The totem of the English

One more look at Philip Hensher’s letter to the LRB comparing the personal attacks on Corbyn and Thatcher:

Alice Thomas Ellis called her [Thatcher] ‘a mean little mouse bred on cheese rind and broken biscuit and the nutritionless, platitudinous parings of a grocer’s mind’.

The quote comes from The Birds of the Air, the novel by Ellis published in 1980, written no earlier than 1978. It’s an excerpt from the thoughts of one of the book’s principal characters. Judging by the bits and pieces from the novel I’ve read so far, it must be a first-rate work. Let’s put this quip into its rightful context:

The totem of the English was a small animal – furry, stuffed and articulate. Winnie the Pooh vied with the Queen (God trailing in the distance) for the forefront of the mind of the English middle class… Even the leaders of the political parties had come to resemble little animals. On the left a little teddy; his stuffing, his credibility, leaking a little now.

This must be James Callaghan, leader of the Labour party in 1976-80.

On the right a mouse – a shop mouse, her head stuck in a yellowed meringue, a mean little mouse bred on cheese rind and broken biscuit and the nutrition-less, platitudinous parings of a grocer’s mind.

This sounds like Thatcher, agreed. She was elected leader of the Tories in 1975.

The erstwhile leader of the middle party was a fox – rather tired now – his fine brush matted and drooping, his cunning mask despondent.

It’s got to be Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberals in 1967-76. He was charged with conspiracy to murder in 1978, lost his parliament seat in 1979 but was acquitted a few weeks later.

All in all, it’s much less tolerable to be compared – so derisively – to a mean little mouse rather than a teddy bear or a fox, but it’s fiction and only the unwise take offense at novels.

Discover more from Winterings in Trans-Scythia

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading