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Paul Vallely: Beware the metaphysical gloom

18 February 2009

Paul Vallely finds a positive antidote to pessimism and busyness in Keswick

You probably shouldn’t read news­papers on holiday, if you are a journalist, at any rate. I have been spending half- term in the Lake District, which is a won­der­ful antidote to the closed-in suburban land­scape and the artificial over-busyness of daily life.

The majestic hills around Derwent Water, which Coleridge described as looking in the gloaming like “a whole camp of giants’ tents”, are also a salutary counter to the steady state of mild hysteria that has infected our view of the national and global economy. This is “the world elsewhere”: steady, moving with the pace of centuries, and correcting our notion of who we are, where we fit, and what the magnificence of creation is for.

But I stumbled across a copy of The Guardian and a piece by Hannah Pool, who wrote an interesting book called My Father’s Daughter (Viking, 2006) about returning to Eritrea, from which she had been taken by her white adoptive father, to seek out her blood relatives. She was reflecting on Barack Obama, a man who did something similar when he went to find his father’s village in Kenya.

It brought me back to the world of metropolitan cynicism with a shudder. Ms Pool had, apparently, been unconvinced that the United States would elect Mr Obama as its first black president. “It’ll never happen, and even if it does, who’s to say it’d be a good thing?” she re­corded. I should have been warned by the double negative there; for it signalled a determin­ation to have it both ways, either of which pre­sumed that there was no way ever to make the world a better place.

She continued in the same vein. Reading through the souvenir supplements, she detected, beyond the overriding mood of pride and eu­phoria, a world where racism, “overt and covert”, was still thriving. When commentators marvelled at how articulate President Obama is, Ms Pool filled in what she supposed was their unspoken caveat: “for a black man” — though it is far more likely they meant “compared with President Bush”.

When they reported on how well Mr Obama danced with his wife at the inauguration ball, she inferred a blank space into which she added: “Ah, yes, that’ll be his natural rhythm.” And all her suspicions were confirmed by The Sun’s headline “Obama does it 10 times a night”, observing: “It was actually referring to the number of times he danced with his wife, but, hey, you get the point.”

It is with some trepidation that anyone who is not black should venture a comment here. Those of us who are white may well be tone-deaf to some of the nuances of racist stereotyping, though it is not hard to share her reaction to the juvenile innuendo of The Sun. Even so, it was faintly depressing to feel the weight of her weary assumption that far greater racism will come out of the woodwork when the Obama honeymoon period is over and the backlash starts.

“When he fails — and he will fail, because he’s human — he will be a black man failing.” And that “will reflect on black people everywhere. . . It shouldn’t, but the fact is it will.”

As I sit here in the vale of Keswick, surrounded by the poet’s giants’ tents, such a reaction seems too pessimistic and too metaphysical. Of course, failure is part of the human condition, but so is striving and achievement. Despite Enoch Powell’s gloomy aphorism, not all political careers end in tears. Nor should we allow the wishing of the world-weary to make it so.

The feathery top of Coleridge’s quill also re­corded the hills around me to be, in imagination, an ocean rushing in whose “billows, even in the serene sky, reach halfway to heaven”. Human resolution will take us the rest of the journey.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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