This is a time of senseless mourning
Three black and white pictures sit in one of the windowsills of my cottage, one is of my father and the other two are of my grandfathers. They have all been dead for nearly half my life, but still the pictures have unfailing power. Noticing them as I walk past is like gently pressing on a bruise, the soft pain that warns against more prodding. Like everyone else lucky enough to reach middle age, I know mourning never ends.
Landscapes, or inhabited landscapes anyway, are always mourning too. Memories of the dead stir every time we talk about a place. Even the smallest villages in Yorkshire have Norse or Anglo-Saxon names, not even the Norman genocide erased them, and every subsequent era has left its ghosts in the language. To read the names of York’s snickelways is to invoke half-forgotten stories: Friargate, Lady Peckett’s Yard, Mad Alice Lane. Every map is haunted, and a set of directions is a roll-call of the forgotten dead.
The chatter of people is not, though, the main way that a landscape mourns. Just as our lives, as we age, are shaped by our losses; the land is shaped by those who have passed. These northern hills are too hard to form the holloways of the South; but there are footpaths near me a yard deeper than the land on either side, flattened by centuries of walkers. The dry stone walls, always slowly collapsing, call each generation to raise their rocks again. In ways like this, the land channels us into the ways of those who came before us, not always remembering them but nevertheless retracing their steps. It is the same even in the cities. For all the destruction and rebuilding, the actual roads move seldom and only slightly. The human flows might be torrents now instead of trickles, but the land still pushes them into the channels of those who went before. The city remembers the dead that its hurried commuters do not.
In the same way that mourning suffuses our lives and landscapes, it suffuses political expression. But in the same way as the city remembers what its inhabitants do not, the mourning does not belong to any one individual. It is a characteristic of the entirety of political expression. People think this is a time of political anger. It is not, except insofar as anger is one characteristic grief-reaction.
Let me try to show what I mean. I once knew an academic whose office was filled with Soviet kitsch: propaganda posters, mugs with the face of Lenin, and so on. Perhaps there are many like her. I could have said to her something like ‘those people killed my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother and they scattered their teenage children across the continents’. I could have asked her what right she, an Englishwoman descended from Englishwomen, had mock my dead like that. I could have tried to explain my grandad’s story or his quiet pain. I didn’t do any of those things. She was mourning too. Her dad was an NUM man in the eighties, her childhood was shaped by the miner’s strike, and when I met her three decades later that world was as lost as the pre-war life in Poland that I heard about as a child. Her lost world still defined how she saw herself, though; so, in the comfortable land of academia, she expressed the gap between who she was and who she felt herself to be by buying crockery with pictures of foreign murderers on it.
Maybe that sounds as though I am mocking her, and maybe I am; but am I – a third-generation immigrant, all sides of my family uprooted by the twentieth century, writing essays about continuity in the landscape – not also defined by the enormity of my losses and the absurdity of my response to them? I am, but so is everyone else.
To even talk of political left and right is, increasingly, to cling to memories of a lost past; so it’s fitting to use that structure as I give some outline of what I mean. On the left, the Labour Party is a decreasingly relevant battlefield between a ‘right’ who cannot let go of memories of the 1990’s and a ‘left’ who cannot let go of memories of the post-war settlement. The mourning is physically palpable. Both sides find it easier to address an electorate that no longer exists than to talk to the one they want to represent.
Beyond the confines of party politics, the broader left is mourning a narrative: a story about the once and forever conquest of good over evil. It is most visible in the elite hysterics that are derided as ‘woke’. Why, for instance, is describing one of your students as having ‘almond eyes’ an offense that demands your publisher abandon your book? Why is the anger there, rather than, for instance, against what the heroin trade is doing [warning: this news article has graphic descriptions of torture] to parts of the British Pakistani community? When it is so disconnected to what is actually going on, it’s easy to think ‘woke’ outrage is fake. That’s a mistake. The anger is, for the most part, genuinely felt.
Anger about a book is different to anger about a young man you know being dragged into a drugs feud. For one thing, it isn’t mixed up with terror. More relevant to mourning, though, is what the anger is about. Anger about the young man is about what is happening to him. Anger about the book is about what it represents. In the former, the anger is directed at the thing causing it. In the latter, the anger, already existing, finds a convenient target. It’s a common pattern. After your aunt’s funeral, your mother uncharacteristically lashes out at her remaining sister about something that she might have said years ago. In a case like this, everyone knows what is really causing her anger. The ‘woke’ rage, genuinely felt, is similar. A story about the inevitable triumph of socially liberal values has been deeply entrenched in the minds of the comfortable classes since at least the 1960’s, a simple story about the victory of good over evil. Everyone now knows it was only a story. It never was prophesy. It was, though, a story that helped to structure many middle-class lives, and its passing is genuinely felt, with all the attendant denial and rage. I don’t mourn it. It was never my story. But those that oppose ‘wokery’ without seeing it is a grief-reaction are making the same mistake as those they think are their enemies. They’re clinging on to the wrong story. We are not living through a cinematic battle between good and evil. We are living through a tragedy. Scene by scene, hubris takes from us the very things that we define ourselves by.
The political right at its best, the right of Oakeshott or Chesterton, understood mourning. It had a wistful reverence for what was lost. The right is no longer at its best, and has not been for a long time. The tragedy of our era takes from every player the very thing that they clutch closest to their heart. While it took from the left their faith in the future, it took from the right their faith in the past.
And so we have a Tory party that believes only in Thatcherism; but dare not say so, in case the voters hear. They do not remember that Thatcherism was a betrayal of their party and country. They dare not remember anything at all. They are the very epitome of mourning as denial; and so, amnesiac, they no longer know the land they rule. Their sense of England is no deeper than a photoshoot with a pint glass, and the rest of the Union seldom troubles what is left of their flickering consciousness at all.
The broader right is as lost as the Tory party. Dominic Cummings believes the lessons of Silicon Valley can revolutionise British government. Where Oakeshott once warned about the folly of thinking that politics could be learned from a book, Cummings tries to learn politics from the rationalist descendants of ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. Curtis Yarvin argues for American monarchy. His sense of history is so strong that he cannot wait to rupture history again. If the Tory party is characterised by denial, then this broader right is characterised by mourning’s desperate bargaining. Any fantasy, even a return to the Bronze Age, is good enough if it means that our losses are not forever. Bargaining is not, however, the worst of it. Far right rage is still stronger in Yorkshire than in most of the UK. The imagined past that motivates it is also an expression of mourning. Senseless mourning is still mourning.
Every era is a time of mourning, but this era is a time of senseless mourning. The political mourning I have been describing is not the same as the mourning that is quietly embedded in place names and dry stone walls. It is uprooted and lost. I remember my gran, her box of prayer cards for the dead, and the candles that she lit for them every week in the back of the church. Few of us now have rituals that tie our losses into the rhythms of our lives. Funerals have become ‘celebrations of the person’s life’, for we shy away from the solemnity and finality of the moment. Not knowing what to do with death, we avert our eyes and talk about life instead. My gran could make sense of her mourning in a way that few of us now can. On the individual level this is yet another loss. We should mourn our ability to mourn. But when a whole society’s mourning becomes so unmoored and senseless, then it should also be feared.
The invasion of Ukraine is unleashing another wave of immeasurable mourning on the world. Immeasurable because this mourning will echo down the generations. Just as I carry a fragment of my grandfather’s Polish mourning, a century from now the grandchildren of Ukrainian teenagers will carry the wounds that are being inflicted at this moment. To declare needless war is always senseless. This one, though, is also caused by senseless mourning. Putin’s real sense of loss, and Russia’s, is a major cause of the invasion. His senseless mourning excuses nothing. Evil always has its reasons, and they are never good enough. It is, though, a warning to us all. When we allow our society’s mourning to become senseless, as we are doing, we sow the seeds of evil deeds that we do not yet imagine.