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.

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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

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