Thought for the Day – a rather rambling one, starting with Churchill on libraries

Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library’

– Winston Churchill

Not going to quite agree with this comment, which comes from an aside in a famous essay ol’ WSC wrote about his discovery of painting as a hobby.

I’ve loved libraries, certainly, ever since I ever discovered them when I was aged five (my first ever library book was Dr Seuss’s ‘Horton the Elephant Hatches an Egg’ from the Waiuku Public Library). (one further aside: you don’t want to see me at the business end of any sort of a paint brush. Not at least unless you’ve had a safe distance installed first).

But I can certainly think of plenty of things that have made me more reverent than libraries.

Pegasus Books off Cuba Mall, one recent summer...

Mostly nature, the outdoors, and so forth (see some of the pictures which adorn this publication)… there’s reverence, awe, and a sense of ineffable wonder.

But on libraries themselves…my main emotion I think has been hunger, a ravenous, at times slightly desperate intellectual appetite.

Tinged with a touch of awe, certainly, but that awe is secondary.

Besides, to me ‘reverence’ makes you hang back a bit. You don’t want to approach the alter with too much enthusiasm in church. You can never be too sure what the Divine Ironist has in mind – except it’s bound to be something you haven’t expected and that it’s bound to be a bit of a doozie.

In the case of libraries, I just want to get at ’em. Reverence is there but it skips, hand In hand, with a wide eyed, gleeful and – let’s be honest about it –a wee bit too innocent enthusiasm.

And yes, I suppose, the ultimate ‘kids skipping hand-in-hand with a wee bit too innocent enthusiasm’ were found in the first book of the Bible, where they fairly notoriously came a bit of a cropper.

After I left the home town as a teenager – especially when I moved to big places like Wellington- about the first thing I did was join any libraries going. In the case of Wellington, two whole, massive libraries – the Polytechnic library as well as the public libraries – were on tap.

Like the beer, only much much much better. And I didn’t actually need to deepen my voice to order books at the library, somehow it just felt as though ‘The Ginger Man required a deeper voice. And perhaps some facial fair.

These city libraries were places of awe, certainly. But more, they were places of a kind of desperate and slightly bewildered, unfocused hunger than of reverence.

There was so much there: so much to discover. And they were run by these helpful, but often daunting, highly educated and sophisticated people called librarians.

I has reverence and respect for librarians, certainly. Likethat started with the librarian who, back home, introduced me to this wondrous system called Interloan.

Being able to order up books from any library in the country was a breathtaking discovery. Used to go into the Waiuku library every second Friday after school: order up some book or books I’d discovered in a footnote or bibliography I’d found recently.

Let me at ’em!

Then as the year wore on, discovering second hand books stores, these inspired awe and reverence, joy and discovery.

Stairway in the magnificent old Hard To Find Books in Onehunga, a few years before the recent move.

Cheap books you could actually own!  Repositories of the worlds’ wisdoms and follies you could return to and scrawl disagreement in the margins!I actually dream about second hand bookshops. No exaggeration. Sometimes they are stores I have known: more frequently my dreams are some sort of combination of every second hand book shop I have ever known, plus an unconscious idealisation of what a perfectly arranged (and here I use the term ‘arranged’ loosely, if not wildly inaccurately) shop would be like.

I like to think of this as a kind of premonition of a heavenly afterlife – especially one which also comes with a well-stocked shelf of single malts. A a heavenly second hand bookshop should possess, as well as an endless stock of fine whiskies a proprietor who plays a genial, intelligent wry and witty guide and host ,with a gift for intelligent conversations.
It certainly beats bell out of other theories of the afterlife I’ve heard about. 
The best second hand bookstores I’ve known are organised, so you can find what you are after – but not too organised. An air of amiable, intelligent dishevelment should always be part of the mix.
The key thing – and I’m sure this is something second hand bookshop owners are often immensely frustrated about – is that such stores are only partly about selling.
Such establishments are more about the atmosphere- the ‘vibe’ if you like.
Like the quote from Churchill hints, they are about serving as a repository of knowledge, of wisdom and of folly, frequently at the same time.
Ok – to get back to Churchill- that it ties back to reverence,of a kind.
I think it shows an irreverent form of reverence.
The best kind, I feel.
Nothing should be too formal.
So, cheers, all. Here’s a glass of Glenmorangie, raised while reading Andrew Roberts’ recent biography of Churchill.
That should serve as a chaser to WSC’s own favourite, a flute of Pol Roger.

The Oscars, fillums, Churchill, 1940, etc etc….

My taste in fillums is decidedly unsophisticated. Divert me for a couple of hours and don’t insult my intelligence are generally my main criteria. Oh, and I really don’t like anything that involves subtitles. Nothing to do with xenophobia, its just if I want to read I’ll pick up a book, and I find I miss too much else going on on the screen if I’m having to read.

But it was a neat-ish coincidence to be going to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri this week just as the Oscars were being announced.

Have to confess I don’t pay much attention to the Oscars, normally, but they swum into my consciousness this year a bit more.

It’s all hype and hooplar though, isn’t it? All a bit OTT and naff and just…colossally bloated with its own regard.

Unusually, this year, I’ve seen three fillums which featured.

The one which did least well at the Oscars was the one I enjoyed the most – Dunkirk. Worthy of the term ‘epic’ but without the overblown connotations which are associated with that.

Pretty historically accurate, from what I can gauge. I’m one of those sad war history buffs who watches for these things. In particular, anything 1940/battle of Britian era related. The only error I saw was those Spitfires were shown as having far more ammunition than they would ever have been able to shoot off in real life.

Even when the deliberate mythologising (and there is certainly no shortage of that) is stripped away from the 1940 story, it is still pretty stirring stuff.

The other feature associated with 1940 is of course the Winston Churchill saga Darkest Hour.

This had far more historic inaccuracies – the part in which Churchill goes onto the London Underground was completely made up, and at least one, I think two, peices of dialogue were from later periods of the war but which were included because, in one case, it gave the character of his wife a bit more to do and in the other case because it was funny.

From what I have seen and read, Clement Attlee did not, in the House of Commons, conducting himself like the stem-winding ranter depicted in the Darkest Hour. The Labour leader tended to be Mr Matter-of-Fact, rather than Mr OTT.

Gary Oldham’s performance?

Some have said it was over the top, but come on: this is Churchill. It takes a ham to play a ham, which is why the best portrayals of Churchill have often been by people like Robert Hardy or John Lithgow.

Or, now, Oldham.

Churchill was playing a role most of his life, it seems: at times it looked grandiloquent and verging on the ridiculous, but in 1940, the times matched the actor.

It’s kind of tangental, but also not: the Kinks, from their abandoned rock opera Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire – Mr Churchill Says. it’s a clip that’s not, all things considered, too badly put together.

Book Recommendations – The Strange Death of Liberal England

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
strange death

 

 

‘Along that row of distinguished and original faces there would pass from time to time, as lightly as a shadow upon the waters, an alarming, an alien, spirit. It invaded and effaced the dignified construction of Mr Asquith’s features, it crept about the corners of Mr Lloyd George’s eyes, with imponderable fingers it ruined that noble forehead which was Mr Winston Churchill’s, it reduced the hatchet lines of Mr McKenna’s face to the lesser proportions of a ladylike paper-knife.. a spirit dangerous and indefinite, animula vagula blandula, the Spirit of Whimsy, which only afflicts Englishmen in their weakness.’

 

I have been thinking of this book a lot lately and I’ve recommended it to several people.  It was one of those “formative books” – a book one reads as an impressionable age and has a powerful influence on the outlook.

I’m a firm believer that styles and methods of thought are more important – much more important in fact – than the actual content of those thoughts. Habits of mind are often unconscious, stem from a mix of influences and innate character, and serve to form thoughts and beliefs.

So although, in the case of this book, I didn’t agree with everything in it at the time, and probably do so even less now, Dangerfield’s  attitude to the world of public affairs, and those who conduct it, had, now I re-read it, quite an effect.

I can even remember where and when I bought it – shortly after moving to Auckland in 1985, at the David Thomas second-hand bookshop in Lorne St, which was part of a small oasis of slightly disheveled civilisation in the downtown CBD at the time. There were four along the O’Connell-High-Lorne St zone at the time – Rare Books, Jasons, and Bloomsbury, as well as this one. Five, if you count the library.

Nice and handy, too, to the Dominos and Just Desserts cafes.

Enough nostalgia.

‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ is one of the few books I’d nominate for genuine classic status. It tells a great story – the kind of collective mental breakdown which swept over the British [ok, mostly English, and David Lloyd George] classes in the four years before the outbreak of World War One.

It is superbly written, generally with a dry ironic touch, but underneath this cool carapace some heated moral indignation bubbles and it occasionally bursts through.

It was about the breakup of a consensus, of assumptions about how their country – and, given the size of the British Empire of the time, the world  – ought to be governed. The future of Ireland, Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and the House of Lords’ self-defeating obduracy, votes for women, and the rise of the Labour Party dominate and served to break up that consensus.

As Dangerfield put it,

‘Whatever his political convictions may have been, the  Englishman of the ‘7os and ‘8os was something of a liberal  at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and  the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in Reform. He was strongly in favour of peace – that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance, and, if possible, in the  name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens.’

And he shows how widespread this worldview was, usually with a neat and deftly humorous touch, starting one section with,

‘In 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain, who had proved how insubstantial were party differences by being a Unitarian, a Radical, and a Conservative at one and the same time…’

It is character sketches like this which really make the book dance, because they are not just sketches of individual characters, they are used to show the spirit of the age. Here is Dangerfield on Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Party leader between 1902 and 1911: for Balfour, he writes,

 

‘…politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school :in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead.  …He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at a low ebbb…

‘In his youth he had been known as ” pretty Fanny ” and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull : it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a special property of hollow mockery, its eternal memento mori which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.’

Any writer who can come up with the phrase ‘attenuated gazelle’ is someone I have to tip my hat in homage to.

Here he is on  Liberal prime minister Henry Asquith:

‘..ingenious but not subtle, he could improvise quite brilliantly on somebody else’s theme. He was moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately

humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive. If he can be accused of excess it was in the matter of his personal standards, which were extremely high.’

My own copy of the book fell apart several years ago, I’ve since got ahold of some online excerpts and have ordered a new one from Abebooks.

It is, as those excerpts quoted above show, a joy to read if you have love history and good writing and possess a sense of humour.

It is also – because it was written in the 1930s – great to read a thoughtful book which considers Winston Churchill as just another politician, albeit a particularly colourful one, before the public monument he became post-World War Two.

Local parallels? I frequently found myself pondering this book during Helen Clark’s prime ministership. It seemed to me then quite possible we were looking at an endgame for the New Zealand Labour Party and its world view, mostly because of the inherently defensive approach to almost all policy issues.

Oh, and because Clark and Cullen at times reminded me of the Asquith-Lloyd George combination, albeit without Cullen wanting the top job.

But Clark’s cool rationality had a whiff of Asquith, and Cullen definitely had a touch of the Lloyd George at times, especially in his way with the wittily destructive phrase.

The travails which have befallen Labour since then have confirmed those thoughts from a decade ago.

And we may, now, be seeing a wider, world wide break up, with the rise of Trump-ism in the United States and the sentiment of ressentiment which that appeals to taking other forms elsewhere.

But more on that in my real job.

For now, fellow well-written-history-buffs: this book is a true classic.

That rare combination: a thought-provoking joy to read.

‘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.