The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St. Clair

COLOURFUL TALES

The Secret Lives of Colour

Kassia St. Clair, John Murray: London, 2016, hb., 320pps.

History can be refracted through countless prisms – cultural, economic, environmental, ideological, moral, national, racial, religious – but one has been oddly unexplored, despite being not just obvious, but ubiquitous. That prism is colour, an element that suffuses every instinct and thought, hues our whole universe. Since hominids evolved opsin genes, we have been able to distinguish between colours and assign them significances. Over aeons, and increasingly as Homo became sapiens sapiens, we have used this rare ability to paint our world in affirmatory or menacing shades, define deities, read countries and skies, rank friends and foes, inform others about ourselves. By the time the artists of Lascaux were depicting their sable elks, umber aurochs and charcoal wisent, 17,000 years ago, ur-Europe had complex hierarchies and mythologies of colour ingrained into the everyday. Even now, when we know something of anthropology, cultural transmission, evolution, genetics, light, optics, and anomalies like synesthesia, colours carry inescapable, almost instinctive associations.

Kassia St. Clair “fell in love with colours” while writing about eighteenth century fashions, and parlayed chromophilia into a column for Elle Decoration, and so this book. These may sound like slender credentials, but she has mined carefully and mixed well, foraying into art history, art theory, biology, botany, chemistry, industrial methods, military history, politics, symbol dictionaries, and the worlds of clothes, cosmetics, football and pop. 

She reminds us how colour vision works – the rods, cones and retinas vaguely familiar from school science lessons. Then there is a well-informed (her bibliography is nine pages) overview of how colours have been created, used and viewed from the ancients up to light artists like Olafur Eliasson and the 99.96% light-eating nanotube Vantablack. 

Pliny claimed Greek painters only used black, white, red and yellow, and this was good, because having too wide a palette would have distracted them from the business of line and form. He made politic allowances for Tyrian purple, 

…for which the Roman fasces and axes clear a way. It is the badge of noble youth; it distinguishes the senator from the knight; it is called in to appease the gods. It brightens every garment, and shares with gold the glory of the triumph.

Tyrian purple was so jealously reserved to royalty that Nero had a mauve-clad high society woman dragged from a recital, stripped naked and relieved of her property. But the colour (insalubriously obtained by crushing vast quantities of shellfish and soaking the resultant ooze in stale urine) was never consistent. Pliny described it as the colour of “clotted blood”, which we would not necessarily classify as purple at all. Pliny was incidentally incorrect about the limited palette of ancient painters, as “Egyptian blue” had been produced since 2,500 B.C., and would have been available around the Middle Sea. But early colourists were indeed often limited to what was easily available from earth, lichens, plants, stones or insects (cochineal beetles are still included in the ingredients of cherry cola, euphemised as “E120”). 

Pliny-style severity was echoed by early Christians chary of artifice, pride and sensuality, like St. Cyprian: 

The very Devils first taught the use of colouring the eyebrows, and clapping on a false and lying Blush on the Cheeks, so also to change the very natural Colour of the Hair and to adulterate the true and Naked Complexion.

Such suspicion carried into the Middle Ages, the mixing of colours even for church decoration frowned upon as unnatural. Renaissance painters attracted superstitious contumely for their experiments in paint and perspective, and Isaac Newton was seen as suspect for breaking and remaking white light. 

This handsome book must have been a production headache, its white cover indented with coloured dots, its endpapers striped luxuriously, its contents pages highlighted with Pantone colour wheels, each text page edged in a swatch of the colour under discussion that allows easy comparison between shades. Or is it easy? One is struck by how subtly different colours can be, how subjectively we see them, and yet how powerfully they move us. Even white, dismissed now as ‘vanilla’ and ‘white bread’, pulsates with concepts of ‘purity’ and ‘simplicity’ that shaped how the West saw itself culturally and even physically; today’s derision is connected to these concepts, part of a sometimes inchoate effort to delegitimise a civilisation simultaneously disliked and envied. When nineteenth century historians discovered that classical statuary and structures had usually been brightly bedizened, Rodin is said to have hit his breast and declared “I feel it here that they were never coloured!” The author makes various angsty references to actual or alleged racisms, sexisms, etc. but such are almost obligatory in modern Western writing. (Metaphorically speaking, blushing pink sometimes seems to dominate our present culture.) 

If ‘simple’ white is so complicatedly emotive, how much more so is it when subdivided into lead white, ivory, silver, whitewash, isabelline, chalk and beige? These blend into blonde and other yellows, each tint tainted or tinged with absorbing stories – why the lead-tin yellow used from Giotto to Rubens suddenly disappeared, how Indian yellow derives its uniqueness from cow urine, the origins of acid-yellow emojis, why Van Gogh’s supposedly immortal sunflowers are wilting (chrome yellow reacting with other pigments), the diuretic qualities of gamboge (also used to demonstrate the reality of Brownian motion), the toxicity of orpiment, the semi-sacerdotal nature of China’s imperial yellow, confined to royals for 1,300 years between the Tang and Qing dynasties, culminating in gold, about which volumes could be and have been written.

Oranges touch on Dutch monarchs, the medieval spice trade that gave Essex’s Saffron Walden its name (the town appears again later, linked laterally to the red known as dragon’s blood), Buddhist monks, the lost Amber Room of Tsarskoye Selo, the origins of the word electron, attitudes towards redheads, the ethnocentric connotations of ‘nude’, and more. ‘Miniature’ originally did not connote smallness, but was derived from miniators, specialist applicators of a colour called minium. 

Oranges become pinks and reds. Baker-Miller pink was adopted eagerly by American institutions in the 1970s and 1980s after tests suggested the colour could reduce aggression on buses, in housing estates, drunk-tanks and jails. Football teams with red strips finish higher in the leagues. Immediately before execution, Mary Queen of Scots undid her muted outer clothes to show a crimson undergown, so associating herself with Catholic martyrdom (although Knoxians snorted it proved she was Jezebel). 

Blues were associated with barbarism by the Romans because Celtic warriors dyed themselves with woad, and this persisted in the West until the 1130s, when the visionary Abbot Suger oversaw the rebuilding of Paris’s Saint-Denis Abbey, and encouraged its adorners to use God-given cobalt. About the same time, artists began to paint the Virgin in light blue robes, and this association became increasingly powerful. In 1200, only 5% of European coats of arms contained azure; by 1400 it was almost a third. Up to the twentieth century, girls were accordingly often garbed in blue, and boys kitted out in pink (vaguely reminiscent of blood, or military redcoats). Blues are also often abused – “Let’s sell these people a piece of sky-blue”, chortled Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard.  

Greens were associated with growth, but also with envy, toxicity and wildness (and, in the West, Islam), unsettling qualities exacerbated by the technical difficulties of creating consistent, unfading dyes or pigments. 55-75% proof absinthe, which The Times termed “emerald-tinted poison”, was blamed for nineteenth century national decadence. The 840 pound Bahia emerald immediately attracted criminality from the moment it was unearthed in 2001. Carl Scheele’s fashionable green filled Georgian and Victorian clothing and interiors with lethal levels of arsenic. 

Browns were underrated, lacking luminosity, men having been uplifted from clay and dust according to many traditions, and in the end returning to it. Excrement, mud, and rubbish were brown; russets were reserved to the poor by fourteenth century sumptuary laws; buffs and fallows were strictly for camouflage. But one could ask what would Caravaggio have been without his brown contrasts? Then Washington assumed the Fairfax Volunteers’ blue-and-buff (a combination taken up by influential English Whigs), the 1850s Indian army switched to khaki, and stag-stalking Victorians fell in love with earth-toned tweeds.

So inevitably to blacks, Secret Lives closing with an examination of the absence of light (technically, black is not a colour) widely associated with blindness, death, depression, evil, night, obscurity, and witchery. Look into John Dee’s obsidian mirror, Elizabethans shivered, and you never know what might look back. But as with all colours there are countervailing connotations – the night is when we dream, artists outline in charcoal, black means good taste, respectability, scholarship and seriousness. Once again, as so often in this engaging compendium, we wonder what we are really seeing when we consider colours. What is looking back usually is ourselves, in all our contradictions. 

This review first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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

Old North – wanderings in Lothian

Sparta-2

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.

Necrobus

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.

Greyfriars

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.

"The present order is the disorder of the future"

“The present order is the disorder of the future”

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.

Traprain

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

First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill, by Sonia Purnell, and No More Champagne – Churchill and His Money, by David Lough

CC

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.

WC-pound

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

Island insurrectionists – review of The Bad Boys of Brexit by Arron Banks

BBOB

ISLAND INSURRECTIONISTS

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

Homing in – review of The Story of England by Michael Wood

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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

Letters from antediluvian Europe

Romanian graveyard, 1930s - painting by Gheorge Opriz

Romanian graveyard, 1930s – painting by Gheorge Opriz

LETTERS FROM ANTEDILUVIAN EUROPE

In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor

Edited by Charlotte Mosley, London: John Murray, 2009, 416pp.

In times of texting and sexting, Twittering and wittering, there is something antediluvian about epistolary collections – a whiff of fountain pens and headed notepaper, morocco-topped escritoires in long-windowed drawing rooms looking out over lawns studded with cedars and peacocks. Such evocations are lent depth and body when the letters in question have passed between lifelong friends Deborah Devonshire [89, when this book was published – she died in 2015], last of the Mitford girls and chatelaine of Chatsworth, and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor [94, when this book was published – he died in 2011], war hero and gentleman-chronicler of an interwar, largely vanished, traditional Europe with which he lived on unusually intimate terms.

Leigh Fermor’s dangerously unsettling account of his peregrinations between 1933 and 1939 (in A Time of Gifts, and Between the Woods and the Water (1) evokes a Europe that was even then anachronistic and which has since been almost entirely swept away by war and communism, or gnawed by the worms of globalism. Portents were present to this observant walker (at least in retrospect – Gifts was published in 1977 and Woods and the Water in 1986) as he tramped solitarily from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, an 18-year-old romantic, amateur historian, folklorist, and philologist, carrying in his rucksack a few letters of introduction, The Oxford Book of English Verse, and Horace’s Odes. He noted flambeaux-toting SA processions in Germany, and everywhere encroaching suburbanisation and industrialisation, improving transport and communications, fading folk memories, shrinking estates, shrivelling patrimonies, crumbling chateaux – rumours everywhere of rationalisation and reordering, dissent and diminution.

But there was just time for him to sample Europe almost as if he had been a medieval traveler, in all its centuries-accreted colour, ruins and runes, relicts and survivals, folk tales and prejudices, arcane wisdom and archaic dialects, intricately quartered coats of arms, unbuilt horizons, unmechanised agriculture, moonlit highways, hostels and Schlösser, white cathedrals and forlorn wayside shrines, churls and countesses, leprosy and libraries, wolves in the hills and giant catfish swarming in dark Danubian depths.

His evocation of an eclipsed Europe in those sometimes showy but piquant books long ago made him a literary figurehead for nostalgists and would-be Wandervögelen. Subsequent adventures have only augmented his status. Max Hastings observed in 2004 that Leigh Fermor was a man who “consciously sought Byonic experience”. This may be why, in 1935, he rode with royalist cavalry putting a republican uprising in Macedonia, and in 1944 abducted a German general and smuggled him across Crete while pursued by whole Wehrmacht divisions (which latter exploit formed the basis of the 1957 film Ill Met by Moonlight, starring Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor). He spent months in French monasteries searching for spiritual enlightenment (recorded in A Time To Keep Silence, climbed and delved in South America (Three Letters From the Andes), tried earnestly to understand the piled-up nonsense of voodoo (The Traveller’s Tree), and mote a lurid novel about an island’s extirpation (The Violins of Saint-Jacques). Philhellene non-pareil (more “Byronic experience”), he went on to write acclaimed books on Greece (Mani in 1958, and Roumeli in 1966) and build a house for himself and his wife, Joan (she died in 2003), on the Peloponnese at the southernmost tip of mainland Europe.

Mani contains the perfect Leigh Fermor passage, the ouzo-fuelled “Byzantium Restored”, a pattern-book reverie, but one rooted in reality, lush and learned, suffused longing and full of the poetry of proper nouns, and a passage that incidentally might now be dismissed by many as “Islamophobia”. (Elsewhere, Leigh Fermor explicitly bemoans the Turkish presence in Europe. He has escaped this censure, although he has had a few pursed-lip critics, such as the Times Literary Supplement’s Mary Beard, who, in 2005, criticised his “laddish tales”, “blokeish tone”, “intricate and outdated disquisitions”, and disdain for mass tourism.

His In Tearing Haste interlocutor is equally beguiling. It is not just that Deborah Devonshire is a duchess, with all that dust-mote-filled word connotes, inhabiting a Wodehousian ambience of great houses and garden parties, Labradors and Purdeys, Old Masters and Gloucester Old Spots, but also because she, the last of six gilded sisters and one brother who alternately graced and scandalised British gossip columns from the 1920s onward, possesses all the Mitford directness and panache.

She is very different from, but also strangely like, her siblings Nancy  1904-73), socialist, biographer, and author of Love in a Cold Climate; Pamela  1907-94), the quietest, called “the rural Mitford” by her admirer John Betjeman; Thomas (1909-45), a fascist sympathizer who refused to fight Germany but died in action against the Japanese; Diana (1910-2003), who married Sir Oswald Mosley; Unity (1914-48), a Hitlerite who tried to commit suicide upon the outbreak of war, and Jessica (1917-96), a communist who eloped to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and later became involved with the U.S. civil rights movement, and refused to speak to Diana in later life. By contrast, Deborah’s only foray into politics was as a supporter of the bland Social Democratic Party in the 1980s. She certainly did not share Unity’s adoration of Hitler, whom they both met in 1937; she informed an amused Daily Telegraph journalist in 2007 that she would much rather have chatted with her musical idol, Elvis Presley.

Deborah, fundamentally practical and outdoorsy, might have been content to have been a second “rural Mitford”, but her marriage to one of Britain’s leading aristocrats – Andrew, the 11th duke of Devonshire, who died in 2004 – has ensured that she has been a participant in many of the great public events and private dinners of the period covered by these letters (1954-2007). She has also been instrumental in saving Chatsworth, one of England’s most remarkable houses, from financial difficulties through tireless writing and merchandising, even operating a cash register in the estate’s gift shop.

Her and Leigh Fermor’s remembrances of some of the places, personalities, and events of those decades, which saw Britain turn from imperial power to E.U. province, Fairest Isle to Cool Britannia, workshop of the world to hedge-fund haven, and Anglo- Celtic to multiracial are fascinating because their authors know (or knew) ‘everyone’ and understand the way Britain operates, or used to operate. Although essentially apolitical and sometimes even seemingly slight, these exchanges lend proportion, depth, and texture to the frequently told, but often superficial, saga of prolonged decline management.

“Debo’s” letters to “Paddy”, which are generally shorter than his to her, are a-brim with astute, arch observations on royals, prime ministers (Harold Macmillan was a relative by marriage), presidents (she sat beside J.F.K. during his inauguration , artists, writers, musicians, sculptors, academics, and designers – as well as a bucolic cast of hunters, farmers, pig breeders, butchers, and gardeners, even horses and chickens. She writes economically but to great effect. As Leigh Fermor noted in the Daily Telegraph in 2000, “She writes with ease and speed, and wonders what all the fuss is about” – her facility, a source of wonderment to a notoriously painstaking writer, luring him often into capering verse and cartoons, revealing an unexpected impishness.

Her comments are often amusing. Jackie Kennedy seems to her “a queer fish. Her face is one of the oddest I ever saw. It is put together in a very wild way”. About the “Troubles” in Ireland, she writes “I do love the Irish, but I wish they’d stop shooting people’s knees. It’s such a horrid trick”. She recalls a very elderly friend who spends her dotage “doing the three Rs – Reading and Remembering Rogering”. Sometimes she makes penetrating points in an understated way, summing up trends and types in devastating phrases, such as when she notes of the Queen Mother’s funeral:

What a poke in the eye for the MEDIA that all those people queued night and day in the freezing wind to see the lying in state . . . we had a wonderful view of everything. Bang opposite that wretched little Prime Minster & the frightful Cherie. Prescott looks like a bareknuckle fighter of Sackville Glove fame from the East End.

At other times, and increasingly as “the FOULNESS of old age” strikes family and friends, the letters become “unbearable memories of the olden days”. For example, on the death of Diana Mosley – for many, a monster, but for Deborah, a beloved sister – she remarks,

It is so odd to have lost someone who was always there. The childhood cry of the seventh, straggling to keep up on stubby legs, of WAIT FOR ME, lives with me. She couldn’t.

Leigh Fermor is more obviously political. In between typically dazzling descriptions of his latest exploits, he winces at the tedious “booming” of Simone Weil and occasionally comes out with things like

The present government obviously plans to quietly strangle English history in all its aspects.

These letters, perfectly edited and annotated by Diana Mosley’s daughter-in-law, and including a necessary glossary of nicknames, are not a history nor even a diary, but an enlightening account of how two twitchingly alert, highly cultured people reacted and related to a maelstrom of eccentric and brilliant relatives and friends and, beyond them, to revolutionary social upheaval. They are a window into a vanishing ambience what Richard Davenport-Hines called “a lost world of glamour, intelligence and personal scruples”. The world the two remember and regret was a small but significant planet, with a shared style, filled with in laws and in-jokes, common experiences and tastes, lightly sitting authority and noblesse oblige; its revolving cast of strong personalities viewed against a taken-for-granted cultural backdrop that gave a context to the players and grounded them in a time and place. Even “non-U” interlopers tried to be “U”, ditching serviette in favour of napkin and replacing toilet with loo, while a certain grocer’s daughter from Grantham thought it necessary to exchange her flat Midlands tones for a strangulated variant of Received Pronunciation. (These days, R.P. may sometimes be an actual drawback in some careers.)

The star recalled to life in this collection has gone supernova and is exploding indefinitely outward, its cool architecture of class and control dymamited by death duties, inheritance taxes and democracy. Its constantly changing, but curiously consistent, leadership cadre has now been almost entirely superseded by a new aristocracy of career politicians, celebrities, and oligarchs – a group that is looser, less rooted, less substantial, and as gauche ideologically as it is socially. There are still generals, masters of foxhounds, clubmen, aesthetes, and Old Etonians – David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and George Osborne are all O.E.s – but they are no longer the default power in the land and have little context or corporate personality. The kind of houses lived in by Deborah and aspired to by Leigh Fermor are mostly now beautiful shells, roped-off walkways along which tourists troop respectfully but bemusedly. Meanwhile, the Elizabeth Frinks have metamorphosed into Damien Hirsts, the Maurice Bowras into Terry Eagletons, the John Betjemans into Benjamin Zephaniahs, and the Benjamin Brittens into Britney Spearses.

“Dr Oblivion comes to see me a bit too often”, Deborah repines in 2004, speaking of the fell practitioner laying waste to her contemporaries. This is not to say that there are not many cultured and elegant people left in England; there are including Deborah’s children and grandchildren , but they are outnumbered, outgunned, and increasingly irrelevant. Sir Patrick once recalled how, during his youthful journey across Europe, he might sleep one night in a hayrick and the next in a chateau:

I suddenly found myself in some tremendous castle with banners flying and horses galore.

Modern European adventurers are more likely to bed down in chain hotels with mints on the pillow, the banners and horses available only on DVD.

But despite what has happened to the Old Continent, the knight and the duchess at least have discharged their duties, bequeathing us noble literature and a great estate still defying debasement. They have also left in these letters a memento of a modus vivendi that in some ways is still with us, but which in most ways that matter has vanished as utterly as the England of Emma.

This review was published in the October 2009 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

NOTE

1. A third installment of what was always envisaged as a trilogy was published posthumously as The Broken Road: From The Iron Gates to Mount Athos in 2014 (edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper). My review can be found here