My review of Kassia St. Clair’s engrossing Secret Lives of Colour will be in the July 2018 issue of Chronicles
I have also just sent them my review of David Cannadine’s Victorious Century (no idea yet when that will be published)
My review of Kassia St. Clair’s engrossing Secret Lives of Colour will be in the July 2018 issue of Chronicles
I have also just sent them my review of David Cannadine’s Victorious Century (no idea yet when that will be published)
THE CAMELOT-CHEQUERS AXIS
Union Jack: John F. Kennedy’s Special Relationship with Great Britain
Christopher Sandford, Lebanon, N.H.: ForeEdge, 2017, hb. 300pps
Cultural historian Christopher Sandford’s enquiring eyes range widely, playing over everything from cricket to Kurt Cobain, the Great War to The Great Escape, Conan Doyle to Eric Clapton, and countless other late nineteenth and twentieth century Anglosphere interests. Although conservative in some ways, he empathises easily with un-conservative subjects, or at least is able to tease out counter-intuitive realities from modern myths. So in Satisfaction, his 2003 biography of Keith Richards, he revealed such shocking truths as that the counter-cultural icon ne plus ultra likes few things better than Surrey and evensong, and that the large beakers of lethal-looking liquid carried ostentatiously onto many a reputation-tarnishing/burnishing chat-show are actually iced tea.
In his 2014 Harold and Jack, he inspected the unexpectedly warm relationship between the stuffily Conservative Harold Macmillan and J.F.K., the acronymed epitome of Sixties chic and ‘radicalism’. Now he plumbs more deeply into Kennedy’s background, character and development, underlining his earlier findings that the demi-god of old Democrats was more manager than moralist, so anti-communist that he supported Joseph McCarthy, pragmatic on ‘civil rights’ and heedless of early-onset feminism, romantically attached to certain traditions, and conservatively conscious of what he described as “the abyss under everything”. All this is intrinsically interesting, and objectively important, as Kennedy’s attitudes help explain the whole course of postwar history, especially the persistence of the globally crucial US-UK alliance notwithstanding Suez and other potential points of cleavage. It is also elegantly told, full of sage asides and amusing observations, such as on Alec Douglas-Home, “whose misfortune it was in the television age to resemble a prematurely-hatched bird”.
At the kernel of this story is the at times ambivalent relationship between J.F.K. and his bluntly outspoken father, whose 1938 appointment as Ambassador to the Court of St. James seemed inexplicable even at the time. By October 1940, when he was replaced in this most important of postings by John Gilbert Winant, Kennedy père had made himself deeply unpopular with the British media, politicians and even the public, called “Jittery Joe” for acerbities about British preparedness and his advocacy of accommodating dictators, sneered at as likely crooked, an arriviste as well as a snob. His views were perhaps predictable from the head of a clan most of whose members clung onto old Irish-American, anti-W.A.S.P. resentments, and never relinquished them, at least as late as the time of Ted Kennedy. J.F.K. himself could switch on the Irish angle for domestic political purposes, and sometimes drew parallels between the Irish-American and other immigrant experiences – but he simultaneously, noted Hugh Sidey,
…delighted in the romantic accounts of the rise of the British Empire, and the great figures on the battlefields or in parliament who made it possible.
His sympathy for those who felt alienated by W.A.S.P. America was always tempered by distrust of their occasional overreaction, what he called the “venom and bitterness” of Leftists like Harold Laski. In 1958, he would write (perhaps that should be type) a booklet called A Nation of Immigrants, but like his equally insulated youngest brother he did not foresee what venomous and bitter use would be made of such vapidities.
Maybe it was also predictable that some of Joe’s high-spirited and intelligent offspring should have asserted their independence against so prickly a patriarch, with both Jack and his older sister Kathleen footing it featly across high society dance floors and (sometimes literally) into the arms of the aristocracy. Kathleen was dubbed “Debutante of 1938” by the press, and in 1944, she would assimilate so far as to marry “Billy” Cavendish, Lord Hartington, against the wishes of her parents, who disapproved of both his Conservatism and his Protestantism. (The marriage ended in the worst way after only four months, when he was killed by an S.S. sniper in Belgium.)
That same season which saw Kathleen’s coming out also stood her younger brother in good social stead, although one dance partner, Deborah Mitford, later the Duchess of Devonshire and a close friend, found him “rather boring but nice”. (Her mother was astuter, saying “Mark my words, I won’t be surprised if that man becomes President of the United States”.) Jack found he fitted in with a certain type of upper-class Englishman, sharing their sensibilities and tastes, sometime even outdoing them in stereotypical English attributes – lightly-borne education, social ease, understated emotion, self-deprecating humour, easy-going sexual mores. Even at times of near-catastrophe, he kept himself in check, for example saying of the overnight appearance of the Berlin Wall or the discovery of the Cuban missile emplacements that things were “quite tricky”. As the author observes,
There was a part of America’s thirty-fifth President, whether innate or acquired, that was more ‘English than the English’
Kennedy seems to have seen aspects of himself in the great English Whigs, re-reading David Cecil’s 1939 masterpiece The Young Melbourne almost annually, Victoria’s future first prime minister in truth rather foreshadowing Kennedy’s in his flexibility, priapism and privilege.
Like his historical hero, the clubbable, libidinous Kennedy had a serious side, many remarking on his ability to switch in an instant from connubiality to Czechoslovakia, or the weather to the Wehrmacht, reading hungrily, meeting everyone who was everyone, watching Commons debates, and travelling on the continent. His ideas did not always diverge that much from his father’s – Sandford cites an October 1939 Harvard Crimson editorial by J.F.K. which called for compromise with “Hitlerdom” – but just two months later he was at work on what would become 1940’s Why England Slept, a perfectly-timed anti-appeasement tract which became a bestseller. The book, written in a style which, Sandford notes, “could be suggestive of a light fog moving over a hazy landscape”, and edited heavily by New York Times writer Arthur Krock, might never have been published had Kennedy’s father not promoted it (including, according to Paul Johnson, secretly buying up thousands of copies to be cached at Hyannis Port) – an example of the anomalies in their relationship, great loyalty despite geopolitical disagreements.
The friendships J.F.K. forged before the war, the insights he accrued, go a long way to explain his indulgence of Britain at times when other Presidents might have lost patience. None of this means that the U.K. was ever anything other than a junior partner in the relationship, but possible Airstrip One humiliation was avoided thanks to Kennedy’s understanding of Britain’s cultural-political position, and his ability to be able to pick up a hotline direct to Macmillan (who was Kathleen’s uncle by marriage) or spend weekends with David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador whom he had befriended in prewar London (to the disgust of Lyndon Johnson). Washington’s ambassador to London, David Bruce, was also congenial to Macmillan, the two reportedly beguiling lulls between Cuban Missile Crisis phone calls by reading Jane Austen to each other.
The President’s pragmatic and – occasionally – generous approach to British needs was facilitated by Macmillan’s answering pragmatism, with both leaders agreeing on the awfulness of the Soviet system, the need for arms control and orderly British decolonisation, the desirability of closer ties with Europe. Besides, Britain was genuinely useful, with its global reach and sense of history. Dean Rusk and other close observers also agreed on the importance of Macmillan’s and Ormsby-Gore’s advice and support during the Missile Crisis (although Kennedy did not inform Macmillan for five days). The President, Robert Kennedy remembered,
needed to unburden himself and listen to the man he’d come to privately know as ‘Uncle Harold’
There seems little doubt that Macmillan made a signal contribution, if an unquantifiable one, during those “quite stressful” (this understatement is Macmillan’s) days. The goodwill engendered lingers in the Anglo-American ambience, even if the actual achievements of that period are few in number (Sandford suggests 1963’s Partial Test-Ban Treaty may be the only “imperishable event”).
The last chapter is dominated by an outline of Kennedy’s last visit to England, in June 1963, peccant in its descriptions of dinner at Chatsworth, the “Palace of the Peaks”, in a fug of damp labradors and cigars, poignant with the President’s visit to Kathleen’s grave at Edensor, laying flowers and praying in the Derbyshire drizzle – poignant also because we know the closing of his chapter is just five months away. As Macmillan recalls watching his “Dear friend” ascending by helicopter into a cloudless summer sky at the conclusion of his visit, it seems to him in retrospect almost as if he had witnessed a transfiguration. All that charisma, energy and intelligence, just lifted away – and leaving so little behind.
This review first appeared in the November 2017 Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission
Pleased to say the May issue of the renowned Australian journal Quadrant carries my review of Michael Wilding’s latest novel, Little Demon – https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2018/05/
My Spectator review of the new translation of Simplicius Simplicissimus, Grimmelshausen’s picaresque classic of the Thirty Years War, is now online –
OLD NORTH – WANDERINGS IN LOTHIAN
Ravens over North Berwick Law – could any phrase be more hyperborean? I turned the words over lazily as I watched the birds fifty feet above, circling and diving on each other, flicking expert wings, commenting incessantly on their sport as they alternately dropped or upheld the thin blue vault. Below the volcanic cone of its Law, the town lay snoozing along the Firth of Forth. Somewhere on its yellow beach my wife was watching our son delve sand with a four year old’s intensity – a ludic, pointless activity like that enjoyed by corvids, an in-the-moment celebration of physicality, space and sunlight.
Far to the west, Edinburgh bustled under haze. North in the Firth the guano-whitened Bass Rock glinted at ships heading to Leith. Eastwards, Tantallon Castle stood guard on its seas-smashing headland – while to the south the Lothian hinterland rolled away towards the Borders’ small hills and histories. North Berwick is a pilgrim port turned resort, emblematic of the many sides of Scotland, a country caught always between Catholic and Protestant, Gothic and classical, magic and science, chivalry and coolness, sentimentality and severity. These “Debatable Lands” have often been occupied, and cross-cutting legacies have been left, as at Athelstaneford, “the birthplace of Scotland’s flag” for a legendary ninth century Saxon-beating saltire-in-the-sky, which yet has a wholly Anglo-Saxon name.
Edinburgh is airy and crepuscular, a city simultaneously of clear views and deep shadows. The Royal Mile that runs from the basalt crag of the Castle to Holyrood below the extinct volcano of Arthur’s Seat is grandly processional, but its tall townhouses are simultaneously undergirded and undermined by innumerable secret spaces hacked into its sandstone. Over centuries, cellars, drains, dumps, foundations, graves, sewage sumps, shops, shrines, sleeping accommodation, stores and tunnels were jammed in democratically and unhygienically atop each other to maximise the cramped space behind the city walls – making of the Old Town “a quarry, rather than the habitation of men”, as Hazlitt marvelled in 1822.
The skull-and-bone motifs long favoured by local funerary monument sculptors might almost have burst out of unquiet earth, enriched as it has so often been with the remains of altercating denominations, or ambitious families, like the Black Douglases, whose sixteen year old 6th Earl and even younger brother were served a black bull’s head on a platter while dining with ten year old James II at the Castle in 1440, after which they were executed.
Something of ghostliness reaches even into regal Scotland, with the Palace of Holyroodhouse breathing of Mary, Queen of Scots – near-saint or near-Antichrist to some Scots, to others symbol of a small kingdom subjugated, child-queen, twice widow, browbeaten by impossible Knox, perpetual prisoner, toy of European events, tragic victim of cousinly spite, a lone woman adrift in a sea of troubles. Her chambers make a melancholic suite, with deep carved ceilings, a cassone resembling a Roman sarcophagus, a cabinet with bleeding heart inlays, devotional oils (Head of Christ, Head of the Virgin, Death of St. Jerome), and tapestries showing the downfall of Apollo’s son Phaeton, who lost control of his father’s sun-chariot and was killed by Zeus to stop him burning up the earth. Even the cornucopia reliefs are grisaille, as if to suck life out of what ought to be joyful motifs, while a plaque in the Outer Chamber shows where screaming David Rizzio died of fifty-six knife wounds.
Edinburgh also has less Gothic ghosts. In the Scottish Parliament is preserved a soporific 1706 debate about exports and imports – redeemed solely by ending mid-sentence, on 27 November, the day the predecessor Parliament became outmoded, the “auld sang” of free Scotland stopped in mid-note, the scribe having thrown down his quill in sorrow, or maybe simple relief that daily drudgery was over. Canongate Kirk is equally pedestrian-piquant, austerely Anglican with its Dutch-gabled exterior, and interior palette of duck-egg blue, clear glass and dark stone. The view of one Very Reverend Dr. Andrew McLellan is highlighted, “God is space and light and reason and ordered beauty”. Could any theology be more Protestant? Outside, Adam Smith slumbers among many other ex-Edinburghers, many small businessmen – plumbers, bakers, confectioners, painters – plus the odd minor aristocrat, poet, or friend of Walter Scott. Smith’s upper-case inscription reads – “The property which every man has in his own labour as it is the original foundation of all other property so it is the most sacred and inviolable.” Could any epitaph be more prosaic? Strange to remember Smith lived in the former house of the 4th Earl of Panmure, a Protestant, yet also champion and follower-into-exile of the Old Pretender, the old ways. As if to highlight Caledonian contradictions, a modern sculpture called The Last Chimaera writhes all to itself near the gate, monstrous hybrid and young boy contending for Christendom.
Reflections on fate’s flukes are also provoked by Greyfriars, a former Franciscan monastery just inside the Flodden Wall, in whose kirk the National Covenant was signed in 1638 in an outburst of righteous/self-righteous anger. In 1679,1,200 Covenanters captured at Bothwell Brig were imprisoned ironically beside the church, part of their pen later incorporated into the graveyard. Vaulted tombs and columned slabs line the walls of the “Covenanters’ Prison”, gloomily adorned with stone crania, ribcages and teeth, the dead pinned down by pious hopes, and nineteenth century ironwork to deter “resurrection men” who stole corpses or even added to their number to further then-modern medicine. A few decades later this grisly locale would become known as backdrop for the perfectly Victorian tale of Greyfriars Bobby, the terrier who for thirteen years slept nightly on the grave of his owner, and sighed his brown-eyed way into susceptible hearts the breadth of Britain.
It is remarkable Rosslyn Chapel survived the Knoxian rigours. Begun in 1446, this confection is easily Scotland’s most over-the-top piece of ecclesiastical architecture, so showy it feels un-British, resembling most obviously Belém church in Lisbon. Nikolaus Pevsner dismisses possible Portuguese connections – “the individual decorative forms used at Roslin are drawn, almost without exception, from the stock of Late Gothic foliage types” – but even he acknowledges Rosslyn’s uniqueness as ensemble. There were iconoclast attacks, and after 1592 the chapel fell into disuse; there was further vandalism in 1688, collateral damage of the “Glorious Revolution”. When William and Dorothy Wordsworth came in 1803, the lush stone foliage was festooned in living counterparts, the ceilings sagging, the corners piled with dirt, the windows gone; “The wind is now thy organist”, Wordsworth romanced in “Composed in Roslin Chapel During A Storm”. It was only after Queen Victoria visited in 1842 that it was decided to save it, and restoration continues, boosted vastly by featuring as stage-set for The Da Vinci Code.
But the Chapel had long elicited wondering speculation, with its profusion of toothed beasts, petrified forests of turrets, endlessly varied vegetation, furred and upside-down angels, glorious ‘Prentice Pillar’, engrailed crosses (the St. Clair arms), and the unusual Latin inscription from apocryphal Esdras/Ezra,
Wine is strong. The king is stronger. Women are stronger still; but truth conquers all.
An entertaining pamphlet, Rosslyn and the Western Mystery Tradition, sets out some of many mystical speculations in prose as exotic as its subject, with subheadings like “Zerubbabel in Early Masonic Tradition”. Others posit that the acanthus-like carvings are representations of maize (‘proving’ that Scottish navigators visited America in 1398), or that the chapel is a numerological riddle based on multiples of seven, and the flat lintels are occult symbols of pre-Christianity (Pevsner snorts that the lintels were copied from fireplaces). Merovingians, Masons, Rosicrucians, the Sangréal, secret tunnels, Templars, and flying saucers also feature in this modern mythology. Flying saucers may seem out-of-place in this post-modern mystagoguery, but there is strange science-fact in this locale, as it was at Roslin Institute that Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997.
It feels like respite to come to Little Sparta near Dunsyre (“hill of the seer”) in the Pentland Hills, to stroll the half-mile, sheep-smelling track up into the five acre sculpture garden founded by “concrete poet” and “avant-gardener” Ian Hamilton Finlay. The name alludes to Edinburgh’s nickname, “Athens of the North”. Like the real Sparta, Little Sparta is an upstart statelet rejecting its near-neighbour as decadent and overblown.
Here between 1966 and his death in 2006, Finlay gave free rein to French Revolutionary, neo-traditional, piscatorial, Romantic, Virgilian and wartime fascinations, in almost 300 artworks placed precisely around the cottage where he lived, in idea-areas across undulating fields, under parkland trees, along burns, around pools and in a walled garden. It is strikingly effective, the erstwhile soldier turned cultivator, the one-time Orcadian shepherd turned Arcadian in a pocket landscape planted painstakingly by his wife.
The artworks vary greatly, and even beehives are coopted, with names – Sweet Promise, Golden Gain – conveying wry pastorality. “Flute, begin with me” is ones of the first inscriptions seen, the quote from the Eclogue incised below an image of a machine-gun. The 1993 visit of a girl with an eye-patch is memorialised as “Enya came here in the guise of a Cyclops IX 1993”. Classical urns bearing sentimental messages about “purling streams” are beside signposts reading Zur Siegfried Linie (pointing to the cottage washing-line, a reference to the 1940 British Expeditionary Force song “We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line”). Neo-classical pineapple finials are ‘really’ hand-grenades. An ionic column reflects itself in a reeded loch. Slabs carved with “wave” in five languages lead across a billowing lawn thick with herbs. A little bridge reads “Arch, n. an architectural term – a material curve sustained by gravity as rapture by grief”. An iron wheelbarrow is labelled “W. Shenstone 1714-63”, in honour of the disappointed poet and gardener. An outsize golden head of Apollo stares out of the ground under birches, overlooking a dark pool. Saint-Just’s plaintive-progressive words “The world has been empty since the Romans” adorn an empty plinth – and the garden’s best-known feature bears his aphorism “The present order is the disorder of the future”, each word on its own slab in rough vegetation at the highest point of the statelet. Every artwork has multiple meanings, and every plant seems significant, each bloom a welcome guest.
At Lothian’s 724 foot high heart, Traprain Law, is the Loth Stone, supposed grave-marker of legendary King Lot, purported progenitor of King Arthur’s Sir Gawain, and St. Thenaw, throwing the latter off a cliff upon discovering she was pregnant (wafted to safety, she gave birth to St. Mungo, founder of Glasgow). Sadly for these stories, when a philistine farmer moved the monolith no remains were found. Scrambling up the Law’s sides with a boy on my shoulders, I appreciated its old usefulness as hill fort for the Votadini, from whence warriors set out to attack Angles at Catraeth (probably Catterick in Yorkshire), as remembered in Y Gododdin, an elegy in Old Welsh that is one of the oldest pieces of Brittanic literature –
A single sword / has hasten’d forth upon three hundred horses / Of these, none would return, O world of woe!
Men of the Old North were going forth, and the outcome of their expedition was apparently unforeseen –
Come rise as one, Gododdin’s golden sons / And flow to Catraeth, go with eager speed…
“Splendid slaughter” was expected as the force departed, banners flying “with colours of good wine”, led by Cadfannon, “steersman of steeds / Careering crimson fillies with the dawn.” Similarly surging emotions must have been experienced by those seeing “the flower of Scotland” setting off full-confident for Flodden.
The Exmoor ponies grazing the Law were crimsoned by evening rather than morning sun, but they were otherwise likely lookalikes for the Galloways steered by Cadfannon – not tall but strong, long-maned, inquisitive and resourceful, surrounding us where we sat on the ground, snuffling pockets for food, sniffing hair, salivating on hands, looking liquid into eyes, filling everything with snickers, snorts, stamps and whinnies, and that heady atavistic reek of horse. I daydreamed of Epona, horse-goddess to Celts, and as I watched their long shadows against the brilliance felt I heard faintly the sounds of ancient, endless ridings-out, to Gododdin’s foremost borders and beyond, cloppings, canterings, gallops and harness-jingles echoing back from unnumbered years.
This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission. Photographs by Derek Turner
CHURCHILL’S HOME FRONT
First Lady – The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill
Sonia Purnell, London: Aurum Press, 2016, pb., 392pps., £9.99
No More Champagne – Churchill and His Money
David Lough, London: Head of Zeus, 2016, hb., 532pps., £25
Winston Churchill is one of the most closely-examined (and lionised) of all politicians, and it is accordingly difficult to think of new angles from which to view him and his legacy. But now here are two original and complementary studies at once, one profiling his wife Clementine, the other examining the impressive public figure through his unimpressive private finances. Both books are not quite the first words on their subjects, but are likely to prove the last, ensconcing themselves in the extensive Churchillian historiography as the go-to texts for future enquirers.
It is strangest there should not previously have been a major biography of Clementine – a charismatic, clever and strong-minded person who, as Sonia Purnell proves easily herein, exerted a salutary and at times world-altering influence over her husband. Churchill’s physician once observed that his eminent patient’s conviction began “in his own bedroom”, and the siren-suited symbol of “standing alone” occasionally referred to Clementine, only half-jokingly, as “She-whose-commands-must-be-obeyed”. Clementine, the author avers, “relentlessly privileged the national interest above her own health, safety and family”, alternating pillow-talk, blazing rows, walk-outs, and creative economising with elegant hospitality, informal diplomacy, proficient public relations, and highly effective charitable works, for which she would be honoured by three British monarchs, and even the Soviet Union. Yet her sway, like that of other powerful women, has gone largely unnoticed, semi-buried amid a welter of family anecdotes, staff reminiscences and political marginalia. She also disliked being interviewed. It took an exceptionally un-boreable seeker after truth (Purnell once authored a book entitled Pedal Power: How Boris Johnson Failed London’s Cyclists) to put together a coherent and convincing narrative from so many scattered sources.
Like Winston, Clementine was the grandchild of an earl (the Earl of Airlie), but she was always a poor relation, her parents moving houses to avoid creditors and reduced at times to making her own clothes. While Winston grew up amid the splendours of Blenheim, his wife-to-be was the
product of a broken home, a suburban grammar school, a lascivious mother and a formative year spent in and around the fish market at Dieppe.
That “fish market” reference may make British readers think disconcertingly of London’s Billingsgate with its proverbially scatological fishwives, but Clementine’s Dieppe was actually an English artistic colony presided over by luminaries like Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert. (She would always be more interested in art than her husband, and later encouraged his painting hobby.) Her nominal father, Sir Henry Montague Hozier, was probably not her biological father, and was in any case autocratic, dour and suspected of finagling, while her mother was often more interested in paramours (sometimes several at a time) than in providing for her offspring. Clementine nevertheless emerged as highly poised and well-educated, and she was greatly admired when she arrived on the London scene, notwithstanding the question marks about her parentage and relative poverty.
Winston clearly liked her athletic looks and quick wit, while she was drawn to his power, as hinted at in a 1919 missive,
You took me from the straitened little by-path I was treading and took me with you into the life & colour & jostle of the high-way.
She and Winston seem also to have been brought together by shared secret knowledge, both having experienced childhood bullying, youthful unpopularity, and neglectful parents. But they nearly never got married, with Winston taking an inordinate time to pop the question; there is a piquant anecdote about the showery day he did ask, the two sheltering in a Grecian folly at Blenheim, Clementine telling herself she would give her suitor as much time to ask as it would take a spider to stalk across the floor. Had that auspicious arachnid scuttled a little more quickly, they might never have combined, and maybe the course of British history would have been quite different.
Despite spending most of their 56 years of marriage living quite separate existences, even when sharing the same roof – or because they did – these two very different personalities remained bound to each other, him calling her “Cat”, her calling him “Pug” in a stream of baby-talking correspondence carried on even as History was hinging. Whatever was happening in the world, and however many enemies he might have at any given time, Churchill could be certain “Clemmie” would fight his corner with energy and intelligence. She became privy to everything that concerned him (excepting his purchase of the money-pit Kentish estate of Chartwell) – his health, his money problems, his electoral prospects, his relations with Asquith, Lloyd George and the Conservatives, the campaign to embroil America in the Old World’s war, the blow-by-blow action of the Battle of Britain, the details of D-Day – and took on countless lesser burdens so he was able to concentrate on what really mattered.
Come whatever did, there were always excellent meals on the table, cigars in his box, brandy and champagne to quaff, clothes laid out, servants to serve, maids and schools for the children, time to write the articles and books that so often staved off bankruptcy. Clementine was almost always available to advise, attend meetings, canvass, network, and pick up his pieces; even his justly celebrated wartime speeches were run past her before delivery, and he would turn to her after broadcasts and ask “Was that all right?”. She may even have saved his life, once grabbing him as he teetered on a platform edge at Bristol station as a train approached – and bolstering him during his blackest period, sacked from the Admiralty after the Dardanelles debacle. He became vastly dependent on her, sometimes climbing into her unmade bed to feel close to her when she was away, or telling her he became “frightened” whenever she was absent. His upbringing in heavily-staffed great houses had made him largely incapable of catering for himself, and encouraged a general insouciance about money; “Clementine struggled to see a way out, Winston simply assumed there would be one”. David Lough leads his book with an 1898 quote from his principal – “The only thing that worries me in life is money” – but apparently Winston did not let this worry get between him and sleep as often as perhaps it should.
There were constant family problems to contend with too; their daughter Marigold died just short of her third birthday, Diana battled with barbiturates and breakdowns (she would kill herself in 1962), Sarah became an alcoholic, and their only son Randolph was a boorish and feckless ingrate. Clementine’s relations with Winston’s mother Jennie were also rivalrous, and Clementine disapproved of Jennie’s bed-hopping (doubtless because of her own mother’s behaviour). This is not even to mention Winston’s manifold shortcomings – his depressions, extravagance (F. E. Smith once remarked that Churchill “was easily satisfied with the best”), garrulity, impatience, lack of political sense, quick temper, and self-absorption that verged sometimes on sociopathy. As an example of this last trait, after his name appeared on an I.R.A. hit list, he barricaded himself away in an attic bedroom with a steel door and brought a gun to bed every night, while the then heavily pregnant Clementine slept in her usual, unsecured, room downstairs. Clementine is thought to have considered divorce several times between the wars, but apart from the practical drawbacks, both kept gravitating back to each other out of what seems to have been psychological necessity, a shared desire for what Purnell calls “comfort and protection”.
She was capable of obnoxiousness in her own right, often being thrown into fury by something as simple as cold soup, or coloured flower arrangements. Their children could never relax with her, feeling obliged to be constantly entertaining in her cold presence (with the partial exception of Mary), while staff sometimes found her terrifying. But maybe the most startling thing we learn about her is how, despite her disapproval of extra-marital sex, she nonetheless facilitated it in the interests of the war effort. She allowed her daughter-in-law Pamela to cuckold Randolph with Averell Harriman and other useful Americans – at best pretending it wasn’t happening, but at times almost encouraging it. She also indulged Sarah’s equally useful extra-marital liaison with U.S. ambassador Gil Winant. She knew Pamela and Sarah were unhappy in their marriages, and sex has always been used as a weapon in matters of state, but still this leaves an aftertaste, this defender of the global high ground behaving just a bit like a Borgia. It does not seem quite to fit with the moral exemplar Pamela remembered as “Presbyterian…a very good woman [who put] morals…above any emotion”. She could also be a terrific snob; while at Chequers, Winston’s private secretary Jock Colville noted,
It amused me mildly that Mrs. C, who does nothing but profess democratic and radical sentiments, should put off inviting any of the officers to dine until the guard consisted of the Coldstream.
After 1945, both Winston and Clementine were as used-up as the country they had so recently commanded, and old problems came flooding back to add to the accumulating ailments of age. Financial worries returned, as England added impecuniousness to ingratitude, and Churchill became an embarrassing Colonel Blimp (David Lough recalls his history teacher telling him in 1964 that Winston was “a romantic old windbag”), his attitudes antediluvian, his postwar administrations exercises in futility, his bank balance still fluctuating. After he died in 1965, she remained loyal to his shade, for the almost-thirteen years left to her preserving his myth, keeping up appearances by sales of effects, taking up a pointless life peerage, growing deaf, striking up confiding conversations with relative strangers and the epically indiscreet Noël Coward – a symbol of an aimless kingdom, living in ever less splendid isolation, trading on the past, with nothing to hope for, a deeply poignant winding-down of an extraordinarily meaningful life.
It is testament to the persistence of the Churchill legend that a major publisher should have thought devoting 532 pages to an in-depth discussion of his finances would be a commercial proposition. Everyone already knows Churchill was a spendthrift, and how many of even the most cultish Churchillians feel a need to know the dismal details of his bank balances, debts, loans, mortgages and sundry outgoings? It would seem a great many, judging from the fact that No More Champagne was listed by the Times, Wall Street Journal, Daily Mail and Guardian among their books of 2015. The book is very well-crafted, indeed masterly in its handling of material, as one would expect from a former private banker in possession of a first-class history degree from Oxford. But is that material intrinsically interesting?
The unexpected answer is yes. In a period when we like to whinge about wealth, and demand “transparency” from even the most pathetic of our politicians, it is entertaining to be reminded of Churchill’s conspicuous consumption, gambling, impulse purchases, late bill-paying, speculation, and tax avoidance. His finances have a flamboyant, freewheeling flavour, in keeping with a British tradition of buccaneering capitalism, but very much at odds with today’s prissier priorities. Furthermore, because Churchill’s money problems were akin to those being experienced by many other aristocratic families, his narrow economic history also becomes a national narrative, as landed interests were increasingly superseded by new money deriving from the likes of railways, mining and newspapers. Victorians and Edwardians waxed rich, the Great War wreaked economic havoc to add to the aching loss, the Twenties to Forties were touch-and-go, the Fifties pinched, and much of that time Churchill’s personal surpluses and deficits paralleled those of his beloved, doomed Empire.
Churchill’s political views were also partly formed by financial pressures which brought him into regular contact with and helping him understand the new class of entrepreneurs, some of whom would prove invaluable at times when he might otherwise have gone under. His ease with these, and experience of economic precariousness, also helps accounts for his fractious relations with the Conservative Party, complacent, protectionist, and still largely wedded to the landed order. Lough notes,
A common thread of exceptional risk-taking unites Churchill’s financial dealings and his political career.
There were countervailing pressures too; his need to take on writing commissions and lecture tours simultaneously raised his profile and gave him less time for front-line politics. The author also suggests one of the reasons Churchill would later return to the Conservatives could be that by then he had inherited his great-grandmother’s Irish estate. Churchill’s many adorers also ought to be reminded that their man found time in the war years to better his position, the major debts of 1939 turning into the equivalent of £4 million by 1945.
Through endless telling details, unpromising ledger line by line, Lough draws out subtle private meaning from scrutinised private means, eventually accounting for the statesman in full – colourful but constrained, idealistic but enmeshed, a man always partway between Destiny and his bank manager. As well as being unexpected, No More Champagne is also an understated triumph of the biographer’s art – an acutely English appreciation of a great Englishman present as everything altered, a prisoner of circumstances as much as a shaper of things to come.
This review first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission
The Bad Boys of Brexit
Arron Banks, London: Biteback, 2016, hb., £18.99
Arron Banks looks out proudly and pugnaciously from the cover of Bad Boys of Brexit like a character in a Hogarth engraving, flanking the equally Hogarthian Nigel Farage, in a photo taken as Farage faced the globe’s agog media on the auspicious morning of 24th June 2016. The four men pictured – Banks, Farage, Richard Tice and Andrew Wigmore – look rumpled, tired and unshaven, but deeply happy – a natural reaction from the adrenalised, unexpected victors of one of the bitterest battles in recent British political history. For Farage, it was the culmination of 25 years unstinting campaigning, years filled with controversy and contumely – but he would probably never have had that moment’s supreme satisfaction had it not been for the men around him, perhaps especially the stocky, dark-haired man to his right who appears to be trying to suppress a gargantuan laugh.
Banks, 51, is John Bullishly English – class-conscious, combative, commonsensical, generous, impatient, opinionated, slightly philistine, sturdily patriotic, tough, and vigorous, of just the phenotype Hogarth envisioned living in Beer Street. He had only known Farage for two years, and their first meeting did not go very smoothly – but from the outset he recognised Farage’s special qualities, and realised that working with him would be mutually beneficial, and maybe even world-altering. A youthful Thatcherite, when not engaged in building up his insurance empire Banks had observed despondingly the drift of European policy, and rued Conservative Eurosceptics’ inability or unwillingness to engage. So when Farage asked him to donate £100,000, he was happy to oblige. When he saw Foreign Secretary William Hague on TV dismissing the donation as being from “someone we haven’t heard of”, he rang Farage back to increase the amount to £1 million. Battle had been joined – against ineffective Tories as much as ideological Eurocrats.
He became closely involved with UKIP, but was dismayed to find it “hopelessly dysfunctional and ill-prepared for campaigning”, with more than its fair quotient of eccentric supporters, like John Mappin of Mappin & Webb, who once regaled Banks with a description of his “super-powered brain control system” which would swing the referendum their way. And there were others he thought much worse, especially Douglas Carswell, the ex-Tory who was then UKIP’s only M.P. (Often, Banks prefers principled leftists to Conservatives.) Banks became fiercely protective of Farage, likening himself and Andrew Wigmore to
…loyal guard dogs that are more than a little feral and unpredictable when we’re off the lead. [Farage] loves us and we love him, but occasionally we bite him on the backside and he responds with a sharp kick.
Farage was fortunate indeed to have found such deep-pocketed stalwarts to found and lead the Brexit umbrella group which was founded in July 2015 as “The Know”, then relaunched as Leave E.U. the following September. Banks loaned £6m and helped raise a further £11m, Wigmore was director of communications, and Tice (“Mr. Collegiate”) also gave generously and soothed egos bruised by his brusquer colleagues. Provoked by an anti-Brexit intervention by the I.M.F.’s Christine Lagarde, Banks growls “it’s time to audit the elites” – and this is just what Leave E.U. did. Big politics, big business, big institutions and big opinion were all fair game, targeted eventually by a campaign staff of ninety using big data, with a sixty-strong call-centre signing up supporters and donors, all from an industrial estate off the M5 motorway, beside a Premier Inn – an unlikely HQ for a nationalist resistance movement.
If BBC producers aren’t spluttering organic muesli over their breakfast tables every morning we won’t be doing our job
he notes – revealing much about his personality and Leave E.U’s tactics, not to mention the neoliberal Right’s fondness for cliché, and perverse prejudice against environmental responsibility.
The American political campaign consultancy Goddard Gunter were taken on as advisers, and the campaign even enlisted the TV hypnotist Paul McKenna as a consultant. On the eve of the referendum, Banks calculated that Leave E.U. had issued twenty million leaflets and nineteen million letters, amassed millions of video views and one million social media followers, and reached some fifteen million people every week – many of whom would have been ignored or unmoved by Vote Leave, the more anodyne, officially-designated Brexit campaign group fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Banks was brought up partly in South Africa, which gave him a taste for frontier pastimes like diamond-mining, drinking, fishing, off-roading, and shooting. He was sent to a private school in England, and beguiled these obviously duller times through sundry “high-spirited activities”, eventually being expelled for antics including selling stolen lead. He calmed down sufficiently to move into the British insurance industry, first at Lloyds, then setting up his own vastly lucrative enterprises – not to mention a bank, a diamond mining firm and a leisure business. He is married to a Russian, has five children, and owns two Gloucestershire mansions. His combativeness and purse pride are meliorated by charitable commitments, honesty, and wistful tastes – If is a “great poem”, while To The Manor Born is his idea of ideal viewing.
Bad Boys of Brexit was pieced together after the campaign from Banks’ e-mails, texts and daily jottings, and his own “fallible memory”. It took just six weeks to assemble the text with the help of Isabel Oakeshott, and although they did an excellent job sometimes their speed shows; a few individuals are mentioned without the reader being told who they are, while there are references to arguments Leave E.U. had with N.A.S.A. and the sports journalist Gary Lineker without any background being sketched in. Irritatingly, there is no index – just a characteristic note, “If you’re looking for the index, there isn’t one. Deliberately. Read the bloody book!” This decision may have been made partly to save production time, but is mostly designed to prevent politicos index-surfing for mentions of themselves and skipping the rest of the text, as some are wont to do. This is a nuisance for a reviewer who wants to cross-check some fact, and it will hinder academic use. Nonetheless, Bad Boys rings true, and when Banks claims he was “careful to avoid hindsight”, generally we can believe him. His memory may well be “fallible” and selective, but whose is not? In any event, the result is engrossing, funny, insightful, and revealing of how modern British politics works (or doesn’t work).
He uses sniper rounds as well as grapeshot, alternately hitting marks precisely and peppering the enemy. Politicos who do read Bad Boys searching for their names will usually wish they had not bothered, because his opinion of them is usually withering. But then they probably know already, because Banks always fought out in the open, to the chagrin not just of the consensual Tice, but even the combative Farage. Douglas Carswell is “autistic with a touch of mental illness”; Tory M.P. Peter Bone resembles “a lost extra from The Addams Family”; as for another Tory M.P., Teresa Coffey, “let’s just say they didn’t invent the phrase ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ with this lady in mind”. On the Left, Neil Kinnock is the “bellend of all bellends”, while François Hollande “has the expression of a man who’s been presented with a cassoulet when he ordered duck à l’orange”.
Elephant gun ammunition is reserved for Vote Leave’s principals, Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott. Banks dislikes them personally – he calls Cummings a “shyster”, and issues Elliott with a writ for defamation after he hears Elliott has been calling him a racist and homophobe – but most of all he despairs of their messaging. Their expensively produced, eminently forgettable Brexit: The Movie is “a free-market wet dream” framed with “weirdo, dead-eyed academics”, and he labels their eye-catching claim of how an independent UK would save £350 million every week “a blatant lie” which undermines the Brexit case. Their over-reliance on Eighties figures like Nigel Lawson and David Owen reminds him of “grave robbing”. He feels they are too close to the S.W.1 elite, too set in their tactics, to be reliable –
The stars of the Vote Leave show have been dining out on Euroscepticism for years, preaching to a congregation of pinstriped bores who will lap up any glib Shakespeare quote thrown their way with a chorus of smug guffaws.
He is unfair to Vote Leave, who did deliver a more middle-class, middle-of-the-road demographic less amenable to Leave E.U.’s emphases. A Brexit campaign fronted by Nigel Farage would probably not have succeeded; the charisma of Boris Johnson, the intelligence of Michael Gove, and the prestige of their high offices were vital assurances for many. But there were unnecessary tensions between the groups, and they were chiefly caused by Vote Leave (who also snubbed several attempts at truces).
Seen in retrospect, these “friendly fire” incidents seem amusing, like the predictable media smears – Banks and Wigmore as supposed tax dodgers because of links with the British Virgin Islands and Belize, the resurfacing of 25 year old tabloid tales about Wigmore’s supposed sex life, not to mention endless allegations of the usual ‘phobias’. Of course at the time they were anything but amusing, and any could have derailed the whole endeavour. Nevertheless, Banks clearly enjoyed the bare-knuckle sport, such as when he responded to Vatican comments about Brexit erecting barriers by tweeting a picture of the forbiddingly circumvallated Vatican. When David Beckham spoke against Brexit, Leave E.U. relishingly published anti-E.U. comments made in 1996 by his wife Victoria, and laughed off threats to sue. When Farage was omitted from a BBC television debate, Leave E.U. published the e-mail addresses and mobile phone numbers of the leaders of Vote Leave, Douglas Carswell, the producer, and the e-mail of the BBC director general. A House of Commons select committee before which Leave E.U. leaders testified descended into a shambles when it mixed up Richard Tice with an unrelated namesake who had died in 1910. Banks was half-amused, half-infuriated when Unionists hesitated to sign the Ulster cross-party Brexit declaration because the ink looked green (i.e., “Irish”), only agreeing when shown that it looked golden in certain lights. Whatever was thrown at them, Banks and the others threw it back with added interest, fuelled by testosterone and lubricated by copious quantities of alcohol.
Banks’ pleasure was (and is) basically boyish, shocking sensitivities simply because they were (and are) sensitivities. After Leave E.U. issued a video about migrant violence, he rubbed his hands together metaphorically –
We’ve got our biggest gasp of outrage yet from the leftie media, and we’re savouring it.
Those gasps grew life-threatening on 16th June; in the morning Leave E.U. unveiled a poster showing a column of refugees tramping along a European road under the heading “Breaking Point”. There were frantic denunciations, and Farage was already on edge – then in the afternoon Labour M.P. Jo Cox, a Remainer and refugee settlement advocate, was murdered by a man shouting “Britain first!” Leave E.U. suspended campaigning immediately but this did not stop Remainers from making cheap conceptual connections.
The highly charged offensive came to its end under suitable skies as a vast electrical storm flashed across Britain, and flooding in the south, with almost every expert assuming the Brexit cause was lost. At lunch on the day, Farage said “We’re going to lose. I can feel it in my waters”, and he conceded defeat to a Sky journalist. Banks empathised
Years of political disappointment had conditioned him…he didn’t dare to believe it could be different this time
But he for one believed the thing would be won, based on a Leave E.U. poll. As the night wore on, the drinks went down and the results came in, everything of course altered, and Banks and Wigmore floated out of the wake-turned-party at dawn, half-drunk and clutching yet more champagne – to see the Thames and Westminster in fragile light, in a celebratory cacophony of taxi and truck horns, and an elderly man trying to get as much money as he could out of a cash machine because he feared a run on the banks. “We’ve done it! It has actually f***ing happened. Independence Day.” – and then they were all on College Green, S.W.1, blinking at the first day of a new era, grouped around Farage in proprietorial hope as similar auxiliaries once clustered around Hereward the Wake, Wat Tyler, Jack Cade, or John Wilkes.
That day is already passing into folklore, becoming part of an insular mythos, and now…now what indeed, for Britain, and especially this energised man? “I’ve got a feeling my time in politics has only just begun”, he writes. The Brexit vote was only a “halfhearted revolution”, and he does not trust the May government to deliver the controlled-border “Singapore on steroids” he seeks. He keeps a watching brief on UKIP although his heart departed when Farage left as leader. In July, he was asking himself “We can’t let all the energy just fade away…we’ve got this great movement for change…so what do we do with it?” For now, Banks has contented himself with launching Westmonster.com, a Breitbart-inspired news site described as “pro-Brexit, pro-Farage, pro-Trump, anti-establishment, anti-open borders, anti-corporatism” – but can this most boisterous of businessmen sustain interest in this abstracter kind of politicking? The only thing certain is, as Donald Trump joked to Farage when they all met him, “Those boys look like trouble. I’d keep an eye on them.”
This review first appeared in the May 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission
HANS SLOANE: COLLECTOR OF CURIOSITIES, MAKER OF MODERNITY
Collecting the World – The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane
James Delbourgo, London: Allen Lane, 2017, hb., 504pps., £25
Sloane Square, Sloane Street and Hans Place contain some of London’s most desirable addresses, but what do the occasionally resident Qatari princelings and Russian oligarchs, or retreating English “Sloane Rangers”, know about the man after whom their chic streets are named? Hans Sloane sometimes seems to be hiding in plain historical sight, forgotten despite these street names, and others through that district. And his legacy extends infinitely wider than these prosperous purlieus, helping shape England’s intellectual life and the history of science, and so the modern world. It is Rutgers-Harvard historian James Delbourgo’s task to extricate Sloane from relative obscurity, absolve him from accusations of amateurism, collectionitis, connoisseurship and dilettantism, and examine the sometimes troubling origins of British identity, and epistemology then and now.
Examination is overdue. There have been spasmodic academic investigations into Sloane – Delbourgo contributed to one 2012 essay collection – but no biography since 1954. Sloane rarely merits even footnote mention in histories of medicine or science, although he was Secretary to the Royal Society for twenty years and its President for fourteen, was central to the foundation of the British Museum and its Natural History and Library offshoots, and provided incomparable source material for the likes of Linnaeus. Sans Sloane, anthropology and ethnology would have taken longer to emerge. Why is he not better remembered? What was it like to be an intellectual in late Stuart-early Enlightenment England? What is the precise nature of his legacy? How does the science of then differ from today’s? And, as the author asked in The Atlantic last year, “Who owns antiquity?” Delbourgo seeks answers to all kinds of interesting questions, and happily provides them.
Sloane was born in 1660, in the Down town of Killyleagh. His Scottish father and English mother were Plantation stock, helping root Protestantism in unruly Ulster. His father worked as agent for his relative the 2nd Viscount Clandeboye, and prospered in his own right, but died when Sloane was just six. At sixteen Sloane nearly succumbed to a “violent hæmorrhage”, making him unusually mindful of his health, abstemious and moderate, although this may also stem in part from his theology. He early manifested interest in the natural world, exploring the landscape around Strangford Lough and bird-nesting on nearby islands, and was able to avail of Killyleagh Castle’s library. Details of his youth are sketchy, but he probably assembled his first finds in emulation of aristocratic “cabinets of curiosities”, of the kind that can still be seen in country houses – improbable assemblages of collected or come-across objects, artificial and natural oddments arranged as decorative conversation-pieces for the leisured. Anticipating his own and others’ criticisms of privileged enquirers, Delbourgo reminds us that Sloane’s comforts and freedoms were obtained at the expense of dispossessed Catholics – cultural appropriation derived from territorial expropriation.
He went to London in 1679 to study medicine, and became acquainted with John Ray and Robert Boyle. He gathered botanical specimens in France (Ray utilised these for his Historia Planetarium) and gained his MD at the Huguenot University of Orange. He was admitted to both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society before going to Jamaica in 1687, as physician to the incoming Governor, the Duke of Albemarle. He spent fifteen formative months there tending to mostly English patients, including the privateer-politician Henry Morgan and of course the Duke, and exploring the safer parts of the island’s interior. He accumulated things indefatigably, not to say indiscriminately, from minerals to bones, insects to plants, antiquities to folk art, and shell-encrusted pieces of shipwreck to musical instruments, which he catalogued in near-obsessive detail. He was fortunate to find, in that enervating environment, painstaking draughtsmen to draw his finds, later published as the lavish, two-volume Natural History of Jamaica, which Delbourgo calls “a hybrid of providentialism, profit and savagery designed simultaneously to enlighten and beguile”. The title page was emblazoned with an evocative verse from the Book of Daniel, that had been used by Francis Bacon – “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased”.
He took an interest in almost everything, accepting of whatever he found but in so doing being effectively exploitative. Like most of his contemporaries, he was purblind about slavery – ironic because English Protestant imperialists felt morally superior to Spanish Catholic ones, and made agitprop use of Iberian inhumanity. He treated sick slaves, but rather as a vet would treat valuable livestock, less empathetic to their sufferings than to those of the English, holding them to different standards. Yet paradoxically he noted aspects of their lives that would otherwise have remained unrecorded; for example, he was responsible for the earliest transcription of African music in the Americas. It is only fair to remember that the newly imperial English were in global rivalry with equally unscrupulous others, intoxicated by the world’s new wideness, more interested in money-making and naval strengths than in contemplating navels. He also met his future wife, married to a plantation owner but who would soon be widowed, whose slave and sugar-derived funds would prove vastly useful (more reason not to notice slavery), and gave him daughters to carry his genes into gentlemanliness.
He returned to England with Albemarle’s badly-embalmed body, accompanied by portmanteaux of exotica, materia medica and live animals, including a seven foot snake. He resumed his practice, promoting the use of quinine, inoculation against smallpox, and the drinking of chocolate, earning a reputation for discretion and urbanity which allowed entrée to the capital’s bon ton, ultimately including royalty. So greatly did he prosper that he naturally attracted resentments, with Tory satirists calling him “Dr. Slyboots”, and Isaac Newton descending from rarefied heights to call him “villain and rascal”. But Sloane kept on imperturbably, from his Bloomsbury home furthering all kinds of scientific enquiries and transactions, with a global correspondence and an open wallet. Among celebrated visitors was Handel, who supposedly enraged him by placing a buttered muffin on a rare book. Having outgrown one house, he bought the one next door, and then the manor of Chelsea as country retreat. He covenanted the site of the Chelsea Physic Garden in perpetuity to the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries – for which alone he ought to be honoured by moderns.
When he died in 1753, he was the owner of a unique treasure-trove, mostly natural history items, but including 23,000 coins and medals, 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts, and 1,125 “things relating to the customs of ancient times”. He willed it should be made available to the nation for just £20,000, on condition it became “a musaeum, visited and seen by all persons desirous of viewing the same and rendered as useful as possible”. And it did, the British Museum opening not far from his old houses – its existence helping codify the still-settling national identity just seven years after Culloden, and furthermore solidifying European civilizatory claims to global dominance, and all of modernity. Who owns antiquity indeed, and why it matters…territory increasingly fought over.
For all its liberal protestations, our age can be arrogant, treating history as irrelevant, or the past as another country populated by ignoramuses, oppressors and retrogrades. It is accordingly easy to overlook a man whose wide angle lens could imply inability to focus, and whose energies were expended across so many fields of enquiry. For all his assiduity and organising intelligence, maybe Sloane was simply outshone by even more brilliant stars – his labours less quantifiable than Boyle’s Law, Linnaean nomenclature or Newton’s Principia, less obviously engaging than Pepys or Evelyn, less tangible than St. Paul’s or the Royal Hospital. Yet even incomplete intellectual interest is surely always better than bland incuriosity, while accusations of historical insensitivity miss the point. As you leaf through these pages, it becomes clear just how culturally central a figure Sloane was, and is – that this unassuming and even unimaginative man made a more useful contribution to the stock of scientific understanding than many better known figures. Delbourgo has given us an unforgettable portrait of a quiet man in full, recorder of a vanished world that in many ways is still with us, whose unflagging, unpretentious additions of fact upon fact, specimen upon specimen, helped make our universe.
This review first appeared in Spiked in November 2017, and is reproduced with permission
HOMING IN ON ENGLAND
The Story of England – A Village and Its People Through the Whole of English History
Michael Wood, London: Penguin, 2011, 440 pp.
Michael Wood begins with a quotation from Blake: “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” This summarises his aim, which is to zero in on one small English place and use its specific saga to tell the tale of all England from prehistory to present.
The place is Kibworth, an outwardly unremarkable assemblage of three settlements – Kibworth Beauchamp, Kibworth Harcourt, and Smeeton Westbury – nine miles southeast of Leicester. It was chosen because it is close to the geographic centre of England and because, since 1270, parts of the township have been owned by Merton College, Oxford. Centuries of busy bursars have therefore kept voluminous records on their every transaction with their outlying asset. Such completeness is rare and, when combined with other evidence, BBC money, the author’s imaginativeness, and the interested involvement of residents, allows an unusually intimate glimpse into the private life of a place inhabited continuously for at least 2,000 years. Kibworth is “emphatically England in miniature” – a representative locus whose triumphs and travails mirror those of the rest of the country, and which will share England’s fate, for better or worse.
Even in today’s swollen settlements bestriding the busy A6, the alert chorographer can find trace elements of dizzyingly distant times – the spoor of ancient Britons, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans somehow surviving into the pedestrian present, persisting in road routes, hedge lines, field names, and local lore. Prehistoric people gravitated to Kibworth because of its good soil and its location straddling the watersheds of two major rivers. The Stone Age became Bronze, and the Bronze Agers elided into Iron, almost unnoticed except for the mounds that mark the graves of their important. A huge hoard of Iron Age gold and copper coins bearing “the resonant names of shadowy Corieltauvian kings” was found nearby in 2000. Romans and Romanized Kibworthians living at this “outermost edge of the known world” in their turn mislaid coins, potsherds, and tesseræ. After the Eagles were recalled to deal with sudden home emergencies, Jute and Angle ‘barbarians’ quit their stemlands and breached the Saxon Shore in earnest, turning Rome’s most peripheral province into an outpost of the Germanosphere.
Wood clearly relishes the ‘Dark Ages’ combination of imperial overthrow, natural disasters, and English national nascence. He cites The Ruin, a fragmentary eighth century poem, to indicate with what wonder more imaginative newcomers must have regarded the Roman remains they found:
Wrætlic is þes wealstan; wyrde gebræcon
burgatede burston; brosna enta geweorc
Hrofas Sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime
(“Wondrous wallstones, broken by fate; the courtyard pavements smashed, the work of giants; their roofs fallen, the cement on their gates split by frost”)
Britannia’s new “plunder-lords, deed-doers, ring-givers, leaders of men”, who fought one another and fell on long-forgotten fields, were Germans but they incidentally invented England. One arriver, an otherwise obscure homesteader called Cybba, bequeathed his name to his worth (an Old English word meaning ‘enclosure’) and what would become the Leicestershire landscape. These pocket potentates also ensured that England would one day become a Christian country, with enormous consequences. Wood notes,
The Christian narrative is so wedded to the English story, to English culture and, till only recently, to the English sense of identity that we have tended to think it was both inevitable and a good thing . . . from the eighth century until the twentieth English history to a greater or lesser degree will be Christian.
He alludes to the apocryphal Frisian monarch
…who at the last moment stepped away from the baptismal font saying he would rather spend the next life with his brave pagan ancestors, even though in hell, than with the pallid Christians in their heaven
to make us ponder what might have been, had other rulers rejected rather than accepted the teachings of Augustine, Chad, and others. There is an amusing anecdote of Archbishop Tarsus, who was so disgusted by the understated evangelizing of Saint Chad that he lifted him onto a horse and “told him brusquely to get on with it”. (Quotations in this book are too often unattributed.)
Scandinavians in search of plunder or pasture faced off against the Britons of Wessex along this shifting ethnocultural frontline. Kibworth was just inside the Danelaw, and the numbers of the newcomers were smaller than was long imagined; recent DNA studies suggest that even in the East Midlands epicentre of Viking visitations, only around ten percent of the population were of Danish or Norwegian stock. (Elsewhere, it was between one and five percent.) The region long remained “poised on the cusp of history, between the no longer and the not yet.”
Then came other Northmen from Normandy, in small but significant numbers, to plant chivalry and feudalism largely against the wishes of the English – the latter collective noun increasingly incorporating Britons, Irish, and Scots as well as Saxons and Vikings. There commenced contumacious centuries – dynastic struggles, barons’ wars against monarchs, peasants’ revolts against barons, local risings against London, and intra-Christian disputes. Wood illustrates all these complexities through shrewdly chosen anecdotes, like those surrounding the highly symbolic figure of Simon de Montfort – a French-speaking Norman who became an exemplar of English liberties for presiding over the first English parliament. His early trajectory was full of promise, his very name hinting at a great fate. There was a Frenglish chant:
Comment hom le nome?
WHAT’S HIS NAME?
He’s called MON-FORT!
He’s in the monde and he’s big and strong;
He loves what’s right and he hates what’s wrong;
And he’ll always come out on top!
Wood juxtaposes Montfortmania neatly with the post-Evesham reality, the ex-hero’s head daintily dispatched to Lady Mortimer, his testicles affixed to his nose, while his tarred limbs were placed above Gloucester’s city gates.
It was not only war that would winnow England. The Gloucester gates that sported de Montfort’s disjecta membra in 1264 would be barred in 1348 in a forlorn attempt to keep out the Black Death – the rat-flea borne buboes that spread at almost a mile per day in that ill-starred year. The January 1349 entry in one Kibworthian’s “omen book” shows dark, hooded figures firing arrows and the inscription “The arrew smites thorow the cloth / That makus many men wel wroth.” About that time the plague announced itself, and Kibworth Harcourt suffered an estimated 70% fatality rate, the highest known in England. It left profound psychic scars; even now, the purported plague pit is unploughed.
Like all the East Midlands, Kibworth was prone to Protestantism. Wycliffe was a Leicestershire man, and some of the earliest Lollards came from Kibworth. “I smelle a Lollere in the wind,” wrote Chaucer disapprovingly. Chaucer was a courtier, and the anti-episcopal urge was always associated with political revolution, like the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt or Sir John Oldcastle’s abortive revolt of 1417. Wood demonstrates that rebellions against ecclesiastical and political authorities are a kind of national tradition. He pays tribute to the archetypal awkward Englishman who may be censorious, but knows his rights and is “eager . . . to lead his own spiritual life – and to help others find theirs”.
However, the author is susceptible to the magic of the highly colored Catholic universe, writing of
…the shrine of St Wistan with its little painted statue of the royal prince and martyr, whose golden hair, it was said, waved each year at the end of May in the long grass of the water meadows below Kibworth.
He is highly critical of some of the consequences of Protestantism – “[N]o sooner is Purgatory fading away than a possessive individualism is making itself felt”. Many felt cut adrift from their past and even their family history:
One of the more profound effects . . . was in the long term to sever the relationship between the dead and the living. . . . [D]ead Protestants were now beyond the reach of prayer. [T]he Reformation thus radically revised not only the rituals but the process of salvation itself; as one might say, its conceptual geography.
Then there were some of the flawed exemplars of the Reformed religion, for whom “helping others find their own spiritual lives” meant forcing them. The 1650 Act against “Atheistical, Blasphemous and execrable opinions” also forbade such horrors as “Whitson-Ales, Wakes, Morris Dances, May-poles, Stage-plays . . . or such like Licentious practices.”
One Protestant Pecksniff was the Civil War-era Puritan vicar of Kibworth, John Yaxley, described as
…a great disturber of the peace, by day and night, searching for cavaliers and making great havoc and spoil of people’s goods.. . . [H]e constantly preached and prayed.
Even as Charles Il arrived triumphantly in London in 1660, Yaxley, still desirous of destruction after nearly 20 years of bloodletting, was hyperventilating:
Hell is broke loose, the devil and his instruments are coming to persecute the godly.
Anglicanism eventually squared the circle, but nonconformist currents persisted in Kibworth as elsewhere and informed the eventual emergence of the English Left, which famously in England “owes more to Methodism than Marxism”. There are conceptual and temperamental connections between Lollards, Puritans, Quakers, Wesleyans, temperance campaigners, suffragettes and politically correct politicians. Wood is part of that generic Left, evincing admiration for Engels and E.P. Thompson and their “great works”. The Independent’s reviewer Nick Groom applauded the author’s “democratic zeal”. But he is a liberal rather than an authoritarian leftist. He may be guilty of wishful thinking – but if so it is caused by a quiet kind of patriotism.
Ancient associations entrance him as well as us. An atmospheric photograph shows the site of the “Spear Tree”, the former Bronze Age burial mound on the Roman road north of Kibworth, which became the place where Anglo-Saxons would gather in wapentake (their assent to decisions signified by brandishing their spears) and continued to be the meeting place of local juries until the 1720s. Wood’s passion for connections leads him to draw parallels between past and present, sometimes slightly forced. For example, it seems anachronistic to aver that “the genetic makeup of the early Anglo-Saxons was especially mixed”, and “that the England of the early eleventh century was ‘a diverse, multi-ethnic society’”. He may be trying to rationalise the recent immigration that has made Leicester England’s most diverse city. In so doing, he overstates the dissimilarity of the Anglo-Saxons, contradicts his own testimony that the Viking component of the English population was small, and understates the unifying effects of the English language and Christianity. He also omits to mention that there was virtually no immigration into England between the eleventh century and the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in 1948. The Independent‘s Groom homed in on this, recommending that Wood should revisit too-white Kibworth soon
…to see how imaginatively a traditional English identity, already rooted in Roman-British, Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlement, has accommodated the Asian and Caribbean communities.
That should be if rather than how. Can Leicester’s sundry soup of nationalities ever imagine themselves into the English narrative? It seems unlikely. The “mysterious crystallization” that Wood says gave everyone England appears to be undoing itself. His “givenness of the past” has been taken away. Today, England probably seems more real at Kibworth than in Leicester, or London.
Wood also claims that, during World War Il,
Kibworth people . . . saw a higher purpose than Churchill’s narrow rhetoric about empire; namely a community of interest with the people of Europe to counteract Germany’s ‘New Europe’
Did they really? Were they not fighting mostly because Hitler had given no choice, plus British imperialism mixed (contradictorily) with what many would now see as ‘intolerant’ nationalism.
These imperfections registered, we are left with a lyrical and learned appreciation of one of the world’s most fascinating countries, seen through the eyes of a very few of the ‘ordinary’ people who carried England’s accumulating weight onward against extraordinary odds. Whether they can continue to do so is yet to be seen, but at any rate Wood’s exercise in particularization is a success story.
The review first appeared in Chronicles in January 2012, and is reproduced with permission
LETTER FROM INDO-PORTUGAL – IRREDUCIBLE INDIA
When Vasco da Gama’s three battered little ships dropped anchor off Calicut on May 20, 1498, after a voyage of over ten months, they had finally found the sea route between Europe and India so long sought by Portugal’s kings and explorers. Apart from the desire for knowledge, Da Gama’s tatterdemalion miniarmada had come for two reasons – one mystical, one practical – summed up in the famous exchange between resident Moors (who had long been trading here) and Lusitanians: “What the Devil? What brought you hither?” “We came in search of Christians and spices.”
The Christians da Gama found were not the Prester John types the Portuguese had envisioned but Nestorians who had never even heard of the pope. Da Gama chose to overlook this awkward fact. He also long believed that the local Hindus were Christians, too, albeit with unorthodox practices and curiously multi-limbed idols.
The main reason for Da Gama’s, voyage was more prosaic. The Portuguese had long wanted to be able to obtain Indian spices without having to go through Arab and Venetian intermediaries. Not only did they want to save money, but they hoped to remove this highly profitable trade from the hands of Arab merchants and so weaken their erstwhile cruel occupier. (The Moors had been expelled from Portugal in 1253.)
Da Gama’s gifts to the zamorin, the Hindu ruler of Calicut – which included striped cloth, nuts, and honey – were hopelessly inadequate. This caused the zamorin to doubt Portugal’s importance and hearken to the intrigues of the Moorish merchants, who wanted their new rivals expelled. The situation was not helped by da Gama’s temperament. (Indignado is an adjective often used by Portuguese historians to describe him.)
Portugal’s machinations were assisted by other factors. They were not the only ones anxious to rein in Muslim military aggression and economic might. As well as fighting among themselves, Muslim armies were engaged in constant wars against their infidel neighbours while, as Cornell historian H. Morse Stephens noted in his 1897 biography Albuquerque:
The concentration of all commerce in the hands of the believers in the Prophet was not favourably regarded by the wisest of the Hindu rulers, who were therefore inclined to heartily welcome any competitors for their trade.
Almost as soon as da Gama had returned to Portugal with his report, King Dom Manuel started to organize a much larger expedition under Capt.-Maj. Pedro Alvares Cabral, and this set sail from Belém on March 9, 1500, with the blessing of the Pope, who had by now conferred upon the kings of Portugal the optimistic title of “Lord of Navigation, Conquests and Trade of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India”.
The expedition was blown off course in the Atlantic and eventually found itself off a strange shore, to which Cabral laid claim on behalf of Portugal and gave the name Vera Cruz (today’s Brazil). Tristan da Cunha, Angola, and Mozambique were other by-products of the Indian explorations, and Portugal’s Indian bases at Goa, Diu, Daman, Bassein, and Bombay would eventually be used as springboards to colonize Ceylon, the Malaccas, and Macao. Like other empires before and since, Portugal’s grew like Topsy.
More gales off the Cape of Good Hope sank four ships, with their complements, including Bartholomew Dias – who, appropriately, had originally named the cape Cabo Tormentoso, or “Cape of Storms”. Eventually, six ships arrived at Calicut. Cabral ingratiated himself with the new zamorin – the old one had died – with carefully chosen gifts and was granted permission to found a Portuguese trading post. But finding that the Moorish merchants were preventing the Portuguese from obtaining worthwhile cargo, he seized a Moorish vessel. In retribution, the Moors attacked the trading post, killing the factor and 53 of his men. A furious Cabral destroyed ten large Moorish ships in the harbour and then bombarded the city of Calicut for two days.
The rajah of Cochin, 100 miles southward, was hostile to Calicut and so welcomed the Portuguese navigators. Cochin became the site of the first permanent European settlement in India, with a major trading post, staffed by seven Portuguese. Today, it is still one of Asia’s busiest ports, with great ships passing up and down the strait between the fort and Vypeen Island, through the mats of water hyacinth, beyond the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets that are one of the characteristic sights of what is now called Kochi.
Upon Cabral’s return to Lisbon in July 1501, he gave a highly partisan account of his travails, and the king accordingly developed a desire to “punish” Calicut. He prepared a powerful armada and chose da Gama as admiral. After various en route excesses, including the burning and sinking of a Moorish ship filled with unarmed pilgrims, da Cama bombarded Calicut and removed the ears and hands of some traders unlucky enough to be entering the port at the time (after which they were tied to the masts of their ships, which were set alight and pointed toward the shore). An armada sent by the zamorin was defeated easily, and da Gama returned to Lisbon in October 1503 with a hugely valuable cargo. (Da Gama was to make a third, final voyage to India in 1524, and he died on Christmas Eve that year at Cochin, where his stone may still be seen in St. Francis’s church – although his body was returned to Portugal in 1538.) It had become clear that the Portuguese would need to establish permanent military base on the Malabar Coast if they wanted to protect their mercantile interests. The place chosen by the leader of the 1510 expedition, Affonso de Albuquerque, a highly experienced soldier and sailor, was Goa.
Goa had been an important seaport since the third century B.C. and had been fought over by Hindus and Muslims since 1312. Eventually, it fell into the hands of the rajah of Bijapur, Yusuf Adil Shah, the lucky and talented son of a sultan of the Ottoman Turks. (Saved by his mother from being put to death upon the accession of Muhammad Il, he was educated secretly in Persia and rose from slave to army officer, governor, and king.) Under his rule, Goa became prosperous, but he taxed non-Muslims punitively, and his Turkish garrisons were notorious for their cruelty to nonbelievers. More mystically, an influential sadhu had prophesied that “a foreign people coming from a distant land” would conquer Goa. Augmenting this prophecy was the persistent appeal to the Indians of fairness of complexion, which gave the Portuguese automatic high-caste status (a preoccupation that is still very strong today).
Goa was ripe for regime change, and, when Albuquerque’s troops took the city on March 3, 1510, locals supposedly showered him with “flowers made of gold and silver”. But two months later, the Portuguese had to abandon Goa, as Adil Shah advanced to recapture the town. Because of the weather, they could not leave the harbour, so they remained at anchor in the mouth for almost three hungry and difficult months – during which time Adil Shah offered to provision the ships, saying that he wanted to beat the Portuguese in battle rather than by starvation, which offer Albuquerque spurned in a manner fully as indignado as da Gama, receiving the emissary on his flagship, to which the flotilla’s entire food supply had been brought as a bluff.
By November, Albuquerque was back, supported by 28 ships and both European and local troops. The ensuing battle gave rise to many anecdotes, such as Albuquerque’s comments to one of his lieutenants, who had carried on killing mounted enemies despite having an arrow sticking out of his face and blood all over his armour:
Sir Manoel de Lacerda, I declare to you that I am greatly envious of you, and so would Alexander the Great have been, had he been here, for you look more gallant for an evening’s rendezvous than the Emperor Aurelian.
Upon conquering the city for the second time, Albuquerque ordered that any Portuguese who had gone over to the Muslims should have their ears, noses, right hands, and the thumbs of their left hands removed and their hair plucked out. He also ordered the massacre of all the Muslim inhabitants, as the clemency he had extended after the first invasion had not been repaid with loyalty. Interfaith dialogue was never one of Albuquerque’s strong points. When first visiting Cochin, he had been shocked to find Jewish merchants in residence and had asked permission of the king to “exterminate them one by one”. (He did not succeed; there are still about twelve Jews living in Cochin, with a poignantly atmospheric 16th century synagogue, sole survivors of one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the world.) Yet he could be pragmatic and was adroit at exploiting divisions between foes. foes. With him as viceroy, Goa’s relations with its neighbours were marked by skill and ruthlessness. For example, Albuquerque suggested to one disaffected prince that he should facilitate his accession by means of poison. While on an expedition to the Persian Gulf, he ordered the immediate assassination of a hostile advisor to the king of Hormuz in front of that startled monarch, who subsequently became satisfactorily compliant.
He also fortified Goa and took steps to concentrate the whole trade of the coast in the harbor, to the extent that it soon became a hugely wealthy city, nicknamed “Golden Goa” and “Pearl of the Orient”. He founded a mint, reformed local government, and allowed native customs to continue as before, with the exception of suttee (not banned in British India until 1829). He also encouraged Portuguese of inferior rank to intermarry with the locals so as to bind the populations together. In his 1851 Goa and the Blue Mountains (a sparkling companion for long Indian train journeys), Sir Richard Burton blamed the eventual disappearance of Portuguese India squarely on this last policy – “a most treacherous and delusive political day dream”.
The Portuguese introduced the Goans to potatoes, peppers, and garlic. (The word vindaloo is from the Portuguese for “garlic wine”. ) Most notably, they began to build Southern European-style churches, convents, seminaries, gateways, forts, barracks, mercantile buildings, and houses, which today give parts of Goa and Cochin a distinctly Mediterranean architectural appearance, with wrought-iron balconies overlooking narrow streets, flaking pastel facades, bowing pantiled roofs, and verandas slowly collapsing under the combined onslaught of sun, rain, and insect. Goa’s massive churches, with their high, cool, empty interiors, could easily be in Lisbon or Oporto, except that the ornate baroque styling has been given an exuberant twist by local artisans, with local motifs and an occasional sinuousness of carving more reminiscent of Buddhist or Hindu sculpture than of Western – for instance, Mary nursing the Holy Infant in the branches of a golden palm tree, a host of badly painted, brown-eyed angels erupting out of gilt ectoplasm on a reredos. Many of the religious carvings are very crude –
…of the most grotesque description . . . saints, whose very aspect makes one shudder and think of Frankenstein
thought Burton – yet they are executed with great verve.
After Albuquerque’s death in 1515, Goa gradually became an important religious centre, with St. Francis Xavier using it as a base for missionary work in the Far East. (His body is in the Basilica of Bom Jesus at Goa and is the object of a major decennial pilgrimage.) Later, it became a notorious stronghold of the Inquisition, with regular autos-da-fé; the imposing, if clumsily carved, table used by the Inquisitors is on display in the Goa State Museum.
Standing in front of the fungus-spotted Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, I had an achingly beautiful view down over the Mandovi River and the luxuriant jungle, with the white churches of Old Goa shining incongruously above the coconut palms as the sun was setting. In the foreground, a sea eagle flapped lazily in the superheated updrafts, while I cooled down after the climb and looked out over the remains of Indo-Portugal.
Apart from the confectionery-white upper stories of Se Cathedral, the churches of St. Cajetan and St. Francis and the shard-tower of St. Augustine’s, the only signs of human activity were a small ship heading out to sea in the far distance and occasional plumes of smoke, rising straight up in the heat-blued stillness. For about twenty minutes, I had a simulacrum of Golden Goa all to myself, as Albuquerque must have seen it – a safe, handsome harbour, a military stronghold, a fertile place where a gleaming city might be built and lived in and loved, a Camp of the Saints on the heathen shore. Here, where I stood, Adil Shah had placed his unavailing artillery in 1510. Now, his successors’ landmark chapel was itself sliding into graceful dissolution.
Goa started to go into decline after the Portuguese and Spanish crowns were united in 1580. Spain’s Dutch and British enemies now saw Portugal’s Indian territories as legitimate targets and started to expand commercial and military operations in South Asia. But more fundamental was the dysgenic depletion of Portugal, with thousands of the best and bravest products of the tiny kingdom being sent out year after year to perish in shipwrecks and battles or of disease, with the survivors encouraged to settle in India and marry Indian women. It was now the turn of the Dutch and English to exchange national health for imperial wealth. In 1661, Bombay was part of the marriage dowry of Catherine of Braganza, wherein lies yet another epic of ambition followed by hubris.
Goa’s few remaining grand Portuguese houses are very nearly not there at all. The floor of the blue ballroom of the famous Pereira-Braganza house undulates gently; a termite-infested piano is quietly collapsing in on itself in one corner; you can hear birds through holes in the silk-lined ceiling; and, in the rippling old glass of the white framed Flemish mirrors, the chairs given by a Portuguese monarch to a Braganza progenitor look like they are in some long-lost submarine kingdom.
The best things in Goa’s Architectural Museum are the outsize bronze statues of Portugal’s national poet Luiz de Camoes (his epic Lusiads were translated by Richard Burton) and Albuquerque, removed from public display in Panjim after Nehru finally sent his troops across the scarcely defended frontier in 1961, and a collection of paintings of Goan viceroys and governors.
The poor execution of many of these paintings (most were painted by Indian artists) is curiously appropriate, as it emphasises Goa’s isolation and unhealthiness, a province of a provincial empire. Many of the inhabitants of these alternately sickly, stern, and refined faces – the owners of ancient Estremaduran names, the lords of mountainside estates and old vines, wearing black cloaks and blue uniforms festooned with sashes and the crosses of the Order of Christ, the Order of St. James of the Sword, and the Military Order of St. Benedict of Aviz must have disliked being sent to India.
They would have been given the keys to the city at the Viceroy’s Arch, before passing in under the statue of da Gama into a hive of frenetic activity, where there are now just overgrown fields, crumbling walls, drifts of litter, and a few aristocratic, white churches on empty lawns. Many of these dignitaries now lie beneath the granite slabs decorated with their family crests in the broken nave of St. Augustine’s at the top of the hill, the stylised stone castles, wolves, eagles, trees, and mailed fists evoking the faraway homes they would never see again. How curious it must be to be a scion of one of these families, visiting from the old country, and see your family’s crest baking beneath the sun. Richard Burton again:
It is always a melancholy spectacle, the last resting-place of a fellow countryman in some remote nook of a foreign land, far from the dust of his forefathers . . . the wanderer’s heart yearns at the sight. How soon may not such fate be his own?
Such bittersweet reflections are impossible to avoid when among ruins, especially the ruins of an empire created by people a little like oneself.
On our last day, wilting after an early flight from Cochin, we took a slow, packed suburban train far out into Mumbai’s northern shanty suburbs. Alighting at the busy Vasai Road station, we found an obliging auto-rickshaw driver and lurched and hooted through squalor for twenty minutes in search of Bassein Fort.
Ceded by the sultan of Gujarat to the Portuguese in 1534, Bassein became the site of a powerful Portuguese fortification and, soon, the administrative centre, “Court of the North”, for all of Portuguese India. It was sacked in 1739, and its garrison extirpated. After bombardment by the British in 1780, it was never rebuilt. Now, mud-caked water buffalo loll in what were once refectories, spiders with six-inch leg-spans stretch their snares between palms in what were once the aisles of churches, and banyans force their twisting roots through the old masonry. Trees have sprouted, lived, and died on the top of what were once strong bastions and give a furry, indeterminate shape to once-imposing walls. Here and there on the dark walls, or hidden under surging ivy, one can still see European memorial slabs, carved window tracery, baroque curlicues, and scrollwork bordering gigantic archways leading into nothingness, crouching stone animals and Latin inscriptions above double doorways into roofless edifices.
This picturesque desolation makes for a fascinating contrast with the bustling and indescribably filthy fishing village nearby, with its daubed Madonnas, cobalt and jasmine walls, fly-encrusted Bombay duck drying in the sun, piles of fish guts lying on the ground, and young people rushing past on motorcycles, staring at our European faces as, probably, their ancestors stared at other European faces long ago. In India, it feels irresistible to draw parallels between the fate of Bassein and the possible fates of today’s “Courts of the North” – the European nations that have exhausted themselves in search of chimeræ and are now imploding. The Portuguese – and Dutch, French and British – came, saw, and conquered India, and now are being overwhelmed in turn. The old Occidental urge to explore, and imprint on others’ landscapes has moved very close to home. Goa, Bassein and a hundred other Indian places show us there is always more than one possible end to history.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 edition of Chronicles