When Hope and History Rhyme

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Long ago I taught Renaissance poetry at a university where the Principal – having been caught in the very act of pocketing college funds – was invited to step down. To general consternation and annoyance, he declined to do so, preferring instead to squat in his rather luxurious grace-and-favour townhouse. I alluded to this insalubrious slice of academic life during a pause in the weekly editorial meeting.

‘How did they get him to go?’ Dimitri asked.

‘Well . . .’

Before I could continue, he added, ‘In my parts, they would have sent someone round for a serious word, maybe the sort that doesn’t fall entirely short of intimidation.’

‘With us,’ Rami said, ‘there would be conversations.’

‘Conversations?’ Kim asked.

‘Old friends, elders, perhaps even adversaries. There would be a lot of talking. Talking opens the way to seeing new realities.’

‘So, what happened . . . with the Principal?’ Patrice asked, reasserting Dimitri’s focus on the denouement, and swatting aside the same Dimitri’s tendency to digress.

‘They switched off his electricity,’ I said. ’He moved out when he couldn’t have a hot bath.’

‘Humiliating?’ Patrice asked.

‘Undoubtedly, but the college sent a removal van and the whole thing was done early in the morning, as far as I know without fuss.’

The broader conversation – naturally – concerned the present resistance to eviction at a house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

‘Perhaps it wasn’t just that he couldn’t have a hot bath,’ Kim said. ‘Perhaps he only knew the game was up when he saw that the utility company had gone over to the other side.’

‘Who’s in, who’s out,’ Rami said. ‘The changing alchemy of influence – the power to command reduced to no more than the power to annoy.’

Four lagging winters and four wanton springs,’ Kim said, ‘End in a word; such is the breath of kings.’

‘Very apt, Kim!’ Patrice can’t resist an Elizabethan quote.

‘But he will still create problems,’ Dimitri observed, morosely.

‘Problems can be addressed. They can be managed,’ Kim said, ‘but the man himself has been shifted to the side of the stage. What’s done cannot be undone.’

‘I think, deep down, he understands that,’ Rami said. ‘The pictures are revealing. He wears . . . a February face.’

‘He’s tried and failed to portray his opponent’s victory as much ado about nothing,’ I quipped, rather cleverly, I thought.

So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness,’ Patrice said, completing the reference to Benedick’s February face, and indicating (witheringly) that I wasn’t the only one who had identified the right play.

‘He has 70 million supporters!’ Dimitri continued not to look on the bright side, ‘That’s a lot of frost and storm and cloudiness!’

‘Well,’ Kim said, ‘we are in danger of focusing on the loser – which is what he would like. Better to speak about the winner. He has been remarkably magnanimous.’

‘They’re all magnanimous when they win.’ This, from Patrice, was, I felt, uncharacteristically cynical.

‘It runs deeper than that,’ Kim said. ‘I believe there’s substance beneath his rhetoric. The President-elect quoted Seamus Heaney when he won the nomination and again just a few days before the vote:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.’

‘I’m not sure even such a resolutely prophetic tone can touch the hearts of that 70 million,’ Dimitri insisted.

‘Forget, forgive, conclude and be agreed,’ Rami said, invoking Richard II again. ‘Our doctors say this is no time to bleed.’

‘That was Richard’s own advice to squabbling underlings,’ Dimitri said. ‘They didn’t take much heed.’

‘Nor did he, at least until the very end,’ Patrice said.

‘Conversations,’ Rami repeated, ‘pave the way to new realities.’

‘No doubt,’ Kim said. ‘Kings and College Principals and Presidents – they all eventually bow to the vagaries of fate.’

With this – heads nodding across five computer screens – we returned to the literary business at hand.