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Graeme Archer: Hemlock and After

Socrates Why is the story of Socrates’ death so chilling? At least I have always found it so, and not because the noble mind was extinguished by the democratic vote of a jury. I think it’s the gap between the start and the completion of the act, and the fact that it was entered into voluntarily (so to speak: no-one forced his hand to lift the cup and drink). An existential gap between commitment to the death-action, and the coming of death itself, seems, literally, horrible to contemplate. I think this is what is meant by the phrase like watching a car crash in slow motion.

Well, and what? Another word for that existential gap could be “life”, after all, a sentence we all receive at birth. Except, of course, we don’t elect to be born. Having found ourselves on the life-track, we don’t usually seek to hasten our demise. We don’t choose to drink the hemlock, in the knowledge that it will bring our oblivion.

More correctly: most of us don’t choose to drink the hemlock. Politically speaking, however, that is exactly what the Labour Party did when it set Gordon Brown as its leader. Surely they could see how electorally toxic he is? How disliked? How almost completely unsuitable he is to a party which requires the votes of England? How that everything he touches turns to dust, with only the mocking laughter of the disbelieving voter left to fill the (embarrassed) silence of his Commons peers?

It is not that the philosophy of Socrates (as poorly as I understand it) reminds me of Gordon Brown. Socrates told us that virtue is its own education, since once we see good, we will do good. To be good is to understand. I find it hard to see any parallels between that concept and the actions of Mr Brown’s government, packed to the gills as it is with ministers funded by campaign back-handers, led by a man who can speak in favour of that amoral excrescence Livingstone. Whither the moral compass?

No, Mr Brown doesn’t remind me of Socrates. But he does remind me of the hemlock. The Labour Party has drunk deep of the poison, by choice, by its own will, and now we all wait for the inevitable, grisly outcome. One year? Two years? Some mornings it feels bad form to even look. 

I think Plato tells us that Socrates, after the hemlock, felt the feeling go first from his legs, and took thus to his bed, from where he gave his last orders. With the Labour government, the feeling, the sense, seems to have first gone from its head, then from its heart. But the arms still twitch, the fingers still point, and the laws still come.


It turns out that “forty-two” isn’t the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything; still less is it the response from anything capable of being called Deep Thought; in fact it is the answer to “For how many days does the most illiberal peace-time government in British history intend to imprison citizens on nothing more than the whim of the Home Secretary?” Shame on those few Tory MPs who will troop into the government lobby to support this abomination, this stain of a law. Don’t Panic, perhaps, but do vote this ghastly measure down.


Today (Sunday) I’m going to do something I haven’t felt compelled to do since the days of Section 28: I’m going on a demonstration. In fact, if I can, I’m going to be civilly disobedient, and help disrupt the “progress” (not, I would say, the mot juste) of China’s Olympic torch through London. Only in the London of Livingstone could we be welcoming the torch of “liberty” from a country which suppresses democracy, executes political dissidents, occupies neighbouring territory, and locks up people for no reason other than that they speak out against the oppressive regime. Oh hang on. We do that last one here: ask Maya Evans


I’d find it easier to pick eight novels for a desert island, rather than eight pieces of music, though my Top Favourite Novel tends to rotate, and is usually out of print, which probably tells you all you need to know about me. The Charioteer, when I’m feeling noble and resolute (yes, yes, Love is worth the effort, and it will all work out well). The Bell, when I’m being more realistic about my capabilities (I’m Dora, not Michael).

And always somewhere on that Top Eight would be at least two of the novels of Angus Wilson: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and the other one. You know, the one whose title I nicked for this piece. 

Wilson also wrote a black comedy about fascism called The Old Men at the Zoo. Keith and I recently visited Regent’s Park Zoo to celebrate Mr K’s birthday. For some reason, as we tottered creakingly around the gorilla enclosure, and waved feebly to the monkeys, the title of that novel came back to my mind. I can’t think why. Well. We none of us are getting any younger.


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