Young people, you will be shocked to hear, have been rebelling against authority, for what may be the first time in recorded history. The Secretary of State for Education has decreed that muzzles shall be worn in schools, and that pupils must take lateral flow tests to prove that they are legitimate seekers after knowledge rather than deadly plague-rats. Admittedly, he has provided no evidence for the efficacy of masks, and it is generally admitted that a lateral flow test is rather less use than an ashtray on a motorbike, but education, surely, is a matter of blindly accepting whatever your elders and betters tell you. Sadly, no one seems to have inculcated the virtues of mindless obedience in these feckless youths. In one Lancashire school, the NASUWT plaintively told the BBC last week, a mere 67 children out of 1,300 were willing to wear a mask and take a test. In the good old days, they would have been shoved hastily down a mine or up a chimney to choke on coal dust.
Perhaps these “children” (some of whom are seventeen or eighteen years old, though the teaching unions, the press and the government persist in infantilising them) have concluded that their elders do not have their best interests at heart. Perhaps they have noticed that Members of Parliament seldom wear masks (and when they do, the choice is theirs) and that government ministers spend most of their time swapping Prosecco-infused spit at bring-your-own-variant parties. Perhaps they are aware that none of the po-faced Covid zealots, from Adolf Ferguson to Heinrich Hancock, have ever bothered to obey the rules they are so eager to impose on others. Perhaps they have seen footage of Allegra Stratton and her ilk sneering at those stupid enough to take any notice of these rules. Perhaps they have decided that adults who have shown no interest in their education, or in any aspect of their mental and physical well-being, are not worth listening to. If they have, do you blame them?
It may well be that young people, who have been bullied, browbeaten, neglected and abused to an extraordinary degree over the last two years, will lead us out of the current crisis. As a university lecturer, it has been my privilege to spend much of my time over the last two decades with people in their late teens and early twenties. What I have generally noticed is that they have a lot more sense, creativity and intelligence than their elders. It is an unalloyed pleasure to escape from tedious meetings in which soulless administrators talk about money and faculty windbags talk about themselves, into a classroom where people still young enough to have ideals and principles and thoughts of their own are eager to discuss poetry, philosophy, drama, the human experience and everything that makes life worth living.
I do not suppose the dullest teacher who ever lived (not me, by the way, I have the evaluations to prove it…) ever managed to grind so much of the joy out of learning as the politicians and bureaucrats have done over the last two years. University, in particular, is not an experience adequately replicated by sitting in one’s bedroom for a few years watching YouTube videos and occasionally masturbating like a gibbon. Education, like sex, is much improved by the input of others. If a malevolent regime wanted to torture children and young people, it could scarcely have found a more effective way than wrenching them apart from their friends, while continually preaching at them that they are filthy, disease-ridden monsters who are responsible for the deaths of their grandparents. Perhaps, at some point, we shall discover that the true task with which the legions of government scientists were charged was to create an epidemic of mental illness and suicide amongst the young. We will then be able to conclude, at last, that Ferguson and his myrmidons did a very good job.
The tormentors of youth may not be as successful as they expect, however. Many of their victims possess a quality so alien to them that they do not recognise it, and barely have a name for it any more. One might use the word “integrity” but, despite sniggers from the peanut gallery, I prefer the old-fashioned word: bottom. The reason why I like this word is because it provides a sound visual image for the quality it describes. A great tankard stands ready to be filled with ale or cider or, for that matter, Champagne. The bottom of the tankard is heavy and solid. It will not fall over, and the drink will not leak out. The moral principles and even the aesthetic tastes of a man or a woman or a child are like this heavy base. They keep you upright and strong. They keep you from failing in your task.
There is a famous, probably apocryphal story about Bernard Shaw (or Lord Beaverbrook, or Winston Churchill or Groucho Marx or W.C. Fields) asking a beautiful woman whether she would sleep with him for a million pounds, or some such magnificent sum (which varies from source to unreliable source). When she gave an equivocal but somewhat favourable answer, he asked if she would do it for one pound. “What do you think I am!” the woman exclaimed. “We’ve established that,” snapped Shaw. “We are now discussing the price.”
We take it as read that every man and woman in public life has his or her price. Since Boris Johnson, by the standards of the current cabinet, is not a particularly wealthy man, it is now uncomfortably clear that his price is relatively low. The British Prime Minister can be bought for a few rolls of wallpaper and a designer sofa. The apex of influence in our unhappy state can be acquired for the cost of redecorating a central London flat to look like a knocking shop in Marrakech. Precisely what sum the Prime Minister would accept to eat a place of fried worms, or crawl through a tunnel of excrement, or cook and eat each one of his fifty-seven children live on television is not clear. What everyone knows is that, in each case, there is a cash price that would persuade Johnson to do such a thing. The same is true of every member of the government and the opposition. Some of them are rich, and the price would be correspondingly high, but not one of them has bottom, which would prevent them from performing the foul act at all.
Take (please, and as far from me as possible) the cartoon giraffe that is Jacob Rees-Mogg. He is a wealthy man and has no possible need of the public money he receives for his complete failure to do his job. He is also ostensibly a Catholic and a libertarian whose principles, if they existed, would be in direct conflict with the policies of this government. An honourable man or member, a person with bottom, would refuse to be part of such a gang of thieves, and resign. I do not know how much you would have to pay the Lord President of the Council to eat a plate of fried worms. It’s probably not worth it, to be honest. But if you’re rich, and bored, and want some entertainment in these grim times, go knock yourself out. You have only to find out his price.
As Chesterton remarks, one’s education is not complete until one acquires a certain contempt for education. Most of the Cabinet are fairly well-educated, with the obvious exception of Priti Patel, who is dumber than the rocks among which she sits. One of the first things we commonly do with children is to educate the basic morality out of them. A child’s first reaction on hearing the story of Macbeth is that Macbeth is a bad man. Their literature teachers tell them not to say this, because no exam board will give you any marks for saying it, so the process of literary criticism becomes, in part, an exercise in finding excuses for the conduct of a psychopath (most of which, not incidentally, involve blaming women).
Nonetheless, it takes a lot of time and effort to educate the bottom out of our children altogether, and with some of them, the attempt is never entirely successful. Everyone who has ever had anything to do with young people is familiar with the complaint, uttered in tones of bafflement or fury or both: “That’s not fair.” Perhaps it is a heresy against the gospel of morally relative adulthood to suggest that snapping back “Well, life isn’t fair” is not always the perfect response to this criticism. Perhaps it is naïve of me to suggest that listening and thinking about how life might be made fairer would be a more creative and intelligent response. Nonetheless, I do suggest it.
Look around the world now, and you see the so-called world leaders: Biden, Trudeau, Macron, Morrison, Ardern and all the other viciously corrupt crooks and cowards spouting the same poisonous rubbish with all the integrity and originality of speak-your-weight machines. If no New World Order conspiracy is afoot, there certainly seems to be a conspiracy among these dismal, broken people to suggests that one is. Then again, one might reflect, as I often do, that just as bank robbers all over the world rob banks without the need for an international conspiracy, so politicians the world over conduct themselves in the same despicable way without the necessity for collusion. No one has less bottom than Boris Johnson, but almost everyone has more capacity for focus, which is why such countries as France and Australia are now further down the road to ruin than Britain. Macron and Morrison were concentrating on being full-time Nazis, while the British Prime Minister was distracted by garden parties and adultery.
If there is a conspiracy (I say IF, since the moguls of the World Economic Forum never tell me about their plans for world domination, for some reason) then it is probably no accident that the plotters waited until the greatest generation were all dead or in their extreme dotage. My grandfather, a war hero, a captain of industry, and a knight of the realm, was not a man given to profanity, and was generally supportive of Conservative governments, but I can well imagine his response to Matt Hancock telling him that he was not permitted to leave his house, and that response would not have been polite or conciliatory. One of my greatest difficulties throughout the last two years has been a complete failure to understand why my current fellow citizens have ever reacted any differently. We are all free people with a long heritage of liberty. When public servants attempt to curtail that liberty, with some pathetic, bureaucratic excuse about managing hospital admissions, the only possible response to their insolence is a good old-fashioned two-fingered salute.
This is where the quality of bottom comes in. Lockdown is an obscenity, to be opposed completely and unequivocally by all free people everywhere. I am not a lockdown sceptic. I am not hesitant or uncertain about the matter. I am not particularly interested in debating the numbers or performing a cost/benefit analysis, though it does seem to me that those who want to do so have a good case. My response to anyone who attempts to order me to accept house arrest is the same as my response to someone who asks me to eat a plate of worms, or crawl through a tunnel of excrement, or cook and eat some children. No. That’s it. Not for a million pounds. Not for a billion pounds. Not for all the tea in China or all the wallpaper in Downing Street. Not for a phoney peerage or a corrupt PPE contract. No.
Cheering thoughts, as Christina Rossetti almost said, are thin on the ground in the bleak midwinter. Earth stands hard as iron, water resembles a stone, and even the wind appears to be moaning. Heaven alone knows how the great poet would have felt if she had been forced to listen to the bleating of Boris Johnson and the drivelling of Emmanuel Macron in addition to the kvetching breeze. Nonetheless, there is one point which is worth bearing in mind and repeating frequently when you see the ranks of plug-uglies (most mercifully muzzled) ranged against you: they are all cowards. They are, as Alice suddenly saw, nothing but a pack of cards. A gust of wind will blow them over. They have no bottom.