At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the guns fell silent. It was not the war to end all wars and we have had a number since then. But at that time we remember all the dead of all the wars and honour those who survived.
Dorothy L. Sayers, for reasons that are still debated by literary critics and historians, abandoned the writing of detective stories in 1937 though she continued to review other books in he genre and was very active in the Detection Club (here is my review of Martin Edwards's history of that august institution, in case anyone is interested). She became more interested in theological matters, social commentary and, eventually, translation of Dante. With C, S. Lewis and Charles Williams she became during the war a popular commentator from the right-wing perspective (unlike J. B. Priestley whom she greatly admired) and a popular theologian.
The long essay I have just finished reading, Begin Here, was commissioned and written at the end of 1939, during what is known as the "phony war" and published in early 1940. It was reprinted and republished many times during the no longer phony war, despite paper rationing.
In this Sayers tried to sum up what she felt had gone wrong with the country, its society and the its people and proposed some tentative ideas about what might have to be done after the war. It is curious how many people at various points of the political spectrum started thinking about post-war society almost as soon as the war began, there being a general assumption that this war would really change everything.
There are too many things in the book for me to discuss in just one posting but let me refer to something that amused me intensely and made me realize that some annoying aspects of our own society goes back a lot further than we sometimes think.
On pages 116 to 117 (I managed to find a copy of the Second Impression, from February 1940) we find the following, which will sound familiar to many people:
I am perpetually disquieted by the popular appetite for what is (horribly) called the "personal angle" on every question. This irrational obsession pervades the newspapers, makes the lives of public characters a burden to them, distracts public worship from its proper object, and is rapidly destroying the intelligence of the people.Another aspect of the subject is covered at a later point of the book, at the start of the last chapter, called Begin Here, where she outlines her various suggestions for the future:
It is as though nobody cred fro what is said, but only for who says it. an unsigned article in a newspaper carries no weight, however sound its arguments; except in those few national organs that are still read by highly educated people, articles on theology, drama, science, sociology, poetry or any other special subject have to be sponsored by "a name" if they are to attract attention - nor does it seem to matter in the least whether "the name" knows anything about the subject or not.
All questions of fact and all judgements calling for specialised experience must be referred to the people who have that special knowledge and experience. But when we have heard what they have to say, we must use our individual judgment as to the action to be taken, bearing always in mind the geral principles by which we have decided that the world should be governed.
We must also remember that an expert in one department is only an amateur in another; a biologist is no more specially qualified to pontificate about theology than a theologian to lay down the law about stage-management.
This, as it happens, came out before the second volume of Charles Moore's magisterial (the only word one can use) biography and concentrates on just two years of Margaret Thatcher's premiership: the first two, before she established her control over the party and laid the foundation for her achievements (or otherwise, if you happen not to like what she managed to do).
I found Kwasi Kwarteng's Thatcher's Trial on the shelves for new books of London Library and took it down immediately.
This is how the author sums up the theme of the book:
Thatcher's Trial is a short account of the six months which defined Thatcher as a leader. These six months started with the budget delivered on 10 March 1981 and ended with the reshuffle of her government which took place on 14 September. during this period, Margaret Thatcher showed herself to be inflexible, tough minded and courageous.I am looking forward to reading Mr Kwarteng's description of all of that.
Her judgements were clear but often wayward; her self-belief sometimes faltered, although publicly she never let any hesitation blunt her message. She always conveyed an image of utter certainty, even when some of her closest allies openly expressed reservations.
In the first place, however, I was reminded of the fact that the famous September 1981 reshuffle got rid of a number of wets and, more to the point, a number of grandees who had assumed that the Conservative Party was theirs to run. Among these were Sir Ian Gilmour and Lord Soames whom Mr Kwarteng describes as having had "a political career of considerable distinction" but whose achievements (with the possible exception of his stint as Our Man in Paris) depended very largely on the fact that he was Sir Winston Churchill's son-in-law. Neither of them every forgave her.
Various versions of what happened when Thatcher had given Soames his marching orders have circulated the political world then and have done so ever since. Quoting from Thatcher's own The Downing Street Years, Mr Kwarteng says:
His sacking was a notable scalp for the daughter of a Lincolnshire grocer. To Margaret Thatcher, who was not so often as obviously class conscious, Soames gave 'the distinct impression' that he felt the natural order of things was being 'violated' and that he was, in effect, 'being dismissed by his housemaid'.Other versions were more colourful, notably Hugo Young's in One of Us, which is the basis of this:
Soames decided to give Thatcher a piece of his mind as is reported to have 'assailed her for twenty minutes for her various shortcomings'. His irritation was manifest and it was said that his 'thunderous' and booming voice 'could be heard out of the open window halfway across Horseguards Parade.Exactly as he would have spoken to a recalcitrant footman or under-gardener (housemaids being in his wife's domain). The lady must have given as good as she received because Soames was by the account many of us have heard, severely put out. Charles Moore describes his reaction in his first volume:
Christopher Soames reportedly complained to friends that he would have sacked his gamekeeper with more courtesy than Mrs Thatcher had shown him (though why one should expect gamekeepers to be shown less courtesy than Lord Soames in matters of employment was not clear).On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that Margaret Thatcher had summed up Christopher Soames and his attitude to her and to the Conservative Party fairly accurately.
I have just finished proof-reading the forthcoming hard copy of the Conservative History Journal and I can tell you that there are lots of good things in it about Wellington, Churchill (several pieces), the First World War, curious nuggets from the party's history and a piece by me about Lady Knightley of Fawsley. (Yes, indeed, you have not heard the end of that subject.)
There is an interesting and entertaining piece by Charles Clarke (yes, that Charles Clarke), entitled 'David Cameron top of the league? You're having a laugh!'. It is based on a talk he gave at a symposium on Conservative Leaders at Queen Mary College in London last December and on work produced in a book he co-edited with Toby James, Tim Bale, Patrick Diamond, British Conservative Leaders.
What Clarke writes about in the article, backed by tables from Rallings and Thrasher's British Electoral Facts 1832 - 2012 is the relative placing of various Conservative Prime Ministers on the basis of how many seats and what proportion of the electoral vote they managed to gain.
So who do you think might be the top three? Well, number one is Sir Robert Peel who fought three elections and who oversaw the acquisition of 192 seats and a cumulative change in 21.5% of the votes in the Conservatives' favour. Number two is the Marquess of Salisbury who fought five elections and acquired 165 seats and 8.3% of the electoral vote for his party. And number three? Ha! I bet you cannot guess who it is. In fact, it is David Cameron with two elections, 133 seats and 4.5% of the vote.
When it comes to electoral changes rather than seats there is a slight confusion as the correlation is not that straightforward. Thatcher, with three elections, comes fourth in the number of seats (99) and in percentage of vote (6.5%) but Baldwin who comes fifth in number of seats (75) comes second in share of votes that changed to the Conservatives (15.8%). So the much despised David Cameron ranks third by seats and fifth by share of votes.
It so happens (she says casually) that I predicted that the Conservative would win the General Election of May 2015 and would be forming a government on their own. So all comments about how surprising the result was leave me cold or, to be precise, cold and disdainful. Not to some of us, it was not. But I had not realized Cameron's achievement as Leader until I read the article and looked at the figures.
Oh and if you are interested, Churchill comes fifteenth in ranking by seats, having cumulatively lost 108 over three elections and twelfth in share of votes, having lost 5.3%. Whatever one may think about him as a politician and a war leader (two very separate things) one thing we can say with certainty: he remained unpopular until he actually retired and was raised to the status of a political demi-god in the ten years between his retirement and his death.
Tomorrow is St Crispin's Day and 600 years ago it was the day upon which the Battle of Agincourt was fought. Here, as you would expect, is the speech made on the eve of the battle in Shakespeare's play by Sir Laurence Olivier:
And here is part of the battle from the same film:
One of the most famous battles in English history, a stupendous achievement by English arms but did it achieve anything? Well, it made the English temporarily victorious in the Hundred Years' War, created a great legend, which, oddly enough was largely true - the English and the Welsh army was considerably smaller than the French, which they defeated - and staved off the war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster.
Here is a useful account and a list of ten reasons why the French were defeated by numerically inferior forces.
Margaret Thatcher was born Margaret Roberts in Grantham on October 13, 1925 in Grantham. As the second volume of Charles Moore's biography is being read (though not yet by me as I am still immersed in Rab Butler who is unlikely to have approved of the Iron Lady) there seems no point in going through her various deeds and achievements here but a brief chronology, as posted on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation site is useful.
Her importance can be measured not through the words and attitudes of her admirers, especially as a number of us have managed to perceive that she was wrong from time to time either because she had to placate and earn the loyalty of all members of her party or because certain measures would not have been passed or because she was simply wrong. It is the fury and hatred that her name excites in so many people of varying ages who do not even know what it is they hate and certainly cannot argue any valid alternative ideas that is the true measure of her greatness.
Here, as ever for this blog, a few pictures of the greatest Prime Minister of the twentieth century, chosen at random.
By which I obviously mean the First World War since neither before or since has our perception of a war been so influenced by literary output, particularly of outstanding poetry. Since most British poets and writers seem to have served on the Western Front, the literature has contributed to the country's obsession with that part of the war, important but not the only one. Even the lavish centenary celebrations last year have not changed that attitude much.
Furthermore, because of the high calibre of the literary output we do think of the First World War as being unparalleled in horror. I have no desire to go into a discussion about the technological developments that had made the war different from many others though the truth is that it was not till the Second World War that more people had died because of enemy action than because of diseases. As Paul Delany points out in his biography of Rupert Brooke, Fatal Glamour,
in the Gallipoli campaign, bloody as it was, two-thirds of he two hundred thousand Allied casualties were caused by disease rather than enemy action.One of those was Rupert Brooke who died of septicemia, caused by a mosquito bite and exacerbated by general weakness and low immunity.
It always seemed to me rather touching that the wonderful memorial to the Camel Corps on the Embankment, commemorates all the dead, whether in battle, of wounds or disease.
Fatal Glamour is an interesting biography and deals with Brooke as he was, warts or feet of clay and all, much of which was hidden for many years by the people who published his poetry, letters and a few biographies. The image of the golden boy (and he really was extraordinarily good looking), the poet (he certainly was talented as several of the best poems show), the warrior (that is more dubious but not for lack of trying) being struck down as he went to war for his country and for Western civilization had to prevail.
There is no question, there were many faults in Brooke and his personality had many problems and episodes of instability. Would he have overcome them, had he survived the war or would he have descended into manic depression, which is one possible explanation for his break-down in 1912 and his behaviour afterwards? None can tell. No more can we tell whether his talent would have developed into something truly magnificent or whether he would have become another second-rate poet like the other Georgian poets? Would his literary talent have stayed with the war like Sassoon's did or moved forward like Graves's did? We can but speculate and, sensibly, Paul Delaney does very little of it. There is so little to go on.
He does make a very interesting point about the role of Brooke and the other poets and writers, people who came from a class that had not, traditionally, sent its sons to war and who, therefore, reacted with greater horror to what they faced.
Rupert's death would have counted for much less if he had been a conscript. As a volunteer, it mattered little that he had died of illness just before his fellow officers were mowed down by the Turks. He had chosen to face death for his country; his country had not chosen for him. And he had volunteered as a poet, who in his war sonnets had expressed the volunteer's creed of self-sacrifice. Nor did all war poetry need to be of that kind: the poets of disillusion - Sassoon, Graves, Owen - had been volunteers, too.Numbers of volunteers went down as the news from the Western front and Gallipoli came in and by 1916 those who maintained that the war could not be fought or won without conscription were politically victorious. The idea that had been proclaimed as un-British for decades became acceptable and by 1939 taken for granted.
The 1914 - 15 generation of volunteers had a unique moral authority, sandwiched between the professionals of the British Expeditionary Force and the conscripts of 1916 - 18. No other belligerent country had met its wartime needs for soldiers in the British way; not coincidentally, none of those countries produced a comparable generation of poets. Whatever the excesses of Rupert's war poems, he still had his place in that lyrical flowering, without precedent before or since.