Can I open my eyes yet?

Picture, if you can, the world on 4 January 2020, when I sat down and began to write this post. I was three weeks into a news black-out that lasted almost three months. In this time, I avoided all news: radio, television, newspapers, internet. What news I heard was caught by accident from conversations or random online apparitions. For my mental well-being, it was bliss. Then there was this virus that I couldn’t ignore.

But in early January, I was in a reflective mood…

Close-up of a moss-covered tree branch

New Year’s Eve, and we spurned any year-in-review nonsense in favour of the oblivion of nostalgia on DVD. But we’re not immune to tradition, and as midnight approached, the FM radio went on for the chimes of Big Ben (the FM signal has less delay than the digital), and we had a look at the fireworks on the telly.

It was the usual expensive bombast, soundtracked by brief snippets of energetic music. I don’t think anyone was in the pods of the London Eye, but it would have been a terrifying view, surrounded by the explosions as the Mayor of London blasted the wretched old year into smithereens.

I’d like to know who chose (or ‘curated’) the music selection, because it really wasn’t necessary to play the riff from The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”, or, to give it its official title “The Theme From ‘O Jeremy Corbyn'”. In more optimistic days, Richard Seymour described it as ‘a sort of joyous battle cry’ (preface to the second edition of Corbyn, 2017, p. xiii). It was a complex sign, to be sure, and I’m not going to unpack here what it meant in 2017. At the end of 2019, though, it had certainly been loaded with many more emotions. Maybe it was endorsed by Sadiq Khan as an attempt to reappropriate the tune. Maybe it was played to laugh in the face of anyone who had the foolishness to hope that we could have a government that would take seriously the global challenge of the climate crisis, and the local one of health care (to name but two). Perhaps whoever selected it expected the audience to start singing along, unbidden, as they surprised themselves to recall how a political movement that proposed some mildly redistributive policies, led by a deeply principled man who is, at worst, arguably ill-suited to commanding a major political coalition, failed to stand up under the barrage of shit that materialised directly from the capitalist death-drive unconscious.

Yes. I like to think that’s what everyone thought, as they stood on the freezing banks of the Thames, about to step into the great chasm of 2020.

A sparrow hawk, I think, standing on the carcass of a pigeon, surrounded by feathers, on a quiet road.
Review of the year so far.

Corbyn’s Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in response to the Peterloo Massacre, allegorising contemporary politicians as personifications of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy. Contrasted to these is Hope, ‘But she looked more like Despair’. Hope delivers an anatomy of Freedom (incorporating Justice, Wisdom, Peace, and Love) and calls on the English to rise up against Oppression’s slavery. Jeremy Corbyn quoted from this poem during his final speech of the June 2017 election campaign. His quotation is loaded with ironies and symbols.

One irony has become horribly apparent in the last two days since the avoidable fire at Grenfell Tower in west London. Governments tend not to commit massacres against their people these days, but the process of oppression and killing is more subtle: through cutting services, cutting regulations, incentivising landlord profits. These policies led directly (according to all informed reports) to the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire. The political ideology of division and social cleansing is the hidden successor to overt state violence.

The Peterloo Massacre (in which yeomanry charged at a crowd of peaceful advocates for parliamentary reform) inspired the foundation of the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper which in its current form actively opposed Corbyn’s leadership until a few days before the June 2017 election. (For an informed comment on this particular irony, see this blog)

Shelley’s poem had been circling Corbyn’s campaign for a while, activating the mutual resonance between the campaign slogan “For the many, not the few” and the lines which close the poem (repeated from stanza 38) “Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number— / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you— / Ye are many—they are few.”

The reading by Corbyn, addressing a large crowd of supporters at the Union Chapel in Islington on the eve of the election, amplified through a booming PA system, is not intrinsically beautiful, but in the context, as his audience joins in the final line, and following an impassioned speech of stridently optimistic rhetoric, Corbyn’s performance is deeply moving. (At 29’46” here.)

Corbyn introduces the poem with reference to Mary Wollstonecraft, resident of Newington Green, her Vindication of the Rights of Women, and her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The connection Corbyn draws is political, befitting the occasion, but prefaced with the simple remark ‘you should never be afraid to say you love poetry’. This is perhaps in response to accusations from the philistine press of the sort that he would be better singing the national anthem or demonising immigrants than accepting a booking for an evening’s discussion with Ben Okri at the Royal Festival Hall.

There is also something implicit in this invocation of the traditions of English Romanticism. Beyond the immediate political exhortation and the Romantic contemporary context of Peterloo, the French Revolution, the counter-Enlightenment, and so on, there exists idealism, transcendence and living mythology. Symbolist critic G. Wilson Knight, commenting on Shelley’s Queen Mab, wrote, ‘The agonies of history with their paradisal goal ahead are seen in panorama, time being laid out flat beneath the Fairy’s dome’ (The Starlit Dome, 185). The temporal and the eternal meet in a panoptic symbol of communal responsibility. Corbyn’s Shelley is a vision of transcendent possibility in the political present.