Over the years, your humble correspondent has become more and more appreciative of the education he received in the 1960s East Midlands‘ grammar and comprehensive schools system, at the Jesse Boot and West Bridgford Schools, the latter of which also and more valuably gave you Lucy Worsley and the sublime Samantha Morton.
At a talk about the creative process (none of which chimed with his experience) it was smugly pleasing to think that this school, unlike those moaned about by the speaker and many creatives, encouraged rather than suppressed individuality and all that shit.
And one of the things that has stayed with me all these years, is the love of drama inculcated by a state institution with a fine stage and theatre facilities, and keen teachers, from the mildly insane Ruth Davis of the English Dept to the considerably Welsh Bill Morgan of German, whose make-up skills were legendary (we didn’t ask). Four houses mounted junior and senior plays each year and there were similarly two school plays. Though unable to name the play in question, I still recall my first line at age 12 (Ladies, please!), and the embarrassment at having to kiss a girl on stage (pleasant enough in itself, but the whoops from classmates in the audience stopped it being a particularly satisfying experience).
And perhaps the play that lives with me most vividly, from a wide and occasionally edgy repertoire, is Max Frisch’s black comedy Biedermann und die Brandstifter, known and performed in English as The Fire Raisers or The Arsonists. A play that seems little known and rarely if ever revived now, but one that might strike you as scarily relevant.
Let us consider the plot.
Herr Biedermann (German for ‘conventional man’) lives up to his name in a provincial town, which has been plagued by a series of arson attacks. The firemen of the town act as a kind of Greek chorus (Watching! Listening!) and our hero is smugly sure he couldn’t be taken in by these bastards.
Then Schmitz appears, a hawker who talks Biedermann into letting him spend the night in his attic. He is soon joined by Eisenring, and the two men start to fill Biedermann’s loft with straw and drums of petroleum. But whenever their host asks what they’re up to and what they want all this stuff for, they simply tell him, ‘we’re the fire raisers; we’re going to burn your house down’.
Reasoning that no real arsonist would ever be that blatant, Biedermann shrugs this off as an obvious, if tasteless joke. Eventually he even helps them to measure and prepare the fuse.
And when a fire engine rushes past, he expresses delight that it’s some other poor fool who is the target. Even this is undercut by the arsonists’ explanation that they always set a small decoy fire on the edge of town to get the fire service out of the way for the main event. They explain that their campaign will eventually culminate in an attack on the gasworks.
Clinging as best he can to his collapsing belief that his guests are merely pulling his leg, finally he even hands them the requested match as they head upstairs.
An epilogue shows Herr und Frau Biedermann, burnt to a crisp, at the gates of Hell. Even here they convince themselves they are really in Heaven. They encounter the arsonists, who turn out to be Beelzebub and Satan themselves, complaining that too many real mass murderers are getting into Heaven, while they get stuck with small fry like the Biedermanns.
As the fire raisers tell the audience, the secret is to tell the outrageous truth, safe in the knowledge that people will go to any lengths not to believe it.
Remind you of anything, dear reader?
Frisch’s main target when the play was begun in 1948 was the Communist take-over in Prague, but no one at the time would have missed the similarities with the rise of the Nazis in Germany only a decade and a half ago. On a milder level (or is it?), there was Rory Bremner’s prescient ‘conference speech’ in the guise of Tony Blair in 1996: “The Tories made one big mistake: they didn’t do what they said they were going to do. We won’t make that mistake. We will do what they said they were going to do.”
But in the present day we seem to be overwhelmed with parallels, many of them running in … well, parallel.
Just as Thatcher won an election with Saaatchi’s famous Labour Isn’t Working poster, only to introduce policies obviously designed to throw millions onto the dole and create a low-wage economy, we now have a Brexit largely won by suggesting that a non-existent amount of dosh could be spent on the NHS — in a campaign headed by people like Farage and Banks, who are on record as believing the NHS should be replaced by an American-style, for-profit system. As Michael Portillo said after the 2010 election, The Tories “did not believe they could win if they told you what they were going to do because people are so wedded to the NHS.” And we even had a Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who co-authored a booklet (with Douglas Carswell) with chapters on how to dismantle the socialised service and replace it, yet regularly campaigned claiming he was supportive of it, while, of course, running it down to reduce public confidence in it.
Got enough kerosene yet, lads?
It wouldn’t be so bad if these people stood up publicly and said this is what they believe in, trying to convince others as to why a private system is better (others, that is, who can’t afford shares in the companies straining at the leash to get their teeth into it). OK, not an easy task when you compare health outcomes and costs in the States against those even in our cash-strapped and badly-funded system, fearfully awaiting the extra blow of a post-Brexit drop in staff. But I still have this wish to see politics return to being, at least in part, the art of persuasion, rather than the playground of marketeers and manipulators.
Maybe a slightly longer fuse?
And to cap it all we have the global assortment of right/far-right/alt-right/ctrl-right/esc-right or whatever else you call them populist movements. For, in this globally connected age, it is even greater folly than ever ’twas not to see them as intertwined. Brexit is but a tree in a forest with groves in Brazil, Venezuela, Hungary, Italy and saplings pretty much everywhere.
And again, none of this should be surprising. Schmitz and Eisenring may have been replaced by such as Bannon and Banks, but they are announcing as clearly as ever why it is they’re filling our lofts with their combustibles. Steven Bannon is quite open about his belief that the world is overdue a conflagration, a cull of its decadent and liberal chaff, and his hopes to bring that about. He has wr5itten of his desire to overthrow the established forms of government, particularly liberal democracies, which makes it more baffling that privileged pillars of that very establishment like Johnson and Rees-Mogg are so keen to get into bed with him. But then many of the Gross und Gut of Germany went along with Hitler for similar reasons. We never learn.
Sometimes I feel like I’m in that Biergarten in Cabaret with some Brexiteer Xenophobe singing Tomorrow Belongs to Me. Still think we can control them?
Don’t worry, lads, we’ll bring the matches.