David Miliband isn’t real
by Sam Kriss
It is the bleak, chilly summer of 1978, and Primrose Hill is under siege. A fortified citadel of flowerbox houses aches with quiet fret, while down in Chalk Farm and Camden Town a crude Amoco Cadiz-tide of punk is lapping bitumen-black against their toes. The kids these days – they’re spitting on each other to say hello, they eat live rats, they swap VD like Panini cards, and there’s no love any more, only leather and swastikas, they’re all getting off on the mutual infliction of pain. And then the worriers look at their own children, jelly-eyed and milk-happy, and think: what will happen to them? We’re at the end of something. The winter about to arrive is already seeping into its past; icicles claw into the heart of July, and everyone somehow knows that when the sun starts to sink this year it might not rise again for two long decades.
Ralph Miliband is reading in the garden, tapping cigarette-ash into patio puddles that glitter with a dying age’s sickly-grey sky. He’s hardly had time to register the strange young men in mohawks gobbing phlegm on passers-by, he’s already accepted that however informed his analysis of the political situation London will always baffle him, that his adopted home still grunts danger whenever he shuttles back from lecture tours in the cloistered sycamore-shade of New England. But even in this politico-prepubescent tumult it’s impossible to ignore the facts: something is clearly wrong with eight-year-old Ed, his firstborn and only son.
Marion, for her part, is worried to bits. It’s normal for children to have imaginary friends, even at Edward’s age, but he’s doing it all wrong. For a start, David is older, and all Marion’s research at the LSE library informs her that this shouldn’t be the case. Edward doesn’t blame his made-up brother for pranks and mishaps, because there aren’t any; Ed is such a docile boy, quiet and conscientious, eating his vegetables and eagerly sitting down to do all his homework (which also worries her, a little; she remembers what happened to good and obedient people not so long ago) – and when he gets his praise, because regular affirmation is so important for a growing boy, he always says the same thing. Oh, it wasn’t me, I’m no good at school, David did it for me. It was David who helped with the dishes, it was David who drew that nice picture, it was David who tidied my room, David David David. She’s had to tease out little details about this son she never knew she had, piece by piece – Edward realises that nobody else can see his brother, but that’s why David does so much helpful work around the house; he wants to be recognised, he wants them all to be a family. But David bullies him too, David tugs on his ears and calls him stupid, weak, useless, and Edward can only agree. All through the spring she relayed this to Ralph in those long late night transatlantic phone calls, and he’d always said not to worry, it’s normal for children to have imaginary friends. And then one night, curled up safe and warm on the trembling balance between storytime and sleep, Edward had muttered: goodnight David. David does everything. One day I’ll kill him.
Ralph always tried to be a kind father, even an indulgent father; he loved his son, he’d dedicated Marxism and Politics to him, and he could hardly wait until the little fidgeting creature in front of him was old enough to disagree with it. But he was also a good Leninist, of a sort, and he knew that sometimes one had to be harsh; some brief, scientifically applied harshness now might just be able to remove any need for all the kindness and patience of psychiatrists and clinicians for decades to come. So he calls Edward out into the garden and sits there, one leg folded over the other, a book splayed open over his knee, the pose of a man who has better things to do, and says: Edward, it’s time we had a chat about this David character. The change is immediate. Edward stops twitching, he sits bolt upright as a flash of utter terror floods his big brown eyes with black. And it’s strange; the air outside is dead and perfectly still, but shadows seem to be moving across the walls of the house. Yes? says David, and for a moment Ralph forgets what he was supposed to say. Young Edward still seems out of sorts, but thirteen-year-old David is perched nonchalant on the edge of his chair, picking at his toenails. It’s the fifteenth of July, his birthday, and tonight the whole family is going to Marine Ices to celebrate. They’d planned it for weeks. Could Ralph really have forgotten that he has two sons, that he’s always had two sons?
One thousand years ago the people that lived on this hill would scatter salt on their doorsteps as a barrier against the ælfe, but Ralph Miliband knows that all history is only class struggle. Thunder bellows over Primrose Hill, and in the park the cuckoos in their trees scream their victory in hideous unison.
* * *
The early twenty-first century was a time of incredible ethnological fecundity; perched on the far edge of the great era of demicentennial revolutions and counter-revolutions that started in the late eighteenth century and would come to end in the grand catastrophe that it had always predicted for itself, the years between 2010 and 2020 saw an immense flowering of chiliastic prophecy, cults of personality, interpretative schemata, fantastical creatures, and hero-figures. In this study I wish to focus on one particular such myth, which was briefly present among a small and largely unremembered tribe calling itself the Parliamentary Labour Party (rough translation: ‘the council of chieftains of those who till the soil’). The hero-cult of David Miliband is remarkably developed for its time, a period in which most myths were provisional, intended to be of use to a singular instant, and speaking to neither future nor past, perhaps indicating exogenous origin or a refracted version of narratives from earlier, more sophisticated eras.
The story of David Miliband describes a struggle between two cosmic brothers, one good and one evil; the evil, younger brother seduces the people of the tribe, and convinces them to band with him to defeat his older sibling, who is forced into exile, journeying across the seas to the West. As he departs, the good brother curses those who have betrayed him; thereafter they enter a fallen state, the earth does not yield up its fruits freely, the land is beset by natural and human catastrophe, and the tribe will be persecuted wherever they go. Redemption can come only when they have purged their tribe and their souls of this original wickedness; at this point the vanquished brother will return from across the sea to lead them once again to victory. Crucially, this return was not placed in some far-flung future, but was expected (despite the presumable antiquity of the mythic events) to be perpetually imminent and eternally immanent; any moment could bring salvation from evil.
This narrative has a number of important antecedent: the theme of an antagonistic duality out of balance with itself could be considered as a continuation of the Zoroastrian and Yezidi traditions of the Near West; a Levantine heritage is also manifest in its figuration of a returning saviour, although this is of a type more similar to myths of the Far Western Americas. (Some scholars have attempted to draw a parallel to the Biblical narratives of Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, hunter and agriculturalist – note the identification of David with a banana and his brother with a bacon sandwich – however. it should be noted that here the scriptural principle of ultimogeniture is reversed, with the younger trickster-brother a figure to be despised.) My general contention is that the David Miliband myth is, at root, a solar myth, in which the westerly setting of the Sun and its eventual reappearance is cast as a metaphorical vehicle for redemptive, apocalyptic hope.
As always with this kind of study, we must be on guard against any kind of reductive literalism. It may be comforting to ascribe a kind of primitive credulity to group such as the Parliamentary Labour Party, but such tribes often have a sophisticated oral culture and a remarkable level of self-awareness about the social function of their mythic apparatuses. It’s very likely that none of the people who told the David Miliband story, or who publicly wished for the hero’s return, would have actually believed in his physical existence.
* * *
David Miliband ruined his chances of taking the Labour leadership when he was photographed holding a banana outside the party’s 2008 conference. Suddenly he looked ridiculous, a clown cartoon, the banana-man, a figure as waxy and as primary-coloured as the fruit in his hand. We would be in error to not consider the deliberate responsibility of the banana in all this, the possibility of a vegetable intervention in human political affairs, the expression of a long musaceous plot.
It’s well known that the banana plant is incapable of reproducing by itself: centuries of selective breeding have made its fruit entirely seedless, a long sugary appendage the blind, crazed, wordless organism endlessly extrudes without ever being able to know why. Only human labour, cutting and splicing, can reproduce the banana, and even then its vast genetic uniformity leaves it vulnerable to every kind of parasitic disease. The banana, mushily phallic, the great agricultural desideratum, the object of salivating desire who totemic presence crushed Latin American social democracy again and again over the twentieth century, is entirely sterile. A synthetic monster, a fruit tending towards the apocalypse. When the human species finally goes extinct, we’re taking the bananas with us. Most other forms of life are horrifying insofar as they present a potency alien to all human understanding; the banana is horrifying in that its weakness is all our own.
Bananas rot fast; they love decomposition, they love to fall apart. The banana-phallus, the thing that everyone wants but which you don’t have, your dick shrinking and liquefying and blackening into a putrid stump throwing up clouds of tiny burrowing flies. That moment with the banana was a visual gaffe, but how would a banana proceed except by failing at every turn? Examine the connections. The CIA overthrows democratic governments to protect banana plantations; David Miliband quits British politics to become president of the International Rescue Committee, a charity founded by Trotskyites but occasionally accused of operating as a CIA front organisation. The stink of rotting bananas hangs in the air long after you’ve thrown the things out, and Westminster still can’t seem to scrub a Miliband-y whiff out of its crumbling halls. David Miliband is long, and curved, and ever so slightly yellow. David Miliband has two adopted sons, which is commendable, but the fact remains that he was unable to produce children through ordinary sexual processes.
Is David Miliband a banana? What’s under that waxy-smooth skin, once you peel slowly and see? Did we domesticate the bananas, or have they been waiting for a very long time, ready to start ruling over us?