Twenty Questions to a Fellow Blogger Part CXXXI: Barendina Smedley

(Barendina Smedley)

Barendina Smedley lives in London with her husband and four-year old son. She was born in North Carolina, USA in 1965. After finishing a BA(Hons) at Amherst College (Amherst, Massachusetts, USA) in 1988, she moved to the UK, completing a BA(Hons) and a PhD in history at Trinity College, Cambridge. Her rather miscellaneous employment history has included fundraising at the Institute of Economic Affairs, international development work for Adam Smith International, marketing Macmillan’s Dictionary of Art, writing pamphlets about local history, three months of full-time volunteer work on Iain Duncan Smith’s campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party followed by a couple of months working in the Leader’s Office at CCO, a bit of freelance journalism and, latterly, motherhood. From 2001-2004, Barendina Smedley was co-founder and arts editor of a multi-contributor webzine called Electric Review. In 2007 she launched her own blog, Fugitive Ink, which she describes as ‘addressing issues of politics, art and literature from an unapologetically idiosyncratic, vaguely High Tory perspective’.

What made you decide to start blogging?

In 2000, someone I knew from university days pointed out to me that, while various strands of US conservatism had already established a strong online presence — I’m thinking here of National Review Online in particular — UK conservatives had nothing vaguely comparable. He and I also shared a nostalgic admiration for those legendary small magazines of the past century like ‘Horizon’ and ‘Encounter’, not least for the way they treated politics and culture as very much connected. The result was Electric Review, which ran from late 2001 to early 2004.

At the very end of 2007 I launch a blog of my own called Fugitive Ink. Although the conservative web presence has come along a lot since 2000, I guess I still felt that there were connections between culture and politics that still weren’t being made from an explicitly conservative perspective. Also, friends had begun to suggest, tactfully, that perhaps I should write for public consumption, rather than just bothering them with over-long emails all the time ...

What is your best blogging experience?

For sheer shock value, discovering last year that I’d come no. 42 in the Total Politics rankings for conservative blogs. Given that most of my articles are at least 3,000 words long, only occasionally concerned with party-political stuff, and that at the time I was only posting once or twice a month, this was clearly some sort of egregious fluke. It was a nice one, though!

And your worst?

The sudden death of Electric Review. To cut a tiresome story short, the friend who’d worked on it with me rather unexpectedly developed a whole new set of priorities. There was never really any explanation or apology – it just became clear that he wasn’t going to be involved any more, and at the time, I just couldn’t face running a webzine alone.

The whole thing really knocked my confidence for a long time, which was actually quite stupid, as history suggests that small magazines actually always do fall apart amidst astonishing degrees of personal acrimony and unpleasantness — it goes with the territory. If there’s any remaining regret on my part, it’s that we quit exactly at the point where Conservative Home et al were just starting to take off. We might also have been at least a smallish thorn in the side of David Cameron, whose influence on our party strikes me as entirely malign. But, well, there comes a point where there’s nothing to do but cut your losses and move on. And the success of Fugitive Ink has, of course, been a great help in doing just that.

What do you regard as your best blog entry?

It varies. The ones on ‘Rebuilding the Bucintoro’ and John Adams’ opera ‘Dr Atomic’ are good examples of something I always try to do, which is only to post something when I’m pretty sure that no one else is likely to write the same sort of thing. That, incidentally, is why I don’t go in for too many articles about what’s wrong with the present Labour government — there are already a lot of people who write about that very well. But then I also liked ‘Sunshine Now, Clouds Later’ because teasing out my ambivalent reactions to the May 2008 election results was, in its own way, as satisfying as scratching an itch.

Favourite blogs?

While I always check out Political Betting, Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale etc, my favourite blogs tend to be the more personal ones, where politics and other facets of life intersect in unpredictable ways: Gareth Williams, Charlotte Gore, Brian Micklethwait, just to name a few. And when it comes to art, JL at Modern Kicks, is the best, although he doesn’t post as often as he might.

Strangely, although I’m by no stretch of the imagination a Liberal, I harbour a soft spot for Liberal Vision — for the moment, anyway, it’s refeshingly free of the negativity, tribalism and overall stupidity that exists on some other political sites.

What inspired you to go into politics?

My parents, and indeed some of my grandparents, were all variously interested in politics, so I grew up amid the general assumption that if the world somehow wasn’t as it ought to be — whether that’s a question of something as profoundly terrible as racial segregation, or as relatively unimportant as public acclaim for deeply sub-standard art — well then, it’s up to all of us to do what we can about it, whether that’s through formal party politics, activism, journalism, or even just expressing a clear point of view to anyone who’ll listen.

How exactly would you define a High Tory perspective on Art and Literature?

Let’s define it, at least initially, by what it isn’t.

For a century or so now, some Conservatives have responded to the Left’s dominance of cultural criticism by trying to place ‘art’, broadly construed, in some sort of autonomous zone, where it’s judged largely in terms of purely formal criteria — its excellence as art, qua art — safely isolated from grubby ‘social’ issues such as the circumstances under which it was created, the reasons why it was created, its incidental associations, its critical history, its politcs, implicit or explicit. This is, among other things, a sort of liberal counter-answer to more Marxist readings. Roger Kimball at The New Criterion, in many ways a very brilliant critic, exemplifies this approach.

Meanwhile, one sometimes encounters other Conservatives who only mention art in order to condemn some aspect of it — ‘obscene’ content, unwarranted public subsidy, lack of traditional skills — but, while these points are often valid ones, they run the risk of combining a repetitive and eventually tiresome negativity with unrealistic expectations about what ‘art’, in some ideal sense, could or even should achieve.

At Fugitive Ink, in contrast, I start from the premise that art is much less important than religion, or morality, or even politics. Working in the service of any of these higher ends — or even attempting however unsuccessfully, to constitute an end in itself, although personally I think that’s often a highly political and even moral stance — it can function more or less effectively. To that extent, traditional skills are important, as is formal coherence. I’m by no means dismissing these as concerns.

At the same time, though, when I look at a picture, or read a poem, I don’t suddenly transpose myself to some parallel sphere where everyday issues of right and wrong, causes and consequences and so forth, somehow cease to matter. Art is created by people here in the world, and it’s part of the world, and that’s the context in which I want to talk about it. My reactions are the subjective reactions of someone with a particular way of seeing the world — for better or worse, a Tory one — and my criticism is a record of those reactions.

How did Electric Review come about and why did it only last for two years?

We’ve covered some this gruesome topic above, haven’t we? It’s worth noting, though, that Electric Review actually lasted more than two years, if only because back in the dark ages of 2001, blogs actually involved things like meetings with web designers, ordering writing-paper, planning things — not just googling ‘Wordpress’ and fifteen minutes later, having a fully-functioning website.

With hindsight, though, the truly remarkable fact is that Electric Review lasted as long as two years. ‘Horizon’ only lasted ten years, and they had to deal with Cyril Connolly! Anyway, as the years speed by and the bitterness fades a bit, it seems better to dwell on the positive achievements. Reading back over ‘Electric Review’, there still are a few pieces — not all of them mine, I hasten to add — that I’m really glad we were able to bring to a wider audience.

Is there anywhere abroad which you haven't been to, that you would like to visit?

So many places. I’ve never been to anywhere in Africa, or to Russia, China, Japan ... I’d love to see Istanbul, too ... maybe when my son finishes school there will be time for me to take a well-deserved gap year?

Is there anywhere abroad you have visited, that you would love to revisit?

Guyana. I was there for about three weeks in 1995, attached to an international development project — some of the most fascinating weeks of my life. But I’d need a good reason to go. What made that first visit magic was having an excuse to ask people questions, to figure out a little of what was going on in their lives. After that, as beautiful as parts of Guyana are, the whole ‘tourist’ thing of looking at waterfalls and tree-frogs would come as a bit of a let-down.

Who, excluding the present leader, do you regard as the best Conservative Party leader, and if different, the best Prime Minister?

Lord Salisbury, I suppose. Mrs Thatcher was, in many ways, marvellous, but in a way it’s still far too soon to understand the full nature of her legacy, her full impact on the Tory party — or, as far as that goes, British politics in general.

What a shame you didn’t ask a question about who I’d regard as the worst Conservative Party leader of all time — still, the more perceptive sort of Fugitive Ink reader can probably guess.

Which political figure has been your greatest inspiration?

I admire Lady Thatcher, not least for her steady nerves, her courage in trying to lead public opinion rather than simply whoring after votes, and her willingness to make enemies.

But if you want a less conventional reply, might I make a case for the first Duke of Wellington? Although his two premierships are generally regarded as wholly disastrous, perhaps rightly so, it’s easy to forget what he was up against — social and economic challenges that make today’s problems look absolutely trivial — as well as his absolute commitment to public service or, indeed, the extent of his personal decency. He’s a real hero of mine — I usually keep a postcard version of Lawrence’s great portrait of him on my desk. Ultimately, I’m not sure that wholly likeable people ever really ‘do well’ in politics.

Favourite Bond movie?

‘Live and Let Die’, more out of nostalgia for the early 1970s than anything else — although there are reasons why one might enjoy watching Daniel Craig.

Favourite Doctor Who?

Tom Baker, largely for generational reasons. Peter Davison, in contrast, was always ‘really’ Tristan from ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, which confused me. Associational baggage always goes get in the way of my ‘pure’ enjoyment of art.

Chocolate, vanilla, or mint?

Mint-chocolate, please, if we’re allowed a hyphenated identity. I’m not really a vanilla person.

Which Band, past or present, would you most like to see in concert?

How freely are you defining ‘band’? I’d give a lot to have heard Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert’s ‘Die Winterreise’, with Gerald Moore on the piano, in the early 1950s. Otherwise, I’d go for British Sea Power. I’ve probably heard them almost 100 times already now, but, well, there’s a reason for that.

In terms of visiting for the weekend, Oxford, Cambridge, or Barsby, Leics..?

I’ve never been to Barsby — I’m quite curious about it now, though.

Favourite national newspaper?

Perhaps to the horror of people who sell advertising, I’m one of those people who waft about online, flitting between different newspaper websites, picking up something here, something there, wherever an interesting link takes me next. So, no favourite newspaper – sorry! I do love the ‘London Review of Books’, though, which I keep rolled up in my handbag and attempt to read on the bus.

What would you say your hobbies were?

Twentieth century British art: looking at it, reading about it, occasionally collecting it. Baroque music, opera of various sorts, a bit of folk music, unpopular indie bands. Looking at old buildings. Photography, although I’m terrible at it. Admiring cats. Admiring my little boy. Thinking up fascinating books that no sane publisher would even dream of commissioning, but that I’d still like to write nonetheless.

And what would you say were your three favourite songs and three favourite books (Bar the Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare)?

JS Bach - ‘Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde’ (BWV 83, Harnoncourt conducting)
Handel - ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound ...’ from Messiah (Harnoncourt conducting)
Velvet Underground – ‘Sunday Morning’

Giorgio & Maurizio Crovato – The Abandoned Islands of the Venetian Lagoon
Maurice Cowling – Religion and Public Doctrine (3 vols.)
Constantine Cavafy – Collected Poems


Gareth Williams said…
I'm very glad Barendina got back on the horse. The Fugitive Ink blog has a distinctive and valuable voice, and I'm sure that If it didn't exist, no-one else would have the wit to invent it.
Thanks, Gareth! Hmm, 'got back on the horse' ... I do genuinely rather admire the casual ease with which you employ phrases that might otherwise have been thought to have vanished with my grandparents' generation. And indeed, an old person once used this expression to me, in the context of an actual horse. The effect is both authoritative and oddly reassuring, in the way that only the long-lost nicer voices of early childhood can possibly be. All the more striking, really, as I strongly suspect you're actually marginally younger than I am ...

Meanwhile, one additonal point, directed not to you but to the world in general, and perhaps one other reader in particular: if I implied in my earlier comments that the demise of Electric Review was in no way my fault, sorry about that. I'm perfectly aware that working with me is, in all sorts of ways, not infrequently a nightmare, and in particular, I'm sure my ERO colleagues had to put up with a lot. What I was trying to express was regret at the mess that resulted, rather than ascribing blame to anyone else. Apologies, though, if my rather hasty observations on this gloomy subject didn't come out quite right first time round.

And now, let's all look to our various bright sunlit futures, not to the mephitic and deeply unwholesome old ERO past, okay?