The Ariel Gherson Collection summer reception is in full swing and attractive twenty-somethings are serving champagne and canapés to its friends and benefactors, great and small.
Mr A has just arrived with his partner. He is a lecturer in art history at Goldsmiths. Born to a teacher and nurse he attended a Kent grammar school and then went the Ruskin School of Fine Art where he had a wide circle of friends and never felt either superior or inferior. He then did a masters and later a doctorate at the Courtauld where he met his Italian partner who is now a successful interior designer, which enables them to live comfortably though not extravagantly in Hackney. They were both devastated when the Brexit vote came in and several of their friends have now returned to the EU with their families. They have yet to ‘tie the knot’ and resent the fact that only by doing so can Mr A regain his freedom of movement.
Mr B has just arrived, alone (his wife is in Spain). He is the son of a successful builder turned property developer. From a Home Counties prep school, he was sent to Wellington where he played rugby and paid just enough attention to his studies to get into Loughborough to study management. He is tall and good looking and, having joined, or rather never left the family firm, has never had to worry about anything. He is secure in his status and the thought that his vast wealth does not come from his graft would never cross his mind. He is a major donor to the gallery and the Conservative Party and he is proud to see the name of his family firm on the benefactors’ board. However he is uncomfortable when introduced to Mr A and his partner because he is convinced that Mr A is faintly amused by his lack of artistic knowledge. He suspects that Mr A and his partner are classic woke members of the North London ‘elite’ which despises people like him and the decent upstanding right minded citizens of England with whom he plays golf and discusses sport. He loves his country and voted leave to take back control and still clings to the belief that the many Brexit opportunities remain to be grasped. He desperately hopes one day to be made a member of the House of Lords but fears that time may be running out. Mr B owns a house in Marbella but speaks not one word of Spanish which he thinks is rather amusing. Indeed he recently joked about this with his son’s Spanish teacher at Wellington. He couldn’t understand why the teacher didn’t find this funny; his wife did not laugh either.
Mr C has arrived. He is casually but expensively dressed. Mr C has made his living in the music business and helped two major stars reinvent themselves. His father was a small-time bandleader and he never went to university but having spent all his life with musicians has great respect for the arts. He has travelled widely and has made close friendships in Germany and the USA where is well respected. He and his family are totally secure in their identity. He has succeeded without having to pretend to be anything else and is at ease
Mr C discovered his love of art when the bustle of New York and Los Angeles drove him to spend time in galleries. Through work contacts he was introduced to the experts and academics who effectively provided him with the education that he missed out on when he was young. Mr C knows a great deal about modern art, particularly German expressionism and is now regularly consulted on the subject by other collectors. He was previously on the board of a small gallery in Surrey and was greatly honoured to be invited to join the Gherson Collection, to which he now devotes much of his time and energy. He also supports the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and opposed Brexit partly because he knew how much it would damage the music business in Britain, though he was also instinctively repulsed by the nationalism and philistinism of Brexit’s advocates. He makes a beeline for Mr A and his partner. Mr B does not know what to make of him but he knows that his nephew has made a fortune managing a major British star, whose music he does know. When he tries to make conversation on the subject of the nephew, Mr C seems strangely uninterested preferring to discuss the future of the gallery. Mr B moves away from the group feeling rejected, quite unaware of the fact that they find him dull because he has nothing but his money to contribute. Anyway, he has seen Mr D, whom he has invited to the function.
Mr D is another academic, a professor of political science at a lesser known university, but this is not his normal stamping ground. Snappily dressed and almost too well-groomed he has spent the afternoon at meeting in Tufton Street with various lobbyists. They are happy to pay for his frequent visits to the United States and to subsidise his research. This seeks to explain that the problems in British and American society result from an out of touch metropolitan elite failing to take account of the sensibilities of those less well educated citizens left behind by globalisation. He eagerly and enthusiastically backed Brexit (and Trump) on behalf of these people and insists that their justified concerns must be respected, whatever that means. Somehow their suffering justifies Brexit. He talks a lot about allowing people to be proud of their history and rails against ‘wokeness’ in all its various forms. He looks around him and senses immediately that besides a handful of the donors, he will find few like-minded souls here. Oh dear! Mr A has recognised him but has immediately looked away – to be expected! Whilst achieving success and recognition outside academia, Mr D has few friends amongst his mostly less well-off and rather left-wing colleagues, many of whom seem rather too eager to pull his recent research apart. Though initially he was only mildly contrarian, and that only on occasion, he has become a bona fide right-wing intellectual. Whilst this allows for TV appearances and articles in the conservative press, no literary festival will touch him and he delights in the victimhood he derives from this, whilst at the same time playing the tough guy and insulting those who disagree with him. Deep down, he feels rejected and rather angry.
Mr B finds Mr D rather intense and is delighted when he sees that Mr E has arrived. He is Italian – his family came over in the early twentieth century and starting as humble caterers moved into hotels and restaurants. He now runs a company which owns some fine hotels in Britain and elsewhere. For reasons unknown to many of his fellow restaurateurs and hoteliers – who find that the loss of Freedom of Movement makes the hospitality business (and much else) very tough – he backed Brexit. Why? There are those who point to the problems his business suffered at the hands of the British financial establishment during a hostile takeover – did he feel that he was never really accepted by an elite which regarded his family as upstart caterers and hoteliers from Italy? Some suspect that he wanted to assert his Englishness. Who knows? Brexit was never a rational decision, and somehow he had always seemed angry about something. Though he was a keen supporter of Boris Johnson (and many of his friends told him he should have known better), he now says Brexit has failed and may return to Italy. This rather confuses Mr B, who consoles himself by blaming the civil service ‘blob’, the bullying EU and all those fellow citizens who failed to buy into the project. Mr B has never been a deep thinker, which is perhaps why he found Boris Johnson so beguiling, and anyway he has never had a care in the world. When says he is proud of his country and its history, what this really means is that he thinks a lot of himself.
As I mentioned, Mrs B is not with her husband but rather in their beautiful house in Marbella, a residence which they regularly share with Tory politicians who cannot afford or do not want to pay for the luxury their status merits. Mr B met her at Loughborough, and they have been together ever since. She worked briefly for an up market estate agent but, as soon as they started a family, she stayed at home and enjoyed the life of a lady that lunched. However, secretly she always regretted not using her law degree to train to be a solicitor, as the estate agency manager had encouraged her to do. He told her that he had seen her intelligence and urged her to apply for Law College, but Mr B wanted children. Her children both go to Wellington, which Mr B thinks has become rather woke since his days there.
Mrs B is enjoying her time in Marbella and is secretly volunteering in a centre for Ukrainians learning Spanish – she can help beginners, many of whom speak English because, unlike her husband she has learnt Spanish and is very proud of her B2 certificate and she understands what beginners find hard. She also knows it annoys her husband when she speaks with their domestic staff and indeed other Spaniards in Spanish. But she is very, very rich and if he is a bit dull he is kind, and strangely enough he doesn’t seem to mind if she and the children mock him sometimes. Little does Mr B know, his wife would get on very well with Mr A and Mr C. You see, Mrs B knows that her husband is actually not a bad man. The problem is that his deeply xenophobic and anti-intellectual father instilled the wrong sort of self-belief in him and his brother, and Wellington, then a very jockish school, made it worse. Wellington isn’t like that now and that, she realises, is what he means by ‘woke’. Mr B doesn’t know it, but his wife voted Remain. They don’t talk politics, but she laughs silently when the Conservative MPs visit. Though the less sensitive never bring presents or offer to take their hosts out to dinner, the more agreeable ones are often rather good fun and sometimes very indiscreet when the Rioja flows. When one particular guest, a notorious freeloader, invited himself she made sure she was looking after her elderly parents – it helped her to use fewer of her 90 days; anyway and you have to draw a line somewhere.
Finally we must focus on a waiter and a musician. Mr A and Mr C – who, as you may have guessed, are drawn together by their shared interests, have made it their business to ensure that students, many from the Courtauld and the RAM, provide most of the waiting staff, and at the instigation of Mr C, a string quartet from the academy is playing.
Miss F is the principal violinist, a stunning young Rumanian, who first came on a scholarship to Wellington College, has settled status but has just been recruited by the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne. The deal on offer was too good. She told Mr C that she hopes she can persuade the orchestra to go through the paperwork to hire some of her fellow players, music being one domain in which the UK remains ‘world-class’. Cologne may not be London but it isn’t that bad. Mr C is sorry that Britain will be losing talent, but that is what he knew would happen if Mr B and his chums got their way. It wasn’t what Mr B intended, but he didn’t know, because – as we know – he had never had to care, so he didn’t care. There was no malice, just ignorance and arrogance, but yes, what of the waiter?
Mr G, the handsome waiter is a studying Spanish at University College London (UCL) and was hoping to spend the next year in Madrid, but the complexities of post Brexit visas were such that he gave up and instead will be going to Mexico and then to Buenos Aires, which is much easier. He and his fellow students and, of course, the academic staff are appalled by the broken promises of Brexit. He was too young to vote to remain but would vote to re-join tomorrow. Mr G went to a sixth form college in Hampshire and has friends from many different backgrounds and indeed from all over the world. He already speaks excellent Spanish learnt during his gap year in Chile where his excellent Spanish teacher had contacts. Mr G is bemused by the constant insistence of the right that we should all be proud of our country and its history and traditions, because he knows what happened very recently in Chile. This term he is doing a module on Argentina and is fascinated by notions of identity and national pride in the context of this once great ‘nacción’. In one of the seminars students were asked to define what a nation is. Nobody quite knew.
Mr A and Mr C treat Mr G with respect, whilst Mr B ignores him, though unintentionally. It is the way he is. Mr G ensures that Mr A and Mr C are well looked after, of course, whilst he does his best to avoid Mr B thereafter.
There are more guests and more stories to be told but is clear that voting Leave is more a question of mindset than anything else. There are Leavers, like Mr B, who are so sure of themselves and the superiority of the nation to which they are so fortunate to belong (and which is so lucky to have them as leading citizens) that they resent the notion of sharing just the teeniest, incy-winciest bit of sovereignty with a foreigner, especially one who doesn’t speak English.
Others also believed they were innately superior and knew better but bore grudges. Populism allows its followers to feel they are both the victim and the tough guy. The enemy – and there is always an enemy at home and abroad – is always too weak and too strong. Many of these Leavers, both rich and poor, felt (rightly or wrongly) rejected and laughed at. Brexit gave them the upper hand and let them feel good about themselves, if only briefly because there was never a plan and it soon all went to pot (which meant people laughed at them even more).
Next time you are at a gathering ask yourself which way the other guests voted and why. Talk to them about something else, anything. I bet you’ll guess right most times.
Ed: This article was inspired by the article, “Who goes Nazi?” in Harpers Magazine in August 1941.