Two hundred diners in search of a stereotype and celluloid Scots

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"ODDLY enough, Trollope himself was not a great admirer of Lincoln's Inn."

I am not quite sure why, but this sentence has stayed with me all week. It was spoken by Lord Rees-Mogg at the ninth annual dinner of the Trollope Society, held last Tuesday in the Great Hall at Lincoln's Inn. In one way it was a quintessentially old English experience. A couple of hundred people in evening dress sat down at long tables underneath pictures of men in wigs, drank wine, ate duck, and listened to several men who had done very well for themselves speak about the everlasting quality of the English character, which the novels of Trollope apparently embody. But in another way it was a quintessentially new English experience as well. There was something unreal about it, which fitted it well for a country where the new terror is the hollow brain.

The Trollope Society is not an old institution like, say, the societies devoted to Dickens or Austen. It was founded during the late Thatcherite period by the former owner of the Folio Society, John Letts, who wanted to fund a new 48-volume edition of the complete works and has a genius for publicity. It is thanks to Letts that we know Trollope is the favourite author of recent Tory cabinets and their hangers-on; thanks to him that John Major is the society's vice-president and chose The Small House at Allington as his Desert Island book; and thanks to him that we all sat down on Tuesday to listen to Rees-Mogg, Lord Young of Graffham and Sir Alistair Grant, chairman of Argyll, which owns Safeway, talk about literature.

Sir Alistair, as it turned out, made the best speech. He spoke enthusiastically and knowledgeably about Trollope novels and characters, and persuaded me (at least) that I should read them and perhaps even shop in Safeway. Lord Young was less successful, perhaps because we have a clearer idea of who he is. It probably wasn't a good idea for Rees-Mogg to remind us that Lord Young in his various Thatcherite roles "played Lord Cecil to Margaret's Queen Elizabeth" or for Lord Young himself to talk of "my old company, Cable and Wireless". After that, it was difficult to look at him without remembering how he moved to the chairman's job at Cable and Wireless only a year after he'd awarded the company some lucrative telecommunications licences as the Secretary for Trade and Industry. Or that this silver- haired man now talking so benignly about life in Victorian cathedral cities had recently collected pounds 2.4m in salary and share options from Cable and Wireless when the company booted him out.

BUT perhaps this is called enterprise. Lord Young said that he had wanted to talk about "Trollope and enterprise" but discovered there was little about enterprise in his books. The author had lived through Britain's peak as a commercial and industrial nation - the time of I K Brunel, Robert Stephenson, oceanic cable-laying (here Lord Young managed to imply that he was something of an oceanic cable-layer himself, though most of his fortune comes from property). But of all this in Trollope's novels, nothing. Instead, a marvellous insight into a greater and more permanent phenomenon, the English character.

Lord Young didn't quite explain what this was, and I haven't read enough Trollope to know. The last enjoyable dose of Trollope on television - Alan Rickman creeping about as Obadiah Slope - suggests that the English character includes hypocrisy, greed and ambition played out behind the screens of ostensibly benevolent institutions. Perhaps this is why he appeals to so many recent cabinet ministers, though if this is the case, why shouldn't Dickens? But Dickens is the Great Lucifer of the Trollope Society, there to be bashed as a sentimental caricaturist. Sentimentality was hardly a hallmark of Thatcherism, nor was the kind of imagination that allowed Dickens to leave us such an uncomfortable picture of Victorian England. Trollope may be an easier author for governing politicians to live with, because he never describes the larger social consequences of their politics.

BRAVEHEART won Oscars last week for the best picture and the best director, and on Thursday, long after everyone else, I went to see it. In Scotland the film has caused fights in cinemas between Englishmen and Scotsmen. The leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, said last week that "from a Scottish independence point of view, this film is good news for Scotland and the SNP".

Sad if this is so. There's no point in complaining about schlock and inauthenticity in a Hollywood film - about the sudden appearance of bens and glens in the Renfrewshire plain or the widespread use of shampoo in 13th-century Scotland. Mel Gibson plays Sir William Wallace brilliantly, whether or not Wallace looked and spoke like Billy Connolly, and the scenery is magnificent, even though it's Irish. The sad thing is its crude footballing nationalism. In Braveheart, the English are decadent sadists and fops with lines such as "Tis an excellent idea, Sire!". The Scots (apart from the nobles, who are dishonorary Englishmen) are all great guys, maybe a bit on the rough side, but with wonderful dark humour and no faggots among them. More important, they are modern, with lines such as "You must be out o' yer mind!". The English are players from a tight-bummed Julian Clary panto; the Scots are a Seattle rock band on their way to their next gig of siege engines and boiling oil.

Wallace was probably a great man, and as such open to changing interpretations. I have an Edwardian book at home which honours him as a free marketeer - he was anxious to restore Scottish trade with the Hanseatic League - and the precursor of Adam Smith and Britain's trading empire. That seems an incredible view now, but rather that than a film which closes with the sentence "They fought like Scotsmen" and means it to be taken seriously.