Factories of empire

The Prose Factory by D J Taylor (Random House 2015)

The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook (Penguin 2015)

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‘No one over the age of 40 – no one at any rate old enough to have experienced a literary world made up entirely of books, newspapers and reference libraries – can roam the world of the blogosphere and the online symposium without thinking that there is too much of everything – too many books, too much criticism of them, too many reviews, too many opinions, too many reading groups, too many book clubs, so many literary prizes that any vaguely competent novel comes garlanded with two or three endorsements from the judging committees, that we are drowning in a sea of data where an instant reaction is always liable to crowd out mature reflection, where anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s and the fact that the distinguished man of letters in the Wall Street Journal thinks McCarthy’s The Road is a work of genius is of no interest at all to the Amazon reviewer who awards a single star for a “lack of bite”.’

Well, there is definitely too much of that sentence, but you can see what he’s getting at.

It comes towards the end of D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory, which covers the history of English literary affairs and business from 1918 through to roughly present day.

It is full of ideas about writing, the business of writing,  and by that I mean both the often neglected financial side, and also what writers were really concerned with, as opposed to what they said they were concerned with.

There is a great section on the rise of what was known as “the middle article” – light essays on literature or culture more generally  in newspapers  from roughly the 1920s onwards.

Such articles were still  common in British newspapers when I became a junkie in the mid-1980s – or at least the broadsheets such as the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times.

The ‘middle article’ became the vehicle for maintaining liberal values just as, in the political sphere, the liberal tradition became threatened.  Essayists as diverse as GK Chesterton or AG Gardner or JB Priestley kept this tradition  going –  a tradition which included the attitudes of universality tolerance and diversity of subject matter.

One essayist is described by Taylor, delightfully, as reviewing James Joyce’s Ulysses from ‘the angle of one who suspects that Ulysses has merit but can’t quite see it himself’.

This got me thinking  about the blogosphere because… Well of course it did. Back  when blogs became a thing,  about a dozen years or so ago,  I likened them to the old 18th and 19th-century pamphleteers:  partisan,  often puerile,  and occasionally very personal.

There has, in the past few years, developed a sort of second wave of blogs in New Zealand (and no doubt elsewhere) which is less concerned with politics and more with wider issues.

There is still a highly political element,  but it manages – a fair amount of the time, anyway –  to avoid the juvenile and extremely boring ‘Ya Boo Lefties! ‘Ya Boo Righties!’ face pulling behaviour which became synonymous with blogging for a long time.

I think this “middle article”  style seems not a bad description of the second wave.

Taylor is good  – very good in fact, if very  acerbic –  about the sheer snobbery of many writers,  with  those espousing radical politics being the most snobbish of the lot.

The chapter on the 1930s  – “The Pink Decade”   points out that champions of working class amongst the intelligentsia seldom admitted actual members of the working class to their salons and that when they tried things seldom turned out well.  There is a heartbreaking anecdote of Sid Chaplin,  one of the few working-class writers,who was published being invited to George Orwell’s house and making it as far as the doorway before fleeing in terror.

He also has the occasional go at the more anti-intellectual tradition of English letters,  but points out that even this,  once upon a time,  could draw on a background of shared cultural and intellectual heritage.

The mid-20th Century  battleground between ‘modernists and traditionalists, of highbrows and lowbrows,  of middle-class reactionaries, as Orwell once put it, thanking God they were not born brainy…’ was real enough,  but, as he says, even conservative critics of T S Elliot’s ‘The Wasteland’  could pick up the classical allusions. That isn’t so now.

There is the ongoing problem of funding literature:  ‘put an entity charged with expanding public take-up of literature in the hands of a bureaucrat, and the literature itself is all too easily lost sight of. Put it in the hands of other writers and the first casualty is likely to be a grasp of practical reality.’

There is, perhaps naturally, quite a bit on two writers who have written a lot about writers: the two friends who were often mistaken for each other, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge.

Bradbury I’ve only recently started reading although I’ve certainly been aware of him for some years – Taylor heralds as a kind of chronicler of the strange death, not so much of Liberal England as of the less definable, and much more important, set of broad liberal ideas and attitudes. Bradbury is, he says,

Bradbury is, he says

‘an elegist for an ethical code in severe danger of being swamped, a dazzling intellectual high wire act or even – to lower the bar a bit – is top-notch slapstick comedian in the Kingsley Amis mould. His real achievement, you suspect, rests on his ability to show just how formidable a force the old-style liberal humanists can be – even here in a wind and ground down world, somewhere in that endlessly contested space between the end of the Cartesian project and the beginning of the World Wide Web.’

Bradbury’s compatriot and friend David Lodge has a slightly different approach and has a lovely line about how Lodge

‘clearly isn’t averse to dressing up in the glad rags of literary theory, but on this, and other, evidence he wouldn’t want to wear it next to his skin.’

And that brings us to the issue of literary theory which haunted the study of English when I was at university in the late 80s and which was one of the main reasons I steered clear of an English major.  I figured if I was going to do political theory I would rather have the real thing.

And here we go full circle, back to the snobbery of the Bloomsbury-ites and their fellow modernists. There is a thorough and by no means one-sided discussion of critic John Carey and his attack on modernism, post-modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and literary theory generally, and Taylor does conclude that all too often 20th century literature has acted for minorities and elites to the exclusion of a large potential of readers of ordinary intelligent people who have developed, over the years, thoroughly understandable dislike of ‘culture’ and the ‘cultured’.

‘The “literary novel” … would sell far more copies and attract far more attention beyond newspaper books pages if it didn’t habitually come served with a light sauce of snootiness – if in fact, it didn’t refer to itself as a literary novel in the first place.’

 

 


Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role — that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength — this role is about played out. 

 

So spoke former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the early 1960s. Acheson  was of course discussing foreign policy, and the comments came at the time the British government was edging towards joining what was then called the European Economic Community and which we now know as a European Union.

And of course we also now though British voters opted to leave Europe last month,  even if we –  and they – still don’t quite know what that vote means.

Acheson  almost  definitely did not have in mind the kind of role Dominic Sambrook outlines in The Great British Dream Factory.

That role  is as a kind of middlebrow entertainer to the world.  Books, true,  play a sizeable part  in this role.

 

 

Sandbrook is though  more enamoured of film, television, and music –  a chapter on the country house is more interested in the film and television examples  than the literary ones.

Brideshead Revisited  certainly features,  but Sandbrook is more interested in the 1981  television series than  the original Evelyn Waugh novel (not one of Waugh’s best efforts, in my view, but still).  While P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie get a look in,  it is the global phenomenon of Downton Abbey which really generates Sandbrook’s  enthusiasm.

Spies –  he seemed rather taken with James Bond –  and science fiction such as The Prisoner and Doctor Who  are also  star products of his Dream Factory production line.

While I’m sympathetic to Sandbrook’s  rejection of some of the overrated cultural icons it covers, he tries a little too hard and too self-consciously to  be a kind of middlebrow, plain-man iconoclast (he rates Elton John over David Bowie, to take one example).

 

His book  lacks Taylor’s  elegance and above all Taylor’s penetrating wit.  While Taylor’s study –  admittedly with a slightly narrower focus –  is  surefootedly deft,  deep,  and occasionally droll,  there is a sense of  clumsiness,  over striving for  effect,  in Sandbrook’s work.

Both are worth a read. But Taylor’s is the one I will read again.

‘Sister Europe’ -and Brexit

Can’t muster much m0re than bewilderment and concern on this. I could see the appeal of the vote to leave – in fact I thought the Brits would vote to leave, and was rash enough to post this on the Twitter before the vote. 

It seemed to me that if the polls were that close the Brexit-eers would get over the line – that there would be a similar ‘shy Tory’ effect seen in the UK polls at their last general election. 

I don’t like the appeal to naked racism the Brexiteers engaged in.  I think you could make an economic and political argument for exit without going there – in fact I think the case for leaving, if this were a more normal time globally, is stronger than Remain, without raising the flag of xenophobia or racism.. 

But the timing of this is all wrong.  This is going to be destabilising at a time not just the UK but the world economy doesn’t need any more destabilising influences. 

If I’d been in the UK, I’d have voted remain for that reason. It would have been a reluctant vote, a very reluctant one. 

Anyway, here’s the Psychedelic Furs’ “Sister Europe”.  Seems apt. 

Buy a car and watch it rust

Sister see them fall to dust

They fall around

In another crowded room

Paint me like the shirt I’m in

Honestly

The other Anzac Centenary

In this year of anniversaries, mostly blood-soaked ones, there is one this weekend which has been oddly missed.

It is a 100 years since the Anzac evacuation. The troops were taken out of Anzac Cove over the night of the 19th December 1915.

It is seen, of course, as a failed and costly campaign.

Costly it certainly was. But found myself wondering, a few weeks back as I read Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” whether it was totally failed.

The received version is the landings were to provide relief to the Russians, who were on the Allied side and were under pressure following defeats by the Germans at Tannenburg and also from the Ottoman Empire – the Turks – on their southern side.

The idea seems to have been to knock the Turks out – the Ottoman Empire having been called ‘the Sick Man of Europe’ for most of the previous century, obviate the need for the Russians to fight on their southern flank and thus allow the Russians to commit all their troops against Germany.

We’ve tended to be taught it was a “sideshow” to the main event: the war on the Western Front against Germany in France.

Sleep walkersBut it wasn’t as much of a sideshow as all that.

As Clark’s book – perhaps the best short history of the origins of World War One I’ve read [he has a lecture on it here]– shows, the real strategic game of World War One wasn’t the west, it was the future of south east Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

Russia’s long term ambition included access to the Mediterranean for its Navy, via the Straits of Constantinople.

Britain and, to a lesser degree France, were not so keen. They had, a half a century previously, fought the Crimean War precisely to stop this happening.

The conviction amongst western statesmen was the backward Ottoman Empire – backward, inefficient, but sprawling west to east from Jerusalem to Afghanistan  – would crumble at some point.

Who would benefit from this collapse was one of the most important strategic issues of the era – more so, in fact, than who won or lost in Flanders.  It is why British troops were put into Palestine and Iraq and remained there for rather a long time. (Plu ca meme chose, etc etc etc….)

Writes Clark:

 ‘Russian strategic thinking tended iincreasingly in 1912-14 to view the Balkans as the hinterland to the Straits – as the key to securing ultimate control of the Ottoman chokepoint on the Bosphorus.

Underlying this conviction  was the belief, increasingly central to [Russian Foreign Minister] Sazonvo’s thinking during the last years before the outbreak of war, that Russia’s claim to the Straits would only ever be realised in the context of a general European war….’

So, I suspect, the ANZAC landings were less about “providing relief” for the Russians, than making sure that if the Ottomans did collapse, there would be Allied troops in the region to pick up the bits – or at least to make sure the Russians weren’t able to just walk in.

When the failed Gallipoli campaign made it plain the Turkish armies were not going to be quite the pushover everyone assumed, the entire venture became less strategically important.

Clark’s book closes a year before the Gallipoli landings. New Zealand only gets one mention – he quotes a pamphlet by an unnamed clergyman urging an attitude of sacrifice amongst young New Zealand men to protect their womenfolk from unnamed “aliens”.

It is cited as an example of the way in which assumptions about the inevitability of war had seeped into wider public consciousness.

There was, Clark suggests, “a deepening readiness for war across Europe, particularly within educated elites. It did not take the form of bloodthirsty calls for violence against another sate, but rather of a ‘defensive patriotism that encompassed the possibility of war without necessarily welcoming it.’

It is no coincidence the spark which triggered the firestorm – the assassination at Sarajevo – was in the south east of Europe.

Serbia, following the assassination, was portrayed in Allied propaganda as the gallant little nation besieged by bullying neighbours.

Which was, to put it mildly, a charitable view.

The ‘gallant little Serbia’ of wartime propaganda bears some uncomfortable parallels with today’s Pakistan.

The terrorist group which carried out the assassination in Sarajevo, a fluid group which operated under various names such as Black Hand or Unity or Death, was both a threat to the Serbian government and inextricably linked with numerous members of that government.

The group moved of its own accord, across borders, and if the Serbian government had wanted to move against it the result would have been revolution in one form or other. Too many Serbs  – some within the government – backed the terrorist’s goals.

The debate on the origins of World War One might be old, Clark notes, but

 

“..the subject is still fresh – in fact it is fresher and more relevant now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The changes in our own world have layered our perspective on the events of 1914…Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organisation with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge, but this organisation was extra terrestrial, without a clear geographical or political location…”

 

 

 

 

Six Blankets in the shape of a cross – an Everest epic

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis (Vintage Books 2012)

‘We went out into the keen air; it was a night of early moons. Mounting a little rise of stones and faintly crunching under our feet the granular atoms of fresh fallen snow we were already aware of some unusual loveliness in the moment and the scenes. We were not kept waiting for the supreme effects; the curtain was withdrawn. 

Rising from the bright mists Mount Everest above us was imminent, vast, incalculable- no fleeting apparition of elusive dream-form: nothing could have been more set and permanent, steadfast like Keats’s star, ‘in lone splendour hung aloft the night’, a watcher of all the nights, diffusing, it seemed universally, an exalted radiance.’

Everest-wallpaper-cb1267712137
Chomolungma/Sagamatha/Everest. From the North side.

So wrote George Mallory of his first attempt at climbing Mt Everest, three years before he was to make his more famous, and fatal, climb.

By a neat coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Wade Davis’s mighty book on the expeditions undertaken by Mallory, and others, in the wake of World War One just as the fillum ‘Everest’ appeared in the cinemas.

This latest fillum is, of course, about a later and much more famous, at least to contemporary generations, attempt on Everest, even if at least one of the participants in the actual climb has damned it as being less-than-accurate.

The Wade Davis book, though, is one of the most absorbing things I’ve immersed myself in for a long time.

It is only partly about the climb itself: it is very much about the culture and circumstances of the mostly young men who were involved in the first serious bids on the mountain in the years after the First World War.

And, as a semi-aside, they also made the first ever film of the mountain, recently restored and online here. It, too, is compelling, for all its primitive technology and for the fact the film makers couldn’t get beyond a certain point.

The theme of the book is how the climbers – some not so young – were driven by the trauma of World War One, and also by the uneasy feeling the sun which shone on the British Empire was moving past the meridian.

The leader of the first expedition, Charles Bruce, had received  bullets through both legs at Gallipoli and lost one of those legs.

He had been told to retire home on his disability pension and advised to take things easy.

Above all else, doctors told him not to attempt any strenuous uphill walking.

You have to shake your head in admiration at anyone who can so comprehensively ignore medical advice.

But the book is peopled with such dotty, obsessive but often quite gentle eccentrics. The contrast with the more consumer-ist approach of  today’s Everest industry could not be more profound.

These were men who had no need of a ‘bucket list’. They had seen too much of life, and death, for such a thing.

The man who made the first film of Everest,  John Noel, had witnessed the first gas attack on the Western Front in 1915 – one where a fellow officer described men running back with bulging eyes and tearing at their throats as the gas caused a chemical reaction in their lungs which meant they drowned in the poison. ‘I have never seen men so terrified’ he wrote.

Noel himself was wounded in a shell burst the same day and as well as having severe head and other injuries was suffering from neurasthenia by the time he was invalided out.

Another member of the expedition, Howard Somervell, had been a medical officer in the trenches. Working as a surgeon, Davis writes, Somervell,

‘appears to have dealt with the war by maintaining a process and highly disciplined focus on the abstract possibilities of the academic moment. In his free moments he would go sketching, to the most humble objects of nature with his heart yearning to treat every animate being as worthy of respect.’.

There is a nice piece on him here – including the nugget, not mentioned in Davis’s book, that in 1924 mountaineering was an Olympic sport and those on the team which attempted Everest were given medals that year.

Many of the men had been in the Himalayas and wider central Asian region well before they tried to climb the mountain.

Howard-Bury travelled to the region before the war, going through the Karakorams and Kashmir, learning, in the end, 27 languages and closely studying the culture and in particularly the religions of the region. In 1911, aged 31, he inherited his family estate and was able to “retire” – and immediately used his wealth and leisure to trek through the Silk Road and Mongolia, into Russia.

He bought lilies in Omsk and planted them at Belvedere; he bought a baby bear as well who he brought home. The bear grew to seven feet tall: Howard-Bury kept fit by wrestling with it.

‘He spent his time collecting plants, taking notes, and living a life of freedom and whimsy…..He was not a man ready for war, and yet when it came he returned immediately to his regiment.’

He was also at Loos and Ypres. And the Somme. Davis sketches the outline of these battles, and what utter carnage they were.

Ordered at one point to take a group of men and dig a communication trench, he found they were digging not through the earth, but through layers and layers of decaying bodies of men who had fallen in previous battles. “heads, arms and legs crawling with maggots”.

Throughout the war he kept a regular diary – he was, says Davis, a brilliant and observant writer.

Howard-Bury was captured in the final German offensive of the war: his regiment was right in the forefront of the attack and few survived.

The social and cultural aspect of all this has been much written about: Davis also has an eye for the economic scale, with the arresting fact that between 1918 and 1921 the effect of  death duties and other taxes meant a quarter of all English land would change hands – a change in property ownership of a scale only seen once before, when William the Conqueror marched in. Not even Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, or the English Civil War saw anything like it.

After the war, notes Davis, many who had served in the trenches wanted to go “anywhere but home”.

‘The long hallucination of the war induced a universal torpor and melancholy, a sense of isolation, a loss of centre….In the months and years after the war the essence of death became redefined, even as survivors sought new ways to deal with the inexorable separation it implied.’

Davis quotes Vera Brittain, who had lost her fiancé, her brother and two male friends and who wrote she had “no one left to dance with. The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were the dead, and would never return.”

The book is peopled with dotty, strong-minded eccentrics, not all who saw war service. There is Charles – later Sir Charles – Bell, the envoy in Tibet, who loved the locals and who, after one of the early expeditions, forbade any removal of rocks for geological purposes because it was upsetting local religious sensibilities.

In fact, the climbers were not removing rocks – Tibetan lamas had got the wrong impression of what was going on – but Bell was appalled by the climbers’ dismissive reaction when he passed on local concerns.

There is, needless to say, a strong undercurrent of colonialism here – in fact ‘undercurrent’ is an understatement. Bell was another odd mix: he insisted on always wearing uniform when meeting Tibetan leaders, as befitting the dignity of a British official, but he would also avoid going outdoors in summer during daytime, like the lamas, because moving around would kill insects and Buddhists believe taking any life is wrong.

And Mallory?  He seems to have been a star even before Everest: a mix of brilliance, good looks and athleticism left him trailing clouds of still mostly anticipated glory, if such a thing can be imagined. He was singled out early as a vital part of any expedition – in fact, the best hope of getting to the top of Everest – due to his climbing ability.

There is a vignette of his first glimpse of Everest – noted in Howard-Bury’s diary: unable to sleep, he had risen to watch the sunrise and was pottering around on the pass where they had camped, ‘still clad in pyjamas and bedroom slippers, gazing at the mountain’.

The final, disastrous attempt, is covered in depth: Mallory and his climbing partner, Irving, disappeared into the mist on the mountain and fellow climber Noel Odell, thought he had seen them close enough to the summit to have actually made it there, even though they did not make it back.

Mallory was to complain to Noel he had not come to Tibet to be a film star: one of Davis’s points is despite this it is precisely what Mallory became, in life and – especially – in death. The film made by Noel became a hit at the still-silent cinemas.

Noel could only – especially with the heavy film equipment of the time – climb so far up the mountain. He was to wait: geologist Odell climbed further and watched his friends disappear. As relayed in Noel’s film, they waited longer than they knew they should have had to if the climb had been a success: eventually, the signal came.

Six blankets, in the shape of a cross, in the snow.

By the time this happens, on page 549, the reader is so wrapped up in the tale it is difficult not to feel the dismay.

The book goes on to cover future, abortive bids to get an expedition going, which ran afoul of politics. Hilary’s 1953 bid is, of course, mentioned in an epilogue, and there is the more recent discovery of Mallory’s body, where it is, and what it means for claims he and Irvine got to the top but never made it back.

I’ll leave that to you to find out about that. Read it. This is one of the best books, on any subject, I’ve read for a long time. Occasionally I’ve felt the writing could have been given a bit more pep and pace, but that is a minor quibble.

I love this book, and I haven’t said that about any book for a very long time.

‘Hameron’ and ‘Piggate’

I am a bit worried  about this Winston Churchill quote now. quote-Winston-Churchill-i-am-fond-of-pigs-dogs-look-662

Revelations  – and I use the term ‘revelations’ a little loosely as things have yet to be proved – do rather cause one to look at it in a new light.

As noted here only a month or so back, when it comes to sex scandals, the Brits take a lot of beating. 

Err.

Well, you know what I mean.

The drug revelations about David Cameron as a youngster are harmless. It is not a surprise, for someone of that generation – and besides, contemporary and now journalist James Delingpole have dropped some pretty heavy hints along these lines in the past.

And of course he isn’t the first British PM to indulge in marijuana – Disraeli did. So, as an  aside, did Queen Victoria. She took it for her period pains.

I’ve occasionally wondered  if they ever shared a joint.

“And then, ma’am…we get de Lesseps to dig a canal at Suez! We declare you Empress of India and send a detachment into Afghanistan! What could possibly go wrong?”

[Victoria collapses in a fit of the giggles: then calls for early dinner because “One has the munchies”].

And it wasn’t just Brit PMs on dak.

Eden was bombed on meth at the time of the 1956 Suez Crisis. And Churchill, of course, relied on a variety of artificial stimulants (mostly rather well, it has to be said) to keep going, not only during World War II but in his peacetime premiership.

I can’t think of any British PM, though, who has been said to have engaged, as a youthful or other discretion, in oral sex with a dead pig.

Mind you, I wouldn’t put it past Rosebury.

But anyway, David Cameron will go down in history for this.

If nothing else, he has given the phrase ‘living high on the hog’ a whole new meaning.

British Sex Scandals and Lord Sewel’s example

Not for the first time I find myself gazing, enraptured and filled with somewhat surprised admiration, at the Old Country. 
Her industry maybe crumbling, she may have lost an Empire: she may be chronically unable to make up her mind whether or not she is in Europe.

But my God, she still manufactures a decent sex scandal better than anywhere else.

For those who haven’t caught up, Lord Sewel – a chap whose role involves enforcement of standards of conduct amongst his fellow members of the House of Lords – is on the front of the Sun.

He has been filmed wearing a red bra, a leather jacket, and sniffing cocaine off the breasts of prostitutes, all the while complaining about how little he is paid, and about what an idiot the prime minister is.

This strikes me as being  about as British as you can get. 
True, these sex scandals are not what they once were. Lord Sewel – ‘Lord Coke’ as the Sun has gleefully dubbed him, and it is gratifying to know there is someone on that publication with an appreciation of the 17th Century jurist – is hardly one of the the blueblooded second sons of an inbred peerage who traditionally get themselves into these situations.
He is a Labour life peer, born in Bradford.  

Now, I am not a close student of Burkes Peerage, but I have an idea the Brit caste system means you can’t really be called an aristocrat if you were born in Bradford. 

One might express a quiet, private reservation to oneself about the wisdom of Lord Sewel’s use of his leisure time.
What, one might ask, is wrong with a good book, or a bracing walk in the fresh air?
But these are matters of personal choice. It may be,  too, that it was the path of duty which led Lord Sewel to don colourful ladies’ undergarments and imbibe white powder off the erogenous zones of other, colourful ladies.

We should not rush to judge here. 

I fear some who are charging the Noble Lord with hypocrisy, given his role and his recent public comments about the need to maintain high standards in Britain’s upper House of Parliament, could be missing the bigger picture.
Lord Sewel is setting an example, a challenge to his fellow peers.

This, he is saying, is how to maintain standards of conduct.

Beat that, in other words, is his message to his fellow Lords.