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Corona Diaries: Boris’s darkest hour

May 11, 2020

The BBC is very cruel. On Saturday, the night before Boris Johnson’s address to the nation, it chose to screen The Darkest Hour. I happened upon the last thirty minutes of the movie, in which Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill struggles to hold himself and the country together during the fall of France.

Mussolini has offered to mediate a peace deal with Hitler. Leading members of the War Cabinet persuade him to accept Il Duce’s offer. Winston, barely coherent, agrees that they should draft a response.

There follows a dark night of depression, in which Clemmie, his wife, tries to boost his spirits and the King, who arrives unexpectedly, succeeds. The next morning, on his way to Parliament, he escapes from his car, hops on to the Tube and asks his fellow passengers if they think he should give in to Hitler. Never, comes the resounding response.

Duly strengthened by the will of the people (at least those in one carriage of the Metropolitan Line), he marches into the House of Commons with the speed of an Olympic walker. He addresses a group of MPs with a blood-curdling speech in which he vows to die choking on his own blood fighting the Nazi invaders. He walks into the War Cabinet meeting, tears up the letter to Mussolini and stalks off to address the House, his opponents trailing in his wake and muttering about a vote of no confidence.

He then delivers his “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech to a rapturous reception. As the armada of little boats makes its way towards Dunkirk, the film ends.

For me the most telling line in the movie comes at the end. With order papers cascading to the floor of the House, Halifax, Winston’s main rival and proponent of the peace talks, is asked “what just happened?”. He replies “he just mobilised the English language – and sent it into battle.”

It’s stirring stuff, even if Winston never actually came anywhere near a tube train at the time.

And now, alas poor Boris, struggling in the footsteps of a giant he adores. No Empire to come to his aid. No visible enemy at the gates. No fleet to protect our shores. A worthy successor to Mussolini in the White House. No packed House of Commons to rally and rouse. Just baby steps and new slogans that appear to have been written by committee.

Alas also for the English language. The soaring rhetoric of Churchill replaced by a recitation of rules that might have excited a convention of council librarians, but is unlikely to have inspired a nation whose resolve is crumbling amidst mixed messages and unchallenged outbreaks of civil disobedience.

Unfair of course. They don’t make ‘em like Winston any more. Nowadays, anyone attempting to sway an audience with Churchillian rhetoric is likely to be laughed off as a pompous buffoon.

The most effective political language today is delivered in simple staccato bursts. It’s fashioned for short attention spans. When the politician delivering it goes off script, often enough they collapse into incoherence. The ability to think on one’s feet seems to have atrophied as steadily as education standards have risen beyond the preserve of the elite.

So instead of blood sweat and tears, we’re faced with R-numbers, conditional measures, stay alert and control the virus. Even a former journalist like Boris, who delights in florid phrases, looks like Gulliver pinned to the ground by an army of bureaucrats and advisers who argue about every phrase, every nuance.

Margaret Thatcher’s best efforts at Churchillian style fell flat when, after one of her election wins, she intoned “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony; where there is error, may we bring truth; where there is doubt, may we bring faith, and where there is despair, may we bring hope.” Unfortunately she spoke in the monotone of a schoolgirl who had stayed up all night to learn her lines in a poetry competition.

In 2020, she might have said “Where there’s a virus, may we bring vaccines; where there’s a lockdown, may we bring cybersex; where there’s testing, may we bring targets, and where there is Italy, may we bring South Korea.” On second thoughts, that wouldn’t work either, not even from the mouth of Winston.

So now we have a choice. Across the Atlantic we can listen to Donald Trump whining away about American Carnage and Make America Great Again. Over here we have Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done and Save the NHS, and Boris Johnson addressing the nation with all the authority of a puppy that has just pissed on the floor.

On the other hand, we can still rejoice in novels, films, poetry and plays that remind us what the English language is really about.

Alongside writers such as Hilary Mantel, Lee Child, Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Franzen, Susan Sontag, Armando Iannuci, Tom Holland and Jez Butterworth, poor Boris, desperate Donald and their armies of semi-coherent acolytes don’t stand a chance.

Advance Britannia, God Bless America and all the other English-speaking nations! There’s still hope for our beloved mother tongue.

From → Books, History, Politics, UK, USA

8 Comments
  1. The written English still has a wonderful practitioner and champion in you Steve, alongside very shrewd and incisive analysis, thank goodness.

    Good old Winston, polled by the BBC to have been “the greatest ever briton” a few years ago, has never been all that popular in Wales where I’m from, and not just because of sending the troops into Tonypandy with orders to shoot-to-kill striking coal miners during the General Strike of 1926 (the troops wouldn’t do it) when he was Home Secretary, but also because of his brilliance in killing perhaps 3, or 4, or more millions of Indian people in The Bengal Famine he engineered during WWII, when Indian soldiers were fighting Rommel etc, for the British Empire, as part of the the largest volunteer army in world history. The Greek Partisans who fought the “Naaaazis” weren’t too happy when he butchered butchered them either.

    However, my Mam and Dad during and after WWII thought of him as a great war leader and national hero, and were completely convinced that they’d actually heard him make his “we’ll fight them on the beaches” speech on the BBC, when in fact the only people who heard that speech were in the House of Commons, though he did record it for the radio 9 years after the war ended, pissed-up in bed – such inspiring tonality.

    But of course you’re quite right, as usual – I’d give almost anything to have Winston Churchill as prime minister right now, instead of Boris The Johnson.

    Thanks. You and yours please keep well.

    • Thanks Ronnie. Winston was a flawed hero, and there’s plenty of dispute over his black marks, especially his role in Bengal. I like the bit about your Mum and Dad and their recovered memory. But my point was about the declining art of rhetoric. Your parents, coming from the land of Lloyd George and Bevan, must have been connoisseurs.

  2. I’m sorry for the shambling and incoherent rant Steve, it’s just that I’m quite literally worried sleepless. My daughter, the youngest of my three children, and her husband my son-in-law are both NHS doctors, and my other 2 children and grandkids are here in Britain and America, and I’m afraid I’m somewhat lacking in confidence re: the leaders of both those nations. I have no idea what’s going to happen, and so frighteningly I’m pretty certain that neither do the governments of either the UK or the US. God help us all (says the Welsh atheist).

    • You’re right to be worried of course. I agree with you on all points.

  3. Oh, Steve, I ‘m not sure there is hope for our language. You quote Hilary Mantel – whereas her books have translated well into television series, she’s a sufferer from creating confusion in her writing. In a room with more than one man, she talks of “he” with no indication of who “he” is. Her books drive me up the wall.
    The media use language designed to scare, and in doing so, stop people using their own critical faculties, thereby deliberately obfuscating whatever issue they don’t want us to understand.
    They present possibilities as facts.
    In France they continually present the possible contamination figures as cast in stone: an infected person ‘could’ possibly infect three other persons. O.K. We don’t doubt that. However the next sentence contains something like, “therefore” these people in their turn “will” infect at least 3 other people. This becomes multiplied into the sum of these figures which “will” result in a new wave of infections. Now, neither you nor I are good at sums like that, but we’ve been frightened into accepting that it will be a horrendous number, beyond calculation. This is presented as “fact”. We are well and truly frightened.
    As for Bumbling mendacious Boris – well, what can I say!

    • Oops, mixed you up with someone else Rachel. Sorry! I don’t share the same view on Mantel, but perception is everything. On the language of the pandemic I agree. The result is that we’re frightened and sceptical at the same time. A bit of a quantum state, you might say! S

  4. deborah a moggio permalink

    “The ability to think on one’s feet seems to have atrophied as steadily as education standards have risen beyond the preserve of the elite.”
    I’m not by nature a conspiracy theory follower, but I do try to watch trends.
    I don’t know how things are working in the U.K., though sadly, I have seen throughout my lifetime that what is done in the U.S. is all too often adopted through the rest of the world.
    Here I have watched with growing distress the destruction of the public school system. (and I’m sure you know the difference between our public schools and yours…. )
    When my younger son was in Middle School, more than 35 years ago, the school system in our town was closed for a week to allow a group to come in from outside, at great expense, to teach the teachers Socratic method and critical thinking.
    A few of us were allowed to sit in on various classes on the proviso that we not speak.
    I was aghast at what transpired in the “class” I witnessed.
    The following week there was a meeting open to the town to talk about the great event, with school management fairly breaking their arms as they patted themselves on their backs.
    Finally the floor was opened to questions/comments from the audience.
    A young man who taught at the High School arose and said, that while this would probably cost him his job, he had to speak.
    He pointed out first that what was taught was not critical thinking, but rather criticism. He went on to say that those really in charge of our government, none of them elected, would not want children raised to think critically. If they were, who would man the assembly lines? who would man the front lines?

    Indeed, he was gone within a very few weeks.
    The first necessity for a democracy is an educated electorate.
    We, obviously, obvious to all but the most determinedly blind, have neither.

    P.S. Can you play golf now if you use a yellow ball? If not, how about disguising a golf club as a tennis racquet?
    I do wish Boris would be more precise.

    • Great story, Debby. I think we’re both in the same boat. I’ve been banging on for ages about teaching critical thinking in secondary schools. However, I am but a small voice. Re golf, I haven’t a clue, but the arctic winds sweeping down on us this week have dampened my enthusiasm. Better weather this weekend might lure me out, provide the clarifications of clarifications have been clarified! S

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