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Not drowning, but waving: Paul Goodman on the swimming pool conservatism of Graeme Archer

By Paul Goodman
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"The most important gap of all, of course, is that between You and the Other, the space where the love exists. Listen carefully one night, as you lie in the dark while your Other is asleep, and you will hear the fizzing of the love in the space between the two of you. If you weren’t separate, if you weren’t distinct, if there wasn’t a gap, then there wouldn’t be a space for love, would there?"

To which one answer is another question: what on earth is going on?  What careless or crazed sub-editor on the Daily Telegraph or ConservativeHome has allowed a refugee paragraph from an Iris Murdoch novel to find sanctuary in one of its political columns?  Or, worse, has a character from one of those works escaped its pages altogether - some tortured atheist Anglo-Catholic priest or monomaniacal, Plato-fixated Jewish philosopher - to run riot in the sacred spaces where Simon Heffer once trod?

But anyone expecting (or even hoping) that the Telegraph's latest political columnist boasts the overbearing features of Murdoch's John Robert Rozanov or the anguished countenance of her Carel Fisher is in for a disappointment.  He is, rather, a short bald statistician from Ayrshire who, with Jay (E), Lynch (A) and Smith (C.C) has written a paper entitled "Bayesian generalised linear mixed effects modelling using Winbugs."

That he is gay provides a tenuous connection between this apparently unremarkable person and Murdoch's rampant prose, but one is somehow left trying to fill in the gap - to borrow his own image - between the two, since Archer is an devotee of the author, and this shows in his prose and thinking.  Who else, when considering Gordon Brown, could write: "an existential gap between commitment to the death-action, and the coming of death itself, seems, literally, horrible to contemplate"?

This isn't to say that there is anything particularly distinctive about Archer's conservative outlook - when it comes to politics, at any rate.  He once went on a "kiss-in" protest against Section 28, but "no-one wanted to kiss me, predictably enough".  However, he is now in a relationship of what he describes as "bourgeois normality" with "Keith". (Archer seems to have stopped describing him as "Mr Keith": did the latter protest?)  But this bourgeois person has a working-class background and both have left him solidly though eloquently right-of-centre.

In his own words: "Every housing benefit payment that's higher than the mortgage of the people who fund it: the working-class pays for them. Every skilled job whose wage is suppressed by the immigration deliberately engineered by Labour: the working-class pays for them. Every school with more first languages than you can shake a stick at: the working-class pays for them. Every fat-cat council chief executive, every knighthood for services to banking awarded to any spiv who caught Mandelson's eye, every penny on every trillion of the debt interest: the working-class pays for them. Most of Blair's wars too: the working-class certainly pays for them."

Archer attended what he describes as "a good comprehensive school in Scotland" and went on to Glasgow University, where he obtained both a first in statistics and a PHD (so he's Dr Archer to you).  He has worked in Italy and lived in the East End, where he ran up against Islamist extremism which, unsurprisingly, he didn't care for: one of his most zeitgeist-catching pieces for ConservativeHome was called "As good as it gets" - he likes compressed, elliptical headlines - which contrasted the kaleidoscopic multiculturalism of Hackney against the Islamist push going on in Tower Hamlets.

Anyone who writes can try to make such a case.  A far smaller number of can do so effectively.  But an even tinier number can do so as a columnist.  An indispensable part of being one is to project a sense of self.  What made Archer's writing stand out on ConservativeHome, against the background of a pullulating mass of other writers, wasn't simply the photographic art of his prose - he is skilled at capturing a small moment, such as interaction of two strangers in a cafe, and making a big thing of it - but the easy way in which he made the personal political.

So it was that readers were made familiar with (Mr) Keith, the home in the East End, Iris Murdoch's ideas, the retreat in Brighton - and, above all perhaps, with swimming: swimming in King's Hall in Hackney, the Oasis in Covent Garden, the Prince Regent centre in Brighton, the south coast sea.  Archer's swimming pieces were among his first big hits on our site, and they offer the taste of his outlook as authentically as any.  The whole point of swimming is that it is not synchronised.  Swimming pools have lifeguards outside them to keep order and save lives if necessary, but no bureaucrats within them to order queues, command participation, impose structure.

In other words, swimming is its own spontaneous order.  Swimmers adapt their individual wishes so as make collective life in the pool possible and, for Archer, society in general and Britain in particular should be one big swimming pool.  As he himself suggests, the model is not Alan Hollinghurst but Murdoch herself, and the baptismal, restorative powers of water in her novels, such as the Bath-like hot springs of Ennistone in "The Philosopher's Pupil".

The intuitive author is also a party activist.  He has been a councillor in Essex and would adorn the Party's candidate's list were those who draw it up to consider what he offers.  So what plugs that gap between the author and his ideas? One solution might be - if you're reading, Ed Miliband - a real outsider's vantage.  At school, Archer was bad at football and thus took up the double bass instead.  But he missed his schoolmates' company, and has written that "nearly every aspect of my adult psychology is a dim echo of that angry scraping".

The image of a small man with a big instrument (if I can put it that way) is a cartoon-like snapshot of aggression.  But such explanations come too easy.  The scientist in Archer would perhaps lecture me on probabilities (how many people who are bad at football are driven to become writers?) and the artist in him would doubtless say something more telling: that if life offered complete explanations there would be no gaps, and that if there were no gaps life wouldn't be worth living, because what lies in them makes life worthwhile.

He has written: "The wonder of the universe, for me, resides in the fact that humanity can see past its near-undifferentiated biology and manages, in the tiny, tiny gaps available, to find the beauty within each individual."  Perhaps he learned this from his father - a dyed in the wool Conservative who once said to him in Glasgow, on seeing a young woman with pink hair and outlandish clothes: "Isn't it great that there's a space for everyone to live like they want to?"

In such gaps and spaces people move and live, watched as they do so by the man who won the Orwell Prize for Blogging and now writes for the Telegraph, and in their dealings he sees the freedom of the pool and something of the mystery of love.  There is a row between a man wanting to buy a rail ticket and a woman who sells them.  "Finally he storms off and I take his place. I look at the saleswoman and we blow out our breath and relax. Then we’re laughing at each other. Don’t worry, she tells me, it’s gonna be a beautiful day. And it is."


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