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

Hans Sloane – cataloguer of curiosities, maker of modernity

cab

HANS SLOANE: COLLECTOR OF CURIOSITIES, MAKER OF MODERNITY

Collecting the World – The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane

James Delbourgo, London: Allen Lane, 2017, hb., 504pps., £25

Sloane Square, Sloane Street and Hans Place contain some of London’s most desirable addresses, but what do the occasionally resident Qatari princelings and Russian oligarchs, or retreating English “Sloane Rangers”, know about the man after whom their chic streets are named? Hans Sloane sometimes seems to be hiding in plain historical sight, forgotten despite these street names, and others through that district. And his legacy extends infinitely wider than these prosperous purlieus, helping shape England’s intellectual life and the history of science, and so the modern world. It is Rutgers-Harvard historian James Delbourgo’s task to extricate Sloane from relative obscurity, absolve him from accusations of amateurism, collectionitis, connoisseurship and dilettantism, and examine the sometimes troubling origins of British identity, and epistemology then and now.

Examination is overdue. There have been spasmodic academic investigations into Sloane – Delbourgo contributed to one 2012 essay collection – but no biography since 1954. Sloane rarely merits even footnote mention in histories of medicine or science, although he was Secretary to the Royal Society for twenty years and its President for fourteen, was central to the foundation of the British Museum and its Natural History and Library offshoots, and provided incomparable source material for the likes of Linnaeus. Sans Sloane, anthropology and ethnology would have taken longer to emerge. Why is he not better remembered? What was it like to be an intellectual in late Stuart-early Enlightenment England? What is the precise nature of his legacy? How does the science of then differ from today’s? And, as the author asked in The Atlantic last year, “Who owns antiquity?” Delbourgo seeks answers to all kinds of interesting questions, and happily provides them.

Sloane was born in 1660, in the Down town of Killyleagh. His Scottish father and English mother were Plantation stock, helping root Protestantism in unruly Ulster. His father worked as agent for his relative the 2nd Viscount Clandeboye, and prospered in his own right, but died when Sloane was just six. At sixteen Sloane nearly succumbed to a “violent hæmorrhage”, making him unusually mindful of his health, abstemious and moderate, although this may also stem in part from his theology. He early manifested interest in the natural world, exploring the landscape around Strangford Lough and bird-nesting on nearby islands, and was able to avail of Killyleagh Castle’s library. Details of his youth are sketchy, but he probably assembled his first finds in emulation of aristocratic “cabinets of curiosities”, of the kind that can still be seen in country houses – improbable assemblages of collected or come-across objects, artificial and natural oddments arranged as decorative conversation-pieces for the leisured. Anticipating his own and others’ criticisms of privileged enquirers, Delbourgo reminds us that Sloane’s comforts and freedoms were obtained at the expense of dispossessed Catholics – cultural appropriation derived from territorial expropriation.

He went to London in 1679 to study medicine, and became acquainted with John Ray and Robert Boyle. He gathered botanical specimens in France (Ray utilised these for his Historia Planetarium) and gained his MD at the Huguenot University of Orange. He was admitted to both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society before going to Jamaica in 1687, as physician to the incoming Governor, the Duke of Albemarle. He spent fifteen formative months there tending to mostly English patients, including the privateer-politician Henry Morgan and of course the Duke, and exploring the safer parts of the island’s interior. He accumulated things indefatigably, not to say indiscriminately, from minerals to bones, insects to plants, antiquities to folk art, and shell-encrusted pieces of shipwreck to musical instruments, which he catalogued in near-obsessive detail. He was fortunate to find, in that enervating environment, painstaking draughtsmen to draw his finds, later published as the lavish, two-volume Natural History of Jamaica, which Delbourgo calls “a hybrid of providentialism, profit and savagery designed simultaneously to enlighten and beguile”. The title page was emblazoned with an evocative verse from the Book of Daniel, that had been used by Francis Bacon – “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased”.

He took an interest in almost everything, accepting of whatever he found but in so doing being effectively exploitative. Like most of his contemporaries, he was purblind about slavery – ironic because English Protestant imperialists felt morally superior to Spanish Catholic ones, and made agitprop use of Iberian inhumanity. He treated sick slaves, but rather as a vet would treat valuable livestock, less empathetic to their sufferings than to those of the English, holding them to different standards. Yet paradoxically he noted aspects of their lives that would otherwise have remained unrecorded; for example, he was responsible for the earliest transcription of African music in the Americas. It is only fair to remember that the newly imperial English were in global rivalry with equally unscrupulous others, intoxicated by the world’s new wideness, more interested in money-making and naval strengths than in contemplating navels. He also met his future wife, married to a plantation owner but who would soon be widowed, whose slave and sugar-derived funds would prove vastly useful (more reason not to notice slavery), and gave him daughters to carry his genes into gentlemanliness.

He returned to England with Albemarle’s badly-embalmed body, accompanied by portmanteaux of exotica, materia medica and live animals, including a seven foot snake. He resumed his practice, promoting the use of quinine, inoculation against smallpox, and the drinking of chocolate, earning a reputation for discretion and urbanity which allowed entrée to the capital’s bon ton, ultimately including royalty. So greatly did he prosper that he naturally attracted resentments, with Tory satirists calling him “Dr. Slyboots”, and Isaac Newton descending from rarefied heights to call him “villain and rascal”. But Sloane kept on imperturbably, from his Bloomsbury home furthering all kinds of scientific enquiries and transactions, with a global correspondence and an open wallet. Among celebrated visitors was Handel, who supposedly enraged him by placing a buttered muffin on a rare book. Having outgrown one house, he bought the one next door, and then the manor of Chelsea as country retreat. He covenanted the site of the Chelsea Physic Garden in perpetuity to the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries – for which alone he ought to be honoured by moderns.

When he died in 1753, he was the owner of a unique treasure-trove, mostly natural history items, but including 23,000 coins and medals, 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts, and 1,125 “things relating to the customs of ancient times”. He willed it should be made available to the nation for just £20,000, on condition it became “a musaeum, visited and seen by all persons desirous of viewing the same and rendered as useful as possible”. And it did, the British Museum opening not far from his old houses – its existence helping codify the still-settling national identity just seven years after Culloden, and furthermore solidifying European civilizatory claims to global dominance, and all of modernity. Who owns antiquity indeed, and why it matters…territory increasingly fought over.

For all its liberal protestations, our age can be arrogant, treating history as irrelevant, or the past as another country populated by ignoramuses, oppressors and retrogrades. It is accordingly easy to overlook a man whose wide angle lens could imply inability to focus, and whose energies were expended across so many fields of enquiry. For all his assiduity and organising intelligence, maybe Sloane was simply outshone by even more brilliant stars – his labours less quantifiable than Boyle’s Law, Linnaean nomenclature or Newton’s Principia, less obviously engaging than Pepys or Evelyn, less tangible than St. Paul’s or the Royal Hospital. Yet even incomplete intellectual interest is surely always better than bland incuriosity, while accusations of historical insensitivity miss the point. As you leaf through these pages, it becomes clear just how culturally central a figure Sloane was, and is – that this unassuming and even unimaginative man made a more useful contribution to the stock of scientific understanding than many better known figures. Delbourgo has given us an unforgettable portrait of a quiet man in full, recorder of a vanished world that in many ways is still with us, whose unflagging, unpretentious additions of fact upon fact, specimen upon specimen, helped make our universe.

This review first appeared in Spiked in November 2017, and is reproduced with permission