I’M grateful for the ubiquity of Keeley Hawes on TV. She’s gorgeously feminine and an excellent actress (actor? Who cares?) I’m currently binge-watching Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets in which she plays a major character. It’s a BBC programme (set in 1958 around the incipient culture of the 60s) so I wasn’t surprised to encounter, early on, the usual helpful signals designed to educate me out of my benighted attitudes towards racism and misogyny. I also expected the story of Hannah Petrukhin and her rebellion against the stuffy world of debutantes, into which her parents oblige her to enter against her will, to form a part of the usual anti-establishment narrative.
I have to say, though, that I soon found myself rooting for Hannah in her battles against the other haughty and spiteful debutantes and the toff boys trying to grope her at the Queen Charlotte’s Ball. It’s easy to see the appeal to her of the working-class deaf girl she befriends and the rock ’n’ roll music she and her friends (one of them black) dance to in the deaf girl’s grubby flat. The 60s did many bad things but there was, undeniably, a freshness blowing through it largely based on the irrepressible youth and sex encapsulated in the music (rock ’n’ roll is a term denoting sex) that hailed from the USA. The old order, in many respects, deserved to be disrupted and shattered by this new life, as it had fossilised.
Curiously, this made me think about populism and conservatism. Hannah’s father, a Russian Jewish emigré, wants to insert her into the formal world of the British establishment. In this world sexual relations are merely part of the judicious arrangements made at events such as the Queen Charlotte’s Ball where girls are paired off with aristocrats for financial benefit. There is something deliberate and calculated; in other words those relations are a means to an end. This bespeaks a top-down attitude (usually directed by the debutantes’ parents) to the relations between the sexes. Mental calculation descends into the realm of the sexual for a purpose. In doing this it behaves as though human physicality is an option we can take or leave as we please. This attitude seems peculiarly English and Protestant, perhaps.
The Victorians are sometimes caricatured, with their covered piano-legs and so on, as being anti-sex and hypocritical. This idea can certainly be overstated, but there is also some truth in it. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde beautifully anatomises the chasm in the psyche running between the ‘evil’ sexual predator, Mr Hyde, and the ‘good’ and genteel Dr Jekyll whom no woman would fear but who also lacks masculinity. Stevenson himself, in his Edinburgh days, enjoyed spending time amongst low-lifes and prostitutes in the insanitary Old Town as relief from the stifling manners of the New Town. The story gives one an insight into a kind of destructive psychological rupture in British consciousness.
There is an alternative attitude to the top-down approach which, I’d suggest, is much more psychologically healthy. Rather than being primarily a brain a human being is, essentially, just another animal. Beginning at the very bottom and in the most base we arise, exactly as they do, out of the earth, mud, dung, urine (just ask the parents of newborns), and sex. The only difference is that, unlike them, we, homo sapiens, are sapient about it – we alone know we are animals. But the order is – embrace our animality unpretentiously and joyously first and then awareness. To be clear, I am not prescribing wild Dionysian abandon here although some elements of the 60s, taking it too far, did! What I am saying, though, is that the life force can reassert itself in human affairs at any point in history.
Summer of Rockets shows a middle-class girl breaking through a constraining and ossified establishment carapace impelled simply by youth, sex and excitement, all heightened by an awareness of imminent nuclear war. This may be seen, at its worst, as anti-conservative and a destruction of a regime by the disruptive 60s spirit that can never be restored. In my view, however, in the current political situation, it gives reason to hope. Although conservatism conserves the best from the past, it is not, essentially something that belongs purely to the past and, once lost, can never be restored. This is because it is, essentially, an accommodation of people to nature, the world as it is, and themselves as what they are by nature. The latter never changes which means that all of us contain within us the seeds of renewal simply by virtue of being alive.
The proof of this, for me, is the spontaneous emergence of ‘populist’ movements in the western world. Populism is demonised and there are many Orwellian attempts, by making the word itself a pejorative, to exclude it from political discourse. I believe it is, in fact, in the wake of many Conservative parties, including our own, moving to the identitarian and politically correct liberal centre, simply the reassertion of real conservatism and evidence of its emigration to a new home. This is a conservatism tied to geography, culture, language, history (many of the characteristics prized by David Goodhart’s ‘Somewheres’) and to the simplest and most obvious of sexual ‘identities’. All of these things are givens that feel under assault and which cannot help but reassert themselves because, in the central conservative tradition, they are simply what people, quite unthinkingly, are before any cerebral act. The true hope for real conservatism lies in the natural instincts of the populists. They are demonised by a liberal world that is afraid of them because the liberals can feel their elemental strength. This strength rises upwards, quite simply and irresistibly, out of human nature. It can’t help but shrug off all of the cerebral and calculated attempts of the liberal mind to contain it.