Having just read one of E. C. R. Lorac's novels, These Names Make Clues, (not one of her best, as it happens though it strengthens my suspicion that Edith Caroline Rivett, a. k. a. E. C. R. Lorac, a. k. a. Carol Carnac, was a crossword addict who would not have dreamed of starting her day's activity without finishing the one in the Times first) I have once again noted a curious aspect to Golden Age Detective (GAD) novels. The characters, if they happen to be educated literate ones, which they often are, always seem to have read every single recently published book.
When did they have time to do all that and do their own work as well as other activities and keep up with their knowledge and reading of the various classics? Were there fewer books published in the thirties? There certainly were in the forties because of paper shortage but it all picked up again in the fifties. Were there more hours in the day, more days in the week? Books were certainly cheaper but not that cheap, relative to income, so there is the financial consideration to be taken into account. Or was it simply the fact that they did not have to do the washing up and there was no TV to watch?
While we are on the subject of detective fiction characters' reading, I may add that one aspect of P. D. James's novels have always bemused me. Her hero, who rises through the higher ranks of the Metropolitan Police is Adam Dalgliesh, Commander, I believe, towards the end of the series (so far) and a well-known and highly regarded poet. Now, I happen to be acquainted with poets and know about the extent of poetry reading in this country. Actually, extent is not really a word one would use, so negligible it is, when it comes to newly published poetry. Yet, whenever Adam Dalgliesh with whatever rank turns up to investigate a crime and interview the various suspects and people involved, among them he always finds a number who have read his poetry and have acquired his latest book. This is not remotely realistic.
Before TH moves to a discussion of the two titles, the collection as a whole and of its astonishing author, let us look at the curious conundrum raised by Bryan Morgan (himself a railway enthusiast, author of books on the subject and editor of The Railway Lover's Companion as well as of an exellent collection, entitled Crime on the Lines):
The nexus between railways and the clergy (today including at least two bishops, and extended to include such fringe churchmen as organists) has been often remarked upon but never fully explained. Should one, for instance, accept the view of a current professor of scripture that the organisation of a railway is a microcosm of God's organisation of the universe, or agree with that vicar and author of popular children's books who claims that despite their faults the railways and the church are the best ways of transporting a man to his final destination? Or should one look to the late Canon Roger Lloyd's opinion that railway-lore is 'morally good in the sense that it healthily occupies the mind and so becomes a subsidiary and indirect cause of that self-forgetfulness which is at the root of all virtue'?Most certainly there is a link between railways and spy stories, at least those of that period as well as detective ones. But why the clergy should find itself so enamoured with trains and all matters to do with them remains a mystery and if Bryan Morgan cannot solve it, nobody can.
Certainly, though, the clerical or lay enthusiast of the early years of the present century was a happy man; for Britain's railways were then at their peak of glory. 'Brief years, from the death of Queen Victoria to the outbreak of war', as Mr Hamilton Ellis has written, 'were proud years. Enormous coal-trains rumbled and handsome expresses rushed about the country. Maintenance was high and locomotives were often painted in gorgeous colours.' Bradshaw ran to nearly 1200 pages (a figure never preceded or exceeded) and in many a country rectory stood as a work of reference beside Crockford's. Numerous parsons stumped while drafting a sermon must have relaxed intellectually by working out the quickest route between Saxmundham and Blisworth.
Whitechurch was an astonishingly prolific author of detective and other novels and short stories as well as books of topography and autobiography. As Mr Morgan says, his duties in the Church could not have been particularly onerous.
His knowledge of the railways seems to have been outstanding and several of the short stories have pages of incomprehensible detail about the various activities, which does not, oddly enough, detract from the actual plots that are usually very straightforward, sometimes of the detective, sometimes of the thriller variety.
Nine of the fifteen are concerned with the activities of the "first railway detective" as acknowledged by no less an authority as Ellery Queen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Thorpe Hazell, who shares his creator's knowledge of trains and railways but is also something of a diet and exercise weirdo. TH has wondered idly whether Mrs Ariadne Oliver's creation, the vegetarian Finn, Sven Hjerson might not have been influencd by the character of Thorpe Hazell, though the latter sticks to a seriously unhealthy diet of milk, lentils, macaroni and Dutch cheese with nary a piece of fruit or vegetable. He also eats Plasmon biscuits and chocolate and does quite ridiculous exercises before and after meals. But give him a problem such as how to stop a German messenger from taking a stolen document out of the country or how to ensure that an important diplomatic meeting takes place or what happened to a valuable picture and, indeed, the carriage it was in and Hazell is in his element.
There are also six non-Hazell stories and these are all thrillers with the villains ranging from German agents to Russian police officials and violent union leaders. All in all, quite interesting but not altogether thrilling. According to Bryan Morgan, the British Library catalogue renamed the collection from Thrilling Stories of the Railway to just Stories of the Railway, and that is how they were reprinted in 1977. As indicated above the Australian on-line version restores the original title as did the BBC when it recorded Benedict Cumberbatch reading inexplicably abridged versions of the stories.
Even better, this was a new edition, published by John Murray (sadly now a part of Hodder and Stoughton) in 2006, sixteen years after the original, during which time many things happened in Central Asia and a new Great Game started. Mr Hopkirk acknowledges this by a new Preface and a whole new map. TH is lost in admiration. There were five maps before and now there are six, with an extra one that depicts The Battlefield of the New Great Game. Excellent.
Equally excellent is the conclusion of the new Preface:
For the collapse of the Russian rule in Central Asia has tossed the area back into the melting pot of history. Almost anything could happen there now and only a brave or foolish man would predict its future. For this reason I have note attempted to update my original narrative beyond adding this brief foreword. Among all the uncertainties, however, one thing seems certain. For good or ill, Central Asia is back in the thick of the news once more, and likely to remain there for a long time to come.Eight years on, that remains true.
The picture above, in the National Portrait Gallery, shows him in a slightly unusual mode, as an art collector.
Here, on the other hand, is an article from History Today about the politician and his end.
Burke comes into that category of people about whom we all seem to know a little but few of us know much or with any accuracy. Most of the quotations attributed to him are bogus or misquotations. He did not exactly say that all it took for evil to triumph was for good men to do nothing or various words to that effect, which one can find on the internet. What he wrote in his seminal 1770 book Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents was:
When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.That actually makes sense. To be fair, having silly but plausible quotes attributed is a problem Burke shares with, among others, Churchill and Lincoln. He also shares with them the fact that people tend to assign to them their own opinions and political affiliations. Thus, Churchill's checkered party political career is little known or ignored by many and Lincoln is routinely assumed to have been a Democrat though he was a Republican.
With Burke the situation is even more complicated as he lived, wrote and was politically active long before the modern British political parties were formed. No reader of this blog needs to be told that Edmund Burke was not a Conservative as that party did not exist in his day nor a Tory as he was a Whig. A Rockinghamite Whig, to be precise, and as Mr Norman shows in his book, the main creator of a group that could be seen as the prototype of later political parties. The Rockinghamites were more than just a faction or a following that many eighteenth century aristocrats who bothered with politics had: though in opposition for many years they kept together and developed a core body of opinions on a number of subjects such as the need to come to an agreement with the North American colonies that they kept throughout their existence.
To many Burke may seem to have been a somewhat changeable thinker and politician. Why, people ask, did he support the Americans in their fight against the British Crown but was so vehement in his denunciation of the French Revolution from a very early stage? Burke denounced the French Revolution, the destruction of the French Monarchy and what he saw a sinking into mob rule as early as 1790 before the full horrors had developed. His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (1791) were accurate predictions of what was to follow. He proved to be much more capable of understanding events than many of his allies and opponents such as Charles James Fox, Thomas Paine or Mary Wollstonecraft. (Online Library of Liberty has a fascinating section in which one can read all the most important works in The Debate about the French Revolution.)
In fact, Burke's thinking was mostly consistent and it is a rare historian who cannot see the basic difference between the ideas that motivated the American "rebels" and the French revolutionaries. Burke was simply ahead of most people. He could also see what the British government was doing wrong in Ireland and the problems with the East India Company - both being species of oppression and unaccountability. Many of these ideas have been discussed by previous biographers, particularly by Conor Cruise O'Brien in his magisterial work The Great Melody. (Curiously, Mr Norman does not mention an excellent short introduction to Burke, which has figured on this blog by Dennis O'Keeffe.
Jesse Norman divides his book into two, dealing with the great man's life in the first half and his ideas as well as their possible influence on present day political thinking in the second. The life is detailed enough but is not in the O'Brien category and rightly so. The chapters present a good account of his life and his writings, including a discussion of the relatively recently discovered early essay on political parties. (While I have no complaints about the text, I have very serious reservations about the scrappy notes and references as well as the less than adequate index.)
Mr Norman is clearly an admirer of Burke but is, nevertheless, ready to be critical when he thinks it is necessary, for example when he talks of the latter's behaviour during the Regency crisis. There is also a certain reticence over the impeachment of Warren Hastings, a controversial subject, though Burke's attitude to His Majesty's Indian subjects was clearly well ahead of his time and in keeping with his belief in freedom and dignity as the necessary portion of all.
The second part of the book is less happy in this reader's opinion. Burke's thoughts, writings and speeches had already been analyzed in the first half and there is little to add. Mr Norman concentrates on the question of how Burke's ideas are to be used today, a laudable enterprise, but he goes further and falls into the error that previous authors, notably Jim McCue had fallen into, by discussing how Burke might or might not have reacted to certain modern political ideas. This is futile. We cannot tell how an eighteenth century thinker, brilliant though he was, would have reacted to ideas of the late twentieth or early twenty-first century.
Jim McCue in his Edmund Burke and Our Present Discontents introduced a long (perhaps the longest) chapter which ranted at feminism and proved beyond any doubt in the author's mind that Burke would have hated feminism. Jesse Norman does not go that far but he does discuss a great many modern political, economic, social and anthropological ideas to prove that many things he does not like in our present state Burke would have disliked, too.
Mr Norman's particular bugbears are modern economists none of whom, according to him, can see beyond simple wealth creation or money making and liberal individualism, which denies the need for social networks and institutions. To say that this is a simplification of modern economics and of the theory of liberal individualism is to understate the case. One cannot help being a little worried about a politician who asserts over and over again that social and political structures are more important than individualism and individual liberty, particularly if he simplifies what the latter two mean. Is there not a suspicion that his idea of what a satisfactory social and political structures would be gives a primary position to politicians as creators and guardians of those structures?
Despite the long and sometimes only tangentially relevant discussions of modern sociology and social anthropology together with the often conflicting findings, the book is worth reading, not least because we must all rejoice in the existence of a literate politician who has some interest beyond vote getting tactics.
Beyond that, there is no doubt that Edmund Burke and his thoughts are of significance today just as they were in the past. He laid down many fundamental ideas about politics, gradual change, the need for a coherent social structure and the notion that there is a seamless whole between past, present and future generations and these are still relevant though many of the details have changed. At a time when the Conservative Party and the right in general are searching for definitions we could all do much worse than study those provided by Edmund Burke two hundred odd years ago.
Jesse Norman: Edmund Burke - Philosopher, Politician, Prophet
2013 London, William Collins
100 years ago today, on June 28, 1914 the shots that ushered in the disaster of the twentieth century were fired in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip at the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. I need not go through all the subsequent events that eventually led to the First World War which, in turn, led to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and of Europe in general, pushed Britain and the British Empire closer to the bankruptcy and dissolution of the second half of the century and unleashed the two most evil ideologies of history: Nazism and Communism.
Just out of interest here is a link to The British Newspaper Archive that shows the coverage the Archduke's assassination received in British papers.
The second act of the century's tragedy is also commemorated today. 95 years ago, on June 28, 1919 the Versailles Treaty was signed and many of the century's tragedies was unleashed then. Certainly, in the Middle East we are still dealing with the outcome and no solution seems to be in sight.
Barbarossa Day. The German invasion of the Soviet Union begins. Not of Russia or of what was then Ukraine but of the Soviet Union or, in other words, eastern Poland that the Red Army had invaded in 1939. Did Hitler make a mistake by the invasion itself? It did not look like it at first as the Wehrmacht rolled ahead and Stalin and his gang were caught "unawares" despite the many warnings. Nevertheless, it was his big mistake or, to be precise, the conduct of the war in the east was.