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  • Alastair Cavendish

So They Smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven

Hot on the heels of the Theatre Royal in Stratford promoting a Black Out evening, a performance of the play Tambo and Bones which they encourage white people not to attend, the parish council in the small Cumbrian community of Whitehaven has announced that the town will be changing its name. “White people have enjoyed safe havens for far too long,” expostulated the mayor, Mr. R.T. Fishall. “We will no longer be providing them with one, and will henceforth be known as Black-Lives-Matter-On-Sea.”


You may not have heard the latter of these two stories, partly because the media in Britain is in such a parlous state these days, and partly because I made it up. The former is true enough, and is probably a very efficient way to fill the theatre with indignant white contrarians on at least one night of a month-long run. The Theatre Royal is in Stratford, East London, not Stratford-upon-Shakespeare. They cannot rely on an influx of American tourists and bored French schoolchildren over the summer, and are probably delighted at the prospect of having the auditorium stuffed to the gills with GB News presenters, all paying handsomely for their tickets.


To be serious for a moment (and a moment is quite enough) racial discrimination is a bad thing, and the Theatre Royal’s idea is divisive and stupid. It is to be hoped that no consequences more serious than the occasional icy stare eventuate from their racist policy. I cannot, however, bring myself to care very much about being asked not to attend a production which I never had the slightest intention of going to see anyway, at a time when genuine evils are all too plentiful. Fury may not be a scarce resource, but there are so many worthier targets that one would not wish to waste much of it on an East London theatre.


Every institution in Britain has failed, and many of them regularly provide clear evidence of their failure. The Metropolitan Police could not have shown their colours much more plainly than they did when they arrested three Westminster Night Watch volunteers in Soho on the eve of the Coronation. These volunteers were working, supposedly in partnership with the police, to keep vulnerable women safe, and it would have been quite easy to establish their identity from the QR codes on their jackets. Instead, the organization responsible for sheltering and abetting the most notorious serial rapists in recent history decided to incarcerate these innocent people for the better part of a day.


This incident is not of enormous importance by itself. No one was killed or injured. No lives were ruined. However, it is illustrative of evil in a way that the actions of the Theatre Royal clearly are not. The police have ruined lives and killed people, and they have done so with the connivance of the entire establishment. The last few years have seen a sustained attack on democratic accountability, together with a sharp increase in excess deaths, a tsunami of mental illness, and an unparalleled raid on the exchequer, which has made most people in Britain significantly poorer. It is not always clear whom one should blame for these evils, but some groups are clearly not responsible:


1. Immigrants crossing the channel in small boats.

2. Young people who inhale nitrous oxide in parks.

3. Millennials who like avocado toast.

4. Transsexuals.

5. Pronouns.

6. The Management of the National Theatre in Stratford.


Each time I read a news story in which I am exhorted to become enraged with these groups, or any other powerless people, I suspect misdirection. It was just such a suspicion that allowed some of us to see the absurd panic over 2019 coronavirus for what it was; a frenzy whipped up by the media over a garden-variety medical event, when so many of our fellow citizens were taken in.


As voters, we are presented with a binary choice between two political parties, both of which have tiny memberships and misleading names. The Conservative Party has failed to conserve anything; the Labour Party does nothing for workers. Neither deserves your support, and voting has become little more than a strategic exercise by the politically homeless to exclude the greater of two evils from office. The solution to this, if there is one, is not clear, and will certainly require long-term and painful cultural change. In the meantime, it is reasonable to side with the left or the right on single issues where they happen to be correct, but not to imagine that either faction, or apparent faction, has truth and justice on its side.


It is not left versus right or progressive versus reactionary; it is Us versus Them. They have two major political parties and we have none. They have the media, the civil service, the police, and the entire weight of the establishment, whether ostensibly right-wing or left-wing, behind them. But who are They? The name of Whitehaven recalls one of Edward’s Lear’s most disturbing limericks, which awakened the same response in two writers who created the best-known dystopias of the twentieth century: Aldous Huxley and his one-time pupil, George Orwell. In his essay on nonsense poetry, Orwell wrote:


"Aldous Huxley, in praising Lear's fantasies as a sort of assertion of freedom, has pointed out that the They of the limericks represent common sense, legality and the duller virtues generally. They are the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing. For instance:


"There was an Old Man of Whitehaven, Who danced a quadrille with a raven; But they said, “It's absurd To encourage this bird!” So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.


"To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that They would do."


Orwell’s final observation here is acute, but his earlier remarks are perhaps too charitable. Smashing a whimsical old man for his eccentricity involves something worse than dull virtue or common sense. In the demotic sense, it is fascism: insistence on conformity and worship of brute force, and it is equally ugly whether it comes from the apparent left or the purported right of the political spectrum.

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