10th November 2017

Flanders Field doggerel for Brexit Ears

My son (10) has been instructed by his primary school to learn for homework ‘In Flanders Fields’, a piece of doggerel that in its final lines incites unspecified present and future soldiers to pursue ‘our quarrel’ against the ‘foe’, saying that not to do so would be to ‘break the faith’ – whatever that is – and somehow to prevent the dead from sleeping. Of course, the nature of the ‘quarrel’ is not specified either.

In other times and places, such piffle, though popular, might be laughed off. But some English [sic] politicians have begun to refer to their fellow Europeans as ‘enemies’ and to those who all too timidly continue to oppose ‘Brexit’ as traitors. At the same time, once respectable albeit rightwing journalists have now taken to calling European politicians and civil servants ‘EU monkeys’ in mass-circulation newspapers (Rod Liddle in The Sun, 26.10.17).

As an antidote to Flanders-Fields doggerel, my son and I are now reading Wilfred Owen, whose forthright English tones were inflected with a quiet internationalism, quite free of any scoundrel patriotism: ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend…’ says the narrator at the end of ‘Strange Meeting’. In ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, Owen portrays the failure to avoid conflict on the part of European nations, depicted as an old ‘Abram’, as a refusal to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’, opting instead to slay ‘half the seed of Europe one by one.’

On the 11th November, we shall be making the modest gesture of wearing white rather than red poppies, in order to commemorate those of all nations who were slaughtered in the shameful twilight-imperial bloodbath known as World War One and especially those who stoutly refused to enlist or chose to desert and face certain death rather than to submit to the knaves, fools and asses who bade them kill their brothers and sisters.

Let us celebrate the words of the German anti-militarist Karl Liebknecht who in 1915, in the teeth of nationalistic compatriots and of backsliding fellow socialists, stated: Der Hauptfeind steht im eigenen Land. (The main enemy is in one’s own country). This was also the position of the Scottish Labourite internationalist Keir Hardie, the French pacifist Romain Rolland and many other fine men, women and children across Europe and beyond. These are the people we should honour in such times of dusted-off jingoism and extemporised foe-speak.


25 June 2017

Remembering A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Donna Triggs’ sensitive and forthright production of Peter Nichols’ dark comedy, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, continues to work on its audience – if I am remotely typical – like a depth charge almost a month after seeing it at The Garage, Norwich. So no apologies for taking all this time to reflect on the play and its staging.

When I first saw the play, it was the late 1960s and I was a teenager. I remember being shocked by the staging of severe physical handicap: in those days, with the exception of the men [sic] maimed in war, who tended to carry their wounds proudly, the disabled were hidden away. I was on the cusp of adulthood yet apart from the teenage girl next door, a spastic polio victim – yes, that was indeed the accepted language, shared by experts and family members alike – I had never encountered severe disability: not at school, not among friends or relatives, certainly not in books, magazines or on radio or tv. Ironside, the first police series to feature a wheelchair-bound detective wasn’t yet screening in Britain.

It takes an effort to recall – let alone to imagine – quite how shocking Joe Egg then was. As well as displaying the face of severe disability in the character of Joesephine, confined to a wheelchair, incapable of speech and, as is made brutally clear, unable to control her bodily motions, the play presents in her parents, Bri and Sheila, two contrasting characters, the father as desperately clownish as the mother is doggedly, painfully, resilient. The mind games that Bri and Sheila play as they dance and improvise something approaching a normal married life around their daughter’s central presence – central absence, I should say – is the very heart of the play’s first half, along with the personality traits they invent for Joesephine in order, it seems, to sustain their open-hearted devotion.

In the second half of the play, two new characters, Freddie and Pam, long-term friends of Bri and Sheila, are introduced, serving to embody the outside world and its varying conventional views of disability. While Freddie, who is well-intentioned and keen that Bri and Sheila should be ‘practical’, sketches out a humane solution to what he sees as Bri and Sheila’s intolerable predicament, Pam, his wife, displays a feeling of revulsion at the very thought and sight of disability, as if it were not merely traumatic but somehow intrinsically impolite or indecent.

It is at this point that the focus of Donna Triggs’ production seemed to shift from Joesephine’s parents – roles performed with maniacal energy by Robin Watson and titanic calm by Lois Entwistle – to Joesephine herself and, perhaps surprisingly, to Pam (played by the director herself). And as this shift in our attention proceeded, so did our self-questioning. From ‘could I ever be as good-humoured and inventive as Bri or as resilient and loving as Sheila?’ we moved to an examination of first Joesephine and then Pam.

From the outset, Moira Hickson’s formidably rich and suggestive portrayal of Joesephine repeatedly raised the suspicion that there was an active mind, a will and a consciousness at work there, despite the absence in the text or on the stage of any real evidence to that effect. And so it was that Joesephine, the object – or mere occasion – of the play curiously became its central subject as we, in imitation of Bri and Sheila, began to seek and almost involuntarily to construct a personality for ‘Joe’, willing her to live more fully. At the same time as this process unfolded, the character of Pam seemed to turn from vulgarly reprehensible, a perfect model of how not to react, to pitiful and deeply human.

After the performance I attended, there was an extended discussion with the actors, the director, and also with members of The Hamlet, a Norwich-based disability centre, including a severely disabled young man and his mother. When asked how she judged the characters and attitudes represented in the play, the young man’s mother not only voiced sympathy and understanding for Bri and Sheila but proved quite unwilling to condemn Pam, whose revulsion she attributed to simple ignorance and, above all, to fear.

Time was spent discussing the way language and perceptions have changed for the better in the last fifty years, since the play was written. Yet there is clearly no room for condescension towards the past nor for complacency about the present circumstances for disabled people. What has been achieved in terms of rights and inclusion took years of campaigning by those most directly involved and also required support and solidarity from wider society. In times that remain austere, this engagement will remain essential. Triggs’ Joe Egg and the work of The Hamlet, in different ways, will be important in this struggle.



The following review was published in TLS in 1995. 


Piero Camporesi, Exotic Brew. Translated by Christopher Woodall. 193 pp. Oxford: Polity. £29.50.

From a review by Patrice Higonnet of several works. Title of the review: ‘Let them drink chocolate. Salons, food and the growth of civil society.’

Goodman and Gordon are strict taskmasters who write from verse and chapter; Censer’s scholarship is impeccable and cold. In Bologna, however, Piero Camporesi is a poet.The darkening shadows of theory are never visible in his text, which is none the less remarkably informed. Everything in Exotic Brew is culinarily transposed and comes with succulent recipes such as the one for Président des Brosses’s favourite creamed sweet: beef marrow, milk-soaked breadcrumbs, almond paste, cinnamon and stock-covered currants. In Camporesi’s pages, the individuation of social life becomes smaller table-ware, personalized settings, or a quest for comfort. Cartesiansism exists, but as a “ratio convivialis”, a reconceptualized sequence of dishes, whose deeper meaning is of a “geometrical order and mathematical reason”. The feminized salons are “the dreams of lightness become a social imperative”. Like Goodman and Gordon, Camporesi also sees sociability as the key to Enlightened thinking, but he sets it in a very different register: “The dinner-table was becoming the condensation chamber for the new frontiers of the mind”; and a dinner without Voltaire was “like a ring without a gem”. Food, writes Camporesi, “was spoken rather than eaten, taken with detachment, while the new hot beverages… punctuated the passage of time with an obligatory ritual and etiquette”. Coffee and chocolate were the “liquid emblems of a new society”.

Camporesi does not ignore high politics: the decay after 1700 of monarchic authority, so important to Habermas and his disciples, is relevant to him oo, if only gastronomically. Camporesi’s definition of “l’infâme” does include an implied critique of political excess in an age when – in the words of the sceptic academician and tutor in the French royal house, La Mothe le Vayer (1588-1673), “the princes of Europe fed on vipers the fowls [which] they themselves consume”. But Camporesi subsumes these princely politics under a culinary rubric, namely the “extravagance of the baroque imagination [with its] bombastic cascades of main dishes”.

For him, Enlightenment politics and lighter food were always very close; did not French haute cuisine begin during the negotiations for the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713? But for Camporesi, the difference between absolutism and enlightened despotism is not so much in the changed Habermasian configuration of the private and the public, as in the fact that Louis XIV, contemptuous of the civil sphere, never tasted potage garbure (which he easily could have done) whereas Frederick the Great, the first servant of the state, “composed verses in praise of pâté à la sardanapole”. Because the abbé Galiani’s acrimonious dispute with Morellet in 1770 over the advantages of free trade is a set-piece in any discussion of Enlightenment sociability, the Neapolitan minister appears at some length in both Goodman’s and Gordon’s texts. And Camporesi cites him too, but in his book, Galiani is not merely a polemicist. He is also a moderate and Enlightened man whose elevation of spirit enabled him to admire Morellet’s skill in carving pullets.

The transformation of the public sphere, the revalorization of civil society; these lofty changes, Camporesi reminds us, were hard to understand for those who lived them day by day, unthinkingly. But drinking chocolate (or, in Boston, tea) was more simple. In 1794, the reactionary Bishop of Parma knew what he was doing when he condemned ex cathedra the wicked love of novelties. For Camporesi, every new dish, every gastronomico-philosophical self-indulgence, every lavish table, every “epic of chocolate and sugar” contributed to “the graceful disorder” of the eighteenth century. Take the case of Cardinal Moncada, who was much interested in cooling and heating techniques and consequently devised a “well lubricated enema [that] entailed blowing hot tobacco smoke into the anus by means of a tube”. For Camporesi, the man is not an amiable eccentric but a “culture hero”.

Tiresome, postmodern Italian chic? No: Camporesi is very learned. He knows Bolognese food and culture perfectly. His knowledge of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuitical texts is impressive. He weighs his sources carefully, and he characteristically rejects, as he should, the questionable idea that the Cardinal of York, last of the Stuart line and a vegetarian, could really have consumed thirty pounds of chocolate a day. His playful, crafted and optimistic book is modest and accessible, elegant and entertaining, with, unexpectedly, an elegaic aroma: Camporesi’s diners had it in their mind to reject ponderous baroque cookery, but we see them also feasting in the shadow of the guillotine. Voltaire would have found food for thought in this delightful and incisive book.