Taking a break from my dissertation last week, I watched an episode of South Park. (S22 E9) I also recently reread a favourite novel; Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love. That two such different forms of media could touch upon so similar themes inspired this piece.
In the South Park episode, young Butters Scotch looks forward to the town bike parade. Butters asks his Dad Stephen for help in getting new parts for his bike in order to stand the best chance at winning. Steven has begun to work at the Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’ (warehouse). Josh, another worker is injured in an accident and organises the workers to strike. The strike throws up a dilemma for his Stephen, torn between supporting his family’s lifestyle/making his son happy and sympathy with his co-workers. Stephen ultimately decides to go back to work, putting family before the cause of his colleagues.
Similarly, Linda Radlett, the central character of Mitford’s 1930’s-set novel observes similar phenomena at play. Linda is the favourite daughter of eccentric aristocrat Lord Matthew Alconleigh. Linda becomes dissatisfied with her husband, Tony Kroesig, a banker and later Tory MP. Tony is an inattentive husband, more focused upon his career and wealth than the feelings of his wife.
As Mitford writes, Linda ‘looking for a cause or a love affair’ finds both in handsome communist Christian Talbot who becomes her second husband. Christian also proves a poor match for Linda, who despite her efforts to jump on board with his causes (even following him to Perpignan to help refugees fleeing Franco’s armies) remains disinterested and aloof. He too is a terrible match for the emotional and spontaneous Linda – who like the rest of the Radlett/Alconleigh family is ‘always on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair’; with ‘emotions on no ordinary plane’. Christian by contrast is so dedicated to the workers’ cause to the point of abstracting away the workers, as well as anyone else in his life. As Mitford puts it; ‘The women who have been in love with him have suffered bitterly, because he has not even noticed they are there’.
It is a coincidence that the two main examples that sprung to mind featured left-wing causes. One could argue such excessive dedication to causes is more prevalent amongst left wingers, but it is certainly not exclusive to them. Doubly so for dedication to non-political causes of wealth or celebrity status, equally, if not more present amongst the right and centre – as we see in the perpetually dull careerist Tony. It is also worth noting that extremism of all kinds puts the cause before all else – taken to its logical conclusion this strips us all of our humanity and individuality.
Josh in South Park and Christian in Mitford’s novel aren’t bad people -their goals are admirable and in the interests of the common good; the world needs people like Christian and Josh. But their absolute dedication these just causes is what leads them to misunderstand or dismiss the more personal, less grand good of Butters/Linda’s happiness. Who is to say which is more important? I won’t attempt to answer here. But I will suggest a world full of Christian/Josh types would be a very dull one indeed. Dedication to causes is all well and good but imagine if everyone had no time for the personal; dismissing the love between family, friends and spouses as secondary to the cause at best, and a dangerous distraction from it at worst. Who, I ask, aside from a tiny hyper-dedicated few would want to live in such a world?
This is not to say people should reject causes outright. Steven doesn’t oppose the goals of the strikers and his dilemma is what makes the scene surprisingly meaningful for a sweary cartoon. Similarly, Linda ultimately finds her match in Fabrice, a French aristocrat who does provide the emotional and spontaneous Linda with the affection she desires, that which Tony and Christian lacked. He is not apolitical – he sends Linda back to England when the war starts to join the French Army, and ultimately meets an untimely death at the hands of the Nazis as part of the resistance. He loves France and fights for her to be free, but this is not what defines his personality.
We find a similar balance in dedication to politics and the personal in Linda’s brother Matt – who defies expectations of his class to go and fight for the Spanish republicans, yet still drops everything to help his sister when they meet by chance. The same can arguably be said of their mother Sadie, who for all her aristocratic conservatism is rather tolerant of their similarly eccentric, but libertine neighbour Lord Merlin.
We are not all activists, and that is ok. For the vast majority, politics and grand causes will never be able to supplant the need for personal connections, for the love between friends, family and spouses that forms the core of happiness and personal growth. As we go through life, a small minority will hold views we rightly find beyond the pale, but many more will simply disagree with us. Don’t let disagreement on matters of state and government hold you back from friendship, or indeed something more. Ultimately there is more to life than politics – and we must not let it hold us back from the love of friends and family, old or new.
I would urge all those with time on their hands to read Mitford’s novel (or watch South Park if slightly pressed for time), and I wish you all and your families well in this time.
Oliver Boxall, The Father of the House 2019-20