Love and Liberty
Updated: Apr 19
In 1881, Oscar Wilde was due to make his West End debut with a play about a gang of Russian nihilists assassinating the Tsar. In March of that year in Saint Petersburg, however, a gang of Russian nihilists assassinated the Tsar, leading the Lord Chamberlain to conclude that Wilde’s drama was a little too topical for its own good, and withdraw it from the stage. It was to be more than a decade before Wilde enjoyed a London premiere.
The play in question, Vera; or, The Nihilists, is seldom accounted one of Wilde’s best, but it does contain a couple of characters who give some indication of the playwright’s promise at this early stage in his career. The great comic contrast is between the Tsar, a pitiful character who is permanently terrified, and his prime minister, Prince Paul Maraloffski, an urbane aphorist who has all the best lines, largely because he talks just like Oscar Wilde. The play’s themes of courage and cowardice, freedom and tyranny, morbid safetyism and the enjoyment of life make Vera as topical now as it was in 1881 though sadly, fewer world leaders are being assassinated.
The Tsar is so frightened of being murdered that his death, when it comes, is a blessed release. If he were living in Britain today, you might see him proceeding cautiously along the street, muzzled by two or three facemasks, and skipping like the hill highs every time he encountered a fellow pedestrian, always assuming that he managed to pluck up the courage to leave his bedroom in the first place. Prince Paul, on the other hand, would be stepping out to enjoy a varied and exciting existence, breaking all the rules of lockdown, recklessly driving to Barnard Castle on a whim, filling his life with love affairs and his house with considerably more than six dancing girls, all of whom would exhibit an ostentatious disregard for social distancing.
Wilde’s Tsar, of course, has some reason to think that his death might be imminent, but so has Prince Paul, who, as prime minister, is just as unpopular as the Tsar, and has the added danger of a jittery tyrant above him as well as hordes of nihilist conspirators below. The point, however, is that zest and excitement are a more reasonable response to danger than fear, which only makes life more dismal than death. Eat, drink, and be merry. Gather some rosebuds, and carpe plenty of diem before night falls.
I started re-reading Wilde after noticing with some alarm that I had written an article about Boris Johnson closely followed by one about David Cameron, a sure-fire recipe for acute dyspepsia. Having spent several days thinking about the politicians I hate, it seemed to me that it was long overdue to give some time to the artists I love. Such a focus on the negative is only natural when our freedoms are under such sustained and virulent attack, but it is worth trying to preserve a modicum of sanity by thinking about what we are defending, rather than what we are attacking. I hate lockdown because I love freedom. Surely the love deserves as much time and attention as the hate.
This reflection prompted me to do something embarrassingly American: I sat down and made a list of things I love, or at least like, and value about Britain. Having spent about 90% of the last decade in other countries, some of which are ruled by tyrants, I thought it worth recalling some aspects of my native land that are good, and worth fighting to preserve. I found that there are so many of them that I had to stop writing after filling a page with what I suppose must be about 200 items, though I am too lazy to count them. Many are not directly threatened by the iniquity of lockdown and the burgeoning police state, but the innocent enjoyment of them certainly is, and so is the joy of sharing them with others. The order in which these objects of my enthusiasm appear might best be described as chaotic, and I have made no attempt to alter it. If you are bored by litanies or, quite reasonably, could not care less what sort of things I like, please skip the following paragraph.
These things are good, and worth preserving: the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Wallace Collection, Sir John Soane’s Museum, the fact that so many London museums are free and you can wander in and out of them at will, the English National Opera, Covent Garden, Royal Ascot, the Derby, Glorious Goodwood, Henley Regatta, the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, the Eton and Harrow Match, Rules in Maiden Lane and Simpsons in the Strand, a Sunday roast with potatoes and parsnips, Stilton cheese, Paxton and Whitfield, Fortnum and Mason, Patum Peperium, anchovy toast, cinnamon toast, Devonshire cream, muffins, crumpets, horseradish sauce, the London Charterhouse, the Luttrell Psalter, the Benedictional of Saint Æthelwold, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe, the National Theatre, Shakespeare, Milton, Trollope, P.G. Wodehouse, the deer in the royal parks, Kew Gardens, the reredos in New College Chapel, Westminster Abbey, Wren churches, Hawksmoor churches, the unreasonably large churches they have in small villages in Norfolk, villages with about six houses which somehow manage to support a pub, pubs with ridiculous names, Glyndebourne, Garsington, the Promenade Concerts, the Royal Albert Hall, Claridge’s, Brown’s, the Ritz, the Dorchester, the Savoy, somewhat less grand hotels like Hazlitt’s and Fleming’s where you can actually stay for a while without breaking the bank, Wimbledon, strawberries and cream, summer pudding, pink sugar mice, the Bodleian Library, punts, boating lakes, Joanna Lumley, Stephen Fry, Boodle’s Club, White’s, the Atheneum, the Garrick, the Savile, the East India, Greenwich Royal Observatory, Sir James Thornhill, the South Kensington museums, Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, Chatsworth, Hatfield, Woburn, Stowe, Haddon Hall, panel shows and experimental comedy on Radio 4, the London Symphony Orchestra, Gilbert and Sullivan, Flanders and Swann, Kit and the Widow, Henry Purcell, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Grinling Gibbons, Stanley Gibbons, May Morning on Magdalen Tower, macaronic songs, the peculiar humour of medical students, Blackadder, Penelope Keith, the absurd over-formality of institutional debating societies, the Georgian architecture of Bath, Bayntun’s Book Bindery, the Kelmscott Press, the Roxburghe Club, the Albany, Burlington Arcade, game pie, Whitstable oysters, jugged hare, the Royal Institution Christmas lectures, the novels of H.E. Bates, the essays of George Orwell, the Father Brown stories, Sherlock Holmes, The Ascent of Rum Doodle, country point to point meetings, student drama in college gardens, extravagant displays of taxidermy in country houses, the conformateur used by Lock’s to make sure your hat fits perfectly, clothes from Savile Row and Jermyn Street, Kenwood House, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, the Inns of Court, Coram’s Fields, the bookshops of London, most of which are no longer on Charing Cross Road, Coptic Street, Kew Gardens, the map of the London Underground, Monty Python, the Rolling Stones, Billy Bunter, Jennings, The Dandy, Christopher Smart’s long mad poem about his cat, York Minster, Hampton Court Palace, the American Bar and the Savoy Grill, West End theatres, Soho jazz and comedy clubs, potted shrimp, Osbert Lancaster, Anthony Powell, Dame Edith Sitwell, Tooting Bec Lido, Nigel Molesworth, The Diary of a Nobody, Raffles the amateur cracksman, the shipping forecast, good-bad poetry, Three Men in a Boat, Ealing comedies, Christmas carol services, hymns with lines no one understands, canals, barges, sherry trifle, the Glorious Twelfth, Sunday teatime television, follies on country estates, ruined abbeys, Byron, Keats and Shelley, gargoyles, mediaeval chained libraries, the smell of old books, the smell of new books, Pimm’s and lemonade, Gin and tonic, drinks flavoured with elderflower, dandelion and burdock, Longleat Safari Park, The London Review of Books, the obscene poems of the Earl of Rochester, conkers, croquet, fairgrounds, boys’ adventure stories, straw hats, top hats, garish blazers, the little gardens in the middle of London squares, Dr. Samuel Johnson, the Oxford English Dictionary, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Grove Dictionaries of Art and Music, Ordnance Survey maps, the Army Surplus stores, barn owls, barns, sage and onion stuffing, smoked fish, Cowes Week, the Royal Academy of Arts, the London Planetarium, bacon sandwiches, Worcestershire sauce, Beef Wellington, bread sauce, lemon syllabub, toast with Oxford marmalade…
I think I shall stop there, having become somewhat fixated on food. I could make similar, though shorter, lists about many other countries, and am well aware of how much this one reveals about my age, social class, educational background, geographical location, and scarred psyche. It is the wider point, however, that matters. We live, move, and have our being within a complex civilisation which has taken many centuries to refine to its present point, and any one of us could, without even thinking very hard, name literally hundreds of aspects of this civilisation which we appreciate and cherish. Many of us thought that we also lived in a society which had evolved to a point where politicians had reluctantly accepted their trivial and peripheral role in maintaining this civilisation. We understood that they would lie, cheat, steal and talk nonsense, but we did not believe that they would or could behave like the despots of the mid twentieth century, smashing society to pieces and building a hideous and barbaric prison in its place. We were wrong about this, and now everything that matters in our society is threatened. This does not mean that every single thing I love about Britain will disappear if we lose. Fortnum and Mason online will doubtless oblige with Stilton cheese and London dry gin, as Aldous Huxley’s world state kept its citizens well supplied with soma. Whether I shall be able to enjoy these fine things very much when incarcerated and isolated in a subjugated state is another matter.
Osama bin Laden boasted that his acolytes loved death more than their victims loved life. I recall being unimpressed by this when I first heard it. I do not particularly love life, as it is manifested in cauliflowers, cockroaches, and cabinet ministers. I love life within a society that embraces the values of civilisation and liberty. Without those values, I do not much care about the mere continuation of existence.
Before concluding, I feel a sneaking desire either to erase my list completely, or perhaps to revise it so that I appear to be a wiser and more sophisticated person, or at least one who has grown up. I feel that I may have exposed myself as a feeble and puerile personality, whose chief pleasures in life are some light literature, a fairly basic cocktail, and a crumpet. This is not entirely inaccurate, but neither does it matter much. Even if my reading had never progressed beyond Billy Bunter or my palate past cream soda, these childish tastes would be infinitely more important than all the fussing and footling of the state, which exists to protect my liberty, and allow me to enjoy such pleasures unmolested. Literally every freedom you exercise matters more than the idiocies of politics. The point of public life is to enable private life to happen, and it is in private life; families and communities, relationships and romances, incomprehensible aims and harmless obsessions, that the true joy of existence lies. We love freedom more than they love power, and I go to war, not exactly for the sake of muffins and marmalade, but at any rate to prevent them from turning to ashes in my mouth, and to preserve a culture deserving of such delicacies.