PFEFFELS AND PIFFLES – A YEAR WITH BORIS

32 I’M OLD FASHIONED

‘I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others,’ declared Ludwig II of Bavaria.  Ludwig has been remembered as the Mad King, the Swan King, the Fairy Tale King and God knows what else.   The King died when he was forty years old.  He either committed suicide or was murdered.   If his reign ended prematurely, his wishes about being thought an enigma came true.  His legacy was not bad either.  Without financial support from Ludwig the career of Wagner might have ended earlier and no one would have thought of vinyl box sets.   The four castles that Ludwig had built cost a fortune but they are an important tourist attraction in Bavaria and have earned far more money than he spent constructing them.  The life of Ludwig II also inspired an almost movie masterpiece from Luchino Visconti.  

The eccentricity of Ludwig II led to his destruction but he was also a victim of high politics.  Without the arrival of Bismarck to unite Germany, reduced independence for Bavaria, opportunist politicians and an awful lot of Catholic guilt in Ludwig about his sexual relationships with other men it might have been different.  But with all that perhaps it was also inevitable.  Whatever happened the likelihood is that others would have always found him impossible.  The tension between the grubby intrigue of politicians and the frustrated dreams of an eccentric and not too likeable romantic dreamer not only define Ludwig II as a slippery enigma but have provided a compelling mystery.   

To pad out over-long biographies about the prime minister the authors of these books have emphasised what they think are contradictions in an enigmatic character.  The disappointment for readers is that there are no contradictions within the character of Pfeffel.   The hatchet jobs about Pfeffel come to the same predictable conclusions as the hagiographies.   Pfeffel is witty, intelligent, good company, not as lazy as people think and a scoundrel too willing to betray friends when in trouble.  He is a man whose education gave him everything except decency.  For a while there was a media debate about his politics and what kind of Conservative he might become in power.  Pfeffel was regarded by some as a self-effacing liberal.  Now we know.  He secured leadership of the Conservative party by waving a flag and appealing to long nurtured prejudice.  On a roll, Pfeffel soon packed his Cabinet with stormtroopers from the right wing of the Party.  Yet previously in his campaigns to be London Mayor he was able to appeal to the left leaning voters in the capital.  Beguiled Londoners assumed that the political opinions of Pfeffel were wide ranging and everything would be okay.  And because the mayor had limited powers nothing too awful happened.  Money was wasted on extravagances but life went on.  The nonsense about the core liberalism of Pfeffel has persisted despite the actions of his authoritarian government. The truth is that Pfeffel only pretends to have liberal instincts.  He has done it more than once.  The same liberal pretence was used when Pfeffel campaigned for election as President of the Union at Oxford University.  He showed no hint of liberalism in his anti-EU columns for The Telegraph and as editor of The Spectator.  Pretending to be liberal or more complicated than his critics alleged is nothing more than a means to an end.

Ludwig II was crowned King of Bavaria when he was eighteen-years-old and he died twenty two years later.  The handsome youth had lost his good looks.  His addiction to sweets had rotted his teeth, and Ludwig II put on weight.  The juvenile Ludwig II wanted to refuse the crown.  Mum and Dad and a lot more besides said no.  Enigmas need a what if, and this one for Ludwig II is as good as what would have happened to Elvis if he had not met Colonel Parker.  Not sure what to do with the rest of his life Ludwig II decided to build castles and listen to Wagner.  I had a friend who was a Wagner fan, and he spent one summer holiday in the Bavarian mountains listening to the operas.  This friend was posh but definitely no king, not even a member of the aristocracy.  So no surprise about Ludwig.  

Pfeffel likes to quote the classics but it fails to convince.  Pfeffel may be clever but he is not the cultured man he pretends to be.  If anything he is an alert anti-intellectual that has total faith in bluster and superior bearing.  His columns for The Telegraph and his work as editor of The Spectator relished crude gossip, and his overwritten novels lead nowhere and are thankfully few.   Whatever he thinks about anything it seems that all Pfeffel has to share are a few jokes and a vocabulary.   We should not be surprised.  Pfeffel behaving like this conforms to the values of the typical high Tory.  The roots of the prime minister are complicated but his reaction to the class system of Britain is to want to be amongst those born at the top of the pile.   

Much has been made of how Pfeffel admires Churchill and needs to emulate him.   But when asked by an editor why he wanted to abandon journalism for politics, the narcissistic Pfeffel said, ’They do not build statues for journalists.’   What Pfeffel admires is admiration and what he wants is admiration similar to what came the way of Churchill after Britain survived the second world war.   Pfeffel does not have politics.  He has the prejudices and grievances of an ex-public schoolboy.   Neither is he complicated.   Confident, charming and well-educated charlatans loaded with an exaggerated sense of entitlement leave Eton every year.   Not everyone that attends Eton is reprehensible, of course, but the production line exists and although production lines can have their merits they do not produce enigmas.  Without a martinet father that encouraged him to not just compete with the rest of the world but the rest of his family Pfeffel might have settled for being a well-paid celebrity.  But after a childhood like the one Pfeffel endured, a grown man needs a statue, and just in case one is not erected Pfeffel is desperate to have a few monuments that honour what he perceives as his exceptionalism.

Ludwig II liked to design castles that others could build.  His flippant remark about being an enigma revealed the preoccupation of someone with his legacy.   Monarch or powerful politician, having wit and domineering bluster can impress but only for so long.  The books of Boris earn him money but I doubt if anyone ever reads them twice.  Boris desires posthumous statues and, because he cannot wait, he wants bridges and airports to be built.  It is an alternative to analysis, problem solving and responsible decision making or what is often called work.   While he fights to stay in power and dreams up more vanity projects which, fortunately, rarely happen, the real problems of modern Britain are left ignored.   The PowerPoint levelling up proposals of Michael Gove were a response to an election campaign soundbite rather than the plight of impoverished regions.  Now the projector has been switched off the levelling up proposals have been forgotten and the government moves on to another publicity stunt.    

But there is no chance of opulent castles, not in a country where no one can find the money to repair school buildings.   Pfeffels has written to civil servants to say he has to reduce their numbers by 20% because the government, like ordinary families, has to respond to the cost-of-living crisis.  We are short of cash, old chap, and no castles this year, says Pfeffel.  If the government believed this nonsense, it could be described as neanderthal economics.  The truth is that no government that is prepared to waste £37bn on a failed Covid test and trace scheme or launches a four day Jubilee celebration is likely to be concerned about balancing mythical accounts.  The economic lies that began with Thatcherism always had a non-economic objective, and that was to re-establish a hierarchical order that had been weakened by full employment.  Ever since the Tories came to power in 2010 public sector workers have each subsequent year seen their real incomes reduce and their individual workloads increase.  In both private and public sectors the reward for stoicism in modern Britain is insecure employment and more stoicism.  The 20% reduction in the number of civil servants is like levelling up, a gesture designed to attract support for a government that, when it is not being destructive or saving its own skin, does very little.  The latest dead cat distraction is that Boris has promised a return to imperial measures.  In case anyone has not yet realised, Napoleon came up with decimalisation for a reason.  It makes measurement and calculation simpler.  What a wheeze from Pfeffel, just when there are already extra costs on British businesses struggling to export and survive.  School children should have fun with their calculators.   We have to hope that all that will happen is that the imperial measure system will be ignored and the proposal from Pfeffel will be nothing more than an irrelevant Union Jack waving in the distance.  

Ludwig II had his critics but at least he listened to Wagner.   The people that come up with the nonsense about a return to imperial measures are the cretins that broke restrictions to stop the spread of a plague. And what did they do with this taste of freedom?  They danced and cheered and listened to Abba. The parties at Number Ten lasted that long they could have grooved to The Ring in its entirety.   Pfeffel, of course, is not famous for his attention span.   What a pity he is also inclined to pick people that reflect his own qualities.  There are still plenty of romantics that wait for the glorious day when there will be no such thing as government in Britain.  We are getting there.  Having a load of people that are in post but have no idea what their jobs are supposed to be is a start.   

Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Long After This is now available here.