, and conclude that – given his leading role in the financial rescues of 2008 onwards – he wasn’t too far from the truth. Other alleged Prime Ministerial blunders are simply based on misreporting. Trivial example – Tony Blair never claimed to have seen Jackie Milburn playing for Newcastle United – which doesn’t stop it being regularly used to prove what a liar he was, even though the misunderstanding was cleared up in 2008.
Where is all this going ? Nowhere, really, except to underline my usual message that you should not believe commonplace truths without a careful look at the evidence, and that, until we got to the current bunch, politicians were generally a sensible lot trying to do the best for their country. And that mental activity is possible without the internet. And that one sign of a really powerful book is all the hares it sets running in your head, all the examples and ideas it sparks, bringing the reader a small distance towards the judgements and resources of a great writer. Which I reckon Christopher Hitchens was.