A Thing Most Brutish

In William Shakespeare`s mysterious and evocative play “The Tempest”, an imaginary hybrid creature is introduced. Caliban is presented as only semi human. His appearance in the play is an inspiring and clever theatrical device which forces the audience to question what truly makes us human beings, as distinct from other animals, or even other natural forces on this planet as those things are still imbued with the powers of elemental life.

Charles Foster has explored this complex subject with characteristic wit and courage. Foster is a polymath. He is a writer, traveller, philosopher, barrister and veterinarian. In his varied career and life he has attempted to delve into the worlds of animals, nature and human civilisations.

He is sceptical about the preconceived notions that humans hold of the animal kingdom which he addressed in his book “Being A Beast”. In this book he attempted to overturn anthropomorphism by appropriating animal habitats and behaviour, living as a badger, otter, deer, fox and bird.

The sequel to “Being A Beast” is “Being A Human”, and this light hearted tract is written with serious intent. It is partially a rebuke to the obstinacy of the scientific and academic community who are resistant to anyone challenging them. Foster believes that too many are fearful of losing their positions and income, and as a consequence biological science has turned into a kind of religious dogma, rather than a rigorous and vibrant discipline which allows fresh inquiry.

However it is also an entertaining and enlightening book which attempts to explain why and how the human species consciously separated itself from the rest of the living world by producing its own culture and civilisation.

The author confounds the popular interpretations of Darwin. Darwin, he argues simply reminded us that we form an integral part of the natural world, and,

“That, properly handled, could have generated a fitting humility. But….this part of Darwin’s message was transmuted into (something) cynical and dangerous”.

Foster proves his own humility by living as a reconstructed caveman, deliberately apart from the supposedly modern world. His experiment demonstrates how destructive our own pride and vanity has become, not to mention our innately selfish desires for comfort at the expense of our own mental and physical health.

Modern humans in advanced societies have never truly understood real privation, or how it actually feels to face starvation. In ancient, primitive societies illness and death was a familiar occurrence.

The taboo and shame about these elements of human experience is actually a modern phenomena, along with the sterile and crude methods that are utilised, i.e the now secular tradition of cremation is just a way to cleanse death, when in the past the deceased members of the community would have the dignity of full burial rituals.

This book reminds us that we are insignificant in the whole scheme of things, no-one is important. We forget that we all die, and whatever we endure while we are living the glib platitudes of pompous politicians can never alter that undeniable fact about ourselves.

Black Pearls

On the 21st December 1934 the French film “Zouzou” received its premiere in Paris. It helped launch the film career of Josephine Baker, the African-American dancer and theatre actress. Baker moved to France, partly to escape racism, but chiefly to seek lucrative work as an “exotic” dancer. Baker joined the Revue Negre in 1925 when she was just nineteen years old. French perceptions of African heritage people in the twenties were unenlightened by modern standards, and they were often regarded as curiosities.

Baker`s act was a deliberate caricature of racial tropes, she wore feathers, bananas and pineapples and was sexually disinhibited. Her “Danse Sauvage” was both provocative and entertaining. Her performance re-enacted the stereotypical colonial fantasies of the audience and helped forge a new artistic movement in a country which has always been regarded as the epitome of artistic liberation.

France, and its colonies always had a troubled relationship, but the founding principles of the French republic, liberty, equality and fraternity allowed black artists like Baker to succeed. Many black artists from America sought out lives and careers in France because racial prejudice and discrimination were firmly entrenched in their home country.

The writer James Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948 as he felt demoralised and disillusioned by an America which dehumanised and belittled him. He spent nine years living and working in the country, where he felt free both personally and artistically. The overt racism that was inflicted upon him in America was grinding and merciless, but in France this was conspicuously absent.

The Jazz musician Miles Davis also lived in Paris in 1949 and immediately recognised the cultural freedom and open minded attitudes of the French people. The French celebration of black cultures was a marked contrast to the narrow minded philistinism of Americans.

Art is a unique medium, it can stimulate our imaginations in myriad ways, it can transcend politics and petty attitudes. It does not seek to change society, but it allows those who dare to dream to share their ideals. Josephine Baker once said,

“Surely the day will come when colour means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free when understanding breeds love and brotherhood”.

It might seem hopelessly naive to believe such things could ever happen but art and entertainment are part of a very human need to seek some kind of “oneness” with a deeply fractured world.

Forgetting God

On the 11th December 1918 the Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born. His work was widely disseminated and celebrated in the free western countries but he endured censorship and oppression as a Soviet citizen. The Russian revolution was believed by the vanguard to forge total equality on Earth, but this could only be achieved through a series of ideological and physical purges.

There is a bitter irony that lies behind all idealistic thinking, in that for all of the hyperbole about creating this mythical “one world of harmony”, it strips all of the human characteristics that give our lives meaning. Karl Marx once sneered that “religion is the opium of the people” but lacked the foresight to perceive that his own reductive and crude philosophy ultimately had the same effect upon the people who were forced to believe in it.

Solzhenitsyn was more than a Russian writer, he was almost a prophet. He enjoyed the intellectual and personal freedoms of the west as an exile, but like all refugees he longed to return to the country of his birth. He understood that the west was on a path towards progress, but he feared that this relentless pursuit for societal perfection could lead to moral degeneracy.

He outlined all of this in a 1983 speech entitled “Men have forgotten God”. He foresaw that a society solely motivated by personal gains and pleasures becomes spiritually hollow and decadent. The irony is that the west used to laud itself for being morally superior to the east, but now the opposite seems to be happening.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, a spiritual vacuum imbued the populace. The effects of this were starkest in Russia, a unique nation which had lost its entire cultural identity in the wake of the revolutions. The effects are still being felt today, it has led to the rise of populists who are struggling to form cohesion in a fractured and traumatised society.

(Photograph is of Russian mystic and philosopher Aleksandr Dugin).

Vladimir Putin`s vain and almost futile campaign to reclaim Russian imperialism is a consequence of the perceived failures of democracy in the country. He is derided in the west but it is obvious that most of his western critics are shallow hypocrites. It seems really perverse to observe how the world looks now in the 21st century, with the west appropriating the worst elements of Marxist belief and forgetting that there were positive elements to societies before mass industrialisation and scientific progress.

Crossing the Ford of Jabbok:

The Original “Culture War”.


“Culture War” has now become a hackneyed phrase which is almost devoid of its actual meaning. It is used in a flippant and trivial way without any real or thoughtful consideration of its origins, which date back to religious persecution in nineteenth century Germany.


(Picture is of Cologne Cathedral).

In Biblical times Jacob wrestled with the Angel and this became a pattern of struggle throughout history. There has always been a very real conflict between defending personal conviction or belief against the oppression and dominance of majority opinion.


In 1873 the German Government perceived a growing threat from the Catholic Church and they grew sufficiently alarmed by their influence to introduce legislation. These became known as the “Falk Laws”. These laws limited Catholic participation in areas like education. However many priests faced persecution for simply providing religious education in private homes and anyone who assisted them faced fines, arrests and imprisonment. In 1874 the Bishop of Trier Matthias Eberhard died after serving nine months in prison. Other clergy lost their livelihoods entirely.


In the face of oppression and persecution many German Catholics sought asylum. In 1875 an emigrant ship bound for New York left from the port of Bremen. The voyage was intended to include Southampton but disaster unfolded when the ship struck a sandbank on the Thames Estuary. All of the 57 passengers who died were German Catholics and this included 5 nuns.


It is time that we acknowledged the courage of the real fighters in the culture war and put aside the petty squabbling that is erroneously attributed to a supposed culture war which hasn`t actually lead to persecution and death.

The Sordid Den Of Evil

On the 29th November 1898 C.S Lewis was born. Lewis was so much more than a writer of children’s fables, he was an academic and a philosopher who wrote extensively about theology and the challenges of faith in the modern world. His most prodigious period of work was published in the sixties, a decade associated with an almost militant secularism. However his warnings about western societies divesting themselves of their religious and artistic traditions are remarkably prescient.

The cultural vandalism enacted by the sixties radicals has devastated society. Life in the west today literally has no meaning, as the beliefs that once anchored us have been deliberately destroyed. Lewis` prophecy that the forces of individualism, materialism and mechanisation would have a malign and irreversible effect on future generations has been proven correct. In the age of the Internet there is no appreciation or understanding of the sublime, or of beauty in general because no-one has been taught there is value in such things, only pure rationality and function matters.

Consequently there is a distinct lack of humanity in modern discourse. Humanity, in its essence, is flawed, modern commentators insist that our dealings with each other should be dominated by reason but conveniently ignore the fact that we are not wholly reasoned. Human beings are also sentimental creatures, that is a fundamental part of our nature and we cannot change that fact. Political ideologies like socialism attempt to deny or subvert natural law but they always fail because they have an unrealistic expectation of human perfection. It is also false to claim that there is a dichotomy between science and religion because both are theories that have been subject to evolving debate for centuries.

It is more accurate to claim that there is a dichotomy between objective theories of the material world and the subjective experience of the individual. Science and secularism are perceived to be objective and reflect a universal reality, this has come into conflict with art and religion, specifically Christianity.

The artist believes that there is a more profound meaning to human existence beyond the base biological functions of breathing, eating and excreting and seeks to create beauty for its own sake. Similarly the religious believer, the Christian believes that individual life has an inherent value for its own sake, beyond the instrumental values of working or merely reproducing.

Christians do not deny that human beings can be selfish, lazy, greedy and prone to irrational violence because they have enough insight to realise that this is a unique folly of the species, what is important to them is to strive to be better. Unlike the secular or scientific believers, Christians maintain that good and evil are objective realities and are unchangeable and non negotiable. Murder, for example is an evil act, but modern secular people always seem to find excuses for murderers, pointing towards some material evidence that compelled that person`s behaviour.

It is obvious that attitudes like that have fragmented what is left of our civilization. The traditional values that used to cohere us as a community have withered away and life has just been reduced to our economic and material function. It is pitiful to consider how shallow modern existence appears, but at least we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that our past had a greater merit.

We Must Dream Of The Promise

On the 25th November, 1970 Yukio Mishima died in a ritual suicide. Mishima was a renowned Japanese writer and actor. He was also a right-wing activist who proposed that Japan should remain uniquely and unapologetically Japanese and resist any foreign influence, especially from America.

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In the West, any death from suicide is regarded as shameful and cowardly, and a clear signal that the deceased individual was too weak to live. However traditional Japanese culture maintains that suicide is ultimately brave and heroic, and anyone prepared to die in that way should command the highest respect.

Mishima`s dramatic exit from this world was an imitation of a Samurai warrior`s last stand. The Samurai were knights in ancient feudal Japan who enjoyed the patronage of the Shogun, the military rulers. Although Japan was officially ruled by an Emperor, his role was largely symbolic, all the main diktats were issued by the Shogunate.

There were absolutist and autocratic codes for everyone in society which covered dress and conduct. This was the way of life for every Japanese citizen for centuries.

However in the nineteenth century western explorers attempted to impose modern systems, but they were met with resistance. The Portuguese were welcomed and briefly tolerated when they introduced new techniques in gun manufacture but their presence became intolerable when attempts were made to convert the Japanese to Christianity.

The resistance against this became increasingly violent, Christians were tortured by various means, some were forced into boiling hot springs, others were plunged into vats of excrement or crucified.

However this did not prevent any further European exploration, but they were not wanted, Dutch traders arrived in the intervening years but they were exiled on a barren island. Eventually the Shogunate issued an order that no overseas trade should take place and every Japanese citizen was to remain on home soil.

The regime was fearful that the precious identity of Japan would disappear, any foreign ship attempting to enter Japan would have to confront thousands of armed Samurai.

This uncompromising vision of Japan’s golden age, evinced through Mishima`s stark prose has attracted praise and revulsion in equal measures, even in the western world which has divested itself of its own proud traditions. Admiration for ancient Asian traditions is a consequence of European fragility.

This seemed apparent nearly a hundred years ago, when the right-wing Italian philosopher Julius Evola began his writing career. He argued that tradition was integral to humanity’s survival and quoted ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts to back his arguments. However, like Mishima, his literary reputation has been overshadowed by his brief involvement with far-right politics.

It is now fashionable to decry writers who are deemed beyond the pale, only by virtue of holding supposedly unpalatable views in a more modern and enlightened age. Such thinking detracts from the power of literature to provoke and question.

Merrie Land

On the 17th November 1558 Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne. Her ascension heralded a renewed English Protestant culture, which had been deliberately and maliciously suppressed and persecuted by her predecessor, Queen Mary. The Elizabethan age was revered and renowned as a time of stability and calm. This was a consequence of her 44 year reign and the religious homogeneity of the country’s population.

The literature of the Elizabethan era was distinct, it was inspired by the personality and character of Elizabeth herself. She was regarded as implacable and even mysterious. Her dogged refusal to marry her most ardent suitors lended her this air of mystery and she became known as the “Virgin Queen”.

The poet Edmund Spenser was inspired to write “The Faerie Queene” as a tribute to her. He reimagined her as “Gloriana”, a mythical figure embodying Protestant virtues. However after Elizabeth’s death the country lost confidence in itself and became unsure of its identity and purpose in a rapidly fractious and changing world.

Sir Walter Scott was sufficiently in awe of the unmistakable power of Elizabeth as Queen, so much so that he wrote an homage to her in the form of a novel “Kenilworth”. This was a courtly drama reimagined for the Regency age. The book is an example of a very British nostalgia for the rule of Gloriana. One passage reads,

“This aching of the heart, this languishing after a shadow which has lost all the gaiety of its colouring, this dwelling on the remembrance of a dream from which we have been roughly awakened”.

The subsequent reign of Stuart Kings could not compete with the grandeur left by Elizabeth. Her legacy was profound and enduring. The most notorious of the Stuarts, King Charles I could be seen as vain and indulgent, and a traitor. His Catholic sympathies garnered praise and revulsion in equal measures and led to the English Civil War.

(Photograph is of a salt cellar, allegedly made from a vertebrae of King Charles I)

KIng Charles I was arrogant to assume divine power, and his hubris ultimately led to his execution. It is clear that the last Tudor Queen has a greater hold over our imaginations than any other Monarch in our long history.

Heretics and Hypocrites

(Photograph depicts young Russian protestors from the Eurasian Youth Union, taken in 2006).

This Saturday the people of Lewes, East Sussex converge for their annual bonfire party. The Lewes celebration is the biggest and most extravagant bonfire night in the country. It commemorates the foiled Guy Fawkes plot and honours the memory of the Lewes martyrs, seventeen Protestants who were tortured and killed for their beliefs during the reign of Queen Mary.

The Lewes festivities are part of a local tradition, and attract both fame and infamy nationally. The costumes and displays are deliberately designed to be provocative, lampooning the excesses of the historical popes and other pious leaders. Clearly those who spoke out at the time knew that the most devious used their religious authority to cloak their own immorality. They were prepared to die defending their convictions.

It is obvious that the intention behind this is to mock and pillory figures of power rather than the devout believers. Every year a notorious establishment figure is made into a “Guy” to be burned on the bonfire. Historical religious persecution is casually dismissed as a distant era of primitivism and superstition, but the modern age has not moved on in terms of accepting others who profess a different opinion to the prevailing conventions or sensitivities.

The fate that afflicted those individuals who questioned the authority of the Catholic Church was gruesome, but the modern punishment of cancellation is much more insidious on a psychological level, and even more damaging than the physical tortures of sixteenth century inquisitors.

Until very recently every school child in Britain was implored to recite the rhyme to “Remember remember the 5th of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot”. This is not an attack on religious difference, but a reminder that a fanatical terrorist almost succeeded in destroying freedom and democracy in this country and this included freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.

It is vital to point out that if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded, then the United Kingdom would have become a theocracy and every citizen would be controlled through a combination of intimidation and violence to adhere to the state religion. No-one would be free to question, or to highlight any double standard or hypocrisy, these are things that we now take for granted.

Unfortunately a new kind of heresy is being suggested, and it is promulgated from a powerful and influential class of people. Most people are not allied to this extreme cause but are too afraid to voice dissent, lest they lose their jobs or their friends. They are also subject to mockery, sarcasm and vulgarity rather than reasoned discussion. This is a modern kind of inquisition and it should be recognised as another form of torture. No-one should be subject to this kind of barbarism in 2022.

Walking Through Fire

(Drawing by Fifa Finnsdottir, from “The Trolls in the Knolls”, a collection of Icelandic folklore).

On October 27th 1955, the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Laxness’ work helped to draw the world’s attention to this most mysterious and nebulous country. Iceland was founded in the ninth century by Viking chieftains from Norway and Denmark, who then took slaves from Ireland to build a civilisation. Most Icelandic people are the descendants of Irish slaves, and the Icelandic language is closer to ancient Gaelic than either Norwegian or Danish.

Laxness was acutely aware of Iceland`s long struggle for self determination and was a committed Icelandic nationalist. Until 1944 it remained under Danish control, in spite of its unique culture and language. However the path for nationhood was protracted and painful. Iceland was in an uneasy alliance with Denmark throughout the twentieth century, particularly during the Second World War and in its aftermath.

Iceland, like Denmark, was neutral at the outbreak of war. Germany invaded Denmark on the 9th April 1940, and the Danish powers declared that Iceland would control its own defence and foreign policies. However just a month later British forces launched an invasion on Icelandic soil, fearing that the Germans would make an incursion on the island. The Icelandic authorities were incensed at this violation of its neutrality. A year later American forces took over the defence of the island and did not leave until 1946. Three years later Iceland joined NATO but this was not popular with the civilian population and riots broke out.

This fractious period of political and social instability is the backdrop of Laxness` most famous work, “The Atom Station”. The narrator is Ugla, a young woman from the countryside sent to work for a prominent Icelandic politician in the capital city Reykjavik. She is at turns sardonic but at other times also acutely vulnerable. Her naivety is cruelly exploited both by the elite authorities and the left wing activists who populate the city`s cafes and bars at night.

Ugla is an unashamed romantic who clings to the mythology of Iceland’s ancient past. Her love of tradition clashes with the harsh realities of modernity, including the aforementioned “Atom Station”, an American funded defence post and also a glaring symbol of militarism, colonisation and globalisation. Ugla falls in love and becomes pregnant, but this does not spell disaster for her, it allows her to find hope and renewal, and a return to the land of her ancestors.

Laxness is a pertinent writer to return to at this present time, a time when progressivism is being challenged in the most horrific and vivid ways. More people are questioning whether modernisation, westernisation and globalisation are positive forces for good. Traditionalism, conservatism and nationalism are now being mooted as alternatives, despite their historically negative connotations. There is virtue in the past which remains unacknowledged.

Only Connect

On the 18th October 1910 the English author E.M Forster published “Howard`s End”. Ostensibly it is a novel about the preoccupations of two middle class families living in late Victorian England. However the philosophical themes that underpin the novel are much more profound than the surface narrative suggests. This book is much more than a peculiar curiosity from a distant era. In spite of its unfamiliar historical setting and unsympathetic characters, Forster`s prose allows us to relate to the people and their surroundings on a purely human level.

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This tale has a greater resonance and meaning which is more pertinent to our contemporary existence and especially in the light of some very recent political events. “Howard`s End” is a melancholic reflection on the snobbery, xenophobia, materialism and the decline of the spiritual tradition in a modern, industrialised England. The central protagonists are an Anglo-German family called the Schlegels. Although they are wealthy and cultured, their German heritage becomes a constant barrier in society.

However the Schlegels are the classic example of insider-outsiders, their foreign origin allows them to develop a greater appreciation of the culture that they have absorbed. Unlike the “native” English, they are loath to criticise the history and culture and almost over compensate in their behaviours to prove that they belong.

Unfortunately German history is not well known in this country. It is perhaps a consequence of geographical distance, as an island nation we were insulated from the revolutions that burned through central Europe in 1848. At that time Germany was not a unitary nation but a collection of principalities ruled by dynastic families.

It was only during the time of Bismarck’s ascension that a purposeful aim for national unity was declared, alongside a greater ambition to extend the German Empire. In 1862 he delivered his “blood and iron” speech which helped crystallise the German stereotype in the English imagination. Even though Germany was the nation of Handel and Schiller, this caricature of the dictator- imperialist remained. Forster opines,

“England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries…what did it mean? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave worlds fleet accompanying her towards eternity?”

Forster also gives the reader a rare and privileged insight into the Schlegel siblings memories about their late father,

“If one classed him at all it would be the countryman of Hegel and Kant, as the idealist, inclined to be dreamy, whose imperialism was the imperialism of the air.”

Forster is keen to impress that the Schlegels are romantic sentimentalists who pine for the mountains of their ancestors. However as they are the inheritors of wealth they are isolated from the rest of society and it is this rare luxury that allows them to indulge in intellectual and artistic pursuits.

However the grubby business of money intrudes in the most disturbing and unsettling way with a near simultaneous encounter with the Wilcox family, and Leonard Bast. The Wilcox family amassed an immense fortune and property portfolio including the estate of “Howard`s End”. However they are also brutal materialists and philistines. Leonard Bast is a humble bank clerk but filled with artistic and intellectual aspiration, he longs to find his soul.

When these characters collide a cascade of misery unfolds, adultery, illegitimacy, death and prison. The only real element that is significant in its absence is love, the most simple form of human connection that eludes the entire cast.

Forster infers that this noticeable decay of feeling is the natural result of the loss of English spirituality, he despairs in the closing scenes,

“Why has not England a great mythology? … Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has stopped with the witches and fairies.”

An Edwardian novelist`s plea for connection may not be the most obvious allusion to draw in terms of the Brexit vote. However the shrill arguments that emanated from the Remainer side was a timely reminder that dull, shallow and literal people will never understand the moral, spiritual and emotional reasons behind the referendum.

The referendum itself was devised by insider-outsiders within the political world, all galvanised by a profound affection for the culture and history of this country. The first meeting was held at the Tate Britain gallery, the apex of British visual art, and a space where journalists, politicians and associated bureaucrats were conspicuous by their absence.

Three of the instigators were notable insider-outsiders, overcompensating as a consequence for their perceived lack of influence and connection to this country. Daniel Hannan was born in Peru and had first hand experience of communist dictatorship. Douglas Carswell spent most of his early life in Uganda as the son of a medical missionary. Boris Johnson was born in America to a colourful mixed heritage family with roots in Turkey and Belgium. They were all united behind a campaign to restore national sovereignty.

Clearly the base motives of an organisation that evolved from a Franco-German Iron and Steel agreement were of little benefit to the ordinary people of this country. It is naive to adhere to the notion of internationalism. It is a belief only shared by utilitarians and those who have never genuinely experienced how it feels to be on the margins of society, but who desperately want to belong to it.