I sometimes wander through Trafalgar Square in the small hours when the traffic has abated and children are no longer scrambling over Landseer’s lions. Hard by his own Whitehall, there is Charles I, a symbol of the constitutional agonies of that era. To most high Tories, he is Charles, King and martyr, Anglicanism’s only saint. Even Marvell saw the romance. -Others’ -responses blend tribute with exasperation. Raison d’état can require ruthlessness and Charles I was not the first failed monarch to meet a premature death. If only Cromwell had arranged for an accidental discharge, rather than a judicial murder.
Moving on and looking up, the eye can feast on unalloyed romance: that most glorious of heroes, Admiral Lord Nelson, on his column. He too can claim the laurels of martyrdom, for he fell protecting his country’s freedom. ‘Bonaparte may come to England, Sire,’ said St Vincent to George III, ‘but he will not come by sea.’ There are various versions of this. Old Jarvie probably said it more than once. But Nelson vindicated his prediction.
Contemplating the column and its guardian lions, we are aware of more symbolism, for they belong to an age of serene imperial self-confidence. These symbols direct the eye down Whitehall, past the offices that were at the centre of a great empire on which the sun never set, to Westminster Abbey, the parish church of that Empire, to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament: more mid-Victorian serenity. The Palace of Westminster also contains Westminster Hall, peopled by ghosts from much less serene periods. Opposite is the statue of the last imperial lion, Winston Churchill. History is here, as statuary and architecture. History is now and England (plus the other three).
But T.S. Eliot himself might not have been so serene if he had been alive today. At moments, the current history of England resembles a blend of Juno and the Paycock and A Mad World, My Masters — plus a dash of the Terrible Sonnets. For the past few days, -Trafalgar Square has been full of eco-loonies, the disturbance of the peace completed by police sirens and the helicopters overhead. Nelson, thou shouldst be living at this hour: not the Nelson of Trafalgar, but the commander who put down the Neapolitan anti-monarchists in 1799. That is not generally regarded as his finest hour, and most of those liberals would not deserve to be bracketed with Miss Thunberg and her rabblement. Even so, whiffs of grapeshot have their uses.
Madness in the streets; madness in the theatre. Warnings are issued about Romeo and Juliet: some scenes might be distressing. What would happen if they put on Lear? If you leave a performance of that play without a ravaged soul, it must have been a bad production. But no doubt the Globe will use Nahum Tate’s text. He gave the play a happy ending.
Perhaps we should not despise happy endings. Spengler’s The Decline of the West: today, the West is following his script. Throughout the world, the West’s enemies are gloating and plotting. Nato has been hit by a torpedo, the President of the USA is going gaga, our Prime Minister is a jackanapes: the only person who makes any sense is Tony Blair. What a mess.
There is only one thing to do — turn to the bottle: in my case, a sherry bottle. That brings a double ration of cheer: the drink itself, and Sir John Falsfaff, the greatest figure in English comedy, yet also a necessary victim of raison d’état. ‘If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them would be to foreswear thin potations and addict themselves to sack.’ Sherris-sack was the Elizabethan name for sherry. I have been drinking Palo Cortado Apostoles: subtle, complex, powerful, delicious. You can find it for £20 a bottle, which is a bargain, and keeps politics at bay.
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