Blessay 39: Donald Trump, Beetroot, Blood and the Great Inauguration of Another Truth.

Three days ago Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Or did he just swear his two-term egotism in whether anyone was ceremoniously watching or not? Either in the same world as Trump, or perhaps some chosen parallel world, I broke my usual routine of listening to the BBC Radio 4 news at 1pm. I wanted to witness this historic event on TV. After carrying in some salad and bread for lunch from the kitchen to the living room, I realised that I’d got the time wrong. It was 8 am in Washington and noon in London. The ceremony wouldn’t kick off here until 4.30pm. As I stood up to switch of the TV I knocked a bowl of beetroot onto the carpet. This immediate stain of beetroot water looked similar to a spurt of blood after someone’s throat had been cut. Only my carpet mark was purple not red. I swore at the stain then looked back at the TV to see a photograph of Donald Trump with his thumb up for victory. I rushed into the kitchen for a sponge and washing-up liquid.

First I attacked the beetroot ‘gash’ with a mug of cold water. Whilst diligently sponging it the stain began to take on the appearance of an omen or portent of bad things to come. Neither I nor the American nation would be able to remove our respective stains.

Hours later after lunch I settled down for Trump’s first Presidential address. It’s January and too cold for Trump’s cheeks to exhibit much colour. Yet not freezing. His old pre-election heat still fired up his words. I’ve never heard a more nationalistic inauguration speech than this. No call for unity but a more forceful promise to his followers to throw out the political elite and their corrupt practices. Trump promised to halt the “carnage” of crime occurring on “our” American streets, bring back jobs to factory workers and help “beautiful” young students to achieve an education. He was not going to forget the forgotten. From day 1 of his Presidency he’d fight for them.

“In conclusion, Trump’s hair growing out of his head, long combed back and dyed the nascent yellow of a baby chick”                                                                                                                                                                              Caroline Mitgang (hairdresser) Quartz Media LLC website.

I glanced down at the carpet. The watery brown spot was hopefully absolved of the purple terror of beetroot stain. Apart from beetroots’ healthy benefits – folic acid, fibre, vitamin C and antioxidants, its juice is regarded as a remedy to fight the itchiness of a flaky scalp.  I stared at Trump’s hair and concluded it wasn’t a toupee. Trump’s genuine billionaire hair, albeit coloured Midas gold (Sometimes it looks carrot stained, smoothed back and displaying a highly confident quiff  that will undoubtedly survive the approaching political storms, proving to be more resilient at sticking around than my transient spillage.) Trump looks after his hair by himself most of the time. It’s rumoured that it’s cut by a member of the family. So is Melania Trump allowed to snip a little at the locks of Samson the great businessman. And does she apply the hair colorants?

Trump’s speech didn’t mention any unification of the people. A carefully worded plea on how you handle the nation was delivered by the only Democrat to speak at the inauguration, Senator Charles E. Schumer – leader of the Senate Democrats.

“Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity: whether we are immigrant or native-born; whether we live with disabilities or do not: in wealth or in poverty, we are all exceptional in our commonly held yet fierce devotion to our country…every day we stand up for core democratic principles enshrined in the constitution, the rule of law, equal protection for all under the law, the freedom of speech, press and religion – the things that make America, America.”

You can easily see this as a coded attack on Donald Trump and his supporter’s (Hillary Clinton’s ill-chosen word “deplorables” revealed how out of touch she was with the “Rustbelt” electorate). Schumer was unable to use the word “great” for America (or more likely wisely omitted a word so rapidly debased by Trump – does he not want to add this afterthought, “America great for me, me, me!”)

Next morning I was relieved to see the carpet dry and vanished of any purple smear. Trump’s head, with it’s smoothed down, tamed hair, was probably applying itself to the signing of the first of his executive orders to repeal Obama Healthcare. And soon the orange carrot top Donald would be trumping on to meet the hair styles and hair colours (natural and dyed) of lined-up apprehensive leaders. The first being the naturally and legally blonde Theresa May, next week.

Today I heard from the Trump team the term, “alternative facts.” This was defensively employed to dismiss the press accurately reporting the real facts about the number of people who actually attended the inauguration ceremony. Such an Orwellian term for lies has astounded everyone who believes in truth supported by hard evidence. Yet perhaps not even Trump’s most ardent followers on social media. They’re probably not checking bureaucratic facts or “alternative facts” but shrugging their shoulders and saying. “Experts and facts – who cares about them, we saw ourselves at our and his (Trump’s) reality show coronation. Crowd numbers don’t mean a thing!”

In this kind of Trumpian world an “alternative fact” could be that it was blood on my carpet not beetroot water. And that the stain hasn’t gone away. That it’s just festering and will re-appear at the right time. But it doesn’t matter if it’s purple and not red. Besides the colour purple symbolises power and pomp. Anyway don’t worry. Have yourself a Caesar salad (Like Trump does with his relished junk food diet) and leave out the beetroot. It’s messy stuff. “Sure, President Trump likes beetroot, like the best of us, but he’d never spill it, or a drop of blood, on the floor. Here’s to him cleaning out the cesspool of politics. Let’s not concern ourselves with the ethnically woven (mine isn’t) carpets of those precious liberals!”


Blessay 38: The Quintessential Polymath

Last week’s Archive Hour on BBC Radio 4 was devoted to the historian Asa Briggs. Tristram Hunt presented an affectionate portrait of Briggs as a considerable cultural force. Briggs was born in 1921 in Keighley in the West Riding of Yorkshire and came from a lower middle class background. Brigg’s father ran a fruit and veg shop. He was often ill so Asa had to take over. This didn’t prevent him from continuing with his studies, for he obtained one of the few scholarships available in the 1930’s to get to Cambridge. Asa was a clever lad who got on. This will to succeed was inspired by the zeal of Samuel Smiles the Victorian writer whose philosophy was one of positive self-help. What also motivated the post war thinking of Briggs was the idea of a liberal education for the common man. Brigg’s wasn’t a theorist – unlike his illustrious contemporaries E.P.Thompson and Eric Hobsbaum. Briggs was a doer. Dennis Healy was a close friend. Yet despite having socialist principles Briggs didn’t pursue a political career with the other young men, who in 1945 wanted to transform British society after the Labour Party landslide. It was education not politics that fired up young Asa.

What are some of Briggs’s major achievements? As an undergraduate he studied for two degrees (history at Cambridge and Economics at the LSE) at the same time and got a first in both! During WW2 he worked at Bletchley Park as a code breaker in the company of Alan Turing. Between 1961 and 1995 he wrote five volumes of the first authorised history of the BBC from 1922 to 1974. Briggs supported the WEA, was a governer of the BFI and chancellor of the Open University (1978-94).  When he died (aged 94) in 2016 he’d written over forty books. Apart from his history of broadcasting the most important works are probably Victorian Cities, Victorian People and Victorian Things. His research for these books paved the way for the establishment of Victorian Studies on University syllabus of the 1970’s. (This was after decades of an anti-Victorian spirit fuelled by such writers as Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf). And of course he was one of the founding fathers behind the idea of the New Universities set up in the late fifties/early sixties. His own education baby was The University of Sussex, where he re-imagined university as a place for students to have a radically different student experience.

“The quintessential polymath, Professor Asa Briggs was eminently qualified to bring a new idea for a new university. It was organised into schools of studies, each based on a unifying theme, such as geographical area or a cluster of related subjects. Professor Briggs coined the phrase “redrawing the map of learning” to describe this innovatory approach to teaching and research.”

“…he said that he leapt over the frontiers of academic disciplines with as much joy as he crossed national borders.”

Asa Briggs obituary – The University of Sussex website.

Let me re-wind to 1965 when aged 16 I left school (A Secondary Modern in Toxteth) with 5 ULCI’s. Or to give them their full title – Certificates of Education from The Universities of Lancashire and Cheshire Institutes. Basically GCSE’s before they were invented – meagre qualifications (I suspected they were not recognised 20 miles outside of Merseyside) and a ‘recompense’ for the bright few who’d failed the Eleven Plus and were stuck in a secondary modern churning out factory workers, labourers and shop assistants. Frustrated by the lack of academic stimulus at school I went to evening classes in order to acquire some O levels and an English A level. My “Night School” studies proved to be exhausting and very badly taught. I managed to get an O level in English Literature, then for a few years forgot about studying. Yet I was always chomping at the bit for Higher Education and discovered that you could get to University without the usual qualifications.

Fast-forward to 1973 when I applied (through the mature students’ entry scheme) to do a combined English / Philosophy degree at Liverpool University. Owing to a misunder -standing, over my examination, I failed to get a place. Yet Professor Kenneth Muir’s letter of rejection altered my academic direction for the better. Some two months later, still heavily disappointed by the failure of Liverpool, I read an article in a Sunday Times magazine supplement about Sussex University. I liked the colour photographs of the campus, their policy statement and what Asa Briggs had to say. I wrote a short letter to him explaining what had happened. Within a week I received a typed letter back (personally signed by Briggs) expressing sympathy for my situation and suggesting I apply to Sussex under their mature student scheme. I did and after filling in their application form I had to write a 3000 word essay on a novel to be chosen from a list of ten English novels in the academic cannon I can’t remember all the titles except the one I chose – Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. I was already a fan of Dickens and this was a Dickens novel I knew nothing about.

Our Mutual Friend is a flawed but great book. Dickens last completed novel contains some of his most powerful writing. Perhaps the narrative of the Podsnaps and the Veneerings contrasted with the brooding story of Bradley Headstone and Eugene Wrayburn doesn’t quite convincingly fuse. Yet I was enthralled. My enthusiasm and analysis must have conveyed itself to Sussex as I was asked to come and attend an interview. That meeting with a tutor in English and American Studies went very well. It was an eclectic and enjoyable forty minutes. Our conversation ranged from the paganism of D.H.Lawrence, Nietzsche’s moral philosophy and then (of all things!) the creative role of the film producer as exemplified by Val Lewton (that auteur of low-budget, horror/fantasy cinema). I’ve no idea how we got onto Hollywood but it certainly pleased my interviewer (I discovered much later that he was a passionate cineaste). The other half of the day was a 90 minute sit down exam to critique samples of English poetry and prose. Here I only did fairly well (formal sit down exams intimidate me. I just freeze up.)

Within a week I received a letter to say I’d been awarded an unconditional offer of a place to be a student for a B. A. in English. I was awarded a grant from the local Education Authority in Liverpool. That autumn I moved, with my wife and two children, to Brighton and found a decent flat in Hove. This was 1974. I was then 25 and could just about manage on the money.

I thrived at Sussex. Its structure of small tutorials, extended essays, take-way papers and dissertations was up my street. The sit down exam component was small (about 15%) so I realised that the Briggsian developed learning plan was for me. I studied with such lovely freedom. Indeed the big hard work really only began in my 3rd finals year. Six essays per term were demanded for years 1 and 2 with attendance at least at two thirds of the tutorials. All this I was more than happy to comply with. Indeed at one of my contextual courses called “Modern European Mind” my tutor never got round to marking my essays (I think he was too busy writing a book) and marked me solely on my performances in tutorials alone.

The inter-disciplinarian nature of Sussex began to turn me into a polymath druggie. One autumn term I was asked to read Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, watch a Western on my American Cinema course and explore a little Sartre on the side – all to be done in two weeks with two essays to be handed in. This was a typical Sussex overload. You did as much as you could under the intellectual stress. The courses shook you up to stimulate ideas. And my tutors were very aware of their role to stretch you.

From 1969-71 Penguin Books published The Penguin Companions to Literature in four volumes. A fair number of Sussex academics, who taught me, contributed to the series. Anthony Thorlby, Angus Ross, Gabriel Josipovici, David Daiches, Gamini Salgado, Michael Jamieson, Rodney Hillman, Stephen Medcalf and Sybil Oldfied all passed on their learning and wit.

Three other guys stand out – Ernest Goldstucker who delivered a brilliant series of lectures on Freud, I.Mezaros’s whacky talks on witchcraft and many exciting tutorials with Anthony Nuttal (Philosopher, Professor of English, legendary Shakespearean scholar and brother of the anarchist poet Jeff Nuttall). I will never forget Tony Nuttall giving a hilarious lecture on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy whilst imitating the walk of Uncle Toby.

After listening to the archive hour tribute to Asa Briggs I felt proud and privileged to be part of the Sussex alumni; delighted that such a man as Asa Briggs had encouraged me to study at his special university. Briggs left Sussex in 1976 at the end of my second year. I regret that I never got to meet him and thank him his encouragement. Forty years on since my graduation, it’s not too late. Thanks, Asa! R.I.P. If there’s a heaven then let it have places of polymath learning run on the lines of your Yorkshireman vision.