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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Thursday, 6 December 2007

The Last Refuge of the Scoundrel

Dr Johnson's famous dismissal of patriotism as "the last refuge of the scoundrel" was probably meant to refer to the nation state but there are smaller kinds of patriotism too and one of these is at the level of the city. In spite of having published a book this week about my native city, Liverpool (see the details to the left of this column) which is in part a piece of city-patriotism, I still wonder about the attachment to place and how easily it can slide dangerously into a rejection of the people who don't come from that place - which presumably was what Dr J was on about.

In 1934 the great Austrian writer Joseph Roth, in The White Cities wrote a remarkable passage about this subject:

"One might say: patriotism has killed Europe...European culture is much older than the European nation-states. Greece, Rome, Israel, Christendom and Renaissance, the French Revolution and Germany's eighteenth century, the polyglot music of Austria and the poetry of the the Slavs: these are the forces that have formed Europe...All are naturally opposed to the barbarity of so-called national pride. The imbecile love of the 'soil' kills the love of the earth. The pride of being born in a particular country, within a particular nation, wrecks the feeling of European universality."

From The White Cities: reports from France 1925-39 translated 2004 by Michael Hofmann, Granta Books.

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