Need a modern Blake..
Recently I have tried to limit myself to just one “Brexit rant” a day because my ever tolerant and patient partner has suffered enough of my mental disassembly, not that she would ever say as much. She’s not even from the UK, as such her fortitude is ever more impressive. So, I consciously strove to ration my Brexit rants, but then Teresa May decided to call a General Election in the UK. In fear of radical recidivism I decided to try to be imaginative, and look beyond the mundane predictable UK political actors. Who would I really like to see leading a political movement in the UK at the moment? Trolling through the limited finds of my minds I come back to Mr William Blake 1757 – 1827.
You know Blake, he wrote the words for ‘Jerusalem’ , England’s unofficial national anthem, the preface to his book Milton. Blake was an extraordinary man, up there with great English thinkers such as Paine, Darwin, Turing, and Pankhurst, to name but a few. Like them, Blake was largely rejected by most British people of his time, but came to be respected, even revered, after his death.
Blake was a poet, a writer, and an artist. Not really the professions of modern politicians, who at best tend to be Lawyers, Teachers or business people, and at worst are professional politicians, having done nothing more than climb their party hierarchy. Blake was a free thinker, who claimed to speak with the divine, interacted with the spirit world and received prophesy (he also promoted free love) . Blake is often described as a “visionary”, and oh my word – do we need visionaries now!
It could be argued that Blake was a tad bonkers, others say that he was “ahead of his time”. Beyond labels, Blake clearly had an understanding of the alienating effects of industrialisation and consumption, not that he used these terms back in the 18th century. He told us about the over riding importance of personal freedom in realising happiness, and argued that such freedom could not be bestowed by the nation state, nor realised through superficial nationalism. Freedom for Blake was found through the understanding of intrinsic beauty, through emotional joy in the arts, and through appreciation of the natural environment, and its’ consequent wonder.
The contemporary politicians gracing the UK political scene lack colour, imagination and depth. Their endless focus on the mundanity of how many beans to give to this specific public service rather than the other is soulless and endlessly uninspiring. I want my politicians to lift my sights to a better tomorrow that I have been unable to imagine. I want them to paint a future world which joins self expression with new forms of thinking, relating and being. Martin Luther King didn’t lead a values revolution by debating how many seats on the bus Black people should be allowed to sit on, instead he painted a picture of an entirely different world. We shouldn’t be electing the best bean counter, we should be electing the best visionary leader. Vision and purpose were core to Blake, which is why I want a new Blake.
The Willful Unknowing of some of the UK Electorate.
I sit down to watch BBC Question Time, and to ritualistically shout at the TV. Whenever they raise Brexit the atmosphere in the studio becomes febrile, anger rises, and people are shouting at each other (which, I guess, is better than shouting at the TV!). The country (the UK) is nothing like the one that I left 12 years ago. Here is my problem, because staring back at the UK from overseas, I suspect that I see a problem of voluntary willful unknowing. (Lest I call it ignorance, for that is a taboo that we cannot say) . A case in point, during the Brexit debate (debacle), some Leavers posted pictures of Churchill, and wrote “we want our country back” underneath his picture. However, a cursory reading of history would show that Churchill was an enthusiastic pro European, see the Zurich Speech of 1946 in which he called for a United States of Europe. That’s willful unknowing encouraged by the cowardly, unimaginative and narcissistic politicians of our time.
A Sky News documentary on Brexit interviewed a man in Sunderland who said that he voted for Brexit to “stuff it David Cameron, and all the Tories, in London“. He clearly didn’t understand that by voting Brexit he was giving more power to those in London, at that time David Cameron, and his Tories. Willful Unknowing is venerating a lack of understanding over knowledgeable understanding. That’s what I see from some in UK today. It’s not their fault that no one has inspired them to a more pluralistic tomorrow, it’s just a shame that they couldn’t imagine it themselves.
Blake – visions of better ways to be.
Back to Blake, a man who welcomed knowing the unknowable. Blake spoke to Angels, and spirits, he convened with the saints, and declared himself a prophet. Not the greatest back story to lead a political revolution I hear you cry. But, then I watch people moved to tears whilst they sing his words at the Last night of the Proms. Is it worse to convene with angels than with bankers, trade union organisers, or focus group driven spin doctors? It’s visionary understanding that gives hope and purpose. It’s “promised lands” that can open arms, minds and hearts to more welcoming and generous behaviour.
Blake was a subjective idealist, who looked beyond the evident given knowns which repeatedly lead to failure in modern times. He prioritised human imagination over empirical and rational processes for problem solving. By embracing the metaphysical world Blake speaks to an intuitive sense of ethics and solutions. He invokes a sense of the beauty of being beyond the mundanity of consumption and production, a mundanity which so enthralls the contemporary politician. In the long run it’s not the bean counters who cause positive social change, it’s the humane visionaries.
In our modern times Blake’s religiosity is unfashionable, near politically incorrect in many circles. However, for Blake faith demonstrated that humans could be better, less Hobbesian but more constructively creative. When Blake convenes with the metaphysical he is describing a humanity beyond the dreary induction of empiricism. Indeed, the best US President that we never had, Josiah Bartlett, convened with his God in an episode of the West Wing that moves me to tears every time : Two Cathedrals
Our modern day Blake.
So what does my modern day Blake look like? S/he has the intelligence and pragmatism of Zoe Williams (of the Guardian newspaper), the principles of Nelson Mandela, the foresight of Aneurin Bevan, the courage of Rosa Parkes, the media savvy of Barack Obama, the oratory of Martin Luther King, the technical understanding of Alan Turing, the mindfulness of Fjortoft Nansen, and the warm gentle humanity of Tony Benn. This person cannot be a product of their political landscape, they’re already beyond the known challenges of our world. They’re looking above the horizon of me and you, they’re visionaries.
This person sounds like a big ask? But, you probably already know this person. They inspire you in your work canteen, over a beer in your local, on your daily dog walk, or at your allotment. They’re the person that we British often call “a good egg”. You admire and trust this person, implicitly, with your life, and love. This person has apparently “whacky moments”, but they never seek the limelight, however it sometimes finds them. This person is neither a fighter nor a coward, and as such never draws trouble unto them. This person doesn’t work in a national political party central office, they’re more likely to be in your local community centre, hospital or school, because this person embodies humanity, and humility. This person has absolutely no idea how much they’re needed by the UK at the moment. When Blake died he had no idea that his visions and words would, one day, encapsulate the essence of English news, and move a nation. If you are whiling away your days in your everyday existence, yet you’ve read this far in this post, do you know that this person could be you?
Daniel, Bangkok, May 2017