Two hundred diners in search of a stereotype and celluloid Scots

Share
Related Topics
"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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls  

The campaigns to end FGM are a welcomed step, but they don't go far enough

Charlotte Rachael Proudman
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game