Rod Liddle

Critics hated Julie Burchill’s Brexit play. What does that say about them?

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

13 October 2018

9:00 AM

There is a new book out about the sun — the bright thing in the sky, not the newspaper. It sounds very interesting. ‘Science Museum The Sun — One Thousand Years of Scientific Imagery’. You can get it from that place ‘Science Museum’, which I seemed to remember was once called the National Science Museum but which has now ridded itself of that hateful word ‘national’ as well as its unfashionable definite article. In the introduction to the book, the authors Harry Cliff and Katy Barrett write: ‘The images and texts featured here are almost always the product of collaborative work. While the name on the image is so often that of a white male from Europe or America, we must always remember the invisible contributors who were so often female, lower-class or non-western, and hard to uncover in the histories of both science and art.’

An interesting point. If these other contributors are ‘invisible’, then how can Harry and Katy be sure that they were there at all? A friend of mine, intrigued, has written to these eminences begging for details of the lower-class, ‘non-western’ or female collaborators who over the centuries have so aided our exploration of the sun. I will let you know when he has been furnished with the names. Until that time I suggest it would be wholly wrong to suggest that Harry and Katy were guilty of a piece of virtue-signalling and political grandstanding which is every bit as mistaken as it is fatuous and emetic.

In fairness to these authors, that’s where we are right now — even science seems to be involved in a life-or-death struggle against reality, against the Stalinism-lite of today which insists that everything must conform to its absurd shibboleths, or woe betide. It is a terribly narrow view of the world which is being imposed, top down, on us all — and one which often flies in the face of the clear facts, as in the case of the transgender dispute.

The arts are not much better off; the same straitened minds prevail. Last week I spent a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours watching the play People Like Us at the Union Theatre in south London. This hilarious little drama, written by Julie Burchill and Jane Robins, tells the story of a book group in north London which is rent asunder by differing views over whether we should leave the European Union. Two pro-Brexit members are politely asked to resign.

There is some sharp, witty, dialogue and the play does a good job of reflecting the febrile and histrionic responses to Brexit from a certain tranche of affluent Remainers. But the reviews in the mainstream media have been adverse. More than adverse — eviscerating, overflowing with bile and hatred. Now, whether you think a play is any good or not is a totally subjective thing (as the liberals would surely agree). George Bernard Shaw and Leo Tolstoy both believed William Shakespeare was crap, for example. Whereas I find Shaw boring and bombastic. Each to their own.

But the point here is that I don’t think the reviewers of People Like Us were judging the play at all — they were judging the political opinions of the people who wrote the play: Leavers. Indeed, two reviews, both very badly written, focused their wrath on the fact that I had been there in the audience and was, in the words of one, seen to be ‘guffawing’. Well, I accept that must have been off-putting for them. But surely it is possible to appreciate the dialogue of, say, The Caretaker even if Adolf Hitler is sitting in the next row and seems to be enjoying it too. The play is sold out for a month, by the way, and the audiences have received it pretty rapturously.

I was wondering, with a Remainer friend, why the reviews were so hostile, why the reviewers were unable to put aside their visceral opposition to Brexit and judge the play on its dramatic and polemical merits. We came to the conclusion that it was because they were chronically ill-read. They are not used to witnessing stuff from people with different opinions to themselves.

As undoubtedly pretentious and very left-wing working-class kids, me and my mate read everything we could get our hands on. And necessarily — because the 1970s were a more enlightened time — that meant stuff from the political right, as well as the despised soft centre and the bourgeois left. I could enjoy Céline while accepting that he was a thoroughly horrible anti-Semite. Ivan Turgenev’s storytelling could enthral despite the fact that he was a vacillating liberal, wary of revolution. We devoured conservatives such as Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Carlyle and Edmund Burke, alongside the lefties: Sinclair Lewis, Jack Kerouac and Karl Marx.

My own favourite writer, as a 17-year-old, was John Updike. Dodgy on race, dodgy on women, wrong about the war in Vietnam (which he supported as a registered Democrat) he may well have been (as his very rapidly fallen star would also now suggest). But, oh, the prose. And the insight. And this great exposure gave us a maxim which is still true today — don’t judge a book by the politics of its author. There is more to life than that.

I don’t think that applies any more. The author’s politics are all, and there’s an end to it. When my oldest son was studying Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for English GCSE, his essays were entirely about the inherent sexism in the book. Why are we never told the name of Curley’s wife? What does this tell you about the repulsive author? It tells you that he’s a sexist pig, that’s what. And that’s Of Mice and Men — and Steinbeck — summed up. Missing the point entirely. Thank Christ my lad never had to study Henry Miller, then.

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