Mary Russell Mitford was a remarkable woman of letters. Her father was a less than admirable character from a Thackeray or Trollope novel. A man who can squander £70,000 in a lifetime in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century on little more than gambling of various kinds and, of course, personal luxuries must be described as quite remarkable as well.
He was clever, selfish, unprincipled and extravagant, with an unhappy love of speculation, and an equally unfortunate skill at whist. He squandered altogether in his lifetime about £70,000 and, finally, became entirely dependent upon his daughter's literary earnings. William Harness, who knew the family well, and was Miss Mitford's lifelong friend, heartily disliked him and called him "a detestable old humbug" but his many failings never succeeded in alienating the affections of his wife and daughter.It seems his highly talented and very hard working daughter adored him and her invalid mother and, apparently, did not mind wrecking her own health by very hard work, writing for money and running a house that seems to have been quite charming and completely insanitary.
She wrote plays that were produced in London by and with leading actors such as Charles Kemble and dramatic poetry. But the need to earn money with her pen turned her attention to what became her most successful literary output: sketches about village life.
Her inimitable series of country sketches, drawn from her own experiences at Three Mile Cross, entitled 'Our Village,' began to appear in 1819 in the 'Lady's Magazine,' a little-known periodical, whose sale was thereby increased from 250 to 2,000. She had previously offered them to Thomas Campbell for the 'New Monthly Magazine,' but he rejected them as unsuitable for the dignity of his pages. The sketches had enormous success and were collected in five volumes, published respectively every other year from 1824 to 1832. Editions of the whole first appeared in 1843.Miss Mitford and her village became so popular that her house and other landmarks were pointed out by passing coachmen and tours were organized to see Three Mile Cross otherwise known as Our Village. She became part of the literary scene though she stayed in the village with some visits to London. Her health became worse and worse, partly because of overwork, partly because of living conditions and partly because of a series of accidents.
After her parents died she removed to a somewhat more sanitary cottage, owned by her friend Lady Russell of Swallowfield Park and continued writing stories, sketches, letters and several volumes of autobiographical gossip, which I shall find and read. Undoubtedly, it will be entertaining. All this despite being partially paralyzed after yet another carriage accident.
Our Village is enchanting reading. It is not exactly nostalgic in that a good deal of what she describes is hard living and hard working. It is also life that was already disappearing when she wrote about it (as is so often the case) with spreading industrialization and a growing reluctance on the part of the rural population to know its place in life. But the description of various flower, berry and nut collecting, of the games of cricket, the vivid description of the various characters, young and old, will stay with the reader of these sketches and will draw that reader back again and again.
October is full of battle anniversaries and this one is extremely important. The history of this country and, let us not mince matters, of Europe changed on October 14, 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy and his French/Viking army defeated Harold Godwinson and his Anglo-Saxon army. The battle lasted the whole day, which as this article points out, is a long time for mediaeval engagements. Both sides fought valiantly, with the Normans finally securing victory by pretending to retreat.
The article has one of those jocular titles that we have all become used to: Battle of Hastings 950 year anniversary: the 9 things you might not know. Well, the first thing we might not know is that the anniversary falls on Saturday as it does not - it falls on Friday, that is today. The second thing we might not know, though too many people believe it, is that it was the last successful invasion of England. For some reason Henry Tudor's invasion with a French army, bolstered by some traitors and William of Orange bringing over far more Hollanders than expected are always forgotten.
Today, we must think of the Battle of Hastings, its place in the various changes in Europe in the eleventh century, the Viking expansion and the history of England as it emerged from the continuing battle between the Normans and Saxons. Here is another account and a more detailed one. But, perhaps, the best written and most imaginative interpretation of the tale are the first four stories and poems in Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill.
Yes, I am talking about the Battle of Lepanto, which took place 445 years ago yesterday. Sorry to have missed the exact anniversary but it is only a semi-significant one. As we can read in the Britannica: "The battle marked the first significant victory for a Christian naval force over a Turkish fleet and the climax of the age of galley warfare in the Mediterranean." The Battle of Salamis may have been as important but others, big though they were, are second-rank.
I wrote about its significance before but find it hard to resist the call of G. K. Chesterton's poetry though he claimed more than either the battle or Don John of Austria had actually achieved. But, really, who cares? This is a poem, not a history book.
Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)
The story is quite fascinating and puts to pay the notion that somehow politics was a much more gentlemanly affair when it was run by “gentlemen”. The Salisbury/Northcote fight with Churchill was anything but gentlemanly. In the end, Churchill lost not because he was a nicer person but because, seduced by apparent party adulation, he could not envisage anybody outmanoeuvring him as Salisbury did. Lord Randolph Churchill, it seems, believed that he was indispensable – the most dangerous delusion any politician can have.In the end, as we know, Lord Randolph lost the battle because he forgot about Goschen. In 1886 the enfant terrible of the Conservative Party resigned from the Chancellorship, assuming that he was irreplaceable. Lord Salisbury disillusioned him on the subject.
So, cookery books, their history and the history of food that they describe. Readers (if there are any left) will recall that I find the history of food and historic recipes quite fascinating and often read cookery books and books about cooks and cookery writers for pleasure. Recently I was thinking that books which provide interesting background to the food and recipes fall into three very obvious categories: books that is a pleasure to read but one never cooks from and I have to admit all of Elizabeth David's books are in that category, books that are interesting merely for their recipes, and the third and best category of all, the ones that are a pleasure to read and whose recipes one tries out and uses over and over again.
One such book is George Lang's The Cuisine of Hungary that gives a fascinating history of food in Hungary, talks of the various regional specialities and customs surrounding them. And when one has read all that one can cook the food. My own copy has sadly become a badly stained collection of pages that seem to fall out whenever I pick up the volume to cook or bake something from it.
Another rather surprising book in that category is Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book, edited by Hilary Spurling. It is a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century recipes put together by Lady Fettiplace in the early years of the latter and handed down in the family till it arrived in the hands of John Spurling who handed it over to his wife. It is a fascinating piece of social history based on those receipts and marginalia but I have cooked a good deal from it.
Elisabeth Ayrton's The Cookery of England, I believe, will fall into the third category as well. I have just finished reading it with great interest. She has collected traditional recipes of various parts of England (she has also another book about England's regional food) and of various period from both published and unpublished sources. As it happens, the publication of cookery books has been of importance in England since the sixteenth century and women authors produced notable examples from an early period. Ms Ayrton has also looked at domestic accounts of a few large houses to calculate how much was used of what ingredient and how much was bought from outside.
This is not as detailed a books as Hilary Spurling's, which concentrates on the cooking and distilling of just one household for a century or so. Ms Ayrton ranges further geographically and historically, having as her aim, the need to show that English food was not always bad or uninteresting. The book was first published in 1974 when this still seemed a rather outlandish idea. Since then, as we know, people have been rediscovering traditional English food and updating it to more modern tastes. We have Elisabeth Ayrton and Hilary Spurling (as well as Elizabeth David and sundry others) to thank for that interest and development.
Meanwhile, there are some interesting fish soups, an eighteenth century recipe of celery in cream as well as an intriguing hot cucumber in cream to try. And that is before I get to the glory of English cooking: pies and cakes.
One could argue that this has little to do with conservative history except that the government of this country in 1939 was Conservative under a Conservative Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain who had to lead the country into war, something that he had tried to avoid. By summer 1939 he knew that was a lost cause but he still tried to win some time and, who knew, perhaps ....
Everyone knows about September 1, 1939 when the German army crossed into Poland, September 3, when Britain declared war followed by a reluctant France as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. But how many people know about the next step in Poland: the country's invasion from the east by the Soviet army on September 17 just as Stalin and Hitler had agreed. Here is the photograph that sums it all up: a German and a Soviet officer shaking hands. One can see the about to be dismembered body of Poland between them:
Write my Spectator article. At 11 am (a bad hour) Vita comes to tell me that Russia has invaded Poland and is striking towards Vilna We are so dumbfounded by this news that there is a wave of despair over Sissinghurst. I do not think the Russians will go beyond her old frontier [sic] or wish to declare war on us. But of course it is a terrific blow and makes our victory even more uncertain.He then makes a series of analytical points and predictions most of which are wrong though some not. I love those diaries dearly and Nicolson's other writings but the man was often an ass. Did he not gather from Maisky what the agreement between Hitler and Stalin might have been about?
Chips Channon was not surprised. He had never liked the Bolsheviks, considering them, if anything worse than the Nazis. He was also PPS to Rab Butler at the Foreign Office at the time and may have had more accurate information about events than Nicolson. On the whole Chips managed to get fairly accurate information in or out of his lowly office. His published entry for September 17 reads:
A glorious September day in Kelvedon where I bathed in the pool, and then in a bath towel rang up the FO to be told the grim news that the Russians had definitely invaded Poland. Now the Nazis and the Bolsheviks have combined to destroy civilization and the outlook for the world looks ghastly.The detail about him being in his bath towel when he hears the fateful news is priceless but the phrase "had definitely invaded" would indicate that something of the kind was expected.
On October 10 Chips wrote:
Russia helps herself to a new country every day and no-one minds. It is only German crimes that raise indignation in the minds of the English.Well, why not? German crimes should raise indignation but it might have been useful if Russian (or, to be precise, Soviet) crimes had also been noted then and later. I am now reading David Satter's book about the bloody end of the Yeltsin era and the even more bloody rise of Putin to absolute power with a couple of invasions on the way, not to mention two horrendous wars in Chechnya, and the same cry can be uttered: no-one minds. Or, at least, very few people then or now.
In view of my plans to campaign for the publication of the full version of Chips Channon's diaries I have started re-reading them. I have a copy (much used ) of the 1967 version but the 1993 version has no changes, merely a short new introduction by Robert Rhodes James. Though the newly found late diaries are mentioned they are not added as too many people were still alive (actually not that many by 1993 but both Paul Channon and Robert Rhodes James had been scarred by the original reception of the book).
The moment one starts reading those entries one becomes engrossed. The people and events are fascinating and Chips's descriptions are enthralling. Some of the people are little known these days and so one cannot be sure whether he is right or wrong in his judgements (were those peeresses really so dowdy?) but others are historically important figures and then one can weigh up whether one agrees with him or not.
His adoration of Chamberlain is a little surprising not because the man was evil personified as some people would have it - he was not but a very capable and well-meaning politician - but because there is no evidence that he had the personality, which could excite adoration. Even in this case Chips mentions several times that the government had become a one man show, which is not healthy, and enumerates the speeches that are not all that good in his opinion.
More interesting is his dislike for the constantly seething "Glamour Boys", as he calls them, around Eden who plot to no particular end and who sometimes go into a huddle with the Soviet ambassador Maisky,
the Ambassador of torture, murder and every crime in the calendar.,as Chips wrote on May 3, 1939.
Ah yes, I hear people say, but what of his own lenient attitude to the Nazi regime. Indeed, he was not really harsh enough about them but it is not true that he was always lenient or even pro-Nazi. That is a big subject and I need to write a separate post about it. For the moment I shall keep to the subject of Chips on some of his colleagues in the House of Commons.
He is particularly interesting on Eden, whom he likes personally and whose charm he freely acknowledges but whose abilities he considers rather mediocre and whom he fears because of his lack of control in his international likes and dislikes. His prediction is that Eden's career will continue to be catastrophic, something that was seen to be completely wrong for a while but was eventually proved to be correct. For this, if no other reason, one would like to read Chips's late diaries, which must cover the Suez fiasco and the final collapse of that career.
Meanwhile, here is a quote that made me laugh out loud. It is from his entry for May 10, 1939, after Hitler had "let Chamberlain down" by marching into Prague and Mussolini reneged on the Anglo-Italian Agreement by marching into Albania. War seems inevitable but Chips, as PPS to RAB Butler, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, is still a little hopeful. Even he is losing hope of peace for much longer. This is the wonderful entry:
All morning at the FO intriguing and arranging matters, and the hours passed in a confusion of secret telephone calls and conversations. The startling thing about my intrigues is that they always come off.On the whole that was probably true though eventually he did not manage to keep his job but then neither did RAB. It does, however, explain why Chips had such a multitude of enemies as well as friends.
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.
Chapter 6 is entitled A Chance for Peace? and deals with the opportunity the West, led by President Eisenhower, might have taken to create a more lasting peace or generally come to better terms with the post-Stalin leadership. Professor Rubenstein is inclined to blame Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, feeling more on the side of such people as the President's aide, Emmet Hughes who felt frustrated by the "obvious" opportunity created by Stalin's death, the new leadership's desire to introduce reforms (to save their own skins rather than because they had any liberal ideas) and to ease up relations with the West.
In actual fact, that window of opportunity lasted exactly two months from April 16, 1953 when Eisenhower delivered his Chance For Peace speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors to June 17 when the two-day East Berlin uprising broke out to spread to other parts of East Germany and to be put down fairly brutally by the Soviet army and the East German police. After that, any idea of German reunification on any condition could be shelved. Within less than ten days Beria was arrested and the Soviet leadership appeared to sink into another internecine warfare.
Doctors' Plot whose "members" were released and all accusations were quashed. The politicals started demanding that their cases should be reviewed as well and in a number of camps there were genuine uprisings, usually led by Ukrainians, Balts and Poles. At first the authorities were prepared to negotiate but as they were not prepared to offer anything except slightly better working conditions there were no agreements and the uprisings were put down with great ferocity. Officially this was unknown in the West but I find it difficult to believe that some rumous had not crept out to the various security services.
Nevertheless, the book conveys a feeling of frustration and lost opportunity after Eisenhower's speech without making it very clear what concrete suggestions he should have made, except for one: a summit meeting with, possibly, Georgy Malenkov who appeared to be the leader, though only temporarily.
This is where Churchill hove into view, advocating summits, discussing with the Soviet ambassador to London, Yakov Malik, the possibility of a secret meeting with Malenkov, and speaking forcefully on the need to balance the needs of European countries with "Russia's" (i.e. the USSR's) desire for security. In the process he managed to make the Kremlin suspicious, antagonized Chancellor Adenauer and some other West European leaders and seriously annoyed the Americans. He did get a good press from the British newspapers, though.
On May 11, 1953, during the first big foreign affairs debate after Stalin's death Churchill made a speech [scroll up] in which he tried to reconcile several ideas.
Russia has a right to feel assured that as far as human arrangements can run the terrible events of the Hitler invasion will never be repeated, and that Poland will remain a friendly Power and a buffer, though not, I trust, a puppet State.The first paragraph would indicate a wilful misreading of what was going on in Eastern Europe (not a puppet state, forsooth!) and what had been going on in Poland in 1939. The rest of it mostly wishful thinking, as was a suggestion earlier in the speech that if Germany was reunited Britain could guarantee peace on the Continent - not a particularly rational suggestion in 1953.
I venture to read to the House again some words which I wrote exactly eight years ago, 29th April, 1945, in a telegram I sent to Mr. Stalin: " There is not much comfort"
I said, "in looking into a future where you and the countries you dominate, plus the Communist Parties in many other States, are all drawn up on one side, and those who rally to the English speaking nations and their associates or Dominions are on the other. It is quite obvious that their quarrel would tear the world to pieces, and that all of us leading men on either side who had anything to do with that would be shamed before history. Even embarking on a long period of suspicions, of abuse and counter-abuse, and of opposing policies would be a disaster hampering the great developments of world prosperity for the masses which are attainable only by our trinity. I hope there is no word or phrase in this outpouring of my heart to you which unwittingly gives offence. If so, let me know. But do not, I beg you, my friend Stalin, underrate the divergencies which are opening about matters which you may think are small to us but which are symbolic of the way the English-speaking democracies look at life." I feel exactly the same about it today.
I must make it plain that, in spite of all the uncertainties and confusion in which world affairs are plunged, I believe that a conference on the highest level should take place between the leading Powers without long delay. This conference should not be overhung by a ponderous or rigid agenda, or led into mazes and jungles of technical details, zealously contested by hoards of experts and officials drawn up in vast, cumbrous array. The conference should be confined to the smallest number of Powers and persons possible. It should meet with a measure of informality and a still greater measure of privacy and seclusion. It might well be that no hard-faced agreements would be reached, but there might be a general feeling among those gathered together that they might do something better than tear the human race, including themselves, into bits.
Chancellor Adenauer showed himself to be unhappy with what he saw as an attempt to sacrifice West Germany, a democracy, in order to have some kind of an agreement with the Soviet Union. The Kremlin leadership distrusted Churchill, thinking of him, rather ironically, as the man who wanted to strangle Bolshevism at birth rather than the man who was Stalin's ally and, some would say, dupe. Molotov, the Foreign Minister, absolutely rejected the idea of a "secret" meeting between Churchill and Malenkov. Furthermore, as Pofessor Rubenstein notes, the Kremlin had a shrews understanding of Churchill's and Britain's real standing in the world despite the marks of respect paid to him.
The White House and the State Department paid their respects but pointed out that it was not clear who would represent the USSR and, in any case, the low-level talks about Korea were still getting nowhere. What would a summit achieve?
In Congress, Senate Majority Leader William F. Knowland compared Churchill's speech to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938, a shocking objection given Churchill's ringing opposition ot Chamberlain's negotiations with the Nazis.Fulton speech, which brilliantly defined the situation.
To be fair, there was more sense to Churchill's 1953 desire to come to terms with the post-Stalin Soviet leadership, even though his assumption that Malenkov will go on being the undisputed boss turned out to be wrong - the heirs of Stalin did exhibit various signs of wanting to negotiate over Korea as well as, possibly, Austria and Germany. They even started allowing the Russian wives of Western diplomats and military officials out of the Gulag and out of the country. But a summit or secret meetings? Could they really achieve anything?
To a great extent one can understand that this was Churchill's attempt to restore the war-time situation when he did rush around the world, having secret meetings with Stalin, among others and the big three had several summits. Churchill was missing his and Britain's position at the top and was reluctant to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Sadly, others, the White House and Kremlin for instance, did acknowledge it.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that his comments about the need to acknowledge Russia's fears and longings for security were not that different from Germany's supposed needs in the thirties, needs that he had quite rightly dismissed at the time.
Nothing came of Churchill's suggestions. Molotov refused to agree to any meeting between Malenkov and Churchill, as did Eisenhower. The window of opportunity closed on June 17 with the uprising in East Berlin and at the end of June Churchill had a stroke, which was hidden from all though it put him out of action completely and much of his business was transacted in his name by his son in law, Christopher Soames and his secretary, Sir John Rupert "Jock" Colville. A "secret disability crisis" is one way of describing those events; I have also heard references to a coup, a very British coup. The idea of the summit, never very strong, was abandoned.
A number of Mr Miliband's supporters tried to pooh-pooh Disraeli's claims to being the first (and, so far, the only) Jewish Prime Minister of Britain by pointing out that he had been baptized at the age of 12 and was, in fact, a practising Anglican later in life. That is so but then Ed Miliband is a practising socialist atheist and it is highly unlikely that he has ever participated in Jewish religious ceremonies unless he thought he could get some kind of a political advantage from such participation. In that respect that would be no different from him participating in, as it were, Sikh religious ceremonies, or Hindu or Muslim.
So, it is down to race and ethnicity, according to which Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield was most definitely Jewish. Indeed, as he rose in the political sphere, he became the target of numerous attacks that now we would call anti-Semitic though the expression itself was first used after his death. Some of those attacks came from Liberal politicians, journalists and historians, including Mr Gladstone himself.
Did Disraeli perceive himself as a Jew? Was he at all interested in the Jewish question? Was his policies influenced by his race as many of the accusations proclaimed? David Cesarani asks these questions in the latest biography of Disraeli. (Alas, he died at the very early age of 58 and did not see the book's publication.)
The book is part of a series published by Yale University Press, Jewish Lives, and the author begins by asking "Does Benjamin Disraeli deserve a place in a series of books called Jewish Lives?" He comes to the conclusion that he does for various reasons not just because he was born a Jew and rose higher than any other in British politics. His analysis follows Disraeli's life and looks at his books, novels and his biography of Lord George Bentinck, his colleague in the destruction of Sir Robert Peel and, let us be honest, the Tory Party.
Cesarani looks at Disraeli's family, his early life, his cavalier attitude to other people's money and the distrust felt for him by many in British politics and society. The distrust, he concludes, had more to do with Disraeli's rackety life, his debts and his various affairs. He was seen as foreign and exotic but, thinks Professor Cesarani, his Jewishness was largely subsumed in that. The first attack on him as a Jew came from Daniel O'Connell during the Taunton by-election of 1835. The attack wounded but many commentators felt that O'Connell had overstepped the marks of decency.
It was not till later in Disraeli's career that the various slurs became stronger, culminating in the ferocious attacks during the whole of the crisis of 1876 - 78 from which he emerged as the man who had won a great victory for Britain without firing a single shot or endangering a single life. That he is emerged as such for most people and, certainly, for the Conservative Party but not for all. Gladstone continued to fulminate; other Liberal writers pronounced that Disraeli's policy was not in Britain's interest but in the interest of the vaguely describe international Jewish conspiracy who naturally sided with the Turk.
In fact, Disraeli's policy, be that the purchase of the Khedive's shares in the Suez canal (on a loan from the Rothschilds, which was seen as particularly sinister, but no one else would have been able to come up with the money and the interest they received was no higher than usual) or the tortuous effort to prevent Russia from acquiring too much influence in the Balkans, let alone get to the Straits and Constantinople, was motivated by his desire to protect and aggrandize the British Empire. He could not understand why other people, for instance Gladstone, could not see this. How could the Liberal leader not realize that Russia was not in the slightest interested in the welfare of the Christians in the Ottoman Balkans but wanted to use them to push forward to the Straits and Constantinople? (One cannot help recognizing certain themes in the debates about Russia that have continued to be argued over ferociously to the present day.)
When it came to Jewish affairs Disraeli tended to drag his feet. He rarely intervened for Jews in other countries and was little more than a lukewarm fighter for their political rights in this one. He did support, more or less, Lionel de Rothschild in his struggle to be allowed to take his oath in the House of Commons without using the words "as a Christian" but the Rothschilds considered him unreliable despite their eventual close friendship and their support after Mary-Anne's death.
When one looks at Disraeli's writings a somewhat puzzling picture emerges on the subject of his attitude to Jews and Judaism. He was, in some ways, fascinated by it all but without showing the slightest interest in the history or politics. The early novels do not even refer to Jews. Later Jewish characters appeared, usually elderly wise men who "understood" the reality of the world in a way nobody else did. Sometimes there were plot lines that involved ideas of a Jewish revival in the East but these never came to anything.
If one were to try to summarize Disraeli's rather convoluted and, let us be frank, mushy attitude to the Jewish Question, one would have to list these points. Jews ought to have the same rights as Christians because it is clear that, Christianity starting as a Jewish sect, the two were inseparable and it is wrong to try to do so. This rather conveniently by-passed the liberal argument for Jewish emancipation, as that was based on questions of equality and individual rights, concepts Disraeli loathed.
He came up with the wildest theories about Semitic, Germanic and Anglo races but was convinced and repeated this at every possible opportunity that the world is divided according to some racial theory and this gave the Jews and the Anglos a great advantage. This was a particularly unfortunate as many of those who attacked him used his own so-called theories against him. Indeed, both Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the creator of modern racial theory, and Hitler quoted Disraeli to support their own sayings. When one adds to that Disraeli's propensity to explain that there is a cabal behind all world events, run largely by Jews, one can see that his influence was oddly harmful to Jews in the twentieth century.
David Cesarani comes close to saying that it was largely Disraeli's fault that the modern lethal anti-Semitism was born and grew with such rapidity at the end of the nineteenth century. That is, surely, somewhat unfair. The likelihood is that it would have existed and battened on other historic events without Disraeli's melodramatic novels and peculiar biography of his friend. The tracing of Disraeli's attitude to Jews and other people's attitude to him as a Jew is, on the other hand, an important part of the story both Disraeli's and that of modern British politics.
Certainly Benjamin Disraeli deserves to be in this series of biographies as long as nobody thinks that this is all that matters about him. Cesarani's book ends on a rather tragic note with Disraeli losing his grip on politics and dying while under constant anti-Semitic attacks. But by this time he was seen as the creator of the modern Conservative Party and a statesman of world-wide fame. A year after his death he was honoured beyond any other Prime Minister through Primrose Day and, subsequently, the Primrose League. He remains the one against whom party leaders, mostly but not exclusively Conservative, measure themselves. He is also the one about whom biographies pour out every year. This is a fine contribution to the genre, fascinating, knowledgeable and lightly written, but there will be many more.
David Cesarani: Disraeli
The Novel Politician
2016 Yale University Press
I have decided to shift the exercise to this blog (though there will be a link from Your Freedom and Ours) as there have been numerous references to and postings on Miss Sayers before - she was after all, a conservative thinker and writer.
My first blog is about Miss Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey and capital punishment. (I am afraid there will be spoilers.) Though I have read essays and letters by DLS I have no clear idea whether she was in favour of capital punishment but I am assuming, unless proven otherwise, that she was. Famously, Lord Peter though eager and willing to hunt down criminals, especially murderers, loses self-control and comes close to break-downs when he is successful. It is important to note that, unlike Josephine Tey' Inspector Grant who has near-break-downs because he finds himself pursuing, hounding and almost driving to suicide the wrong men, Lord Peter's neurosis appears when he gets the right man.
For all of that, he does not ever think of letting criminals go - there is not a single case of "justified murder" in any of the Wimsey novels or short stories. In Busman's Honeymoon he replies to Harriet's unreasonable question as to why it should be his hands who deliver someone to justice with the comment: "These are hangman's hands." Then he explains that he had been allowed to watch an execution once as he thought he should see it all for himself but it did not cure him from meddling. Later on in the book Harriet remembers that if it had not been for his meddling she would probably have been wrongly convicted and probably hanged. As it is, the real murderer was.
Not all Wimsey novels end with the assumption of execution but, curiously, all but one that involve Harriet do. The one exception is Gaudy Night, where there is no death only some time in the past, let alone murder. In another novel, Nine Tailors there is violent death but it is not really murder though the person responsible dies in turn - a good death, trying to save the village from flooding and another man from drowning. In yet another one, the supposed murder turns out to be suicide so, once again, Wimsey does not have a problem, especially as he also saves his brother from being hanged.
That leaves ten Wimsey novels with murder at the centre and of these one, Five Red Herrings, is really self-defence. The others are definitely murder and Wimsey finds the killers and brings them to justice, at least after a fashion. We see him going through a nasty nervous break-down in the first one, Whose Body? and the last one, Busman's Honeymoon. We also know for certain that the murderers in those books suffer the highest penalty as Freeman Wills Crofts often said at the end of his novels. The first one does not have Harriet in it but the last one most certainly does.
Strong Poison and Have His Carcase see murderers being sent to the gallows as we learn from subsequent references, especially in Gaudy Night.
Three end in suicide - in Unnatural Death the killer manages to do it in prison and Wimsey comes close to breaking down. The interesting ones are Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and Murder Must Advertise. Wimsey confronts the killer in one and has the killer seeking him out in the other. In both cases his decision is odd for a sensitive man with highly strung nerves: acting as prosecutor, jury and judge he condemns the murderers in those two novels to death by suicide instead of death by hanging. Indeed, in Murder Must Advertise he even pronounces the words as he watches the condemned man walk away: And may God have mercy on your soul.
That this should happen twice is extraordinary and it does make one wonder about Miss Sayers's attitude to capital punishment.
Other blogs on the subject are appearing. Kate Jackson is writing in Crossexamining Crime about Gaudy Night, the novel that divides readers. As befits the subject, it is a very careful analysis.
Noah Stewart writes about the various editions of Dorothy L. Sayers's books, with illustrations. The one I must find is The Recipe Book of the Mustard Club. According to Noah, most of the recipes were contributed by Mac Fleming, Sayers's husband who was a gourmet cook.
Moira Redmond casts a caustic eye over the first four Wimsey novels and points out an inconsistency or two.
Bev Hankins writes about one of the secondary characters, the Dowager Duchess, Honoria Lucasta, not one of my favourites as I tend to be allergic to charm but reading this posting I thought I might have been unfair to the old girl.
Lucy Fisher picks up some very odd "corrections" that make nonsense of the original and also some quite infuriating wrongly placed emphases.
Most readers of this blog would have heard by now of the death of Cecil Parkinson, one of the big beasts of Thatcherite politics in the eighties. He was one of several ex-future-Prime Ministers; at times it seemed that anyone who was seen as a successor to Thatcher was cursed, in Parkinson's case by his inability to run his private affairs in some kind of a seemly fashion.
In some ways his career is a modern morality play though, I think, the writer who could have done justice to him was not English but French: this son of a railway worker, grammar school boy, successful athlete and scholar at Cambridge, businessman, politician, probably the best Chairman of the Conservative Party in the late twentieth century, whose career was set back considerably by his behaviour towards his mistress and her child (and, ironically, the fact that he decided to stay with his wife) is really a fit subject of Balzac.
What could be more fitting than a picture of him and the Prime Minister (by some accounts the only woman he was really loyal to) at the moment of his greatest triumph - the sweeping 1983 victory - when they both already knew that the storm clouds were gathering.
The Telegraph, as you would expect, has produced a highly informative and objective obituary. There is a more personal memoir from Iain Dale who thinks that Parkinson remained a dissatisfied man, not having achieved what he really wanted and was capable of. Probably true but the fault lay not in his stars but in himself.