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  • Alastair Cavendish

Where the Nuts Come From

Having decided long ago that literature is vastly superior to life, I occasionally have to disillusion my students by pointing out that the books they read are all too likely to engender unrealistic expectations. Their love affairs will not be neatly arranged by Jane Austen, and their adventures will not be thrillingly plotted by Arthur Conan Doyle. The same, oddly enough, is true of dystopias. Real life, in certain countries and at certain times, has been far bleaker than any book by Kafka or Zamyatin, but it has never been so well-organised or so competently led as fictional dystopias are.


Take O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. We do not know how close O’Brien is to the apex of power in Oceania, but he is the highest-ranking Party official we meet, who also happens to be the most intelligent character in the book. Winston’s defeat is not merely physical, but intellectual, he cannot argue with the evil genius whose mind contains his. The same is true of the suave, sophisticated Mustapha Mond in Brave New World. These tyrants are more able leaders than democracies have ever been able to provide, in fact or fiction.


In real life, dystopian societies are created by men with a combination of luck and brutality. Mao, a failed academic who had to become a dictator in order to get anyone to read his turgid bloviations, was probably the most intelligent of them. Mussolini had all his thinking done for him by Giovanni Gentile. Hitler was, at best, a third-rate intellect who misunderstood and misapplied the ideas of cleverer men. Stalin was even less able. The most thoroughly dystopian society I have experienced myself is that of Venezuela, where I did my best to forget all the Spanish I had ever learned in order to be free from the nonsensical ramblings of Hugo Chavez, which caused every public space to echo with idiocy.


Perhaps the fictional dystopia that best captures the atmosphere of a real one is Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film, Brazil. Apparently, the original title was some variation on Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I have no idea why it was finally called Brazil unless it is because, as Charley’s Aunt observed, that’s where the nuts come from. The regime against which Sam Lowry, played with wide eyed-astonishment and exasperation by Jonathan Pryce, finds himself pitted is stupid as well as evil, bureaucratic, dysfunctional, corrupt, and maddeningly incompetent. In other words, it is just the type of dystopia that the current government is in the process of creating.


When you, sagacious reader, find yourself in the Ministry of Love, your interrogator will not be a brilliant polymath with a sophistical solution to every objection you raise. He will be a glassy-eyed clone of Gavin Williamson, without the intelligence to form a coherent sentence. Winston Smith found himself outmaneuvered by an International Grandmaster; you will be playing chess with a pigeon.


The combination of malice and idiocy which characterises the Johnson regime has been graphically demonstrated by the government’s reaction to the murder of Sarah Everard. When some people held a peaceful vigil on Clapham Common, the authorities refused to cooperate with the organisers, presumably to ensure that the event would be as chaotic as possible. When, in spite of this, it proved to be a perfectly dignified and peaceable response to a tragic event, the government decided to send in riot police to beat up some of the women there. Then various politicians appeared the next day, clutching pearls and wringing hands over a display of violence they had authorised and encouraged. I hold no brief for Dame Cressida Dick; her actions and comments show that she is fully complicit in the idiocy, but Johnson, Patel, and Khan certainly have no right to criticize her for following their instructions.


It is the announcement of Project Vigilant, however, that brings this government’s actions to a pitch of irony and absurdity so intense that it is difficult to see how they will ever eclipse it, though in this one area, I have confidence in their abilities. Their latest idea is to prevent violence against women by putting plain-clothes police officers in pubs. I imagine you have a few thoughts about this, and I don’t suppose many of them could be voiced in the presence of children or the delicately nurtured, so allow me to address the government on your behalf, after taking a very deep breath and counting, like Tattycoram, to five and twenty:


1. There aren’t any pubs. You closed all the pubs, you wretched fascists. Had you forgotten that?

2. The highest-profile person to be arrested for violence against, and, indeed, murder of a woman in Britain today is a serving police officer.

3. You decided it would be a good idea to send more police officers to molest women while they were holding a vigil for that murdered woman. This has led some women to think that the police are not altogether committed to their safety.

4. That situation probably would not have been improved if the officers in question had spent the previous few hours drinking themselves into a frenzy.

5. Very little violence against women occurs in crowded pubs. Some rapists and murderers are put off by the presence of large numbers of witnesses.


I could go on, but you, dear reader, are a great deal sharper than Priti Patel, and have grasped the point. The more powerful and power-hungry the state becomes, the more clueless and incompetent it is. In fascist regimes, strength goes hand in hand with stupidity. As E.M. Forster observes, in this magnificent passage from “What I Believe”, intelligence may not save us in the end, but we can at least use it delay the destruction of civilisation by dull-witted dragons and giants:


Some people idealise force and pull it into the foreground and worship it, instead of keeping it in the background as long as possible. I think they make a mistake, and I think that their opposites, the mystics, err even more when they declare that force does not exist. I believe that it exists, and that one of our jobs is to prevent it from getting out of its box. It gets out sooner or later, and then it destroys us and all the lovely things which we have made. But it is not out all the time, for the fortunate reason that the strong are so stupid. Consider their conduct for a moment in The Nibelung's Ring. The giants there have the guns, or in other words the gold; but they do nothing with it, they do not realise that they are all-powerful, with the result that the catastrophe is delayed and the castle of Valhalla, insecure but glorious, fronts the storms. Fafnir, coiled round his hoard, grumbles and grunts; we can hear him under Europe today; the leaves of the wood already tremble, and the Bird calls its warnings uselessly. Fafnir will destroy us, but by a blessed dispensation he is stupid and slow, and creation goes on just outside the poisonous blast of his breath.

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