Mainly About Books
by the books editor
At the beginning of the month the Brexit controversy took a surprising literary turn, which is worth a few considerations.
Prime Minster Alexander Boris Pfeffell Johnson began it. (It is a sign of the sad times we live in that the mere use of a politician’s full family name should so easily have an inadvertently satirical sound.) Britain, he claimed, was facing a challenging time with the choice the nation faced. But no one should despair – it was now time “to do or die”.
As Boris is well aware, the allusion is to Tennyson. As a working journalist all his life, I suspect that like P.G. Wodehouse when he wanted a toney quote for Jeeves to supply to Bertie Wooster, Boris is a quick man with his Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
My thought was that the expression came from poet laureate Tennyson’s (1809-1892) ode on the charge of the Light Brigade in 1854.
He wrote that it was not for those so readily sacrificed themselves in the famous Charge to question orders: “Their’s not to reason why, / their’s but to do and die.”
A line or two earlier the poet admitted that those heroes of the hour accepted the order, even though it was wrong: “Not tho’ the soldier knew / Some one had blunder’d.”
The man who blundered they well knew was Captain Louis Nolan, though perhaps Lords Lucan and Cardigan had helped. Still Nolan had least the brave distinction of being the first to die in the charge.
Who blunders now, we can all put a family name to as well.
But further exploration of the inestimable Bartlett revealed more. The phrase appeared first in the 1621 in John Fletcher’s The Island Princess. It was also used by Robert Burns in his poem Bannockburn, and later by Thomas Campbell (a lesser known Scottish poet) in his Gertrude of Wyoming (1809), which dealt with the massacre by British loyalists of a party of American patriots during the revolutionary war.
Sir Walter Scott in reviewing Campbell’s error-ridden verses, claimed “This expression is a kind of common property, being the motto we believe of a Scottish family”.
I doubt if Boris would be recalling a Scots nationalist like Burns. I suspect that when Boris used the phrase as a slogan he would have had some vague, very vague, echo in his mind Tennyson, forgetting that the charge was a mad error by a befuddled British leader.
If this dependence on literary allusions by Boris was not enough, we are told that Dominic Cummings, his unelected chief adviser invoked Sun Tzu’s Art of War in his attitude to those opposing his master, in whose service he has changed his own view constantly.
The Chinese sage speaks of outsmarting the enemy by confusing them, so avoiding war. Yet this is not the sense that President Trump took from his reading of the Art of War – a much in-vogue manual with the financiers that brought about the great financial disaster which we are still getting out of.
Trump and perhaps Boris learn from the same book that the aim of war is the absolute destruction of the enemy; a zero sum outcome – in modern conflict this would constitute a war crime. There should only be one winner. The rest of enemy must die.
Politicians should heed the warning of Swift and Orwell that they should speak plainly”
But in a liberal democracy such as Britain purports to be Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are not “an enemy to be destroyed”. They are in fact, as here, the government in-waiting, which it how it should be. But there seems to be a growing feeling among some Tories that conservatives of their ilk have the only right to rule.
For me, Sun Tzu is summed up in his aphorism: “Kill one, terrify a thousand” – the creed of the terrorist in every age humanity has known.
All of this comes of reducing politics to sloganising, which so many parties now indulge in. Politicians should heed the warning of Swift and Orwell that they should speak plainly, and not in slogans, for only in clear words can the truth be told. Surely that is not a hard lesson to learn after a million years of human evolution.