Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Week Fifty-Three - Jude

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (1532)
Recommended by Jeanette

Some things I've done for the first time in 2013:

* Been to Norway.
* Baked an apple and brown sugar cake.
* Interviewed Paul McCartney.
* Stayed in a posh hotel in Oxford for a difficult, but restorative weekend.
* Grown tomatoes.
* Had a writing retreat at my dad-in-law's with Jeanette.
* Read The Prince by Machiavelli.

Some things I haven't done for the first time:

* Broken a resolution.

Let's face it - I'm rubbish. This new year's resolution had all the qualities of one worth keeping. I'd suggested to a friend that we should share it together. Said friend was queen of willpower so she would drive me on, and I would drive her in return. We'd be like two gabby, lazy friends at aerobics class. All would be wonderful.

I forgot that the only resolution I'd ever kept was to lose weight back in 2008. Gone were memories of teenage diaries that quickly ran out of ink, dry Januaries that were wet by mid-month, countless attempts to correct my behaviour that wilted before spring wound its way in. This year, I buckled in March, and again in September. It's been a funny old year, though.

February this year was very tough, as were the few months that followed. From August, my mind was similarly preoccupied. Now it's December 31st, and I'm on a train from Sheffield to London, feeling something kick in my belly, thinking back on twelve peculiar months during which I've changed a lot. A year ago today, Jeanette and I were in the Sheffield Tap at the train station, discussing the year ahead with excitement. We've both learned, in  different ways, that you never really know what's coming; I've also realised that not-knowing is something you have to accept. 

But one thing that has changed for the better, that this project has genuinely fostered, is a closer friendship between me and lovely J than the one we had before. So resolutions can have value, even if they don't turn out the way you thought they would.

When I first heard about Jeanette's book choice for me, I wondered if she was trying to express something about the tyrant she really is. I'm not completely kidding. J is many things - sweet and funny and lovely and daft - but she is also ridiculously driven, absurdly committed, and admitted to me as recently as last night that she's getting more competitive as she gets older (her new Christmas obsession, Yahtzee, will definitely not beat her, for example, while I'm happy to put down a few attractive words in Scrabble, leaving the result to whoever). 

As I'd suspected, therefore, The Prince is not an easy read either (although I can't exactly complain on that front, having given Jeanette the complete poems of TS Eliot). I love that we've both given each other books that meant a lot to us as teenagers, though - it says a lot about the way our friendship has developed. My copy of T.S. Eliot's Collected Poems came into my life in tertiary college; it's now stuck together with annotations from adolescence to adulthood, and slivers of cracked sellotape. Jeanette's love of The Prince came from A-Levels too, only the study of history, not the study of literature. I'm not sure what my choice says about me, and I'm intrigued to know what Jeanette's theory is (5pm blogpost-time-update: I haven't read Jeanette's last entry yet). Hers doesn't speak of tyrannical ambitions - so I think, anyway, haha, argh! - but it does say tons about the serious, hard-thinking autodidact behind that enthusiastic pop-girl.

What struck me most about The Prince, reading it in this last week of the year, was how relevant it felt to the times that we live in. Frighteningly so, really. I found it tough at first, mind you. It is by no means a page-turner: Machiavelli's style is rather dry and academic at times, and for the first forty pages or so his work feels closer to a handbook of business management or strategical thinking. It's also littered with names of historical leaders that I'd never heard of, so I spent the early part of the book with one hand on my phone, ready to consult ye olde reference toole Wikipedia. 

As the chapters progressed, I realised it didn't matter if I knew the references or not, though. Here were sentiments that made sense as of now, from the real world around me, however archaically they were expressed.

This is the first line that shook me out of everything around me:

"Whoever becomes the master of a city accustomed to freedom, and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed himself."

This book kept me thinking of Thatcher more than anyone, perhaps naively. She was a democratically elected leader, of course, but someone whose shadow has nevertheless not retreated at year-end. And the line I've picked upon above, unfairly or not, made me think of the suggestion that early '80s Liverpool should be given over to a policy of "managed decline" - a suggestion that came from Geoffrey Howe and Keith Joseph rather than Maggie herself, if I remember rightly. My own interpretative inconsistencies aside, lines like the one above made me think again of the ruthlessness of politics, and how easily we can slip into being idealistic, without recognising how the world often works. In other pages, I found intimations of the so-called Coalition, the arrogance of Hunt and Gove, the way the monarchy still make people love them, and the ways in which international situations today still wax and wane.

Then, in Chapter XV, comes this:

"Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done moves towards self-destruction rather than self-preservation."

And in chapter XVIII:

"A prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist. If all men were good, this precept would be not good; but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep their word to them."

Help. It's all a bit Daily Mail, innit.

You see, I am wet, and in the words of Molesworth, a wede. I like people before they do things to make me dislike them, and am generally optimistic about human beings (this has served me ill in the past, but I've got cannier as I've grown older). Maybe this is why this book came across to me, sometimes, as satire too. I googled theories about this weird impulse of mine, and was glad to know I was not alone - hell, there's a section on the Prince's Wikipedia page about it, so I can't be being completely thick. I think Gramsci's going too far saying that The Prince was a book for the "common people" though - it sounds too reverent, too compromised, not arch enough for that. 

What's more, Chapter XXV - How far human affairs are governed by fortune, and how fortune can be opposed - confirms to me that Nicolas' intentions weren't always done with a tongue in his cheek. Such is the relish with which he delivers this line:

"It is better to be impetuous than circumspect; because fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her."

The lines that follow - about fortune favouring younger, more ardent men - could be satire, I guess, but it is here that young Machiavelli and me go separate ways. Some people may have the resources, the brute force, the iron will, to try and change the ways of the world for themselves, and Machiavelli's book is definitely laying the how-to rules out there for us, whatever his motive. In my own world, realms away from princes and kings, I don't think we can change what's going to happen to us, period. We can affect little changes, certainly, some which change the whole courses of our lives - going into a room at a certain moment, meeting someone you would have never met otherwise - but we don't necessarily know what the effects of our actions will be. Sometimes we're lucky that they work out, at other times, things fall through. Keeping going is all we can do. And in some ways, for all of us, prince and pauper, I believe that's true.

This time last year, Jeanette and I started a blog for several reasons: to exercise our minds, to take us into different worlds, and to learn more about our friends and the books - and the words, and the ideas - that they loved. Jeanette's done better out of the first two than me (by virtue of sticking to the task at hand for starters!) but we've both got the same value out of the third reason, I think. Not only have I learned so much about Jeanette's friends - often our friends - from reading this blog, but Jeanette has also become been an incredible support to me throughout this year, by virtue of the closeness this blog has created. She's been there for me through times when I knew that the act of trying to read and process a book wasn't ever going to happen, and to that brilliant afternoon in Friday after we'd both come back from writing our retreat, when I did a test, on the off-chance, and both lines turned blue. I've tried my damnedest to be there for her too. And what I've got out of this blog for the last twelve months, even though I've not always been here, is a knowledge that while the world can be horrible, cruel and tyrannical, friends can be everything and more. Sometimes, broken resolutions don't feel so broken after all.