War Games (March 2018)

As promised, I return to you with poetry and with it I bring a hope, an ambition, a mission, a call to arms – you’ll have to decide how you take it when you’ve heard how it is. The poem is called Vitai Lampada – it’s Latin and means The Torch of Life. This is the first stanza:

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

On one level, it’s a piece of male upper class imperial nonsense and it’s used by Jeremy Paxman in his book “Empire” to illustrate everything that is to be despised about the conquests of late Victorian Britain but on another it speaks deeply about motivation and duty – it catches me emotionally every time I read it. Jeremy Paxman’s book, by the way, is excellent – I thoroughly commend it to you as a study of why the world is how it is. If nothing else this morning will be an exercise in the death of the author: what I hope to pull out of this poem is not what it’s author Henry Newbolt intended – and we’ll have to handle to cognitive dissonance of learning from “heroes” whose virtue is, at best, diluted and at worst a mere mirage.

Newbolt was a lawyer, government advisor and poet who lived from 1862 to 1938. This poem was written in 1892 and was part of the reason, I imagine, that Newbolt was recruited by the government propaganda machine to provide stirring poems that would lift the spirits of the nation in World War 1. The verse I read to you is about a cricket match – about the end of a cricket match, in fact. The odds of the batting side winning are slim – their last man is in, the ball is bouncing unevenly, the sun is low on the horizon and in the batsman’s eyes – this is the kind of situation where legends are made, if only you can hold out for the win. Sport teaches us much about winning and losing and treating those imposters just the same – one of the best things about the poem is that it doesn’t say who won: it doesn’t matter. It never matters – that’s the beauty of sport although if you’d seen me on the sofa on Saturday afternoon you might not have believed that statement: England lost to Ireland at rugby and I really wanted them to win. If you were at the Lab talk last week you’ll know that Mr Derham really wanted Ireland to win so I guess one of us was bound to be disappointed.

One of the lessons that you’re meant to learn from sport – from games in general – is how to win: by practising where the jeopardy is small you will, the theory goes, be ready for winning in the wider world. Winning at business, winning at politics, winning at war – Donald Trump would be proud of you. He tweeted recently “When a country (USA) is losing many billion dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good and easy to win.” As statements go that one is pretty stupid. Trade benefits everyone – you exchange things you don’t need for things you do. Now, clearly there’s room for negotiation and some exchanges can benefit one side more than the other but even bad trade is better than no trade. Thinking of business as a game that you need to win is to misunderstand business: there’s a book called “Getting to Yes” that I haven’t read (I think it’s one of these one-idea books where if you’ve read the title you’re pretty much done) – the idea is that in negotiation you’re not trying to beat the other guy but to find a way for you both to be better off.

What about politics then? We talk about winning elections, the government wins votes – or loses them. Well, there’s truth there but it’s not the whole story: I was in Parliament a couple of weeks ago telling some MPs and Lords about how wonderful you all are and in return they told me how wonderful they all are. Under the circumstances it only seemed good manners to believe them. Anyway – the interesting thing was hearing about how the House of Lords works: there’s no point in beating the government in a vote in the House of Lords – it’s too easy (because the conservatives are enormously outvoted) and if you do win a vote the House of Commons will just ping it straight back and the Lords have to accept it if they do that. The way to achieve things in the House of Lords, apparently, is to convince the person in charge of the bill that it would be a better piece of legislation if it were amended. If you can get them to change the bill then it will get through the Commons and end up on the statute books. Politics at its best isn’t about winning – it’s about making things better.

But what about war? Wars are won – not long ago I told you about how the British won the Battle of Trafalgar – I’m surely not going back on that. Well, it’s time for the second stanza of my poem – the bit that inevitably brings a lump to my throat. Newbolt thought that cricket and war were two sides of the same coin – this is what he wrote.

The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

The battle referred to here is Abu Klea in Sudan in January 1885 and Newbolt’s history is dead wrong but we’ve come for stirring emotion – not historical accuracy. The key phrase is the wreck of a square that broke. In 19th Century warfare there were infantry on foot and cavalry on horses – the cavalry had the advantage of height and speed and size and weight but had the disadvantage of horses not being stupid. Attached to their guns the infantry had bayonets, long spiked knives which could be used as spears and if there’s one thing horses don’t like it’s galloping into a row of spears. When attacked by cavalry, then, infantry would form squares – closely packed lines of soldiers with their bayonets pointing outwards making a rectangle so that there was no way for the horses to come round the back of anyone. In their squares the infantry was quite safe – the horses just wouldn’t charge them and they could pick the cavalry off with their rifles or even a Gatling gun if they had one. But, if a few men panicked, there would be a hole in the square and the cavalry could pour through – the infantry wouldn’t stand a chance – a broken square was a dead regiment but in the poem the voice pipes up, the ranks are rallied, the frightened soldiers reform. There was a square at Abu Klea and a jammed gun (but not a Gatling) and a dead colonel but the square never broke and the stirring British defence of the poem was, in fact, a massacre – over 1000 Sudanese dead against just 76 British soldiers.

So a win then? But no, I don’t think that war is about winning. The Sudanese war was a rescue mission for General Gordon and the garrison at Khartoum but the fortress fell two days before the British arrived and General Gordon was killed along with ten thousand others. War isn’t about winning – everybody loses – the question is just how much. This whole disaster could have been avoided if only General Gordon had watched the 1983 Matthew Broderick film “War Games” in which a computer on the brink of playing Global Thermonuclear War for real is convinced that the only way to win is not to play. How about a nice game of chess – it suggests. Gordon didn’t have to be at Khartoum – he was meant to be evacuating, leaving Sudan to the Sudanese but he chose to stay and to fight for a patch of someone else’s land. The acquisitive side of Empire was inevitably self defeating. The only way to win was not to play.

You can win at chess, you can win at cricket, you can win at Rugby although England are proving that you can also lose. The rest of life may also be a game but it’s too important to be thought of in terms of winning – of making the other guy lose. One of the MPs I spoke to asked if any of you would be going into public service and I said I hoped so. I love the phrase public service – he means politics (and so elections are not things that are won or lost, they are the mechanism for the public choosing which servants it wants: an appropriate message for the day of the Senate elections). I hope that some of you will go into politics but I hope that all of you will choose to be public servants in a wider sense of wanting to use your skills to benefit more people than just yourself and your family. You are incredible people (as I say to everyone I meet), you have been born with intelligence, you have the good fortune to live in a time and place where education allows you to develop that intelligence. You have all the opportunities that come from being at Harris Westminster – opportunities that are not common: make sure that you are taking them rather than letting them slip by. How are you going to use your potential? How are you going to pay this back? Or, better, how are you going to pay it forward – how are you going to take the advantages you have and use them to make bigger, better advantages not just for you or those who have helped you but for those many who are less fortunate than you?

Not for the sake of a ribboned coat or the selfish hope of a season’s fame but for the captain’s hand on your shoulder smote – play up, play up and play the game.