Last July this blog had an anniversary posting of Daniel Defoe's stay in the pillory for publishing The Shortest Way With Dissenters. As today is the anniversary of his death, History Today has reprinted (well, on the net so, maybe, that is not quite the right word) an article from 2003 about Defoe and that stay in the pillory.
Not only is today St George's Day (as every schoolchild should know) but it is the day we traditionally celebrate as Shakespeare's birthday though the real day is unknown. We do know he was baptized on April 26, 1564, that is 450 years ago and died also on St George's Day in 1616. So let us celebrate both of them and what better way of doing so than by watching Sir Laurence Olivier speaking that speech:
Tory Historian does not find it particularly shocking that the Leader of Her Majesty's Mostly Loyal Opposition should suddenly find his own God or religion after a lifetime of secular atheism as several elections start looming. The one that really matters will be next year but it is as well to prepare oneself in time.
Mr Miliband has not only decided to "do God" in political terms - an unwise decision in TH's opinion - but has announced that he was looking forward to being Britain's first Jewish Prime Minister. There was a general outcry of people who seem to know basic facts of this country's political history better than Mr Miliband. Have we not had a Jewish Prime Minister already in the nineteenth century? And did not Mr Miliband quote him or, to be quite precise, misquote him not so long ago, when he told the listening world that Labour was now the party of "One Nation", a phrase usually though erroneously associated with Benjamin Disraeli.
Ah yes, we are told, not least by Mr Miliband and his media minions, but Disraeli had been baptized in the Anglican Church and was, indeed, a practising member of it. Well, Mr Miliband was brought up as a secular, Marxist atheist and has, until now, been certainly a practising member of the last group. (We can discuss the Marxist part separately.) Where is the difference? Certainly, Disraeli's contemporaries thought of him as Jewish and called him that, whether in admiration, as Bismarck did, or not so much as various Liberals in Britain did.
Furthermore, Disraeli was all his life fascinated by Judaism and inserted ideas about it into his speeches and even more into his novels. Until this moment nothing has been heard from Mr Miliband on the subject.
It is, perhaps, time for Tory Historian to alert ambitious women politicians in the Labour Party: should one of them become Prime Minister one day (at present an unlikely contingency but events might intervene), she will not be the first woman Prime Minister in Britain. As with the Jewish one, the Conservative Party got there first.
Saying, as Wikipedia does, that he was a spy is making an elementary mistake. Our chaps and chapesses are agents, theirs are spies. It would appear that Bingham was one of the people on whom John Le Carre based his most successful character, George Smiley, though I do not think Bingham looked anything like Alec Guinness. In fact, if the story of his activity is anywhere near accurate he seems to have been of greater importance and use to this country than even Smiley was. Then again, he does not seem to have uncovered Kim Philby, which would have been the equivalent of Smiley's achievement in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
John Bingham's first novel was My Name is Michael Sibley, which is the one I have finally read. As Wikpedia points out, it is known to have been rather daring for its time (1952) as it implied that the "British police do not always play fair". Interesting, I thought and read the book, finding it disappointingly uninspiring. A detective story with no detection, a thriller with no surprises, it did not seem to warrant the praises I thought had been heaped on it. Actually, I seem to have been wrong. Julian Symons in his seminal work, Bloody Murder, did indicate a certain partiality as the book showed the British police to be rather nasty:
A large part of the fascination rests in his accurate account of police interrogation, something that had rarely been attempted in the British crime story. We learn nothing about the Chief-Detective Inspector and the Sergeant outside the limits of the case. They are the embodiment of potentially hostile officialdom, polite English versions of Chandler's policemen but equally conscious of their power.
One can see what influence that book might have had on subsequent writers though whether the description of the ever more unpleasant interrogations, written from the point of view of the innocent narrator who nevertheless tells one lie after another, is any more accurate than Ngaio Marsh's or Freeman Wills Croft's can be discussed at length. Did Julian Symons know or did he assume on the basis of his own political views?
In any case, even Julian Symons had to acknowledge that there are no surprises in the book. The narrator who protests his innocence turns out to be just that: innocent (Bingham was no Christie) and this is finally recognized for incomprehensible and unexplained reasons. In A Catalogue of Crime Jacques Barzun and Wendell hertig Taylor were even less complimentary:
Told in the first person, this is the story of a mess created by the hero and heroine through lying to the police about a man they knew who has been murdered. Skillful composition, style not especially attractive, type of plot dreary.
Even I did not think it was that bad. For one thing I thought the style was rather good and the tension despite the lack of any surprises held well. Bingham manages to make the narrator, Michael Sibley, sound completely obnoxious and that is not easy to do. Of course, it is possible that Julian Symons is right and that obnoxiousness was not the intention, in which case, Bingham turned out to be a better writer than he knew himself.
The police are, indeed, menacing and apparently unscrupulous. But let us look at the case from their point of view as, say Ngaio Marsh or Dorothy Simpson would have done. Here is an unprepossessing young man, a suspect in a murder case who tells one lie after another to the police, makes his fiancee tell lies and even tries to bribe an ex-girlfriend to tell lies, all for no reason whatsoever unless he is guilty. Would Chief Inspector Alleyn or Inspector Thanet not try to catch him out? Of course, they would not threaten him with violence as Bingham's police officers do in a jesting sort of way but they are unlikely to pat him on the back either.
The murder is never solved though Sibley himself proposes a solution but only in his own mind and to the reader. It is a fairly obvious solution but is not followed up by anybody.
Well yes, another book about Disraeli and this one actually addresses the question as to why there are so many of them around. How does the mythology of Dizzy agree with the reality of Disraeli the politician and how did the former manage to take such a hold of the Conservative politicians (and others, including most recently, the leader of the Labour Party) and of historians of the period, including someone so very non-Conservative as Dick Leonard? (I note that the Conservative History Journal blog has mentioned Disraeli twenty times, which is a nice round number and does not take into account the various articles that have been published in the Journal itself over the years.)
This is an undoubtedly clever and witty book, what with that sub-title echoed in the chapter headings such as Christian and Jew, Doer or Dreamer?, Men and Women, Friends and Foes and others that appear to be oxymorons: Tory Democracy and Progressive Conservative. It goes through the biography in a tight fashion but manages to get most of the details in, even to dispel a few myths, some started by the great man himself some by others. But the real theme of the book remains that curious dichotomy between the reality of a politician who had very few principles though a number of romantic ideals and the astonishing image of the man who is seen as the progenitor of just about every Conservative political idea one can name.
Did Disraeli ever talk of One Nation Conservatism? Certainly not. He did not even support it. He wrote about the Two Nations but he did not actually object to it; he merely thought that there could be an ideal society in England in which the "two nations" could live in harmony and vaguely envisaged some form of a feudal structure that would create such a society.
Did he believe in protectionism as his followers in the great fight of the 1840s against Sir Robert Peel and the repeal of the Corn Laws did? Most certainly not and, to be fair, nor did he ever say so. When he became Prime Minister in the midst of a deep agricultural depression he refused to bring back any protectionist measures, realizing all too well how disastrous that would be for the party in electoral terms. His main complaint about Peel was that he had betrayed the party in the sense of changing his policies (free trade was not the first one) without consulting the members. This was a novel idea in British politics and, to a great extent, we can date the importance of well organized parties, as something to admire and something to deprecate from Disraeli. Curiously enough, though the authors mention this, they do not make too much of it when summing up Dizzy's achievements.
The historian John Charmley, has described Disraeli as the presiding genius of political spin doctors and the very existence of the mythology long after the immediate posthumous effect, the Primrose League(postings here and here) had disappeared from sight, would indicate the correctness of that analysis.
This book comes to a not dissimilar conclusion:
This in the end was Disraeli's great achievement. He may not have reformed the nature of British society. He may not have transformed our standing overseas. But he did make politics interesting and engaging, including for those with no vote. As one contemporary observed, 'I never listened to a speech of yours without thinking, this word, this sentence, will be remembered a hundred years hence.' This was indeed the true magnetism of Disraeli. It is the reason why successive generations of politicians are drawn to him. if we look in his career for solid achievement we shall be disappointed. But if we want something to raise our game, Disraeli is the man.Sadly, that last sentence demonstrates that even this well-written book, despite the many semi-slangy and often coy expressions, falls a long way short of Disraeli's own ability to communicate, while politicians of the day may refer to the great man but remain dull and pedestrian in their very references, let alone other speeches.
Douglas Hurd and Edward Young: Disraeli or The Two Lives
2013, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London