Like a Wasp in a Jam Jar

John Sutherland – The Good Brexiteer’s Guide To English Lit (Reaktion, 2018)

Sutherland explains that Brexit is marked by its lack of depth. It has no thinkers. So he tries to put the syllabus back into Brexit with what he claims is a single undergraduate year’s worth of reading list and guidance relating to the current ‘geist‘.

Sutherland starts with the Danegold as a kind of Viking tribute or taxation, and Malory’s Death of Arthur, which contains a curt fuck-you to Papal (i.e ‘Johnny Foreigner’) tax collectors.

Then he moves on to Norman taxation and the Wakefield Mystery Plays as two fingers up to the corrupt squires. This rotten gentry is reincarnated in modern day cads such as the sadly still Sir Philip Green. The Brexiteer supposedly rises up against these awful, rotten ‘elites’ with a confused inconsistency and possibly a pinch of bleak antisemitism.

There’s something a bit 1066 and All That about Sutherland’s book, but it is infinitely funnier and richer. It is very accessible, but he demonstrates – without ever having to say it directly – that our cultural landscape is certifiably nuttier than a container ship full of Snickers. And now, with extra nuts.

Sutherland raids even the tiny details. He explores ‘Jack’ as a name loaded with Englishness. The giant is killed by Jack, the giant that ‘smells the blood of an Englishman’ and this fairy tale re-appears in King Lear, as Edgar recites it, pretending to be Poor Mad Tom. Then there’s Jack-be-nimble, the Jolly Jack Tar, Jack the Ripper, et al. Although Sutherland doesn’t explain why Jack is short for John, which makes absolutely no sense at all.

Yes, Sutherland takes you to the place where this thing that gets called ‘our culture’ seems either a bit mad, quite whiffy, or both. ‘English Literature’ always sounded a bit jingoistic already to me and when you learn that a lot of good Welsh stuff got nicked by the English – Sutherland doesn’t go into this, but he could have – you realise that it essentially is.

Brexit isn’t directly linked to specific bodies of literature, it is true, but it is linked to what I call ‘the tropescape’ – when talking to myself in my own head – a thin fleshy membrane that appears to connect any subject to its deeper structures. The tropescape is always there, and Nigel Farage knows how to call it forth with a single signifier, a photograph of himself in the papers wearing a Battle of Hastings tie, or a union jack hat.

John Crace coins ‘The Maybot’, Prime Minister Theresa May as a faulty droid, and it sticks. Here is the tropescape in action. On the other side of the political argument, May is characterised as steely Boudicca, defender of her people under attack from foreign influence. The tropescape is the mythical landscape at the other side of reality, accessed through the shibboleth of connotations in objects with meaning.

Sutherland explains the bizarre restoration of Boudicca in the nineteenth century, re-loaded with all kinds of meanings, and the obvious link now is the ‘repelling of foreign parasites’. In Boudicca’s times this meant the literally rapacious Roman Empire. Now, it is the terrible European Union with its savage imposition of slightly weaker vaccum cleaners.

What the EU has done to the European south goes way beyond electrical appliance regulation of course, but this never appears in the Brexiteer critique, as that would mean a leftist defence of border policing and refugee crises. However, Sutherland’s skill is to take the subject some distance into comedy, but not all the way, and to structure the results as a guide book. This is much more effective rhetoric than the blunt line I deployed at the start of this paragraph.

Sutherland claims to be scoring an own goal as a remain voter, giving the ‘Good Brexiteer’ a guide to literary heroes, but his secret mission is always near the surface, even if it only appears as a single periscope eye, occasionally winking.

These figures are given to the ‘Good Brexiteer’ as plain awful, or just stuffy. Here, have Larkin. Jane Austen is presented as English to the core: ‘Miss Austen was bottled up in England like a wasp in a jam jar’, he says. The odd historical Remainer is parachuted in, for instance Dickens is included as an anti-Brexiteer Francophile.

‘Get your damn clammy hands off Dickens’ he seems to be saying, and I’m right behind you John. Although Dickens did support, along with Carlyle and Ruskin, the Governor of Jamaica Edward Eyre, over the Morant Bay Rebellion. Eyre had slaves flogged and killed. But this just seems to prove Sutherland’s broad argument all the more, most British literature before post-colonial inclusiveness carries the whiff of amorality along with it, only to greater or lesser degrees.

Nigel Farage’s favourite book is The Thirty-Nine Steps and Sutherland skewers this book along with Rider Haggard’s awful racial superiority. Sutherland reminds us what a thoroughly loathsome Powellite Farage is. He describes him as genuinely witty, but also shines a light on his awful, grimy nationalism. That he does this and keeps us laughing and learning all the way through is beyond the merely commendable. The hidden agenda is human, measured and executed with humility and great humour.

But this is not just a throwaway holiday read: I think what bleeds out from under the later sections of the book – Rider Haggard, Buchan – is the Empire and its crisis in WWI. Here is Paul Gilroy’s ‘post-colonial melancholia’. This is the unconscious hangover of the Brexiteer and this is why fictions such as Haggard’s and Buchan’s could easily wrap around these mournful figures.

But what is interesting to me about this is that there is a double movement involved now, as people seem to simultaneously retrench into the island and bemoan the loss of expansionism and triumphalism in one.

There are far too many examples to cover here, Sutherland moves through the history of Eng. Lit. up to Martin Amis’s London Fields. He covers Dracula as the Vampiric Romanian at a time when tens of thousands of Romanian workers labour in London. The joy of this book is in exploring it and I don’t want to ruin that.

What Sutherland’s secret critique also seems to say is ‘look, even I can do your cultural rhetoric for you’, the stuff the Brexiteers don’t have the imagination for.

So he sets it up for them like a little toy train set, only to derail the whole thing with satire right in front of their eyes. It’s a kind of very long ‘duh!’ only using words such as ‘supranational’ and ‘galliambic’.

Maybe we shouldn’t be laughing. But Kafka once said something along the lines of ‘in the office always smile, it is the only good work done there’. I have shifted this advice away from the office and onto Brexit (how would Kafka have voted?)

To quote another so-called ‘literary’ figure Sutherland might have included in the Brexit canon, Steven Patrick Morrissey, ‘I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible’: Sutherland has moved the subject on into humour; Brexit will still provide aftershock after aftershock, but I’m hanging out with the joker in the pack, it’s much more fun there.

– Steve Hanson

 

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