Cold constitutional

 

COLD CONSTITUTIONAL

 

On the ice-edge of the hill

Gazing down grateful from verge of valley,

Coming in across country, a splinter of winter –

 

My feet hold fields.

And today, I saw the sun so wonderfully die,

The land turn black, crisp cutout trees clutching stricken stars,

 

My Ordnance Survey filled –

Dry moats overjumped, fallen houses seen, old stories

Stopped, pinned in place – “There is one surviving tower…”

 

Behind lie iron miles,

Silver-gilded soil and waiting woods, locked churches, ways

Silent and significant. The frost flakes flowers.

 

Now a great and universal chill –

Over unforgiving earth beasts bump their prize away,

Next year’s crops parade with glinting points, owls blink away hours.

 

Home life of a predator – scenes from the Leopard’s lair

Home life of a predator – scenes from the Leopard’s lair

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – A Biography Through Images

Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, Alma Books, Richmond (Surrey), 2013, 125 pp, £25

It must be at times frustrating to be a considerable academic and author in one’s own right, yet to be known chiefly because of your connection to someone even more eminent. Palermo University musicologist Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi has written several well-regarded books on musical subjects – but beyond the world of musicology he is rather better known as the adopted son of the author of The Leopard, and the executor of his estate. But if Prof. Tomasi is frustrated at thus playing second fiddle, he certainly does not let it show in his latest erudite and affectionate contribution to Leopardiana. (1)

The literary big cat who was his father was a modest and introverted man, for much of his later life padding unobtrusively between book-lined rooms and street-corner café and back again, and one experiences his complex personality mostly by proxy, as he projects himself through the novel’s protagonist Don Fabrizio. It is therefore extremely satisfying to have this rich pictorial archive showing the author at all stages of his life, family members long past and contemporaneous, friends, 19th century documents about forebears, his correspondence, cover art from early editions of the novel, and the places that meant so much to him, whose fates at the ungentle hands of the 20th century so tinged his outlook. The pictures are not of a high technical or artistic standard, but they are exceedingly piquant; it is a visual vade-mecum, allowing those who love the book but don’t know the author (or Sicily) as well as they would like to connect more conveniently with the shy and sardonic stylist.

There is a touching fragility to many of the images, whether naive 17th century oils, stiff daguerrotypes, or scratched 1920s photos, all of them freezing a deeply self-conscious person in their place and patrimony – a sense that this curling collection has been kept together against heavy odds, and cherished by the last in the line the more loyally as his own light flickered. Indeed, two of the photos used in the book were rescued in the 1980s from the bombed ruins of the Palazzo Lampedusa by Lampedusa’s biographer David Gilmour (who has contributed a Foreword to the present volume). The images encapsulate the downwards trajectory of the leap, from medieval eminence via Counter-Reformation reverence to slightly shabby gentility as the estates ebbed away, leaving little but oddments of furniture and the right to use resonant if Ruritanian titles on one’s letterhead. (At least the Prince was spared the melancholy knowledge that his ancestral island is now best known to the non-reading world as a jumping-off point for Africans seeking illegal ingress into Europe, sometimes drowning in the attempt.)

Tomasi guides the reader ably through the tangled skeins of the family’s history, and that of the island, and offers interesting insights into how the book was regarded by post-war opinion-formers. There are invaluable lists of Leopard editions, relevant biographies and essays that can elucidate many aspects of the book, the author, and their context. Some of the segments end abruptly, but then this is an essentially informal work, almost like a family scrapbook, or screen of decoupage.

Into this must-own item of Leopard incunabula, the author has inserted an understated sort of agenda – he does not want us to see his adoptive father as merely conservative -defeatist. Tomasi’s own views are of the Left, and so it must pain him that the kindly and cultivated man he knew could never join in his own progressivism. He claims unspecified “politicians” co-opted the book in order to pull its claws – its implied criticism of the entire Italian settlement, now as well as then – and this is entirely believable, given Italy’s existential insecurity. He also asserts that most commentators have ignored or downplayed Lampedusa’s humour, and his

…heartfelt urging of the new generation to throw off provinciality and insularity, his approval of great purges – such as had led him to assert that Louis XVI’s head was the best-cut-off head in Europe

Lampedusa was, he adds,

…a most fortunate artist and an unfortunate teacher

This seems a little like wishful thinking. Lampedusa was undoubtedly open to all of European culture, as evidenced by his greedy reading, travels in interwar Europe and marriage to a Latvian – his Anglophilia was especially pronounced – but this did not prevent him from having greater affinity with his own upper-class, Sicilian, Italic, Catholic and Mediterranean sub-set of that civilization. As for his novel being used by nameless politicians to undermine the idea of Italy and justify stagnation, if true it is the fault of those politicians rather than the artist – who was only adding a soupçon of scepticism to cool a highly-seasoned historical dish. Besides, perhaps the Italian state really is unworthy of preservation, and perhaps ‘progress’ really is rather meaningless. While Lampedusa may well have applauded the decapitation of the unlucky king (2), there is a great difference between admiring something in the abstract, and trying to apply such admiration to real life.

One suspects that the Prince would have smiled indulgently at his adopted son’s well-meant attempts to rescue him from the despised ‘wrong side of history’. He cannot now pronounce on these matters in person, but it is testament to his novel’s greatness and greenness that almost fifty years after publication it is still a fought-over frontline between cultural condottiere, the last of the Leopards still a lurking presence on the island that made him, and which he made so much his own.

NOTES

1. I reviewed Prof. Tomasi’s edited Letters from London and Europe for the American journal Chronicles in 2010, and reproduce that review here. For those who may be unfamiliar with the novel, I wrote a summation in an earlier Quarterly Review, and reproduce that article here

2. I cannot locate this reference, but it is probably contained in his so far largely untranslated Lectures on Literature

 

 

 

Bringing in the Bishop

BRINGING IN THE BISHOP

Lincoln Cathedral looms above its locus like a celestial city of its own, its three towers on top of its lofty limestone cliff drawing all eyes for miles in every direction to focus on its perfection and their abjection.

It is one of the great buildings of medieval Europe, a perfectly-judged coda to the Steep Hill up which city dwellers and visitors have struggled breathlessly for centuries to Iron Age and even older forts, the Romans’ colonia of Lindum where the Fosse Way crossed Ermine Street, and a piquant parade of counts and chevaliers, serfs and saints, merchants, moneylenders and mendicants living, working and dying in round-arched, herringbone-patterned houses so strongly built by Norman masons that a few are still in use, some of the oldest domestic buildings in the West.

Roman roads lead to and from the city, often ruler-straight, always ruthless—north through the still-standing Newport Arch to the Humber, Yorkshire and Scotland—westward to the Trent and Nottinghamshire—south to Sleaford, Grantham and London (part of the actual surface, complete with cart-tracks, preserved under the Guildhall at the foot of the Hill)—east through lumps of hills tumbling eventually into the verdancy of the Lincolnshire Marsh, through which the ghosts of tide-dependent trackways wend towards the shadows of salterns.

We had come along that eastern road that morning, swooping through wisps of mild mist, past prehistoric barrows and undulating pastures full of Lincoln Reds, always under the eyes of buzzards—seeing the Cathedral grow before us from distant spikes to dizzying stronghold, struck into silence as ever by the sight, doubly aware of it today because of the occasion.

We were in Lincoln to witness a rare and significant event—a bishop’s enthronement on his cathedra in the fabulous choir beneath the famous fanes, the celebratory culmination of a politico-legal-magical process of Election, Confirmation, Consecration and Investiture. The Church of England was in its high day element, doing what it has always done best, what it was designed for—to bring all the great institutions of State into alignment with each other and with the politely expressed desire of God (and the other way around).

The Right Reverend Christopher Lowson is the 72nd Bishop of Lincoln—the 72nd in line since Remigius de Fécamp inaugurated the office in 1072—which was itself a continuation of the old see of Dorchester. Remigius, who was named in honour of the Apostle to the Franks, was almost certainly at the Battle of Hastings. He was probably also related to William the Conqueror, and his alliance with the King later led to damaging accusations of simony. He faced other difficulties unlikely to be faced by Bishop Lowson—being unusually short of stature, being deprived of his first bishopric because the Archbishop who had consecrated him had been removed from office by the Pope, and being accused of treason to William II, a charge of which he was only cleared after suffering “ordeal” by hot iron. (The new Bishop might however have a curious insight into the ordeal—because he was born into a metalworking family in Co. Durham and while studying worked at a steel-mill.) But despite these distractions, Remigius nevertheless played a major role in organizing the Domesday Book, and prepared the ground for the building of the present cathedral on the site of a Saxon church. He died two days before the first earth was turned, but the tower he designed is still partly intact, incorporated into the stupendous west front of the cathedral.

As if this were not enough to live up to, another of Bishop Lowson’s predecessors was a saint. As his various geographical honorifics suggest, Hugh of Avalon/Lincoln/Burgundy was a name to conjure with in 12th century Europe, and became the second most popular English saint after Thomas à Becket. Apart from his reforms and his restyling of the Cathedral in the new Gothic taste, Hugh was literally a saintly man, his compassion attested by the tame swan that became his symbol—one that combined the idea of Christian purity with similar earlier archetypes.

The 9th Bishop, the unfortunately-named Robert Grosseteste (1235-1254) was a renowned theologian and philosopher, even being described (by the scientific historian Alistair Crombie) as “the real founder of the tradition of scientific thought in medieval Oxford, and in some ways, of the modern English intellectual tradition”.

The 18th, Henry Beaufort, was the second illegitimate son of John of Gaunt—who, doubtless through his own merits (!) rose to be Lord Chancellor, a Papal legate and a not wholly successful general of the Church Militant against the Hussites of Bohemia. His morals were notoriously lax, and in a story that is surely too good to be true, it is reported that as he lay dying he was so consumed with superstitious dread that he hallucinated the entrance of the figure of Death and offered it all England’s wealth if he could be suffered to live.

Then there were Thomas Wolsey, albeit only briefly until he got the better offer of York—William Fuller, friend to Pepys and Evelyn—Thomas Tenison, who as Archbishop of Canterbury would preach Queen Mary’s funeral sermon (when he would hear the world premiere of Purcell’s piercing Funeral Music) and crown Queen Anne and George I—and a plethora of others, varying in degrees of scholarliness and devotion, leading or following the Church as it argued with then broke from Rome, then veered between Highness, Lowness and Broadness and back again.

Even before the final break, there had always been whiffs of restiveness about the English Church. Britain’s geographical isolation meant that when the Papal emissary St Augustine landed at Pegwell Bay in Kent in 597, he had to compete not only with the Celtic Christian tradition long fostered by Irish monks, but also the remnants of the old Romano-British Christian tradition. It took until the Synod of Whitby in 664 to lock English Christianity into the Western orbit, and spasmodically ever after there were demands for greater autonomy and the publication of the Bible in English rather than Latin. The Hussites had their English equivalents in Wycliffe’s Lollards, who long persisted despite being suppressed with considerable brutality, and still feature as patriotic people’s exemplars in the iconography of the informed English left. When Henry VIII eventually declared himself head of the English Church, he was therefore building on certain precedents, and could count on a groundswell of nationalist feeling.

A more pragmatic political tone was set by his daughter, who said famously she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls”. She sought a via media to reconcile the denominations trying to rip apart her realm—and there was a crucial contribution by Richard Hooker, whose 1593 book Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity asserted that scripture could be squared with custom and reason.

This meant that almost-Catholics and almost-Puritans alike could see in the new established orthodoxy whatever they wanted to see—terminological continuity and ceremonial to please those coming from Catholicism, patriotism and respect for individual conscience to please non-conformists. Even almost-atheists could be Anglicans, because this least mystical of denominations made only modest demands on their credulity.

The cunningly constantly revised Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552 and 1662) and the 1571 Thirty-Nine Articles provided conscience-salving balm for Christians from all traditions—room for different voices to commingle for a time, united in affection for a resonant liturgy, rousing hymns and in the combination of church and civic splendour that over centuries came to symbolize the quiet idealism of all England—a new Jerusalem being builded here among familiar fields, non-specific numinous feelings admixed with upholding the nation, the social decencies observed in uplifting surroundings where even the defaced monuments of the past became part of the calm charm. But even the strongly anti-Catholic emphasis of the King James Bible (1611) could not satisfy the wilder-eyed Puritans, or avert the vicious spasms of the Civil War and the mindless vandalism of the Commonwealth—during which buildings like Lincoln were regularly targeted by personal-Jesused Yahoos who sought to destroy their “Papistical” ornamentation. Lincoln suffered the destruction of the funerary effigy of Eleanor of Castile, queen to Edward I, whose viscera were interred in the Cathedral in 1290.

After the Restoration there was persecution of the defeated persecutors followed by the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 when William of Orange landed at Torbay, a Protestant pendulum to reestablish equilibrium and dismiss finally the idea that even English roads lead ineluctably to Rome.

There followed almost another century of suppression of Catholics, at times hysterical, as was seen when Wren’s St. Paul’s was denounced as crypto-Catholic because it was domed. But as the Continental balance of power shifted and the Papacy lost much of its political power, these restrictions fell gradually into abeyance and most were lifted during the course of the 19th century (although the 1701 Act of Succession, which states that no Catholic may be monarch, is still in place—a source of reassurance, anger or indifference depending on one’s perspective). Some Anglicans were greatly influenced by Pusey’s Tractarians (the Oxford Movement) who sought to reintroduce Roman practices—and in some cases, notably John Henry Newman, went all the way.

Always somehow managing to straddle these rival tendencies, the Church fused by degrees into the physical and the psychical landscapes, appearing in almost every actual or imaginative view of England—whether represented by metropolitan magnificence like Lincoln or by tiny, damp, almost barn-like buildings surrounded by sheep. Snug (and smug) in its insularity, it recoiled from ecstasy and vulgarity and was married to mildness—its clergy often either absent-minded scholars of apocrypha or huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ parsons of the kind celebrated in Surtees. Even its dreamers were figures like Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne and Christina Rossetti, specializing in melancholia rather than chiliasm. It gradually became a church no-one could possibly hate—a comfy church for a nation of shopkeepers. Spasmodic crusades—like the campaign against slavery—or rare moral revivals—like that which turned violent 18th century England into Victoria’s incomparably placid realm—were led by a tiny minority of evangelicals, or from outside the Church altogether by the chapels.

Just as the Jesuits had followed da Gama and Columbus, the CoE went in the wake of Drake, setting up outposts everywhere amongst recent pagans who were probably rather puzzled to be informed that they were now “Catholic and Reformed”. These Anglican plantings diverged greatly in character and consequence, but they shared an emotional tie to Canterbury and fuzzy folk-imagery of St Augustine plodding along the old Roman road from the sea.

Often these Anglican inroads were resented, most bitterly in Ireland, where Spenser took time out from writing The Faerie Queene to advocate ethnic cleansing of the stubbornly Catholic Irish, and help impose the via media by dint of drawing and quartering. As part of this persuasive process, some of my family connections ended up somehow and somewhen in the Protestant Pale of the Irish east, some becoming Anglican clergy and one even Archbishop of Dublin. The CoE became the CoI, the devolved, decorous faith of the “Ascendancy”, taking all the handsomest churches (which they retain, including two cathedrals in Dublin) and doing all they could to maximize their status and marginalize Catholics—always suspected as both reactionaries and conduits for Continental subversion. Although they were rarely targeted for religious reasons, after Irish independence in 1922 the Church of Ireland went into precipitous decline, and slipped below 3% by the 1960s. The CoI seemed destined to extinction. Yet somehow it held on, and between 2002 and 2006 it grew by almost 9%, boosted by relaxation of the Ne temere rule that children of Catholic-Protestant marriages must be brought up Catholics, and the arrival of at least nominally Anglican incomers not just from England, but also Nigeria. The Church claims 390,000 communicants, of whom 115,000 live in the South.

In its homeland, Anglicanism has been in decline since the nineteenth century—a combination of the questioning of old assumptions, longer lives, and the possibility of different cultural choices. The Church of many strains and minimal commitment lends itself easily to indifference, a process not slowed by successive synods’ decisions to make Anglicanism immediately accessible to everyone by replacing wooden pews with plastic chairs, and familiar forms of words with bathetic child-friendly sentiments (except that children don’t like them either). Paralleling this jettisoning of tradition there has been an upsurge in Charismatic practices, almost certainly attributable to the newly-arrived African Anglicans. These latter often combine innovations in ritual with small-c conservative social attitudes, most notably on homosexual clergy—a controversy presently threatening to split the global Anglican Communion for good.

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, attracted opprobrium for real or supposed leftwing views, and sometimes it was difficult to sympathise with his opinions—at least as reported by the media. But even if he was reported accurately, it should be remembered that like the previous 103 occupants of his post often he may merely be being politic. His job was an almost impossible diplomatic balancing act and it becomes harder and more thankless each year. Like politicians, Archbishops should probably be judged by their actions (or inactions) rather than their words. Many also blame the hierarchy for the ongoing decline in Church attendance, but perhaps no Archbishop could have arrested decline in this culture that is so hostile to all sources of tradition and authority. It is even possible that strict adherence to tradition might have made matters even worse—although the Church might at least have sunk with all flags flying.

The Church claims 1.7 million attend services every month, but Sunday attendances are rather lower at just 852,000 on a typical Sunday, lower than the figure for Catholics (861,000). The number of regularly attending Anglicans and Catholics combined are now probably lower than the number of Muslims who regularly attend mosques. There are roughly 2.86m Muslims in Britain, and by the nature of Islam they tend to be more committed. They are also generally younger, so the divergence in devoutness is likely to become more pronounced. Every year the voices calling for disestablishment grow slightly louder, and have so far been held in check chiefly because disestablishment would effectively mean dismantling the entire state. But if the numbers keep falling, having an established church that hardly anyone attends may eventually become unjustifiable. The long term implications are so troubling for Anglicans that they tend not to think about them at all.

But we are back in the more pleasing present, waiting with 2,000 others in the nave, glowing gently in the refracted crimsons, golds and greens of Victorian stained glass that is excellent of its kind, but not nearly as good as the original medieval glass would have been. There is a buzz and chatter from all around from clean, kind, middle-of-the-road, middle-aged to old people, many with Remembrance Day poppies in their lapels to show that they think of the nation at least as much as they think of God. In all that crowd, most of whom probably profess strong ‘inclusive’ sympathies, there are perhaps three non-white physiognomies and probably no working class people.

Under each seat is an unexpected piece of profanity—a white cardboard box filled with a packed lunch provided by local firms in return for being able to put their names on those boxes and inside the Orders of Service now being read or waved by attendees from all across the county. While we are waiting, the Director of Music ascends the pulpit and schools the throng in some of the music and choruses they will be hearing—and the shy audience fidgets but acquits itself well.

At 11.10 it begins, with the superbly-vestmented Canon meeting some of the representatives of Anglican reason who are also links with the pre-Conquest see of Dorchester—officials from the Oxford colleges of Brasenose and Lincoln, plus a representative of Bishop Grosseteste University. These are followed by more vestmented and surpliced functionaries whose functions are more or less obscure to everyone except, presumably, themselves and experts in ecclesiastical organization—vergers, dean’s vergers, readers, visiting readers, sub-deans, canonici emeriti, suffragan bishops. These doubtless essential appointees augur the arrival of the representatives of the temporal powers—the Chairman of Lincolnshire County Council, the Mayor of Lincoln and attendants bearing the civic regalia, Her Majesty’s Judges in robes and horsehair perukes, the High Sheriff of Lincolnshire and Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Lincolnshire. These sit and look about them and converse sotto voce, awed almost against their will by the place and the rareness of the rite. It occurs to me that the High Sheriff’s role—the oldest secular office in the realm after the Crown—once involved the imposition of the King’s Peace, and that the medieval predecessors of the kindly-looking man in the seventeenth century style blue velvet uniform with his sword, cocked hat and lace jabot were once tasked with ensuring that court sentences were carried out—including mutilations and mass hangings. When I voice this tasteless thought to my bird-like neighbour with the pearl choker and Remembrance Day poppy, our previously pleasant conversation falters and never quite recovers.

Musicians parade, preceded by the Bedel—a satisfactorily stern-looking tall man with a black beard carrying a staff even taller—lines and lines of chanters, chantresses and choristers, choral scholars and lay vicars, more vergers and readers, a priest-vicar, the heads of private and grammar schools connected to the Cathedral. The redolent roll-call continues in earnest, as the transepts disgorge endless gorgeously-attired celebrants, increasing in seniority and sumptuousness as they come on like a High Church high tide—canons’ verger, the Chapter Cross, the Clericus Fabricae, Deacons of the Rite, prebendaries, registrars, chancellors, archdeacons, the Bishops of Grimsby and Grantham, the Canterbury Vesturer, the Precentor and the Dean. The processors seem transfigured by the simple expedient of wearing robes which brush the nave pavement as they move in precedence set down centuries before, a few beaming but most looking very serious as they flow down the centre aisle towards the choir, clasping orders of service in their impeccable hands. It is a divinely-inspired display of dry-cleaning—albs, cassocks, surplices, stoles, copes, dalmatics, chasubles, embroideries of Hugh’s swan depending from the sleek necks of the canons and mitres crowning the minor bishops. The Dean speaks at last: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and the audience rumbles “Amen”, a deep and grateful sound that expands to fill even that gorgeous void.

Liturgical pedants would doubtless find fault with every aspect of what ensues, but the audience seems engaged as the legal officials read out and approve Rowan Williams’ Mandate, their wigs nodding as they approach and retreat in gowns and buckled shoes (I cannot help thinking of the Munchkins welcoming Dorothy to the Land of Oz). The parchmented preliminaries satisfactorily completed, the expectation builds very suddenly as there is a fanfare of trumpets and the organ rolls into powerful life, while we sing out lustily:

Glorious things of thee are spoken,

Sion, city of our God;

He whose word cannot be broken

Formed thee for his own abode:

On the Rock of Ages founded,

What can shake thy sure repose?

As the hymn echoes itself away into the resounding drum of the building, fading around the spandrels and corbels, there come three loud blows and everyone turns around to look. Thud. Thud. Thud. The Great West Doors are thrown open dramatically, to reveal the impressive image of the new Bishop silhouetted by sunlight, advancing into a venerable place to take up an ancient office, wrapped in an aura of the otherworld as well as all the trappings of state. “In the name of the Lord we greet you” we say together on the Dean’s cue, and many of the people present are not just being polite. The advent of the Bishop is like the start of a new chapter in a long and much-loved book, and while he kneels to pray the choir sings a Bruckner motet

Locus iste a Deo factus est,

aestimabile sacramentum,

irreprehensibilis est

On call-and-response cue, we answer the Archdeacon of Stow and Lindsey (a title from legend as well as the landscape), to assure him that we turn to Christ, we repent of our sins, we renounce evil and we believe and trust in God the father—our voices rising and falling, rising and falling again in solemn creed and cadence, while the grotesque carvings smirk down as if they know better.

The Bishop splashes water from Lincoln’s famous black marble Tournai font over his unworthy self and adjacent unworthy others, and we render an Englished Gloria in excelsis. And in that moment we all probably do wish “Peace to His people, peace on earth”—while many probably do hug themselves in the hope that the new Bishop somehow signifies new times, better times, a righting of wrongs and healing of ills.

Schoolchildren lisp through readings, their attractive trebles counterbalancing the earnest bathos of the New English Bible, and we sing a schoolgirlish song by one “D. Lundy (1944-1997)”

I know that you are very young but I will make you strong:

I’ll fill you with my word;

And you will travel through the land fulfilling my command

Which you have heard.

We are told that this is the word of the Lord, and we say Thanks be to Him—although we sense that the Word has been percolated through many different filters, and is still percolating. We are so grateful that we sing “Alleluia” severally.

At last the Enthronement, when the cathedra lives up to its name. The Bishop-Elect listens to the Declaration of Assent, which reminds him of all those historical compromises made by his predecessors—with its references to both the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” and the Thirty-Nine Articles. Then come the Oaths of Allegiance (to the Queen) and that of Due Obedience (to the Archbishop of Canterbury), whose order shows their relative importance. The Oath of Fidelity is followed by his procession to St Hugh’s Choir where he is inducted and installed at last in his cathedra. Although he is concealed from almost everyone’s view by masses of lovely masonry these sacred mysteries are beamed onto on the large TV screens placed at strategic points, while we sing, to a tune written for Westminster Abbey, a translation of a 7th century Latin text, Christ is made the sure foundation, with a powerful final stanza that sets out the Church’s stance on the great Trinitarian controversy:

Laud and honour to the Father,

Laud and honour to the Son,

Laud and honour to the Spirit,

Ever Three and ever One,

One in love and One in splendour

While unending ages run.

The Bishop is enthroned and the Anglican order is thereby reaffirmed—as is England itself. So the choir strikes up Te Deum Laudamus to a score by Haydn, while the Bishop exchanges the Peace with the College of Canons and clergy. A surprising number of the clergy—almost half—seem to be women, but they all look sexless and similar in their canonicals. I feel slightly sorry for Bishop Lowson, as he shakes hands and smiles at a seemingly never-ending line of clerics, a couple of whom (presumably Anglo-Catholics) kneel and kiss his signet ring in a medieval gesture of homage. I smile involuntarily at the comical conceit that maybe these similar-looking vicars really are all the same and that just out of camera shot the same tiny number of people are going round and round in circles to give the semblance of many.

The Bishop finishing at last, perhaps with incipient Handshaker’s Elbow, the episcopal entourage returns to the nave, while we sing “O Holy Spirit, Lord of grace” to a tune by Tallis. He ascends the pulpit to preach his first sermon, and I have a fleeting fantasy that he is going to stand there for a long silent moment and fix us all with staring eyes before telling us that he would spend that night fasting in a stone cell and striving to pierce the veils of the universe to see the face of God. But no—in fact, he is going to watch Strictly Come Dancing, and he has already selected the trainee terpsichorean whom he wanted to see win. The folksiness is so folksy and the metaphor so strained that I cannot be the only person who winces and loses track of what the rest of the sermon is about. This is less Church of England than Church of Empty, and I feel sorry that the Bishop, doubtless a decent man, could not have come up with something more substantive. The Order of Service reads “After the sermon silence is kept for a few moments”, and so it is, but maybe not for the right reasons.

Prayers of intercession intercede—as children from the “BeAttitude project”, Methodist ministers and Air Vice-Marshals come one by one to the mike, each pious hope followed by the prayer’s “Lord in your mercy” to which we all chorus “Hear our prayer”. The Lord-Lieutenant moves to the front to formally welcome the Bishop to the county, the Mayor of Lincoln welcomes him to the city, and he is welcomed by the parishes and the diocesan staff. Then there are those ostensibly acting on behalf of less substantial corporate bodies—“ecumenical representatives”, “interfaith representatives” and “young people”—very few of whose members appear to have turned up in person.

We exchange the still controversial “sign of peace” with those nearby—it seems strange that this harmless-seeming idea of handshakes between congregants should have attracted such angry opposition. The bread and wine are brought forward to be prepared at the communion table, a collection is taken, to the choir singing Let all mortal flesh

Let all mortal flesh keep silence and stand with fear and trembling, and lift itself above all earthly thought. For the king of kings and Lord or Lords, Christ our God, to be our oblation and to be given for Food to the faithful. Before him come the choirs of angels with every principality and power; the Cherubim with many eyes, and winged Seraphim, who veil their faces as they shout exultingly the hymn: Alleluia.

I wonder idly why exactly the winged Seraphim would veil their faces as they shout exultingly. But the Bishop is in full flow—

…he sent out his apostles and evangelists to preach the gospel to all nations and lead us in the way of truth…he founded his Church upon the apostles firmly to stand for ever…Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.

As he utters the last phrase, I am briefly transported back to that small and ugly Victorian church in south suburban Dublin where I endured Sundays as a boy, staring with bored incomprehension at the hideous 1890 glass showing a smiling Christ above those same words, and wondering what it was I should do, and why I should do it—tuning out the words, thinking mostly of trees to be climbed and a stream full of sticklebacks just a few hundred yards beyond the grey churchyard wall and these tedious tortures.

When the blood of the new covenant is finally absorbed by everyone, to music we aver our unwavering belief that “Christ is died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again”. Then the Bishop leads in The Lord’s Prayer, prefixing it frankly unbelievably with the words “As our Saviour taught us, so we pray”—unbelievably, because the words of this have changed even in my 47 years, and my wife and I (and others) find ourselves speaking rather different words in a similar sounding metre. Gone is “who art”—“thy” has become “your”—“this day “ is “today”—“trespasses” has become “sins”. I rue the sacrifice of the poetry as I stand waiting for my turn to eat the bread (gluten-free available) and drink the wine proffered by a female server so short and rotund that I cannot bend down far enough to actually ingest any liquid. But unable as I am to believe in the doctrine of the Real Presence, the whole thing is in any case a shadow of a symbol—a symbol of shared allegiance and identity. It is the ancient principle of sympathetic magic—by eating Jesus, we become a little like Him, as African tribesmen seek to become like lions by eating lions’ hearts.

The identity and ideal of England return after Communion, but only to be dismissed as we sing new, inferior words to the tune of Jerusalem—“Forth in the peace of Christ we go”. Blake was a madman, but he was an infinitely greater poet than either “J. Quinn SJ (b.1919)” or “J. Davies (b.1946)”, co-creators of this travesty of one of England’s great anthems.

And then it is The Dismissal with a capital D, as Bishop Lowson receives his crozier from his Chaplain, assures the Houses of Clergy and Laity that he will serve God’s people in this place, listens as his Grimsby and Grantham suffragans pray for everyone from “the truth” to “those who work in the health service”, then intones together with Grimsby and Grantham the hope that they might all find a voice to sing your praise. The procession returns to the Crossing to Stanford’s setting of Psalm 119 (“Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord”).

Everyone is standing, and the Bishop tells us of a city with eternal foundations prepared for us where there will be eternal and triumphant joy—and in these surroundings I cannot help thinking that this city might look a little like Lincoln, and that eternal and triumphant joy would get on my nerves quite quickly. But now the Deacon instructs me and all those others to “Go in the peace of Christ” and we answer “Thanks be to God”, before the fantastical procession starts to wind its way back down the nave towards the Great West Door—eventually back out of the recently hallowed space back into Vanity Fair, to the flash of tourists’ cameras, thrilled to have seen a segment of that rich English life they read about in their guidebooks, a great occasion of European state to relate to kin in Kansas or Kyoto.

We nod and smile goodbye to our late neighbours and co-pilgrims as everyone rustles and roots for coats or their lunches from beneath their seats. The Order of Service tells us we can eat in the Cathedral once the Bishop’s procession has left, but to us that seems in poor taste, so we take the boxes outside and around the corner to sit on a low wall in the Close. We eat local food and drink fizzy water while we look up at the wonderful walls of the Cathedral, talking over what we have seen and marvelling that, even now, and after everything that has happened, such sights can still be seen in England.

This article was originally published in November 2011

 

 

 

William (Brown) the conqueror

WILLIAM (BROWN) THE CONQUEROR

British children’s writers usually find favour in America—from A. A. Milne and Kenneth Grahame to J. K. Rowling and Nick Park—but one who has never quite captured American hearts is Richmal Crompton, author of the classic Just William stories.

Why this should be is unclear, because at their best the stories combine the period charm of The Wind in the Willows with the mischievousness of Roald Dahl and the wit of Wodehouse—while her hero has been likened (admittedly not entirely convincingly) to both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The 11-year-old likeable scapegrace William Brown is an imaginative institution in England and in many other countries; the Sunday Times said of the stories that they are “probably the funniest, toughest children’s books ever written”. Yet for some reason Hollywood has not come calling—although perhaps this is just as well (1).

As well as telling delightful tales, Crompton incidentally charts revolutionary changes in British life from the time the first story appeared in 1919 until the author’s death in 1969, as seen through William’s half-wise, half-innocent eyes. Although the stories should be read for their own sake rather than any philosophical content, they have therefore also attracted considerable interest from cultural historians, and occasionally even controversy.

Richmal Crompton

Richmal Crompton Lamburn was born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1890, the daughter of a schoolmaster of Anglican and Liberal views. She had an older sister, Mary, and a younger brother, John, and some of William’s exploits would be based on her memories of John’s youth.

She won a scholarship to London’s Royal Holloway College, from which she graduated in 1914 with a BA in Classics. She taught Classics in Cheshire before relocating to Bromley High School on the southern edge of London in 1917. She beguiled her leisure time by writing, and the first William story appeared in Home Magazine in 1919, illustrated by Thomas Henry, who was to illustrate the stories until his death in 1962 (he died whilst working on a William picture). Henry’s perfectly-judged drawings have helped to define William as much as E. H. Shephard’s drawings fixed the public visualization of Winnie the Pooh.

The supposedly ephemeral stories swiftly overshadowed what Crompton always regarded as her serious work—40 novels and collections of short stories aimed solely at an adult audience, now virtually forgotten, while William eventually ran to 38 books (one posthumous) and still sells millions of copies worldwide, not to mention numerous TV and radio adaptations. (2) Yet although the stories are ostensibly written for children, they are perhaps best savoured by adults who can appreciate the author’s recondite references and “unsystematic satire” (3).

She was able to retire from teaching, which was fortunate because after 1923 she went down with polio, eventually losing the use of her right leg. Despite this, she led an active life, getting around in a specially adapted car and having all kinds of cultural and charitable interests (she was a noted campaigner for paralyzed children). She never married and died much mourned.

Her fictive force of nature is a middle-class 11-year-old living in a village between the fictional towns of Marleigh and Hadley, the location of which is a subject of agreeable but fruitless debate amongst keen Cromptonians. William’s village is clearly an amalgam of southern English Erewhons. In 1962, Crompton wrote

The village in which William lives is entirely imaginary…a small country village in Kent—or perhaps Surrey or Sussex, within easy reach of London (4)

The earliest stories see William living with his parents and older brother and sister in a substantial Victorian or Edwardian villa, complete with library, morning-room, stables, cook, housemaid, and gardener. Later, the family is downsized by economic and social pressures and the domestic staff disappear, but the Browns always contrive to be comfortably off and stalwarts of community life.

Mr. Brown works in the City, and comes home every evening to sit aloofly reading newspapers and occasionally giving vent to unexpectedly vitriolic political reflections, such as “I tell you he’s bleeding the country to death. He ought to be hung for murder”. His outbursts contain a clever echo of his younger son’s purpler expostulations—and there are other occasional hints of a tacit understanding between the two that no-one else in the family can share. But most of the time, Mr. Brown is like a smoking volcano in the background of an ordered Italianate landscape—something to be tiptoed around, and which only comes to life at times of crisis—such as to pay some enraged neighbour for damage caused by his errant offspring.

By contrast, Mrs. Brown is not at all menacing; like most mothers she is the pivot of the household and the chief source of its respectability, stability, and comfort. Her chief roles are to darn socks and make excuses for William.

William’s sister Ethel is beautiful and always has a string of suitors—many of whom William irritates or frightens off, usually without meaning to or even while trying to ‘help’ them.

William’s older brother, the irascible and insecure Robert, is a mirror of the fashions and follies of every generation, from dancing the Charleston to toying with Bolshevism, and from experimental poetry to sports cars. He is always trying to find a girlfriend, and whenever he is making headway William usually ruins it—again often with the very best intentions. Like many 11-year-olds then and now, William regards girls as an utterly distinct (and generally inferior) species, and his lack of susceptibility can drive Robert to distraction. In “William the Intruder” (1922), Robert is telling his mother about his latest pash:

‘She’s different from everybody else in the world’, stammered Robert ecstatically. ‘You simply couldn’t describe her. No one could!

His mother continued to darn his socks and made no comment. Only William showed interest.

‘How’s she different from anyone else?’ he demanded. ‘Is she blind or lame or sumthin’?’

There is also a plethora of aunts and uncles, most of whom find William wholly antithetical to their preferred pastimes of crochet-work, church-going, and snoozing off their lunches in the library.

Beyond the constraints of the family circle lies a huge world full of colour and adventure. William owns a devoted mongrel called Jumble and he also leads the Outlaws—a close-knit gang of boys, Henry, Ginger, and Douglas, similar in background and tastes but with slightly paler personalities. Beyond the Outlaws there are manipulative or adoring girls, and many other children more or less in thrall to William’s abounding personality. Inevitably, he also has enemies—ranging from epicene, immaculate, golden-curled, lisping sneaks with names like Cuthbert, to rougher would-be Williams with whom he has to physically contend for mastery of the village space.

Then there is the adult world, whose roster of characters alters as the stories dash through the decades—flappers, spiritualists, vegetarians, painters, academics, aristocrats, teachers, ex-majors, vicars, spinsters, nouveau riche businessmen, beatniks, burglars, protest marchers, pop-stars—most of whom seem to William to lead dull lives full of pointless rules. In “William Below Stairs” (1922), he muses that when he is grown-up,

He’d have rooms full of squeaky balloons and trumpets in his house, anyway—and he’d keep caterpillars and white rats all over the place too—things they made such a fuss about in their old house—and he’d always go about in dirty boots, and he’d never brush his hair or wash.

He in turn exasperates most grown-ups, which is scarcely surprising, because through sheer joie de vivre he exacts a heavy toll on their possessions—trampling their flowerbeds, ruining their lawns, scrumping their apples, falling through their roofs, shooting arrows through their windows, eating their food, tormenting their cats (twice actually killing them), covering everything with dirt, ruining their sleep, and leading their children astray. Some have even worse experiences, such as Aunt Emily, a generously-proportioned woman who disturbs the whole household with her deafening snoring, who wakes from an afternoon nap to find her bedroom full of wide-eyed local children who have paid William to watch her sleep, below an ill-lettered label reading:

“Fat wild woman

Torking Natif

Landwidge.” (5)

He may be noisy, unkempt, destructive, dictatorial, aggressive, opinionated and indignant—but he is also good-hearted, chivalrous, imaginative, brave and generous and has a strong sense of natural justice. In 1962, Crompton said William had:

…the spirit of the inventor and pioneer…the stuff of which heroes are made…at the state of the savage—loyal to his tribe, ruthless to his foes, governed by mysterious taboos, an enemy of civilization and all its meaningless conventions…that threaten his liberty. (6)

William is always prone to nostalgie de la boue. He is fascinated by ne’er do wells, real or imagined; he longs to leap his bourgeois traces and embrace what he sees as freer modes of living—down and preferably dirty amongst the working classes, the poor, criminals, subversives and exotic foreigners. William’s fascination with what she calls “horrid, common, rough boys” is a source of exasperation and incomprehension to the supremely class-conscious Mrs. Brown. Asked by her who he wants to invite to his Christmas party, he scandalizes her by replying “I’d like the milkman” then “I’d like to have Fisty Green. He can whistle with his fingers in his mouth”. She almost wails in reply, “But he’s a butcher’s boy! You can’t have him!” He listens enraptured to the Cockney accents of London children visiting the village on a day trip—

He decided to adopt it permanently. He considered it infinitely more interesting than that used by his own circle. (7)

William also envies “savidges”. Watching an amateur-dramatic production of Christopher Columbus with the Indians, he looks yearningly at the blacked-up white boys playing the Indians—

“…how different—how rapturously different. Browned from head to foot—a lovely walnut brown. It made their eyes look queer and their teeth look queer. It set them in a world apart…he saw himself, browned from head to foot, brandishing some weapon and dancing on bare brown feet in a savage land.” (8)

Like most boys then and now, he has fantasies of super strength and global domination—fighting his way out of ambuscades against impossible odds, consigning cities or countries to destruction with an imperious wave, being “Dictator of England” (9) or “World Potentate” (10)—accepting the imaginary homage of imaginary masses as he imagines multitudinous “stachoos” of himself.

Crompton is sometimes likened to the equally unsentimental “Saki” (Hector Hugh Munro, 1870-1916) whose short stories have been described as evoking “Pan beyond the drawing-room windows”. There is a similar quality in William. He may be fey, but he is safely fey. The solidity and stability of William’s background is the ideal backdrop to his adventures, which lampoon authority but never undermine it. He may be “Dauntless Dick of the Bloody Hand” out in the fields and woods, but every evening he is once again Master William Brown, subject to the iron dictates of what he calls contemptuously “Civilizashun”—obeying his parents, saying please and thank you, washing his face, wearing his Eton suit, and being forced to go to school and Sunday school. William has a disdain for education, as he tells his reform-minded Uncle George:

When I was a boy, William, I loved my studies. I’m sure you love your studies, don’t you? Which do you love most?

“Me?” said William, “I love shootin’ and playin’ Red Indians.” (11)

He is aggrieved by the way his parents react to his school reports—

“I keep tryin’ to explain to them about that. What’s the good of us usin’ up all our brains at school so’s we’ll have none left when we’re grown up an’ have to earn our livings? I’d rather keep mine fresh by not usin’ it till I’m grown up an’ need it.” (12)

The other Outlaws are almost as unintellectual, with the partial exception of Henry who can always be relied upon to give informed opinions on even the most complicated subjects, such as History —

‘They were always killin’ people for one thing’ said Henry.

‘Who were?’

‘People.’

‘Why?’

‘They had to. How’d you think there’d ‘ve been any hist’ry if they hadn’t?’ (13)

Crompton was, remembered her friend Joan Braunholz, “a true-blue Tory…a temperamental Conservative” (14). She belonged to her local Conservative Association in Bromley—which was unimaginative enough to utilize the bestselling author solely to stuff envelopes with campaign ‘literature’. One cultural commentator has called Crompton “a species of conservative modernist” (15), while another has defined her outlook as “defending the private against the public and the individual against the demands of society and the state” (16).

Her conservatism is implicit but always apparent—in her High Anglicanism, pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature, ridicule of idealists, and belief in the necessity and durability of the class system. It was for this last reason that her books were removed from some libraries between the 1960s and 1980s by librarians trying, rather like Robert Brown, to be real and relevant. Today, the sensitivities more often surround race, with casual phrases like “rather more swarthy than the average boy” and “not an English cast of countenance” (17) causing consternation amongst the easily frightened.

Through William, Crompton constantly exposes the pomposity and hypocrisy of the complacenti. There are the advocates of “Higher Thought”, a coterie of sharp-chinned spinsters who hurriedly abandon their meeting when William’s cache of centipedes and spiders gets loose. Then there is the League of Perfect Love, ‘animal rights’ ignoramuses who have an instant change of heart when rats invade their living room (this 1935 story is rarely reprinted now, because it shows a rat-killing competition). There are the adopt-a-poor-family agitators who baulk at admitting the self-same poor into their own circles, or contributing financially towards these schemes (18). There is the teacher

…with a startling taste in socks and ties, whose ‘modern’ methods of teaching had left the minds of his pupils completely but not unpleasantly befogged.

Later, the same individual

…transferred his gifts and his person to a small but exclusive repertory company that specialized in performing ‘experimental’ drama to a limited audience of leftwing intellectuals” (19)

“William and the Protest Marchers” (1965) contains the egalitarian students of “Newlick University”, marching to demonstrate against “those moth-eaten old relics of antiquity” Oxford and Cambridge—only to give up their march and forego their principles as soon as they get hot and they find a place to get a drink without having to mix with what their leader calls “riff-raff”. In the same story, an animal rights lecturer gets pushed into a lily-pond by a pig whose saintliness he has just been extolling.

William always reflected what was going on in the wider world (his creator often reminded herself in her diaries to “be topical!”) and the 1930s accordingly saw William setting up his own paramilitary formation after seeing a Mosleyite demonstration (20). Like (presumably) many adult Mosleyites, the Outlaws are intoxicated by “the salutes, the shouting” and fashion themselves green armbands, whereupon William harangues the townspeople:

You’ve gotter have a dictator…you’ve all gotter to be Green shirts same as us…We’re goin’ to fight everyone that isn’t…We’re goin’ to fight everyone in the world…We’re going to conquer the world…We’re goin’ to be dictators over the world.

This address and the subsequent clashes with a blue shirted gang over which will have the largest “col’ny” with the most doughnuts is a brilliantly funny commentary on contemporary Europe, already self-immolating at the hands of much less excusable orators.

The 1934 story “William and the Nasties” is frequently singled out for criticism and indeed it does leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, to the extent that it is no longer included in collections. Yet it is congruent with the fantasy psychology and immature knowledge of boys of that age. The Outlaws are talking about the new “Nasty” regime in Germany:

“They rule all the country” said Henry “an’ make everyone do jus’ what they like an’ send them to prison if they don’t.”

“I’d be one of them if I was in that country’ said William.

“Jews are rich” explained Henry, “so they chase ‘em out and take all the stuff they leave behind. It’s a jolly good idea.”

“Ole Mr. Isaacs is a Jew” said Ginger. They stared at each other with sudden interest.

(Mr. Isaacs is the unfriendly owner of the sweetshop whom they suspect of giving them short-measures of bulls-eyes and “cokernut lumps”.)

There came to him [William] glorious visions of chasing Jew after Jew out of sweetshop after sweetshop and appropriating the precious spoils.

Henry explains the Nasties’ modus operandi

“They’ve got people called storm troops an’ when those Jews don’t run away they knock ‘em about till they do.

They plan to break into Mr. Isaacs’ shop, but as they are so doing, their basic decency rapidly reasserts itself:

A strange distaste for the adventure was creeping over the Outlaws.

They never attack Mr. Isaacs, obviously, and in fact inadvertently do him a favour which brings about friendly relations between them and him. A recent study (21) acknowledges that Crompton was “probably trying to make pro-Jewish points”, but concludes that the story was unusually clumsily constructed. The story is genuinely disturbing, as if something hideous had briefly broken the surface of the still pond of English life, to sink again almost immediately but leaving behind a shivery memory. Needless to say, when war does come, William “does his bit” to ‘help’—and in “William Takes Charge”, which appeared in May 1940, our hero’s ineptitude is an obvious swipe at Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous diplomacy.

William is essentially apolitical. Long before being a Fascist, he had also been the sole member of the junior branch of Reformed Bolsheviks. He had to form his own organization because Robert will not let him join the Bolshevik club to which the Outlaws’ older brothers belong. Once again, William’s oratory ridicules fringe folly—

All gotter be equal” he pronounced fiercely. “All gotter have lots of money. All ‘uman beings. That’s sense, isn’t it?… Well, then, someone ought to do somethin’!

And William does do somethin’; he and the other Outlaws expropriate the belongings of their older brothers, who in consequence have a change of heart. As Robert admits ruefully to his father,

It’s all right when you can get your share of other people’s things, but when other people can get their share of your things, then it’s different. (22)

In “William—The Bad” (1930), there is a mock election between the Outlaws. Standing as the communist candidate, Ginger sets out his stall,

Ladies an’ Gentlemen, Communism means havin’ a war against all the people that aren’t Communists an’ conquerin’ an’ killin’ them.

In “William, Prime Minister” (1929), Henry explains more lucidly than many real-life commentators the true nature of politics:

There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice, an’ there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves.

In a thousand such effortless-seeming asides, the wide-awake William and his chums unmask the pretensions not just of communism, but of all adult existence.

Yet howsoever revelatory about society, William is first and foremost the boy all boys wish they had been and whom all girls adore—and we like to read about his escapades because they conjure up the intoxicating essence of childhood. Through Crompton’s timeless thaumaturgy, with a laugh and a pang we suddenly remember the texture of youth—the energy, the curiosity, the visions, the passing loves and hatreds, the resentments and rapprochements, the fears and guilt, the first times and sudden insights, the wonder and the acceptance, the long imaginative journeys inside one’s head or across fields of sun-striped grasses on afternoons when reality seemed contingent and time appeared to have no end. Like William, we have all lived “crowded hours”—and thanks to his immemorial ebullience, even now we can recover our pasts for a time.

NOTES

1. According to the Summer 2011 edition of the Just William Society Magazine there have been three British films—Just William (1939), Just William’s Luck (1947) and William at the Circus (1948). Recordings are extremely rare

2. In her other novels, Crompton “sought to attack the cosy conventionalism of Victorian thought. Her novels are thronged with adultery, illegitimacy, divorce, suicide, child abuse, and homosexuality” (Classes, Cultures, and Politics, Essays on British History for Ross McKibbin, edited by Clare V. J. Griffiths, James J. Nott and William Whyte, 2011, Oxford: OUP). Ironically enough, Crompton’s brother John, the original inspiration for William, earned a reputation for ‘serious’ writing with his natural history works, especially 1948’s The Hunting Wasp, which was deservedly praised by John Betjeman, Harold Nicolson and others

3. Classes, Cultures, and Politics, op. cit.

4. “Meet William”, Collectors’ Digest Annual, 1962, cited by Mary Cadogan, in Richmal Crompton—The Woman Behind Just William, Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1986

5. “The Show”, 1922

6. “Meet William”, op. cit.

7.Not Much”, 1923

8. “The Native Protégé”, 1923

9. “William the Persian”, 1935

10. “A Present from William”, 1935

11. “William’s Hobby”, 1922

12. “William the Conspirator”, 1935

13. “William the Conspirator”, ibid.

14. Cited by Cadogan, op. cit.

15. Alison Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars, London and New York: Routledge, 1991

16. Classes, Cultures, and Politics, op. cit.

17. “The Native Protégé”, ibid.

18. “William—The Showman”, 1937

19. “William and the Holiday Task”, 1965

20. “What’s in a Name?”, 1938

21. Owen Dudley Edwards, British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War, Edinburgh University Press, 2007

22. “The Weak Spot”, 1924

 

The romance of the classical – on the Appian Way

THE ROMANCE OF THE CLASSICAL

To the heart of youth the world is a highwayside.
Passing for ever, he fares; and on either hand,
Deep in the gardens golden pavilions hide

R. L. Stevenson, Songs of Travel

No youth, but a man in his 40s bareheaded under merciless sun. Nor were there any golden pavilions anywhere in the whole baking expanse of Lazio. Yet standing on one of the most famous highways in the world on that torrid timeless afternoon, I felt I had all of history at my command.

I stood between tombs below cypresses, challenged by countless cicadas. Under the trees was a soft and fragrant carpet of dropped pine needles and divulged cones, and low tumbled walls over which there were wide views of panting fields and the sere stage-set of the Alban Hills. The heat-hazed black basalt stripe of the Appian Way extended before and behind, empty of movement yet echoing with phantasms and fantasies of countless ceased comings and goings, passing and re-passing for ever on expired errands.

I was staring southwards, the direction northern Europeans most like to look, down, down the spinal cord of Italy towards the unseen Mediterranean – that inland ocean of significant islands, storied coasts and once-tributary continents. Another few steps, and I felt I would cross a threshold, and be committed irrevocably to the journey.

Such a perfect prospect and such breathless moments had been vouchsafed to countless imperial adventurers, who exported and expended themselves in return for the world’s wealth – that traffic monitored, as I felt I was being monitored, by unsleeping ancestors in sarcophagi, hovering and whispering forever about the Way as if not even death could arrest their interest in imperial affairs. The compact between the quick and the dead was never more obvious than there, that Sunday, in that classical contrast between then and now, them and us, arrival and departure, anticipation and regret.

I had seen earlier an ancient inscription fixed into a later wall, a three-line fragment of an otherwise lost valediction cut in elegant three-inch capitals, flanked on the right by a downwards-pointed blazing torch to symbolize the flickering-out of life and the dissolution of a once-loved person:

…SE LE MEMBRA

…O SENZA FAMA

…N SI DISSOLVE

Broken as they were – because they were broken – the teasing words seemed to assume a larger size and a wider meaning, as if they had been written not about one person, but about the whole of the Way, the fabulous panorama of the Western Empire. Letters and lines lost, remains dismembered, names disremembered, dreams dissolved – again and again along this road which had carried soldiers, merchants, farmers, pleasure trippers, pilgrims, defeated Spartacists pinned up on crucifixes, and above all countless funeral processions of dictators, censors, senators, magistrates, priests, generals, old families and arrivistes lent respectability by ancientness. Here on “the queen of the long roads” the dead won’t stay quite dead, and the living are never fully awake. It’s pleasant to daydream about death when you’re on the Appian Way, and it may be inescapable on such a road on such a day when no-one else appears to be moving anywhere in Europe.

The early Christians buried their pre-departed outside the Aurelian Wall in accordance with Rome’s rules, with the huge undulating gecko-stalked fields I had seen earlier drum-like with semi-explored catacombs, successive burials cut counter-intuitively deeper into the soft tufa until the last interments of all were carried out at the bottom of towering trenches of tombs.

To those who believed, or even slightly believed, the idea of resting in proximity to Saint Cecilia and proto-popes, adjacent to the great road along which Peter had been taken in chains in AD 56 (purportedly the same chains displayed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli on the Esquiline a few miles to the north) was probably not such a frightening fate to those thereby assured of rising and reigning with the just. These huge and hollowed charnel-houses where so many unknowns have been waiting so long for translation are only faintly sad, as though some trace element of the hopes deposited here and the libations poured out for so many centuries at the shrines of saints had lodged in corners of the complex.

The Via Appia epitomizes the Empire’s evolution, emerging into history in 312 BC, a definite line leading out from the City and the tangled brambles of myth through magnificence to decline. Rome’s cultural catalogue calls across centuries to anyone even half-aware of being European – Aeneas escaping ruin, enigmatic Etruscans, twins suckled by wolves, tyrants tamed, bridges held, geese waking the guards, Gauls pulling the senator’s beard to discover if he were man or monument, brick becoming marble, the patient placing of ruler-straight roads across dizzying distances, eagles elevated and legions lost, empurpled eccentrics, king-makers and king-takers, provinces gambled in games, frontiers farmed out to mercenaries, and that final shabby century, when Goths came unresisted from the north to mow the crop of the debased citizenry – irrupting in at the Salarian Gate, opened by slaves who thought it was time they were masters, as Roman civilization ebbed out for ever to the south – the saddest Appian Way funeral procession of all.

After the sometime imperial subject Alaric finally took Rome for his own in 410, St Augustine wrote The City of God to emphasize the vanity of even imperial earthly aspirations – infuriated, according to tradition, by meeting Roman refugees whose chief concern now they had apparently witnessed the end of days was not to entreat the vengeful Lord but merely to locate Hippo’s theatres. The catastrophe of the Caput Mundi has provided Europeans ever since with a majestic narrative on which to hang huge historiological theories and from which they can derive endless melancholic pleasure.

As if this were not a sufficiently large donation to history, the transplanted Roman sun rose brilliantly again and shone for 1,043 years in Constantinople, the bulwark on the Bosphorus protecting Europe from the thronging East. When Constantine made his lamentable, lion-hearted exit and the longed-for “Red Apple” dropped at last into the eager hands of the Turks, Europe shivered as if it were 410 all over again.

Europe’s fear for the future was admixed with increasing respect for the past now finally consigned to the recorders and the raconteurs, the dramaturges and dreamers who sought classic examples to help them comprehend their own ages. As one such romantic, the Norfolk squire Sir Thomas Browne, wrote in his Hydriotaphia, Urn-burial of 1658 after Roman cinerary urns were unearthed by workmen on his estate:

Run up your thoughts upon the ancient of days, the antiquary’s truest object, unto whom the eldest parcels are young, and earth itself an infant.

That is just what one cannot help doing on the Appian Way – thinking about what Browne called “the Nations of the dead,” and how short a distance there always is between times and things – glory and vainglory, triumph and defeat, youth and age, life and death and sometimes back again.

Dehydrated, dusty, dirty and with blistering feet – but with the whole waiting whispering Way and West seemingly to myself – I wanted never to stop walking.

 

Greens, reds and blues, and the extinction of distinction

GREENS, REDS, BLUES AND THE EXTINCTION OF DISTINCTION

Ka ngaro I te ngaro a te Moa (“We are lost as the moa is lost”)

Maori lament

There he kneels, the young, proud, ignorant farmer – posing smiling with his dog and gun, and the unusual-looking predator he has just killed propped up against the fence. It is lunchtime on 13 May 1930, in Mawbanna in north-western Tasmania, and Wilfred Batty has just made melancholy history. The dead lupine creature with the stripes is a thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus – “dog-headed pouched one”) actually a marsupial wolf but inevitably called a Tasmanian Tiger, and Batty was the last man in the world to have shot one in the wild.

Just six years later, the last thylacine died in Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo – of neglect, kept in the open at night and not fed properly. The animal exists now only virtually – in old drawings, in forlorn film footage of stressed animals in scruffy cages, as moth-eaten museum exhibits, supporters on Tasmania’s coat-of-arms, and as a leitmotif of loss, still occasionally reported by incorrigible romantics from Tasmania’s obscurest thickets. Last year, it became the subject of The Hunter, an ecological parable starring Willem Dafoe based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Julia Leigh.

Humans sweeping south from Asia had wiped out the mainland’s marsupial wolves and almost all of Australia’s other large animals thousands of years earlier, by dint of hunting, burning of habitat and the importation of wild dogs – Australia’s famous dingoes. The dingoes never got to Tasmania, and the Aborigine population of a few thousand had had little impact, so the island became a redoubt of species which could no longer compete elsewhere, protected by the 150 dangerous miles of the Bass Strait. But the thylacine’s death-knell was sounded by the arrival in the early 19th century of dynamic Europeans with firearms, who placed a bounty on the animal, whose pelts they coveted and which they blamed (almost certainly exaggeratedly) for killing sheep. It is speculated that the campaign against the thylacine coincided with a species-specific virus (of the kind now decimating the Tasmanian Devil) which helped push it over the edge into oblivion.

An earlier casualty of European expansion had been the Tasmanian sub-species of emu, two specimens of which died in the collection of the Empress Josephine in Paris in 1822, almost certainly the last of their kind, the former titans reduced to exhibits in a raree-show. The emus’ and thylacines’ tales in some ways parallel that of Tasmania’s Aborigines, who similarly came sharply up against a severely practical modernity in which the most important things were ‘progress’ and profit. While controversy continues about the nature and extent of the Black War between indigenes and incomers, it is undoubtedly poignant to see images of Fanny Cochrane Smith, the last fluent speaker of any Tasmanian Aborigine language (wax cylinder recordings of her singing tribal chants survive) – or of Trugannini, usually accepted to have been the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigine. Now, they have died out or been absorbed as surely as the Celtic Guanches of the Canary Islands, like the Sioux as insubstantial as the wind in the grass.

Trugannini

The dodo, too, was trapped by geography, confined to Mauritius, a hitherto remote island that unluckily became a convenient replenishment station for passing mariners after the first Dutch sailors landed in 1598, blown off course en route to the East Indies. Sailors constrained to live for months on weevil-infested biscuit and rotten meat encountered on the previously predator-less island a giant, flightless bird with so little insight into human iniquity that it would wait to allow itself to be clubbed to death. The bird’s flesh was oily, chewy and unpleasant-flavoured apart from the breast-meat, and it was quickly nicknamed walghvogel (“nauseating bird”) and then doedaars (“fat-arse”) from which the present name is probably derived. The meat was so bad that it was often basted in the oil of giant tortoises, which helped push the outsize chelonians into extinction (the only surviving Indian Ocean giant tortoises are those originating from the atoll of Aldabra, north of Madagascar, and even they have had several narrow escapes). This combination of vulnerability and indigestibility makes the dodo’s extermination all the more pitiful, but exterminated it was before the end of the 17th century, battened upon by introduced cats, rats, pigs and monkeys, beaten and grudgingly eaten by men who probably did not know how limited the dodo’s range was, and probably would not have cared even if they had.

Unlike the thylacine, the dodo attracted early affectionate interest from intellectuals like Sir Thomas Herbert, who left one of the most detailed descriptions of the bird in life:

. . . the Dodo, which for shape and rareness may antagonize the Phoenix of Arabia: her body is round and fat, few weigh less than fifty pounds. It is reputed more for wonder than for food…Her visage darts forth melancholy . . .

As early as the 1630s, another Englishman, Peter Mundy, who had hoped to see dodos, recorded disappointedly that “we Mett with none”, and by the time a German sailor named Volkert Iversen was shipwrecked in 1662, the bird was making an ungainly last stand on a few offshore islets. Even then, it acted against its own evolutionary interests, as recorded by Iversen –

One party of us would chase them so that they ran towards the other party, who then grabbed them. When we had one tightly gripped around the leg it would cry out, then the others would come to its aid and be caught as well.

Iversen was the last man to see a living dodo and record the fact, another unwitting witness to extinction, and after this even the memory of the dodo almost disappeared. A stuffed specimen kept by the 17th century antiquary Elias Ashmole (founder of the Ashmolean in Oxford) was thrown away by an over-zealous curator in 1755, except for the head and one foot. There were other pitiful scattered scraps – a foot in London, parts of a head in Copenhagen, parts of another head in Prague. A few museums claimed to possess stuffed specimens, but they were inaccurate fakes of plaster, wire and chicken feathers. It was not until 1865 that the first complete dodo skeletons were discovered on Mauritius (by now, over 50 have been found, all mysteriously at this single site, just two miles from today’s airport) which allowed a clearer understanding of its physiology, and not until 2000 that DNA taken from the beak in Oxford allowed definitive classification of the dodo as a member of the pigeon family (Columbiformes). The bird features in many stories, notably Alice in Wonderland, and has entered the language as the saddest of all similes.

Rodrigues Solitaire

Ten other species of bird have become extinct on Mauritius since the 17th century, and nine on the equally isolated Rodrigues Island, including the dodo-like Rodrigues Solitary. A Huguenot named Francois Leguat who was marooned on Rodrigues between 1691 and 1693 developed a great liking for these cousins to the dodo –

They walk with such stately form and good grace that one cannot help admiring and loving them.

He drew the best-known pictures of the “Solitary Bird”, including a charming map published in 1708, showing the birds stalking proprietarily through their soon-to-be- devastated domain of low hills and scattered trees.

Much less likeable than Leguat were the three Icelandic fishermen, Jón Brandsson, Sigurör Islefsson and Ketil Ketilsson, who landed on the tiny rock of Eldey off southwestern Iceland on 3 June 1844, commissioned by a dealer to obtain specimens of Great Auks, which they were aware were exceedingly rare.

The Great Auk (also called a garefowl, derived from the Icelandic geirfugl, “spear-billed bird”) was a flightless seabird, like the razorbill in appearance but much larger, clumsy on land but graceful and powerful when pursuing fish underwater. It had a huge range from the British Isles to Newfoundland, and they were the original penguins – the word deriving from the Welsh pen gwyn (“white head”), and only later transferred to the similar-looking birds of the southern hemisphere. Apart from being flightless, the Auk also had the disadvantage of laying abstractly beautiful eggs of yellow and black calligraphic squiggles, which were always laid in a tiny number of traditional colonies, the last known of which was Eldey:

As the men clambered up they saw two garefowl…and immediately gave chase. The garefowl showed not the slightest disposition to repel the invaders, but immediately ran along under the high cliff, their heads erect, their wings somewhat extended.

The frantically fleeing birds were running not only for their lives, but for the existence of their race. Inevitably, they were captured and strangled, and someone stood on their solitary egg during the chase. There were spasmodic later sightings, the last reliable one off Newfoundland in 1852, but the Eldey birds were probably the last auks killed by men.

The executioners of Eldey were less excusable than the three men from St. Kilda who in 1840 had captured an auk (the last recorded from British waters) and kept it for three days before beating it to death with a stick during a storm, believing it to be a witch. The bird later featured in stories by writers as diverse as James Joyce (Ulysses), Anatole France (Penguin Island), Charles Kingsley (The Water Babies) and Enid Blyton (The Island of Adventure), and is also pleasantly evoked by still-extant relatives like the little auk and razorbill.

Birds seem especially vulnerable to being extirpated, and there is something particularly mournful about their vanishing – perhaps because they remind us of the fleeting nature of our own lives, as they reminded Bede:

The present life of men upon earth is like the flight of a single sparrow through the hall where, in winter, you sit with your captains and ministers. Entering at one door and leaving by another, while it is inside it is untouched by the wintry storm; but this brief interval of calm is over in a moment, and it returns to the winter whence it came, vanishing from your sight.

It does not matter if the bird is an isolated oddity like the dodo, or a prolific species like the passenger pigeon – which may once have been the world’s commonest bird. An 18th century Pennsylvania observer named Pehr Kalm recalled,

In the spring of 1749, on the 11th, 12th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 22nd of March…there came from the north an incredible multitude of these pigeons to Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Their number, while in flight, extended three or four English miles in length, and more than one such mile in breadth, and they flew so closely together that the sky and sun were obscured by them.

He records tree branches as thick as a human thigh being snapped by the sheer weight of perching birds “piled up on one another’s backs, quite about a yard high”, and smaller trees collapsing completely.

Audubon records an 1830s flock that took three days to pass overhead, the spectacle made all the more impressive by the birds’ speed, estimated as up to 60 miles per hour. He also records a shoot below a roost in Kentucky when the rush and flutter of the birds and the sound of the branches they broke actually drowned out the sound of the guns.

On such occasions, tens or even hundreds of thousands of birds would be taken, and this slaughter went on for decade after decade. Even this super-abundant animal could not cope with such unremitting massacre, and by the 1890s they were rarely seen. In 1900, a 14 year old Ohio farm boy called Press Clay Southworth joined the ranks of evolution’s exterminating angels when he saw the last recorded wild bird, and naturally shot it. A few birds lingered on in captivity, and Martha, the last representative of her species, died at an advanced age in Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914, sometime between midday and one PM. Her sad, stuffed carcass is on display at the Smithsonian in Washington. In his magisterial 1987 book Extinct Birds, Errol Fuller cites a sad passage from Audubon, referring to the pigeon in life:

When an individual is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone.

The litany of loss drones on depressingly, from all parts of the world. The world is infinitely poorer for being without the Marquesas Fruit Pigeon, the Mysterious Starling, the Laughing Owl, the Lord Howe Swamphen, the Korean Crested Shelduck, the Carolina Parakeet, the Cuban Red Macaw, the Eskimo Curlew, the Jamaica Least Pauraqué, the broad-faced potoroo, the pig-footed bandicoot, the Quagga, the Steller’s Sea Cow, and the Stephen’s Island Wren. The last-named, which was confined to a tiny island off New Zealand, has the distinction of being the only species both discovered and destroyed by a single animal, a lighthouse-keeper’s cat.

Britain is likewise less interesting for being without such historically present species as the great bustard, crane, elk, beaver, wild boar and wolf – although it is pleasing to record that the great bustard, crane, elk and beaver are being deliberately reintroduced, and the wild boar has reintroduced itself by escaping from farms, and is now reappearing in places it last snuffled through in the 17th century (James I hunted boar in Windsor Great Park in 1617, and there were reports from Staffordshire as late as 1683).

Few are yet seriously advocating the reintroduction of the wolf, even though it lingered in Yorkshire and Lancashire until the end of the 15th century, in Scotland until 1743 and in Ireland until 1766 – but it would be possible for people to co-exist with a small wolf population, and for government to institute a proper compensation programme for anyone adversely affected. The relatively small amounts of money involved would be well-spent in order to re-magic the too-long too-tame countryside. As the early ecologist Sir Harry Johnston observed good-humouredly in his 1903 British Mammals:

Its presence in Epping Forest, in the New Forest, and in other great domains increasingly affected by pleasure parties, would greatly add to their romantic interest, and at the same time might wholesomely check the gambols of the beanfeaster and his mate without subjecting them to any worse punishment than a scare.

Johnston was being waggish (and slightly snobbish), but there is undoubtedly an awe-inspiring quality about seeing an endangered animal up close for the first time, whether an outlandishly-sized crane flying unexpectedly overhead, a bittern dashing up from reeds a few feet in front, or even a jealously-guarded relict population like the unique White Cattle of Chillingham.

There has long been a lazy assumption that Europeans are uniquely environmentally destructive. This conceit goes back at least as far the 18th century idea of the ‘noble savage’, a purported paragon living ‘in harmony with nature’ – an idea which shares similarities with Virgilian eclogues and the Eden myth, and may therefore reflect a perennial human ideal. European culture is filled with wistfulness for wildness – Green Man carvings in churches, folk-tales of wodewoses, medieval bestiaries, the urbanite’s ideal country cottage, ‘cryptozoological’ tales of unknown animals, and of course deep ecology. The rise and spread of the Western model of civilization has long run in tandem with a keen nostalgia for that civilization’s collateral damage.

However, greed, laziness and shortsightedness are sadly omnipresent in all cultures – whether Aborigines wiping out Australia’s large mammals, Siberian tribesmen helping to destroy the mammoth, Africans slashing-and-burning, Polynesians deforesting Easter Island, or Maoris destroying New Zealand’s last moas some time between the 17th and 19th centuries (1). If Europeans have been disproportionately destructive during the course of the last four centuries, it was only because their advanced technology gave them extra opportunities to be so.

In any case, Europeans and those descended from Europeans are now disproportionately responsible for all of today’s conservation efforts. A good contemporary example is Swedish-French film-maker Patrick Rouxel, who has just released a harrowing film documenting the wholesale destruction of the forests of Sumatra by agri-business, even in supposedly protected national parks. His film focuses on the fate of a female orang-utan, “Green”, found clinging forlornly to her tree as all about her all the other trees are felled, eventually falling hurt to the ground and being taken away by kindly campaigners, only to die helplessly on a mattress in a hut, paralysed, puzzled and petrified with fear. (Apparently, some 70% of Indonesia’s forests have been destroyed since the 1950s by the timber, pulp, paper and palm oil industries.)

There is a certain kind of self-described conservative, especially in the Anglosphere, who views such events with equanimity. Many US Republicans, British Conservatives or Australian Liberals take the view that animal extinctions and habitat loss are regrettable, but they are unimportant when set against economic growth. Many on this wing of conservatism side almost automatically with big business without apparently considering that big business is a blind, homogenizing force whose alliance with conservatism is purely tactical. To them, the environment is a mere economic resource, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with drilling for oil in Alaskan wildernesses, factory fishing in the Antarctic, or harmful pesticides in the English countryside. These “Cornucopians” assume rather rashly that economic activities will be carried on responsibly, and that if there are problems they can be solved through human ingenuity.

There is a feeling among some Conservatives that ‘the market is always right’ – but this implies that the majority of people are always right, whereas of course in truth they are only right sometimes. When it comes to the environment, most people opt for whatever is easiest and cheapest – the lowest food prices, the lowest energy bills, the least inconvenience – and they are frankly wrong to do so. But who will tell them so, in such terms?

Everything has to be rational and useful and there is little room for abstract notions like beauty, or distinctiveness. Many post-1980s Conservatives and Republicans view environmental protection as an expensive luxury, a form of sentimentality at odds with their particular interpretation of Darwinian logic. The erstwhile Tory ‘squirearchy’ had a real understanding of the countryside, and many were instinctive Greens who supported organic farming, local produce and community cohesion, and preserved huge areas of habitat for pleasure or hunting purposes that would otherwise have been lost to the plough and pesticides. The new Tories, who were largely self-made, did not have this kind of connection, and were easily persuaded that Greens were all, to use the clichés, vaguely communist ‘tree-huggers’, hippies who (to cite Ronald Reagan) “looked like Tarzan and smelled like Cheetah”. This is still a common view, in a movement whose sole rightmost points of reference are too often Reagan, Thatcher and Rand. Some conservatives also take pleasure in provoking the ecological Left – a particularly unfortunate example from last year was when Italian Lega Nord activists held a widely-publicised bear banquet, further endangering a threatened species while reinforcing stereotypes of the Right as crass Philistines. Similar boors probably applauded Wilfred Batty’s ‘enlightened self-interest’.

Yet modern Greens also tend towards utilitarianism, and there is little suggestion of beauty, poetry or even enjoyment in today’s grim Greenery. Among Green activists, there seems to be none of the wide-eyed wonder that one finds in the writings of the great observers of nature – the Leeuwenhoeks, Darwins, Audubons, Fabres, Maeterlincks, Peatties, Cromptons and Durrells – no interest in making nature interesting. For them, the environment is just a ‘resource’, and even the central mysteries of life – like the spontaneous streaming of protoplasm first noted by Robert Brown – are ‘explained’ away boringly as chemical reactions. The nearest they come to mysticism is ‘New Age’ (now in fact rather old-fashioned) nonsense about aromatherapy, ‘healing crystals’ or ‘drumming workshops’. The Nature worshipped by the Greens has been suburbanized, and is fenced around with tedious preoccupations which have no parallels in the natural world – pacifism, egalitarianism, ‘anti-racism’, sexual equality, and yet others. With the downfall of socialism, many former Marxists metamorphosed into Greens (the French MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit is an egregious example) and have taken into that movement their humourlessness, intolerance of dissent and apparent dislike of local diversity. This is ironic, because the leftist dictatorships they used to support have caused – and in the case of China are still causing – incalculable environmental damage, from Chernobyl to the recent, inexcusable elimination of the legendary Yangtze River Dolphin.

The early history of British ecology contains embarrassing horrors for left-leaning Greens, with formative figures like Jorian Jenks and Henry Williamson effectively excised from the polite record. More recently, even conservatives have been marginalized, including some who have made much more considerable contributions than anything proffered to date by Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Edward Goldsmith was a co-founder of the Ecology Party, forerunner to the Green Party – but he was also inexcusably elitist and an admirer of Alain de Benoist. His younger brother James wrote The Trap, often regarded as an environmental classic, and campaigned against genetically modified organisms, but he was also a British nationalist (his son Zac is a Conservative MP, and probably that party’s best-known environmentalist). Their friend John Aspinall devoted much of his life and fortune to wild animals, but he was also opposed to the ANC and to mass immigration. The likes of John Betjeman are never acknowledged as proto-Greens despite dedicating their lives to opposing ugly urbanization, and making powerful broadsides against organic farming, a fact noted ruefully by the extraordinary David Fleming, author of Lean Logic.

Nor do Green activists feel comfortable about Prince Charles, Robin Page or Roger Scruton. Whereas for Charles “the environment” encompasses traditionalism, human-scale living and aesthetic attractiveness as much as ecological sustainability, many Greens seem to be republicans who feel that tradition is superstition, beauty is ‘classist’, and any kind of (Western) particularism is morally dubious. The Greens have always recoiled in fastidious horror from the pro-fox hunting Countryside Alliance, although it is a genuine grassroots movement made up of huge numbers of real country people. Little wonder then that they dislike Robin Page, who wrote a book analysing The Hunting Gene. Similarly, they disapprove of Roger Scruton, even though he has tried hard to reach out to fair-minded Greens, most recently with Green Philosophy; they find his notion of trying to harness local and national patriotism (which he calls “oikophilia”) simultaneously unconvincing and ominous. Even non-conservatives like James Lovelock, who dreamed up the hugely influential Gaia hypothesis, have been marginalized – in his case simply because he feels nuclear power is necessary if catastrophic climate change is to be minimized.

The generally ‘leftwing’ character of the Green movement (a rare exception is The Ecologist, founded by Edward Goldsmith) in turn deters huge numbers of potential supporters, and ensures their political base will remain confined to a small number of affluent urban constituencies. Ecologists will never be able to extend their reach and ‘save the planet’ unless conservatives and communitarians can somehow coalesce to tackle common problems – including that most urgent and divisive of all, global, specifically Third World, overpopulation (2).

The losers in this unsatisfactory political equation are of course hunted, haunted beasts like the orang-utan “Green” and hundreds of thousands of others, some species of which we may lose even before we have met them, as their homes are logged, drained, burned, built on, grazed, poisoned and homogenized. If we cannot build a comprehensive ecological movement that borrows from both old left and old right, very soon some of our most familiar animals could be confined to zoos or might even have become avoidably extinct. We may live to see a day when tigers, leopards, giraffes, gorillas, vultures or whales are as fascinatingly forlorn as the thylacine, dodo and passenger pigeon, or the rhinoceros remains once unearthed at Charing Cross – mementos of our own mortality, reproachful reminders of a rich world we are still ruining.

NOTES

1. Some ‘cryptozoologists’ speculate enticingly that a few moas may linger in the deep forests of South Island – but these enthusiasts too often also believe in the Loch Ness Monster, big cats on Dartmoor, the Mothman of North Carolina, the Cannock Chase Bigfoot and the Beast of the Bray Road. But sometimes animals long dismissed as legend really do exist – like the gorilla or the Okapi – while some thought vanished can sometimes be rediscovered, like the coelacanth or the takahé. At present, hope flickers for the “Grail bird” of American ornithology, the ivory-billed woodpecker, last definitely seen in 1944 and declared extinct. Then there was a new spate of unusually credible sightings in Louisiana in 2004 – although attempts to verify these sightings have failed. In January this year, there were reports that a Galapagos giant tortoise thought extinct still exists. Furthermore, new species are still being discovered (or differentiated), including large and spectacular mammals like the Vu Quang ox found in Vietnam in the 1990s

2. Jonathon Porritt is one of a very small number of mainstream ecologists prepared to look at this problem honestly – most seem reluctant to be seen to criticize Third World governments or populations – and has consequently been attacked by some on the Right for being ‘anti-family’

 

 

 

 

Roy Kerridge and the relative merits of Marxism

ROY KERRIDGE AND THE RELATIVE MERITS OF MARXISM

Triumphs of Communism, Roy Kerridge, Custom Books, 2010

All novels are semi-autobiographical, although novelists will often demur and claim their characters are composites. But Roy Kerridge is unapologetic about plucking real people from his family’s past and serving them up for public degustation, with only the most cursory of disguises to differentiate fiction from family tree. There are dangers in such brazen borrowing – first, that the author’s surviving family might not appreciate such a blaze of halogen into their antecessors – but so strong-minded a clan is presumably inured to public attention.

The second peril is that the ancestors held up for us to examine coolly and from all angles may not appeal to us. This would be immaterial if the book’s purposes were either confessionalism or character assassination, designed for bulk purchase by viewers of Oprah Winfrey. But laundry-washing is not the purpose of the self-published Triumphs, which bears all the Kerridge trademarks of keen observation plus kindliness, impishness but also intelligence and countervailing compassion. Even where the author does not agree with what his forebears did, which is more often than not, he wants us to understand why they did it.

Reviewing so personal a book is also risky for reviewers who have a high regard for the author; there is always the possibility that they will inadvertently offend the author by misreading or failing to appreciate some cherished ancestor. So permit me to place on record here that I regard Roy Kerridge as a brilliantly off-beat thinker, writer and folklorist, a latter-day John Betjeman who is also eminently civilized and clubbable. I concur fully with the Salisbury Review that Kerridge is “a worthy successor to Defoe, Cobbett or Priestley”, and with the much-missed Michael Wharton that Kerridge is a “genius”.

I feel the need to make these prefatory remarks because try as I might I could not bring myself to admire a single one of the author’s relations, at least as they are portrayed in Triumphs. Even those who manifestly meant well I found at best annoying. The essential problem for me is that they were all more or less Marxists, some of them prominent Bolsheviki – and for someone who has never been drawn to socialism such a multi-generational tic seems at best perverse.

By far the most sympathetic figures are Adolf Frankel and his daughter Thea. (The author’s ancestors on one side of his family are vaguely east European Jewish – Adolf turns to Marxism mostly out of his “inherited fear of pogroms”.) These two appear to have been utterly good-hearted and well- adjusted, with a genuine desire to help others and improve the world. Yet even these two relative paragons are guilty of shocking political naivety and, in the case of Adolf, the grossest hypocrisy – given the choice of living in Middlesex or Moscow, he opts to continue preaching the wonders of Marxism from a comfortable villa in Wembley. Other relatives are simply atrocious – whether as aides to Trotsky and Parvus Helphand or mere domestic tyrants, like Adolf’s wife Magda, who comes across as being utterly without redeeming features. The only good thing about these progenitors is that through some inexplicable alchemy of genes-plus-history-plus-culture-plus-reaction- against-his-parents there has somehow resulted the incomparable Roy Kerridge, a blinking, balding, diminutive, dishevelled dispatcher of dragons and celebrant of the irrelevant and outmoded.

Kerridge has written and drawn cartoons for many publications, writing on a bewildering array of subjects in a direct and sometimes even childlike style (the loathly word “tummies” makes an appearance in Triumphs, as does “Up tails and away! was the rabbits’ motto”) that masks mischief and astuteness. Thus the Webb siblings were “preposterous”; thus the unsatisfactory nature of leftwing history, “in which things happened for no reason because wars and kings had been excluded”; thus the selfishness and treachery of many Marxian intellectuals; thus the incongruous intellectual nexus between “Bloomsbury and Free Love” and Stalin’s “Russian Paradise”, in which latter utopia floppy-hatted aristocratic ladies and bisexuality would have met with little encouragement.

This book makes abundantly clear that the Triumphs of Communism were not triumphs at all but trials, which not only harmed the world greatly (and are still harming the world) but also the author’s family, too many of whose members were soured and uprooted through obstinate adherence to nostrums as tedious as they were terrible, and as idiotic as they were almost inevitable for a transplanted Mitteleuropaïsch, middlebrow family during that period. (Old habits die hard amongst the Kerridges; his mother married again, this time a West African activist in thrall to an almost identical brand of socialism.)

There are too many miscellaneous insights and good descriptions to enumerate – such as the strange similarities between communism and capitalism, the advantages of grammar schools, what interwar England felt like, and the way in which Britain’s anti-communists were systematically if subtly excluded from influence. But most of all this is an enlightening enquiry into the roots and fruits of a family’s alienation from orthodoxies, including as a subtext the author’s own alienation from his family’s and society’s leftwing orthodoxies.

As a kind of genealogical Pilgrim’s Progress, and also because someone as unique as Roy Kerridge should not have to resort to self-publication, Triumphs of Communism merits the attention of all who wish to understand the fatal attraction of communism to so many talented people at a critical juncture in our history, whose ancient actions are still reverberating to our detriment.

This review was published in the Quarterly Review in Summer 2010

 

 

Man of Aran – Erse ethnofiction

MAN OF ARAN – ERSE ETHNOFICTION

Man of Aran (1934)

The Aran Islands guard the mouth of Galway Bay, a NW to SE diagonal archipelago made up of three major islands – Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer – plus a couple of tiny uninhabited islets. Whether seen from the Clare or Connemara mainlands, from one of the tiny Aer Arann planes that ply between Inverin and the Islands, or from the deck of a rusty and listing trawler, the archipelago presents an otherworldly vision amidst the exhilarating ozone openness. On fine evenings, they seem to catch the last of the sun before it hisses to death in the Atlantic, gleaming always just out of reach – at other times, they mantle themselves mysteriously in shrieking storms or trailing curtains of soft rain, coming in and out of cognizance like Lyonesse.

When you make landfall at last, there are small settlements of Irish-speakers, and white beaches and pastures on the landwards side, linked by stone-walled boreens and limestone pavements in which subsist a profusion of northern and Alpine flora – gentians, ferns, heathers, saxifrages, sea kale, sea holly, sea pinks, bindweed, bird’s foot trefoil, tormentil, bramble, wild strawberries, stonecrop, bee orchid, honeysuckle and many others – and acclimatized foreigners, like fuschias, which thrive in the Islands’ mild maritime ambience. Being so saline and windswept, and having been overgrazed in prehistoric times, the Islands are almost treeless, except for odd patches of hawthorn and hazel in the most sheltered corners, tolerated despite strong competition for sweet water and useable earth.

These ‘fields’ and townlands all have long names and ancient remains testifying to Neolithic fertility and Dark Ages sanctity, and slope up gradually as you near the seawards side, where cliffs of up to 300 feet present obdurate faces to the force of the waters that roll all the way uninterrupted from America’s eastern coast. At the crests of some of these cliffs are stupendous architectural achievements coeval with Stonehenge – the remains of tombs, clochans (beehive huts used by monks), chapels, crosses, holy wells, and the celebrated ring fort of Dún Aengus, concentric semi-circles of boulders built up with infinite effort.

And west there is nothing in all that waste of water, although it has always been peopled in imagination. Roderick O’Flaherty (1629-1718), a Galway aristocrat and historian, felt the Islands were magical as well as material:

From the Isles of Aran and the west continent, often appears visible that uncharted island called O’Brasil and in Irish, Beg Ara, or the Lesser Aran, set down in charts of navigation, whether it be real and firm land kept hidden by the special ordinance of God or the terrestrial paradise, or else some illusion of airy clouds appearing on the surface of the sea, or the craft of evil spirits, is more than our judgements can sound out. (1)

Small wonder such a locale has long attracted those of a reactionary or Romantic or Celtic nationalist sensibility seeking ‘noble savages’ or unadulterated Irishness – especially after the islands had captured the imaginations of Yeats and Synge, like so many Milesian myth-makers Anglo-Irish Protestants (2). They and others saw the Islands as a kind of redoubt against the modern world, where men’s minds were still their own, and they lived hard, but free, with no master but the sea. Celtic confabulation met the modern age in 1932, when American filmmaker Robert Flaherty turned up on the islands and began the two year process of filming Man of Aran.

Flaherty was born in 1884, the son of an Irish Protestant prospector. He had travelled extensively in the Canadian far north in the company of his father and later in his own right, leading exploratory missions at the behest of the Canadian Northern Railway. He became entranced by the starkly dramatic lives of the Eskimos, and began to film them, using what was to become his trademark style – lavish use of film and a loose narrative structure, recording, as he would later say about Man of Aran, “what the camera wished to photograph”. In 1923, his film Nanook of the North, about the lives of the indigenous inhabitants of the Belcher Islands, was released, to great acclaim. One of those islands was subsequently named in his honour. It is arguably ironic that Nanook was sponsored by a furrier firm – just as Flaherty’s 1948 film Louisiana Story was sponsored by an oil company busily drilling in the bayous he was so lovingly chronicling.

On the strength of Nanook, Paramount commissioned him to travel to the South Seas to make a similar film about Pacific islanders. Moana appeared in 1926, inspiring one of its reviewers to coin the word “documentary” to describe it, but otherwise it was not a success. Two subsequent South Seas-themed films, White Shadows on the South Seas and Tabu (the latter in conjunction with F. W. Murnau of Nosferatu fame), served chiefly to demonstrate that Flaherty’s heart was not really in the Southern hemisphere, and that his leisurely, expensive methods were not popular with studio bosses.

He came to the Aran Islands with his wife in November 1931, intending to stay for just one night, but became bewitched and stayed a further two. The following January, he came back with his family, rented a house, and converted a former fishing shed into a darkroom. With the help of a local intermediary named Pat Mullen, who later published his account of the making of the film (which is also called Man of Aran), he recruited three photogenic locals – Coleman “Tiger” King, Maggie Dirrane and Mickleen Dillane – to star as the ‘family’ at the centre of the film, and others (including Mullen) to appear in long shot in the most dramatic sequences. Other locals were recruited to build a traditional cottage to act as part of the set; again ironically, an old house was demolished to furnish materials for the set, which in the event was scarcely used. The making of what locals called laconically “The Film” however convulsed the whole chain, giving rise to all kinds of legends about Flaherty’s methods and autocratic personality – perhaps suitable for someone whose West Connaught-originating surname is usually translated as “bright prince”.

The film is simultaneously languid and timeless, a series of mythopoeic or ethnofictional images stressing the vast impersonality of Nature, the spare beauty of the Bay – and both with and against these the perpetual struggle waged by irreducible Irishers, who against all odds persist here, eking out a laborious existence that is yet not without its compensations. Everything is an effort – the soil that has to be created from kelp, the rocks that need to be smashed with sledgehammers, the turf that must be dug and donkeyed home (3), the nets and creels that need to be mended, the crabs that need to be caught as bait for fish that need to be caught by boys perched nonchalantly on the verge of voids, dropping down lines to the feet of cliffs worried by the suck of vast seas “fetched” from far latitudes.

These relatively domestic scenes are compared and contrasted with gladiatorial contests waged by Tam O’Shanter-toting men in insubstantial currachs. The central incident in the film is a traditional Man v. Monster motif – the days-long hunting and hand-harpooning of the harmless but huge and powerful basking shark for its oil, a technique long out of date even in 1932, whose danger and laboriousness will be immediately apparent to anyone who has ever seen one of these magnificent creatures close to (4).

The film closes with its most famous scenes, of a currach riding insanely but inspirationally on thirty and forty foot swells in the sounds between the islands, the crew working as an instinctive unit to preserve their lives and demonstrate superlative sang-froid in the face of such untrammeled violence. Pat Mullen wrote lovingly of his daring compatriots –

A great thrill of wild pride shot through me as I looked at them, for here had been a trial of the old, old stock and the blood still ran true.

Flaherty was similarly stunned by their audacity, noting later

I should have been shot for what I asked these superb people to do, all for the sake of a keg of porter and five pounds apiece.

Filming finally finished in November 1933, after over half a million feet of footage had been taken, and then only because the studio in London had ordered Flaherty to stop. But infuriated and out of pocket as the studio must have been, at least Flaherty had a mountain of material to edit and splice, and the end result is truly epic, a cinematographic masterpiece to which many later filmmakers are obviously indebted.

Yet by emphasizing man’s ingenuity rather than his individualism, and his tininess, the film is arguably in some ways impersonal, presenting avatars rather than humans with distinct personalities. This is perhaps unsurprising for that era of pudding-faced Soviet Heroes and Arno Breker’s aquiline über-men, and it also helps to explain why the film won both the Mussolini Cup for Best Foreign Film at the 1935 Venice Film Festival, and the American National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Film. Flaherty himself once said that documentary narrative should “come out of the life of a people, not from the actions of individuals”. Accordingly, we learn nothing about the ‘family’ members, except that they all slot neatly into predetermined roles, and get no idea what they do in their admittedly limited spare time – not even an insight into their religion or their politics. It was also criticised for glossing over the locals’ poverty, and Graham Greene dismissed the work as being “bogus and sentimental”.

But 1934’s audiences didn’t seem to mind such informational lacunae, and the three (presumably rather bewildered) stars were whisked off to London and New York on hugely successful promotional tours. Even now, the film is still discussed, it still brings cinéastes to the archipelago (they can even stay in Flaherty’s former house), and it was re-released on DVD as recently as 2009, with a new and rather successful soundtrack by the indie rock band British Sea Power, to replace the by now muffled and distorted original recordings. Whatever the shortcomings of the film may have been or be, it can and should still be relished as a great work of art, and a timeless testament to the resilience of everyone who dares (or is compelled) to live on life’s edges.

NOTES

  1. Chorographical Description of West Connacht, 1684. The following year, O’Flaherty published Ogygia, a Latin history of Ireland, which was the first history of the island to reach English readers (those who could read Latin, at any rate).
  2. Romance notwithstanding, the Islands may not be all that ‘Celtic’. Two major studies – 1955‘s The Physical Anthropology of Ireland (authors Ernest A. Hooton and C. Wesley Dupertuis) and 1958‘s The ABO and RH Blood Groups of the Aran Islanders (authors Earle Hackett and M. E. Folan) – found definite physiological differences between Aran residents and mainlanders. This can be interpreted two ways – either they are the original ‘Celts’ exiled here by invaders, or they are partly descended from the English soldiery who garrisoned the Islands during the Cromwellian period. It should be noted that English surnames are commonplace on the Islands.
  3. The donkeys that are so essential an ingredient in stereotypical depictions of the West of Ireland only became important in the area during the Napoleonic Wars, when all horses were commandeered for military use.
  4. The 1963 film Pour la Suite du Monde similarly featured the islanders of Île aux Coudres, off the Quebec coast, as they set out anachronistically to hunt whales as their fathers had done.

An anti-Pilgrim’s Progress

AN ANTI-PILGRIM’S PROGRESS

The Columbine Pilgrim

Andy Nowicki, Counter Currents, San Francisco, 2011, pb, 107pps

Andy Nowicki is a self- described “dissident reactionary malcontent” Catholic – and his second novel is an eloquent and original examination of the enduring effects of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.

The excellently-delineated and aptly named Tony Meander is an intelligent but dysfunctional 33 year old (one cannot really think of him as ‘a man’) who finds himself increasingly identifying (reluctantly) with the murderers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Like him, they were clever boys who were accordingly bullied at school. Like him, they dammed up their resentment until it overtopped their levees. They eventually returned to the school where they had suffered (or felt they had suffered) and killed 13 and wounded 21 people before shooting themselves as if participating in some Grand Guignol production. The book (three quarters of which is entitled “Prologue”) is spent wondering whether Tony will emulate them in this too.

Before that, we leap-frog back to Tony’s schooldays to understand what has pushed him unprepared and virtually penniless onto a plane to Littleton, Colorado one icy April to visit the place which has long stalked his solitary soul. We see a sensitive and shy boy who is often picked on by buffoonish “jocks” encouraged by giggling girls – a boy both physically cowardly and intellectually audacious, hungry for meaning in a culture which offers none for someone like him –

I need something real, substantial, tangible, effable. I’m tired of living inside my head, looking at words on a computer screen. I’m a man, not a username.

The scarred schoolboy takes refuge in history, and the more extreme the anecdotes and ideologies the more he revels in them. He thrills to his history teacher’s vivid descriptions of the airborne heads of French aristocrats flying from the blade of the guillotine, becomes a Marxist and finds Mein Kampf sickly exciting. After wide if not wise meandering through the tangled thickets of Nietzsche and Marx and Nietzsche’s debtor Hitler, Tony detects an all round unsatisfying superficiality –

All of these ‘people’ were useless, soulless, shallow walking dead…they had no real substance.

From here, it is a short step to his eventual appraisal of the majority as “excrement in the guise of humanity” who could (and increasingly should) be

…vaporized, incinerated, leaving me alone…the mythic Ishmael of this doomed flying Pequod, emerging unscathed through the flames like gold through a refiner’s fire.

By the time we meet Tony, almost the only thing that matters to him is the “Me” in Meander as he wanders mutteringly, gliding in and out of rationality, simultaneously contemptuous and envious, vain and self-loathing. He is a sociopath-going-on-psychopath, beset by people he doesn’t recognize as real except insofar as they can wound him, doomed to dwell with all these substandard sensates in a country of shadows (“this wasn’t actually Denver; it only looked like Denver”). He finds validation and encouragement online, listening to black metal and having self-pitying exchanges with alienated avatars elsewhere.

The only thing still tethering Tony to the earth is paradoxically a relict Christianity, a fear that if he does what he burns to do, he really might end up in Hell. But as he progresses away from the Celestial City, this moral guy-rope is fraying – “I had entered the realms of the God-forsaken.” God actually becomes an abuser – “What choice had Mary when she was raped and impregnated by God?” He ends this train of thought logically, and like his favourite French Revolutionists remodels the pantheon of all previous generations to include a new central deity – himself/Himself, like Christ a 33 year old apparent ingénue and virgin. “Put your nails in me; take me down the road to Golgotha” he whimpers pathetically as he drifts through the Mojave of his mind.

His last connection with a ‘normal’ person is when a Cuban cab-driver with the most appropriate possible name takes an avuncular interest –

…he seemed to appraise me with a kind of pity and compassion, the kind of look a doctor would give a man after telling him he had a fatal disease. ‘Take care, amigo’ he said, sombrely. ‘Be good’. Then Jesus was gone, and I was alone.

Nowicki’s didactic message is that all the cults of the last 150 years – wills to power, supermen, nationalism, racial supremacism, class war, socialism, self-gratification, egalitarianism, consumption – cannot compensate for the absence of a transcendent faith which both organizes people on earth and fixes their minds on something more than the mundane. When Jesus is gone, we are all alone, is his contention. In societies which have rejected tradition without offering anything more compelling, an increasing number of Meanders manqué are compelled to wander lonely and lost in a windswept wilderness, cursing fate and calling down plagues on all perceived Philistines. His reaction to 9/11 is emblematic of what would once have been called moral imbecility –

Did your heart not swell in your chest when you beheld those structures, supposedly so indestructible, collapsing like Tinker Toys?

In his evocations of the alleged delights of death-dealing

We burn into an alien sky at light-speed, destiny-bound, singing an angry, terrible, joyous song out of one shared mouth

Nowicki communicates some of the likely emotions of all killers in all times, from 9/11 to Columbine and so back through a gory gallery of kamikazes, janissaries, fuzzy-wuzzies, Assassins, Thuggees, Golden Hordes, Einsatzguppen and Berserkers. Like them, he wants to create mounds of skulls as his meaningful monument – believing it is much better to be unspeakable than to be unknown.

Yet Tony is not in any kind of tradition. The uncomfortable fact is that, despite his extremism, in his influences, immaturity, inadequacy, self-obsession, passion for publicity and rejection of “bourgeois, bogus middle-class hypocritical morality” Tony is in many respects an ultra-modern. As one of his teachers later recalls,

Hell, Tony was a liberal! He was against war, against discrimination

Like the 9/11 killers, Tony’s ruthless rejection of modernity was shaped by very recent history and couched in ironically modernist terms.

After the cordite of Chapter 1 dissipates, we see that Tony’s revenge-tragedy has ended inconclusively. He may have exacted retribution on a few of the pests of his past, but these had become in their own ways as pitiable as their “avenging angel”. His apotheosis from zero to zero has achieved nothing, and the killings are seized upon by observers to further sectional obsessions – gun control, internet control, speech control. ‘angry white male’ and ‘hate crime’ control – with the causes never analyzed, much less addressed. We are compelled to conclude that there will be more geeks with Glocks going out from feculent chatrooms to irrupt into the only kind of immortality most of us can now imagine. We are left with just one tiny hint of possible good coming out of all the harm Tony does – and even that contains a hint that the sad story may be reprised in a still to be written Chapter 2. Somewhere out there on the edge but also among us, there are almost certainly more Meanders, whining and waiting – perpetual victims-turned-victimizers, nerds who would be gods.

This article first appeared in the New English Review in 2011

 

John Wheeler-Bennett – high-carb historian

JOHN WHEELER-BENNETT – HIGH-CARB HISTORIAN

Witness to History: The Life of John Wheeler-Bennett

Victoria Schofield, New Haven: Yale University Press 346 pp., $50

Yale University Press promises that Witness to History “will fascinate anyone interested in the great political figures of world history during the twentieth century.” On this book’s back cover, Alistair Horne hails John Wheeler-Bennett as

a gifted historian . . . one of the outstanding, though unsung, certainly unrepeatable Britons of his age.

It is an academic publisher’s job to drum up interest in its latest addition to a world up to its oxters in academic books, and Sir Alistair is entitled to his views. Yet the reader immediately wonders why Wheeler-Bennett is“unsung.”Is this a fluke of fate or fad, or is there some profounder reason? Perhaps even dullness? The word witness also conveys coolness, passivity— the opposite of engagement, let alone the fascination guaranteed by Yale. So even before we have opened the volume, we have a faint sense of deflation, dénouement before the fact—as if we are about to meet a Mr. Dryasdust, someone about whom a biographer has felt duty-bound rather than determined to write.

But there is no reason why it should be this way. Wheeler-Bennett was a formidably intelligent chronicler of his too-exciting century, the ultimate insider who saw many of its pivotal moments at first

hand (and even helped to facilitate some). No mere witness, after all. He was besides friend to, or at least acquaintance of, many of the 20th century’s most famous figures. His address book groaned with greats and not-so-greats, and we imagine the mantelpiece at his Elizabethan manor house snow-drifted with stiff cards bearing coats of arms, alphabets of impressive acronyms, and invitations. He met King George VI (whose biographer he became), Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Tomáš Masaryk, Karl Radek, John Buchan, Edvard Beneš, Roosevelt, Franz von Papen, Mussolini, Trotsky, Hitler, and all sorts of others. He went “everywhere,” and met “everyone.” At his funeral, Sir Patrick Dean would comment that “Never was there a man with so many ‘special relationships’” – a reference not only to Wheeler-Bennett’s contacts, but also to his role as a leading Atlanticist.

His diaries are full of startling details narrowly observed. He was startled by Egypt’s King Fuad, who “barked like a dog” before he spoke. (A would-be assassin’s bullet had wounded him in the throat.) He met “foxy Ferdinand,” ex-czar of Bulgaria, a portly, bearded man sporting ribbons and decorations on his coat who wore white kid gloves held on by heavy-jeweled rings and a gold and sapphire bracelet and devoted his plentiful post-royal leisure time to studying North Africa’s avifauna. He saw with sang-froid “a decomposed communist head on every lamp post on the main thoroughfare” in Shanghai. At the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1929, he noted how Stalin moved to and from his box in the theatre after the lights had been dimmed:

He was ever after to me that man of shadows, sealed in the crepuscules.

Ex-Kaiser Wilhlem II’s parting words to him in the summer of 1939 were shrewd but self-exculpatory –

Come back and see me again next summer, if you can. But you won’t be able to, because the machine is running away with him as it ran away with me.

Yet despite such anecdotes, and the author’s gift for storytelling, his memoirs are disappointingly discreet, more floury than flowery.

This well-connected watcher naturally attracted the attentions of one of the world’s leading imprints, and also of Victoria Schofield, a proficient historian in her own right. All the ingredients are in place for an illuminating account of our recent past as seen from the stage- wings, in the form of an overdue tribute to a man who has indeed long remained unaccountably unsung.

Yet from the outset, we seem unable to extricate ourselves from the suspicion of stodge. For those who are familiar with the purlieus of southeasternmost London and northwesternmost Kent, to learn that Wheeler-Bennett was born in Keston in 1902, the son of an importer, evokes certain slightly cloying ideas – rising middle classes minding their Ps and Qs to prove their respectability, comfortably conservative politics admixed with imperialism, chapel or Anglican evangelism, Victorian villas looking onto substantial grounds bordered by privet, curtseying domestics, stiff collars for Papa, parasols for Mama, sailor suits for little Johnny. As a bigger Johnny reflected,

I spent my childhood in the age of security.

These are caricatures, yet life at Ravensbourne (as the villa was named in honor of the little river that runs from near Keston to debouch into the Thames at Deptford, from which watercourse the family had siphoned off a small lake) was sometimes lonely for John, whose sister and brother were respectively seven and fourteen years older. Unathletic and serious-minded, he developed precocious preoccupations with European politics, America, and China, and, much less predictably, with world peace.

After leaving Malvern College, he obtained a voluntary job with the League of Nations Union and found his calling as international mediator manqué. He joined the newly founded British Institute of International Affairs and traveled extensively in its service, collaborating with groups like the Council on Foreign Relations and falling under the spells of the likes of Arnold Toynbee, Lewis Namier, and Anthony Eden. Inspired by the CFR, he founded his own ostensibly unbiased Association for International Understanding, and under this imprint began to issue his own books: Information on the Permanent Court of International Justice, The World Court in 1925, Information on the Problem of Security, and Information on the Reduction of Armaments, among others. Perusing the titles of these productions, we begin to discern precisely why Wheeler-Bennett is unsung. From having been ankle-deep in stodge, we are now wading up to our waists. The stodge levels are rendered positively injurious to health by some extracts. Did Schofield really need to quote Wheeler-Bennett’s artery-clogging tribute to an assistant?

His knowledge of the German language and the able assistance which he has rendered me on every occasion has contributed very materially to the amount of information which I have been able to obtain.

Similar examples abound, although mercifully we are spared Wheeler-Bennett’s thank-you letters for birthday presents and notes to his tailor. Such farinaceous foodstuffs might be more palatable if all his earnest efforts had actually had any impact, but, as we know, they did not. In retirement, he admitted that his pacifist ideals had been “youthful illusions.”

There were also youthful errors, such as when he assured a doubtlessly relieved Royal Institute of International Affairs (into which his Association had subsumed itself ):

Hitler, I am convinced, does not want a war. He is susceptible to reason in matters of foreign policy. He is greatly anxious to make Germany self-respecting and is himself anxious to be respectable. He may be described as the most moderate member of his party.

Wheeler-Bennett’s optimism did not survive the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Sturmabteilung, and others (including some of Wheeler-Bennett’s friends), were judicially murdered by their erstwhile alte Kameraden. He only visited Germany twice more before the war, but his time there was well spent, researching for two books, Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan (1936) and Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace (1938), the latter still a standard reference. Always afterward critical of appeasement and acting as a semi-official (although unpaid) British agent, he forged and maintained contacts with conservatives who disliked Hitler’s cruel and déclassé regime. He shared with these aristocratic patriots contempt for the Versailles settlement and a love of horses, making a name for himself among the jodphur-wearing fraternity through such accomplishments as keeping in place his monocle without rim or cord while jumping a fence. He continued cultivating what links he could during the early part of the war when he worked for British intelligence in Washington, helping to inveigle the United States into the war by giving influential lectures on international relations country-wide, including at the University of Virginia Law School, where his auditors included Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., and “a most pleasing open-countenanced blue-eyed young man” named Jack Kennedy. He would later be accused of brutal cynicism when he wrote, after the failure of von Stauffenberg’s Operation Valkyrie of July 1944:

By the failure of the plot we have been spared the embarrassments, both at home and in the United States, which might have resulted from such a move, and, moreover, the present purge is presumably removing from the scene numerous individuals which might have caused us difficulty, not only had the plot succeeded, but also after the defeat of Nazi Germany. . . The Gestapo and the SS have done us an appreciable service in removing a selection of those who would undoubtedly have posed as ‘good Germans after the war . . . It is to our advantage therefore that the purge should continue, since the killing of Germans by Germans will save us from future embarrassment of many kinds.

In one of his best-known books, Nemesis of Power (1953), Wheeler-Bennett omitted to mention that he had once been engaged in negotiations with anti-Nazi Germans (still conflated in the popular memory with the Nazis themselves), giving rise to claims that he was hypocritically covering his tracks for reasons of personal advantage. While these claims stung him deeply – he even attempted to keep embarrassing archival material concealed from other historians – they did not disbar him from becoming the Foreign Office’s German specialist-in-chief, editing important documents on German foreign policy under their imprint. Such attempts at censorship were uncharacteristic: Wheeler- Bennett was essentially a fair-minded man.

He was besought to teach international relations in Oxford, which pleased him greatly because he had always been acutely conscious that he hadn’t gone to university. He settled in Tudor splendor at Garsington near Oxford, where he reveled in rurality: a Central Casting squire in cords, tweeds, and monocle, doffing these accoutrements apparently only to don formal garb for increasingly frequent trips to palaces or institutions proffering platforms, palms, and plaudits. Small wonder that so safe a pair of hands should have been selected to write a biography of the late king – nor that he should have produced what one leftist reviewer described accurately as a “courtly and obsequious” treatment. (The book was a chief source for the mystifyingly successful film The King’s Speech.)

And so he sailed with a fair wind on a lifelong even keel until his equably accepted death in 1975 – loved by his wife, relatives, and friends, respected by many intellectuals. These, however, were fewer with every passing year, as the doctrinaire left strengthened its hold on historiography: his The Semblance of Peace, cowritten with Anthony Nicholls and published in 1972, attracted vitriol for its strongly anti-Soviet views. To these people, he was at best a figure of fun – a stuffy exemplar of careful establishmentarianism, the “perfect English gentleman,” always with a carnation in his buttonhole and ready with a polite demurral. His distinction-draped funeral cortège, every detail of which he had planned meticulously, bore tribute to a life kindly, cleverly, and – above all – uncontroversially expended.

It is sadly ironic that a brilliant and humane man who had had so many extraordinary experiences should have been so forgotten. It is again ironic that someone intrinsically colourful – who, as he said, had “associated with some of the most destructive and disreputable characters of modern times” – should have wasted so much of his life chasing the colourless chimera of “international relations” through sad and sighing forests of withered resolutions. But then these ironies are connected: John Wheeler-Bennett is forgotten because his philosophy is forgettable, and his books are mostly unread because they are mostly unreadable. Yet bearing in mind the cataclysms of his century, which have become our cataclysms, perhaps we should pay his dull discipline more attention. After all, Wheeler-Bennett had witnessed where colour could lead.

This review appeared in Chronicles in May 2013 under the title “Where Color Led”, and is reproduced with permission