My Country Life review of Animal: Exploring the Zoological World

The 7 November issue of Country Life carries my short review of Animal: Exploring the Zoological World (introduction by James Hanken, published by Phaidon) – “Animal captures admirably two interlocking intoxications: the thrill of ever-expanding zoological knowledge and the sheer joy of looking at animals, which look right back and into us in challenge and entreaty”

New light on the Lakes

NEW LIGHT ON THE LAKES

We’d been dreaming about Andalusia. But plans sometimes must be altered, and so one August evening we found ourselves instead entering into Ulverston, thirteen hundred miles from Andalusia, and even more distant climatically, culturally, and historically.

The Lake District – “England’s Switzerland”, Manchester’s playground, stamping-grounds of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, magnet to millions of tourists, subject of a billion photos, noted for traffic jams, tea-shops, lake cruises, mint-cake, and hikers in fluorescent cagoules. These images were unappealing, especially when juxtaposed with thoughts of Spain. Our prior experiences had been grey days around Ambleside, trooping in everyone else’s damp wake, reading the same rain-spotted information boards, and taking the same photos. I had also come here on a coaster, coming alongside at Silloth on Christmas morning, and had vague remembrances of cold, empty streets, flour mills and the smell of fertilizer. The effect of such impressions had hitherto been to make us defer exploration when there were so many other places, and so little time. But as I plundered my bookshelves, the District soon loomed into shape – and by the time we were climbing to our cottage through lanes of bruised bracken, the great glitter of Morecambe Bay below and sheep-smelling hills rising up all round, any lingering regrets were vanquished.

The ninety square mile District was divided historically between Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland, but in 1974 it was all subsumed into the new county of Cumbria (to considerable chagrin). There are sixty-four lakes, including Windermere, England’s biggest at over ten miles long and nearly a mile wide, and Wast Water, its deepest at 258 feet – a product of high rainfall, plus the impermeability of volcanic rocks. Some waterbodies still hold Ice Age relicts like Arctic char and vendace, fish rare elsewhere and threatened even here by non-natives. There are 180 mountains of over 2,000 feet, including Scafell Pike, England’s highest at 3,209 feet. This strongly marked landscape is sparsely populated outside the summer season, with its largest town, Kendal, having fewer than 30,000 permanent residents. Small wonder the area has attracted superlatives since the English started to take an aesthetic rather than utilitarian interest in landscapes, at that eighteenth century cultural cusp when Augustan tastes were toppled, wilderness turned into scenery, and emotion and self-realisation began to be exalted over reason and restraint. 

In 1769, Thomas Gray could still find these mountains “very rude and awful with their broken tops”, but the following year William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, a lawyer’s son who would become the area’s greatest interpreter and publicist, and England’s Romantic-in-Chief. His Prelude recalls a childhood spent chiefly outside, by the Derwent which “flowed along my dreams”, or out on screes and slopes, catching woodcock, robbing ravens, or just rhapsodising – epic walks, summer swims, ice-skating, cliff-climbing, wild winds, “distant Skiddaw’s lofty height…bronz’d with a deep radiance”. Presently he started composing poetry to “find fit utterance for the primary and simple feelings” (Dictionary of National Biography), developed democratic sympathies, met Coleridge and Southey, and settled with his sister at Dove Cottage overlooking Grasmere. 

His penchant for recreational walking was much mocked – “His legs were pointedly condemned”, joked English Opium-Eater Thomas De Quincey, who moved into Dove Cottage after the Wordsworths, and improbably became editor of the Westmorland Gazette. Wordsworth’s character was also assailed, particularly when his poetry strayed into bathos (notoriously, “SPADE! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands”) and his politics turned Tory. His outlook was ridiculed by, among many others, William Hazlitt, who scoffed that Wordsworth “sees nothing but himself and the universe”. Some moderns are even less forgiving, like Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) – “He went from being a great Romantic to a great Victorian, and the transition required much renouncement”. Solnit even regrets he did not die in his late thirties, which might admittedly have been inconvenient for him and his family, but would luckily have left “his image as a radical intact”. Notwithstanding such charitable considerations, Wordsworth’s Weltanschauung – an amalgam of love of nature, fascination with the past, slightly philistine patriotism, and unbounded sentimentality – still permeates the Lake ambience and England’s view of itself.

Behind all Romancing, and even when the weather is fine, the District feels unyielding. Even Beatrix Potter’s treacly tales have a granite-gleam of toughness, her Peter Rabbits, Jeremy Fishers and Jemima Puddle-ducks anatomically correct under all the anthropomorphism, product of a lifetime observing and depicting fauna and flora (she had a special interest in fungi, and in 1897 presented a paper to the Linnaean Society of London on “Germination of the spores of the Agaricineae”). An even solider achievement was that she was able to bequeath 4,000 acres of the area to the nation upon her death in 1943, courtesy of Mr. Tod, Tommy Brock, and the Tailor of Gloucester. Less comforting animals were Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs, the labrador Rowf and the Jack Russell Snitter of his searing 1977 anti-vivisection novel, experimental subjects who escape from an animal research centre to live wild for a while aided by another tod, the starving stoniness setting for the moral desolation of the experimenters. 

This was for centuries a frontier zone whose clouded hills could at any moment unleash moss-troopers and reivers. It got coopted into wider wars, one Civil War legend telling how Sir Robert Philippson (a.k.a. “Robin the Devil”) of Belle Isle on Windermere rode right into Kendal’s parish church in angry, unsuccessful search of one Colonel Briggs, a Parliamentarian who had besieged his house. A century later, on Midsummer’s Eve in 1745, twenty-six respectable witnesses saw a Jacobite army on Souther Fell, a place no force could possibly have been, a fata morgana for a time of anxiety. 

But in April 1778, there was an actual incursion, when John Paul Jones landed at Whitehaven – a shipbuilding, trading and whaling port linking the “Three Kingdoms” of England, Scotland and the Isle of Man – with thirty men from the U.S.S. Ranger. He hoped to torch hundreds of ships as they languished at low tide, crammed in tightly between the piers. But the wind was against them, and the sky was already paling when they made landfall. Jones and his party landed at the southern fort and spiked its cannon, while half of his force went to the northern part of the harbour to set the ships alight. The latter resorted to a public house, ostensibly to get a light for their incendiaries, but seem to have been sidetracked by the stock. When Jones rejoined them, he found no ships had been burned because no-one had a light. Even when they finally obtained one, their arsons went awry, most of the fires fizzling out, and others quickly extinguished by locals  – who had been alerted by a Ranger crewman apparently anxious about anyone getting hurt. Jones withdrew ignominiously, taking just three prisoners and leaving behind a few hundred pounds’ worth of damage, and a reputation as dastardly pirate. (The town only pardoned him in 1999.) The seriocomedy continued as he headed to Kircudbright to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk, only to find him from home, meaning he had to make do with the family silver, including Lady Selkirk’s still-hot teapot, which she gave up after a short but probably strained interview. 

This was also a District for criminals, the Lancaster assizes passing more death sentences than anywhere else in England between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries; about 265 were hanged in the Castle’s “Hanging Corner” between 1782 and 1865. (The assizes also covered Manchester and Liverpool.)

Lune riverbed at Lancaster

Lancaster Castle

Smuggling was common, and a hint of old watchfulness can be gleaned at Roa Island, reached by a narrow Victorian causeway just above the water, and sometimes below it, flanked by salt marsh with a beached trawler and lifeboat, and a dinghy tied to a garden wall. At the end of the causeway rises an early Victorian inn and a thicket of masts, cannon pointing out to sea, and the ‘Gothick’ archway of an excise house framing the channel, and ships and submarines heading into Barrow-in-Furness. Just off Roa is the ruined Piel Castle on Piel Island, an outpost of the English Church Militant, built by the Abbot of Furness to guard against Scottish raids.

Another instance of old interest in this area is the extant post of Guide to the Queen’s Sands, which has existed since 1538, a post-Dissolution assumption of an old monastic responsibility. The Duchy of Lancaster pays the Guide a nominal £15 per annum (plus rent-free use of a 12 acre farm) to lead travellers across Morecambe Bay at low tide. Until the railways came in the 1860s, this was an important route, but it was always hazardous across 120 square miles of mudflats, where the rivers Keer, Kent, Leven (there is a separate Guide to the Leven Sands), Lune, Ribble and Wyre commingle in shifting quicksands and racing tides. As recently as 2004, 21 illegal Chinese cocklers were cut off and drowned – victims of exploitation as much as the early eighteenth century Sambo, “a faithful negro, who, attending his master from the West Indies” died at Sunderland Point near Lancaster, and was buried out under the sands. The present Guide, fisherman Cedric Robinson, appointed in 1963, has occupied the position longer than any of his twenty-four precursors. Seeing pictures of him in action, probing with his tall staff while throngs wait for his word, one thinks of ancient images – St. James and scallops, fishers of men, finders of The Way.

Back on terra (very) firma, the area’s farmers have always scratched subsistence from soil lying like the thinnest of coverlets over rock, their farms surviving only with subventions. The last English wolf was supposedly killed here in 1390. Below their angled, drywalled ‘pastures’ and ‘yow’ pens, the ancient pedlar tracks and corpse-roads over the tops and down into Yorkshire lie thick coal seams, mined from the thirteenth century, and in 2017 being revived after a decades-long hiatus. Whitehaven was epicentre for an industry that brought crucial employment, with some mines stretching miles out under the sea, but also multiple disasters. The pits at Whitehaven, says the Durham Mining Museum, have “probably the blackest record in the annals of coal mining”. The twentieth century bears grim testament. In 1910, 136 men and boys were killed in a single explosion. In 1922, there were 39 – in 1928, 13 – in 1931, 27 – in 1941, 12 – and in 1947, 104. The 1910 explosion was the biggest ever mining disaster in the county, and 64 Edward Medals were awarded to rescuers, the most ever for one incident. Details still stab; when the mine was unsealed after four months so bodies could be recovered, one corpse was found cradling his teenage son and his son’s friend in his arms. Another man had taken off all his clothes and folded them beside himself, insufferable heat not preventing neatness. They also found chalked messages  showing some had survived the explosion, to sign off miserably afterwards in stifling, Stygian timelessness.  

Castlerigg

While men lived like Morlocks below, far above tramped self-exiles and sensation-seekers, revelling in the area’s otherness. These men were as different from miners in expectations and outlook as Keats, whose Hyperion references Castlerigg stone circle near Keswick –

Scarce images of life, one here, one there,

Lay vast and edgeways; like a dismal cirque

Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor…

Then there was Ruskin, looking out from the turret of Brantwood in search of impressions – Turner, trying to capture particular lights on particular stones before all colours altered – Aleister Crowley, an unexpected alpinist, disdainful of the rising generation of “rock gymnasts” he ironically despised as self-publicising – Arthur Ransome, Soviet-sympathising author of the so-British, so-bourgeois Swallows and Amazons books – and Donald Campbell, who died on Coniston Water in 1967 while trying to set a world water-speed record in Bluebird K7 (his body was only found in 2001, and his head is still missing). 

Another Lakes-lover was Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991), son of a stonemason from Blackburn, who succumbed to the fells’ spell on 7th June 1930, staring out from Orrest Head, above Windermere:

I was totally transfixed, unable to believe my eyes…I saw mountain ranges, one after another, the nearer starkly etched, those beyond fading into the blue distance. Rich woodlands, emerald pastures and the shimmering water of the lake…this was real. This was truth. God was in his heaven that day and I a humble worshipper.

He spent much of his remaining 61 years tramping the fells’ every inch, like them externally forbidding, describing and drawing his routes in seven Swiss-lens sharp Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, now standard reference works – each dedicated unusually, such as “The men who built the stone walls” or “Those unlovely twins, my right leg and my left leg”. When his eagle eyes failed in old age, he found himself “in a grey mist”, like those he had seen so often descending over arêtes and peaks, seeing maps increasingly only in mind’s-eye. In his posthumous Memoir of a Fellwanderer, he wrote wistfully of a final walk, slipping and stumbling in rain on an ascent made often before – of how his “silent friends…shed tears for me that day.” 

Some north-westerners sought escape rather than entrance, like John Barrow (1764-1848), knighted son of an Ulverston tanner. His career encompassed whaling in Greenland, comptrolling in China, Auditor-general of the Cape Colony, Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty, promoter of Arctic exploration (Alaska’s Barrow was named after him, in 1825; since 2016, it is officially Utqiaġvik, emblematic of ongoing de-Englishing), and President of the Royal Geographical Society. His Monument, a replica lighthouse, crowns Hoad Hill over his hometown, offering aptly vast maritime and montane panoramas. 

Another Lakes-forsaker was Stan Laurel, born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston in 1890, to a vaudevillian family. Brats, Tit for Tat, Saps at Sea, Way Out West, and all the rest play on continuous reel at the town’s Laurel and Hardy Museum, as visitors are reminded of the boys’ brilliance, or inspect the photographs, typescripts, bizarre L. & H. merchandise, and things young Stan knew, including a mangle from an outhouse where he spent hours in punishment for high-spiritedness. Yet while Santa Monica became Stan’s residence, and his Englishness a comic prop, part of him always looked homewards, because he took Ollie there in 1947, and Ollie told the North West Evening Mail “Stan had talked about Ulverston for the past 22 years.” 

We too will return, cured at last of anti-Lakes ennui, old ideas augmented by new lights – “England’s Switzerland” under an azure empyrean, blood-warm walls, Whitehaven cormorants holding out wings towards the Kingdom of Man, the sun declining superbly over a stupendousness of slopes, thickly-treed hillsides tumbling down to lakes like mercury, black-faced sheep on bald sides leading up to incomprehensible viewpoints. 

This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Chronicles, and is republished with permission

Time’s terpsichorean – review of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling

TIME’S TERPSICHORIAN

Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time

Hilary Spurling, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016, hb., 510pps

Anthony Powell’s million word, twelve-volume novel sequence Dance to the Music of Time is one of the great achievements of postwar English literature, attracting near-universal praise for its subtle and textured evocation of England between the First World War and the 1960s. Powell’s narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, looks on quizzically as a representative cavalcade of twentieth-century characters cavort across the pages of history, at times following anciently ordained patterns, at others striking out on their own to amusing or bizarre effect. 

In the 1640 painting by Nicolas Poussin which inspired the sequence’s name, a naked, winged, controlling Father Time strums a cithara and looks on enigmatically as dancers representing the seasons revolve, facing outwards, holding hands, while a celestial chariot races through storm clouds above, and cherubs blow soap-bubbles to remind viewers of the impermanence of things. Poussin paradoxically suggests continuity and cosmic lucidity, but also the ever-present possibility of upset; dancers may perform pavanes or tarantellas, but in the end even the most corybantic must come back to the circle. Powell wrote in comparable baroque-classical vein, as if striving to rationalise randomness, impose order onto an increasingly disorderly England. Nicholas Jenkins preoccupies himself with Robert Burton’s 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy, Powell so signalling his own appreciation of the Anglican divine’s stately lugubriousness, his rolling periods and mordant sense, his insistence that everything has been seen before, what will be will be, and we should see chaos in context. Such phlegmatism pervades The Dance’s million words, giving its babooneries black lustre, ballasting what in less sure hands might just have been Jazz Age incidents.  

Jenkins’ England’s most egregious representative is Kenneth/Lord/Ken Widmerpool, whose altering states and styles adumbrate revolutionary wider changes. Widmerpool is a school contemporary of Jenkins, an awkward, ungainly, deeply earnest loner of “exotic drabness”, sniggered at or dismissed, who nevertheless “gets on” surprisingly, first in the world of business, but then in other ways as his attention to tedious details and brisk officiousness help him overtake more likeable but less serious schoolfellows. He is “not interested in anything not important or improving” (Powell), and constantly “closes down possibilities” (Spurling). Chilly relentlessness carries through into all he does, making him the perfect pen-pusher for peace or war, admirer of Wallis Simpson, proponent of deals with Hitler, postwar Labour peer with ties to the Soviets, cuckold, voyeur, and in the end cult thrall, returning to school-style humiliation, dying trying too hard. He rises, and sinks, without trace. In his 2004 Understanding Anthony Powell, Nicholas Birns suggests Widmerpool’s defining trait to be “craven acquiescence to whatever he perceives to be the prevailing power of the day”. Yet the quintessentially twentieth century Widmerpool would have considered himself an autonomous individual and independent thinker. 

This paragon of preposterousness is only one of over four hundred characters populating Powell’s English universe – Widmerpool counterpointed by fusty novelists, outdated painters, alcoholic ex-gilded youths, Young Turk litterateurs, communist activists, confused peers, bed-hopping models, embittered critics, impecunious uncles, oddly impressive palmists, cranks, termagants, block-headed, secretly suicidal army officers, cult-followers turned art agents, a literal femme fatale, and too many others to mention, flashing out or fleshed in expertly, each believable, comprehensible, containing multitudes. We have all had such encounters in strangely significant interiors, small exchanges that over time add up to an immensity – noticed similarly tragicomic coincidences, connections and contradictions – experienced the same disconcertment as time races but much remains the same. Those few cavillers who reject Powell for classism, conservatism, orotundity, parochialism, or triviality misread him severely. At base, The Dance is deeply humane, a universal acknowledgement of our foibles and possibilities; as Powell wrote,

All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary.

Hilary Spurling knows Powell’s creations better than most, as compiler of 1977’s Invitation to the Dance, the indispensable handbook to Powell’s dramatis personæ. “Bowled over” by The Dance at eighteen or nineteen, she worked her way onto the literary desk of the Spectator, and so was able to meet her hero. As she began to make her own name (as biographer of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Paul Scott, Henri Matisse, Sonia Orwell, and Pearl Buck), she and her novelist/playwright husband John drew close to Powell and his wife Violet, at liberty when passing to drop into The Chantry, the Georgian “house with a driveway” he had always sought, for tea and scintillating talk. Powell secured her the job of writing the Invitation, and eventually asked her to be his biographer on the understanding, she writes, “that nothing was to be done for as long as possible”. When he died in 2000, she commissioned an outsize cast of his head, which peers onto their London garden as he once surveyed the entire city and century, a face of marked alertness, with slightly upturned nose  as if still scenting all winds, and owl-like eyebrows. If the Invitation allowed Spurling to display her organisational ability, this book proves her subtle understanding of Powell’s many milieux, and reveals flair and force that often rival her subject’s. 

An earlier Boswell-manqué, Michael Barber, found “certain doors were closed to me, and certain resources withheld”. He nevertheless published correspondence Powell might have preferred to forget, such as 1920s animadversions against democracy and liberalism, and a 1992 letter in which he opines “…much against my taste I would have been for Franco in a preference to a Left dominated by Communists”.  Spurling loyally does not mention Barber’s 2004 book. Powell’s politics should not be overstressed; he was averse to all ideological or religious commitments (although he had superstitious tendencies). His sole political action was helping stave off a communist takeover of the National Union of Journalists. Unlike some of his creative contemporaries, he had no wish to reform human nature, or upturn England; to borrow the title of The Dance’s third instalment, his was usually an Acceptance World. Powell produced several volumes of memoirs, but they are often opaque, as tantalised James Lees-Milne noted –

[Powell] discloses nothing about himself, but is revealing, albeit cautiously, of his contemporaries’ follies.

Like his creation Jenkins, like Poussin’s Time, the author was enigmatic, watching rather than acting, assessing rather than judging.

Happily Spurling’s delicacy of touch gives us a sharp picture of Powell in his subfusc strangeness, born in 1905, elfin only child of an irascible and stingy army officer who had been at Mons, and his much older wife, both of whose antecessors could have come from Surtees or Thackeray. We find him forced through loneliness into feats of imagination and introspection, drawing, making up stories and reading, often age-inappropriate books like Aubrey Beardsley and Havelock Ellis, interesting himself in actual or fanciful genealogies. “He found his own obscure stability in a distant heredity”, Spurling reflects, compensating psychologically for military-posting peripateticism by dwelling on “grounded for centuries” Radnorshire antecedents. Like his mother, he would always be “glad to see ghosts”. 

Powell would have no fixed address until despatched to a Kentish boarding school aged ten, a Spartan-to-squalid establishment whose pupils were fed rancid meats, and sometimes augmented their diets with raw turnips stolen from a nearby farm. Here he befriended Henry Yorke, who later wrote successful novels as Henry Green (they broke eventually, because of Yorke’s pomposity). Thence to Eton, where being standoffish and unsporting he might have suffered, but he landed luckily under the aegis of Arthur Goodhart, one of the few housemasters who took more interest in the arts than sports. Even Goodhart found the future novelist difficult to plumb, but Powell would later say his Eton days had been the most important of his life, when he found community, and started to see the world as it was. Amongst innumerable other observations, Powell filed away for future use the stigma attached to Yorke, ribbed by schoolmates for unorthodox sartorial choices, just as later Widmerpool’s persona and even destiny would be partly determined by having once worn “the wrong kind of overcoat” at school. Mrs. Spurling has been extraordinarily assiduous in identifying the originals of numerous incidents and characters that years later would step into The Dance.

Powell went on to Oxford, where he languished listlessly, conscious of being neither rich nor well-connected. But there he found Evelyn Waugh, who became a lifelong friend (and whose posthumous reputation Powell would help rescue, earning him Auberon Waugh’s enmity) and other appreciators, including Maurice Bowra. There were mind-expanding encounters with Dostoevsky, Eliot, and Proust amongst others, deep discussions, and European travel during the holidays. 

After Oxford he worked at the faction-riven, stuffy Duckworth publishing house, dealing with authors whose often atrocious texts he was expected to assess, sometimes up to fifty a week. This taught him how not to write, and the acquired habits of focus and swift summation would be of massive benefit later, both as in-demand reviewer, and dreamer-up of The Dance, turning out instalments to a private master-plan over twenty four years. Friendships accrued with notables like Robert Byron, Constant Lambert, Adrian Daintrey, and the Sitwells, and he became a Territorial Army officer. Somehow he found time to become a novelist, drawing 1931’s Afternoon Men from the lives around him, and locations like his lodgings in Shepherd’s Market, a raffish-risqué island in the middle of Mayfair. 

Love affairs came inevitably along, culminating in Violet Pakenham, the daughter of Lord Longford he married in 1934, who gave him two sons, and would become merciless, priceless dissector of each Dance volume’s first draft. He tried to become a Hollywood screenwriter, and issued four more novels – Venusberg, From a View to A Death, Agents and Patients, and What’s Become of Waring? – each in some way prefiguring his magnum opus. He got to know Graham Greene, George Orwell and everyone else who figured on the sometimes incestuous cultural scene (Greene fell away, piqued by Powell’s insufficiently fulsome review of The Heart of the Matter). Even with all her access and skill, Spurling sometimes struggles to lift him clear of his context; he had almost too many flamboyant contemporaries, who flare up and briefly outshine Powell’s steadier flame. But it would be impossible to do a better job with so “frightfully buttoned-up” (Powell’s self-description) a subject, and in any case he is inseparable from the cultural ferment she evokes so capably. 

War service entailed long absences and marital difficulties, but afforded a mass of material for the military volumes of The Dance. Demobbed, he suffered from aimless depression, and expended vast intellectual energies reviewing, sometimes a book a day for publications like the Daily Telegraph, Punch, and the Times Literary Supplement. He became close to Malcolm Muggeridge (who later cooled, jealous of Powell’s superior reputation). 1948 saw his John Aubrey and His Friends, the easygoing, inveterate quidnunc clearly speaking to Powell across centuries. Then along came 1951’s A Question of Upbringing, and The Dance die was cast. Between installments, Powell used his influence liberally to bolster or create careers, like those of Kingsley Amis and V. S. Naipaul – the latter long an intimate, but eventually an ingrate who trashed Powell’s oeuvre once his old mentor had died.

As he garnered grey hairs and honorary doctorates, and became a Companion of Honour, he came to be dismissed by callower critics as fusty, out-datedly English, vaguely Tory, his European outlook and experimentalism occluded by externalities of accent or attire, such as being the last Travellers’ Club member to maintain the habit of wearing a hat during lunch. But over the years of writing The Dance his reputation generally held up, each volume awaited keenly by connoisseurs, some awarded prizes. 

Forty-two years after the appearance of the final volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, Powell is still relatively widely read, but few would have understood better than he the contingency of celebrity, the evanescence of fame, bubbles popping from the pipes of Poussin’s putti. Oeuvres ought to be constantly reexamined, and reputations renewed, if even the greatest works of imagination are not to slide down time’s interstices. Spurling’s subtle salute to her friend will be of  service to his shade, and conducive to a nuanced view of his century. 

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Chronicles, and is republished with permission

Upcoming Chronicles reviews

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

Grand Union Flag

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.

JFHM2

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 rather foreshadowing Kennedy’s 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