What have Heinrich Postl and and the former Speaker in common? Heinrich Postl, in case his name doesn’t immediately strike a cord, was a coal miner from the Austrian village of Puchberg. He like Michael Martin, a sheet metal worker, came from a desperately poor family. And like Michael Martin, Heinrich Postl was musical. Martin plays the bagpipes, Postl sang. It was his voice that first brought Postl to the attention of the primary school teacher in Puchberg in 1922. One Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The story has it that Wittgenstein would hear the miners singing on their way home from work and was so taken with Postl’s fine tenor that he encouraged and paid for him to receive professional operatic coaching in Vienna. Postl’s singing career never took off. Still, he has earned a small corner in history, by asking his mentor a simple question. ‘What, he enquired, should he do to improve the world?’
Wittgenstein says he answered, ‘Just improve yourself, that is all you can do.’ Had you or I delivered that platitude, it would have been the end of the conversation, but because it was LW, it is hailed as the quiddity of Stoicism, ensuring Postl’s place as a philosophy foot-note.
I can confirm the remark hit home. When I knew Heinrich Postl he was already an old man, recently released from POW camp having been pressed into the German navy. He was my grandmother’s butler. Shiny bald, bushy browed and smiling, he would wear a white jacket and serve us at lunch. In the evenings he might sing Brahms or Schubert for us accompanied on the piano by Rudolf Koder. Sometimes, he would sit in the huge stuffed black leather ‘portier’ chair by the front door waiting for ‘Die Herrschaften’ to return. He spoke little or no English. But to pass the time would read English and French literature from our library, including Shakespeare’s sonnets. As far as I know he enjoyed them. On one, possibly two occasions he asked me to translate for him. As I was barely ten, I suspect I failed.
The only other snippet about Heinrich Postl I can share, is that he was unusually hairy. I know this because we children would hide in the bushes, when he had his weekly dip in the icy lake below the house. He always took a bar of soap with him and would lather himself robustly, until he resembled a foaming snowman. Then he would plunge under the water, bubbles everywhere. As entertainment this was about as good as it got, though I do now wonder if he was not aware of his giggling audience. Heinrich Postl retired in 1971, a kindly man, memorable for his innate nobility, his gentleness and the pride he took in improving himself for no reward other than knowledge itself.
I mention all this because self improvement seems to be the theme at the moment. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of that Victorian bestseller, Self Help, by Samuel Smiles. He was the father of self improvement, the man who, through his ‘illustrations of conduct and perseverance’, told the world that God helps those that help themselves. Apparently it’s still in print and you have only to go to an airport bookshop to see the industry he spawned.
I don’t know whether Michael Martin bothers with self improvement books on his trips from Westminster to Glasgow, but he is about to be elevated to the House of Lords. He should by rights be the earthly manifestation of everything that Samuel Smiles, Heinrich Postl, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the pantheon of Stoics and Victorian Britain revered – the man who through his own effort, made the journey from a Glasgow slum to the highest Office. Yet the public reaction is dismay. Just yesterday even the Times described breathlessly how:
The vetting panel for the House of Lords warned Downing Street against awarding a peerage to Michael Martin, the former Commons Speaker, The House of Lords Appointments Commission suggested that elevating Mr. Martin, the first Speaker to be ousted in 300 years, would damage the reputation of the second chamber.
This sort of talk was once the territory of gossip columns. Now they are so aghast at the venality of our politicians it is a news story. But please marvel with me at the hypocrisy of it. An Old Leftie sees it as his hereditary ‘right’ as a retiring Speaker to be elevated to the (now no longer hereditary) House of Lords; no matter that he failed to stop the House of Commons from helping itself to anything that wasn’t tied down. Martin’s chippy friends say that this dismay is further proof of the anti-working class, anti Scottish, anti-Catholic bigotry that has dogged him ever since he became Speaker in 2000. And they would be wrong. The reality is that their man was never up to the job to which he was promoted as a token sop to Old Labour. His faux feelings of entitlement are not a substitute for deserving, failure is not the new success. A peerage, especially the sort of Peerage Lite that Labour have created for the undeserving, is not what that Socialist aesthete Wittgenstein envisaged when he said to Heinrich Postl ‘just improve yourself, that is all you can do.’ From a public figure evidence is required that the world was also improved.