For a while before and during the First World War Williams was considered to be one of the pre-eminent experts on Russia and, together with such luminaries as Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace (my particular hero in that rather muddled story) and Sir Bernard Pares, he led the campaign for rapprochement and an alliance between Britain and Russia. Looking back on what it led to (the First World War and its various outcomes) one may feel doubtful about the policy and the campaign but with Germany becoming more powerful and the Great Game more or less coming to a standstill while becoming more and more expensive, it seemed like a good idea. (More of that in other postings. I promise.)
During the First World War Williams together with the novelist Hugh Walpole set up the British Propaganda Office in Petrograd, promoting Britain in Russia as opposed to Russia in Britain. Williams and his wife supported the February Revolution, not least because they, like so many other people, thought that this would stiffen the Russians' fighting ability as well as help the country develop into a democracy.
When the Civil War broke out both the Williamses went back and he became war correspondent with Denikin's army. As the Whites lost the war Williams's reputation declined. He may or may not have been reporting accurately or objectively (nobody was, as it happens) but he was involved with the losing side so he had to be wrong. That accounted for him finding it hard to get work in journalism when he eventually came back to Britain but that, too, changed when, in 1921, he became Foreign Editor of The Times. He died in 1928 and that may have contributed to him becoming less important in accounts of journalistic reporting from Russia. The fact that he was fiercely anti-Bolshevik did not help either.
In her recent biography of Harold Williams, slightly awkwardly entitled Russia's Greatest Enemy?: Harold Williams and the Russian Revolutions, the historian Charlotte Alston says in the Introduction that opinions of his journalism were mixed. She then proceeds to quote Maxim Litvinov, the first Soviet Plenipotentiary in Britain who called Williams Russia's greatest enemy but was hardly an objective witness; also Arthur Ransome who was as fiercely pro-Bolshevik as Williams was anti and who saw no need to help his friends the Williamses as they ran for their lives in late 1917; and Philip Knightley who, in his history of war correspondents, The First Casualty, that Williams's very personal involvement with the White movement made him the least reliable correspondent of the period and he ought never have been sent to cover the Russian Civil War. Presumably, Knightley does not think highly of Bernard Pares or Robert Wilton, who was seriously right-wing even by Russian standards, either. On the other hand, why should one think that Arthur Ransome, who was very personally involved with the Bolsheviks (close friend with Karl Radek and others, married eventually one of Trotsky;s secretary) was in any way reliable.
Harold Williams was also a remarkable linguist, picking up languages with ease from a very early age and writing grammar books for those who did not have one. He is said to have known fifty-eight languages but that may be just a myth. Possibly it was no more than fifty.
When his widow, Ariadne Tyrkova-Williams published his biography, Cheerful Giver, in 1935, reviews were mostly positive about the book and about the subject. However, Harold Nicolson decided to indulge in his usual waspishness when he wrote about it in the Daily Telegraph Christmas Supplement, published on November 29, 1935. According to Charlotte Alston:
Harold Nicolson, who also reviewed Tyrkova-Williams's biography, painted a picture of Williams lisping in Maori, speaking in Serbian with a slightly Croat intonation, Rumanian with a Bessarabian lilt and Swedish with 'a decidedly Norwegian accent'.One cannot help wondering how Nicolson, who knew none of these languages and did not think highly of the people in question could discern this. The likely explanation is that he considered both Williams and his wife to be "bedint", his and Vita Sackville-West's favourite term for people they did not think were quite - quite.
It seems about time to start that campaign to have the whole of Channon's diaries becoming available and, indeed, published, as I wrote some time ago. The published diaries are fascinating and often remarkably accurate, despite a comment made by one reader on my posting. Chips may have been shallow (what politician is not?) but his judgements were remarkably accurate and his knowledge of what was going on phenomenal, With all the diaries in the public domain we would see more of that.
In the meantime, I shall have to re-read the existing diaries (well someone has to do these chores). I wanted to get hold of the later edition with that new introduction by Robert Rhodes James but have experienced some difficulty in that. So, the 1967 edition it will have to be. My one problem is that my copy is falling apart. Indeed, I keep it together, somewhat inelegantly, with a rubber ring. Chips would have been horrified.
A visit to the Charing Cross Road bookshops is indicated. It will all make a very good change from the other book I am reading, Tolstoy and his disciples by Charlotte Alston. In fact, there could not be a greater contrast.
There is no question: this blog has been shamefully neglected and one of my resolutions for the start of the new academic year, which, out of old habit, I consider to be more important than the start of the calendar one, is to post on it articles long and short several times a week. Indeed, I fully intend to post articles by other people who consider it worth their while to send me any. Everyone will be fully acknowledged and necessary links put in.
Let me start with a link to an article in an American conservative publication, actually the American conservative publication, the National Review, Bill Buckley's brain child still going strong. The article is by John O'Sullivan, one of the leading conservative thinkers on both sides of the Pond and, these days also in Australia. He is also the onlie begetter of O'Sullivan's First Law, which states that "All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing."
The article is about Theresa May, the second woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Incidentally, how many will there be before the Labour Party has a woman leader?
Ho-hum, I hear you say, how is that related to history? Well, the article places the discussion of her personality and what we know about her ideas (with a good deal of criticism as well) in a historic perspective with references to Margaret Thatcher (naturally) but also to "our Joe", Joseph Chamberlain and his social ideas that have become a very strong strand in Conservative thinking.
How will Theresa May cope with the various problems that have emerged since "our Joe" and his ideas about the working class while concentrating on the complex issues around the Brexit negotiations? We do not know at this stage and can only guess. The article covers many issues and is very well worth reading in its entirety to which end I shall post no quotes. Go away and read it.
As Edmund Crispin he wrote a far too short series of detective novels and short stories about Gervase Fen, Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature.
Anyone who reads his novels (and I can thoroughly recommend them for being clever, witty and often laugh-out-loud funny as well as highly literary) must realize that BM/EC was thoroughly conservative in his outlook. As it happens he was also a Conservative in his political support though not always in tune with the party. David Whittle points out that, unlike many of his friends, such as Kingsley Amis, Montgomery/Crispin never went through a left-wing phase.
Therefore, readers will not be surprised to hear that he was not particularly enamoured with Edward Heath, the bane of all conservative Conservatives. During the last couple of decades of his life he started a number of projects or, at least thought of them, but did not finish them. It was a very sad tale of decline but has to be off-set by the story of his earlier career, which was effervescently successful.
One of the projects (and how one wishes he had completed it) was a novel about two writers who live close to each other, cannot stand each other and are commissioned to write a detective novel together. Because some of the action takes place in a doctor's surgery, the title was going to be What Seems to be the Trouble? and it has the usual Montgomery/Crispin references to his friends
and there is also a savage attack on VAT and on Ted Heath, the Prime Minister for some of the time the book was being written (he is called a 'monomaniac mugwump').A monomaniac mugwump? Absolutely brilliant. I wonder what in particular the monomania was. Somehow I cannot imagine Montgomery/Crispin to be in favour of Britain's entry into the Common Market.
At dawn of June 22, 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Soviet Union. No, not the invasion of Russia. They moved fast, largely because the Soviet armed forces were unprepared, what with the huge purges in 1938, the continuing movement of prisoners east-wards from the Baltic states and eastern Poland and the inexplicable trust Stalin put in Hitler, but they did not reach what we might call Russia for several weeks. By August they were attacking Leningrad and by late November they began the siege of Moscow. Stalin and his mates disappeared from Moscow in June. He did not make a public broadcast till July 3 when he addressed the people of the Soviet Union as "brothers and sisters". According to my mother, who was in Moscow at the time, that caused greater panic than anything else had done.
On June 22 the Germans invaded what was eastern Poland or western Ukraine, depending on your attitude, the territory that the USSR had grabbed in September 1939. They then rolled forward, causing enormous losses though Stalin contributed to that in various ways.
Nevertheless, the date did turn out to be the first real turning point of the war, the second and more important one being December 7, 1941. It was also a turning point in European history though that did not become obvious except to a few individuals like Evelyn Waugh until much later.
Next year will see a couple of important anniversaries: the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik coup, which initiated the existence of possibly the most bloodthirsty political system in history, and the eightieth anniversary of the year that is generally seen as the symbol of Stalin's great purge: 1937. We should devote time to a remembrance and discussion of the victims of Communism.
Meanwhile, here and here are links to more pictures from Operation Barbarossa and its aftermath.
here, only slightly condescendingly, it remains one of the best thrillers around. I do not agree, however, that the ghastly films and even ghastlier comedy parody, whose run in London came to an end a couple of months ago, show the book's enduring appeal. The fact, that none of these are really based on the book would indicate that it is the title and some mistaken idea of what it is about that has the enduring appeal.
The reason I remembered this omission was a coincidence of several events. I was yet again reading about Stalin but, more importantly, I went to an evening at the British Library where two panels discussed Eric Ambler and, more specifically, the three books by him that are being reprinted by the British Library in their Classic Thrillers series. They are Passage of Arms, Light of Day and A Kind of Anger, all post-war books, as it happens. This is of some importance as Ambler changed his political opinions in the wake of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and as a result of learning a few things about the Soviet Union during the Second World War.
When he started writing in the thirties he was a straightforward left-wing author who became according to his own account, a fellow traveller. Despite attempts by one member of one panel to argue that he changed his mind because of the show trials and the purges, the fact remains that he did not. He went on being a fellow traveller until Ribbentrop and Molotov signed that Pact.
Nevertheless, he did change his mind and that is to his credit. The panellists, mostly, did not think so, it being a sort of a given in literary circles that left-wing thriller and detective story writers are more knowledgeable and sophisticated than the more traditional, conservative or right-wing ones, a category into which they dump the egregious Sapper, the far better John Buchan and the man who is probably the best living spy thriller writer, though he stopped writing a while ago, Anthony Price, whose series that began with The Labyrinth Makers I should really blog about.
Because you can be sophisticated and knowledgeable only if you are left-wing. The suggestion that in the thirties and forties being left-wing if that meant being pro-Soviet and showing Soviet agents as really rather jolly chaps who were on our side and meant very well, as Eric Ambler did then, indicated a deliberate blocking out of information about that country, about certain crimes in the West and about stories that were coming out of Spain, is not well received.
I was particularly amused by the embarrassment with which Ambler's later anti-Communist sympathies were discussed. While he had been sophisticated and knowledgeable in the thirties, by the time of the late forties and fifties he was merely cynical. Well, that's what you get if you turn on the well-meaning Communist homeland and Uncle Joe in the Kremlin. You become cynical and write a book that revolves round the East European show trials and which is mentioned only with a deprecating smile.
In discussions like this there are two whipping boys: Ian Fleming and John Buchan. The first is mentioned with a smile. Honestly, nobody can take those Bond books seriously, let alone the films, but that is not Fleming's fault. Of course, secret service was never like that but whoever thought it was? During a more recent discussion about one of Eric Ambler's books I tried to counter the usual, "well, it's nothing like Bond, where we know he is going to triumph, blah-blah-blah" by suggesting that we should compare him to John le Carré whose heroes are also flawed and the plots murky. The discussion came to a dead end. In parenthesis, I may add that I have read several of the latter's books, liked two a great deal, several others considerably less and agree with the Ambler panellists that the later ones are pretentious and dull. But he is better known than Eric Ambler because he never really changed his politics (except, maybe, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)
Buchan is another kettle of fish. I suspect why so many right-minded and right-on literary critics look embarrassed when they mention him is that deep down they suspect that he is actually very good and his understanding of the world around him was quite accurate. His early Hannay books are about defeating and outwitting the Germans; Dickson McCunn, especially in Huntingtower, fights the Bolsheviks who were, pace all those sophisticated left-wingers, really nasty people, other novels deal with attempts by individuals and organizations to grab power regardless of the casualties. Well, well, how unsophisticated. I mean, that never happens.
Going back to the one whose centenary we ought to have celebrated last year, The Thirty-Nine Steps, it is undoubtedly one of the most exciting thrillers around. From the moment Hannay finds Scudder shivering with well-justified fear to the end when the Black Stone are arrested it keeps the reader on tenterhooks. So much so, that it takes a couple of re-reads to notice that at least one brilliant episode is completely ridiculous. (No, I am not going to tell you, which one. Find it for yourselves.)
Buchan kept up with political developments and gave his allegiance to decency and liberalism with a small l in politics. As an MP he was a Unionist but was even before the First World War in favour of free trade, women's suffrage, national insurance and, curiously, curtailing the power of the House of Lords. On the other hand, he opposed the Liberal Party's welfare reforms because they were based on class hatred, fostered by the likes of David Lloyd George.
His female characters, incidentally, are more than feisty: they are frequently equal to the men in courage and ability. The woman who becomes Hannay's wife, Mary, is his superior in the secret service on their first meeting in Mr Standfast. Other heroines play their parts in the novels. Richard Usborne disliked them in Clubland Heroes because they were all slim and boyish in looks and appallingly sporty and energetic. But then, Usborne did not like Buchan or his characters, preferring Sapper's upper class thugs to the motley crew of achievers who populate the former's novels. One of the things I dislike about that comedy show of The Thirty-Nine Steps is that Hannay is described as a gentleman adventurer. He is not a gentleman but a South African engineer, his skills coming in very useful, with some murky episodes in the past, who becomes a gentleman through his service, both military and intelligence, during the war.
Buchan lived up to his view of women in his life, marrying Susan Grosvernor, a remarkable person as well as a good writer. I prefer not to discuss their children, who were all super achievers, especially in the intellectual world.
This blog has already covered Buchan's attitude to Jews and Zionism. (The posting does not mention this article by Roger Kimball and it is worth reading.) He was not an anti-Semite though Scudder in The Thirty-Nine Steps is. This is seen as a form of lunacy both by Hannay and Sir Walter Bullivant, the chief of the secret service. In 1930 Buchan espoused Zionism and by 1934, early by anybody's standards, was criticizing the new regime in Germany because of its behaviour towards the Jews. At this time there was some sympathy towards Hitler even on the Left and when that expired, thanks to Willi Münzenberg's Little Brown Book and mock trials, the Jewish question remained dormant as the Comintern preferred not to dwell on it. It took a few individuals like Buchan to raise the issue in between writing excellent (mostly) thrillers and history books as well as conducting a remarkably successful political career and being active in the Church of Scotland. All this before he became the Governor General of Canada in which position he is considered to have been successful right up to the stroke which caused head injuries and his death.
His literary legacy remains. I defy anyone to start reading The Thirty-Nine Steps, one hundred years old last autumn and not be pulled into a wonderful and thrilling world. Then go on to the other ones.