MY TOP SHELF: 33 – Keynes

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

33

THE ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES OF THE PEACE

John Maynard Keynes (1919)

Reprint Macmillan and Co., 1920; rebound in quarter vellum with cloth boards, and red label with gold letters.

The glory of the nation you love is a desirable end, – but generally to be obtained at your neighbour’s expense.

Even those who do not believe that economics is no more than voodoo with figures complain that economists are much longer on explanation after the event than they were on prediction before the event.  These complaints were very loud in the Great Financial Crisis.  But you could not sustain that charge against John Maynard Keynes.

Keynes was educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge.  He was very, very bright.  He went through the apparently required gay phase while he was a member of that frightfully precious crowd called ‘The Apostles.’  Later he settled down completely and for life with a distinguished Russian ballerina.  She could divert the dons with her views on homosexuality.  She said it was okay with boys – they have something to hang on to; but how could you have an affair between two insides?

Keynes was coming toward his prime at the age of 35 when he went to Paris as part of the British delegation to negotiate the peace to end the Great War.  He was revolted by the meanness and short-sightedness of France and Britain, and the weakness and ineptness of President Wilson. He left the delegation and went home to write The Economic Consequences of the Peace in something like white heat.  It is a beautifully composed polemic that was an instant smash hit.  But those in charge – not one of whom had the intellectual horsepower of Keynes – did not want to listen, and we are still paying the price.

Keynes set out to show that the Treaty was aimed at the ‘systematic destruction of all three’ pillars of the German economy and that this would lead to hyper-inflation, German bankruptcy, and German revenge.  He was dead right, and about 20 million would die.  France wanted to go back to 1870, but this ‘Carthaginian peace’ was neither ‘right nor possible’.

Keynes gives brief portraits of the main players.  Clemenceau, ‘dry of soul and empty of hope, very old and tired’ just sat there on his brocade chair with his grey suede gloves.  ‘He had one illusion – France; and one disillusion – mankind, including Frenchmen, and his colleagues not least…’His guiding star was that Germans only understood intimidation.  You must not negotiate with a German – you just dictate to him.

Lloyd George had ‘an unerring, almost medium-like, sensibility’ to everyone around him; he had ‘six or seven senses not available to ordinary men.’  He was the best of ‘the subtle and dangerous spellbinders’.  What chance had the aging Presbyterian Wilson against him?  When Lloyd George was speaking, he would go over to nobble the President while it was being translated.  Wilson lacked ‘that dominating intellectual equipment’ and his collapse was ‘one of the most decisive moral events of history.’

The point of the book is to demonstrate that the Treaty was economically misconceived, but Keynes does not withhold moral judgment.  ‘The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness, should be abhorrent and detestable – abhorrent and detestable even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilized life of Europe.  Some preach it in the name of justice.  In the great events of man’s history, in the unwinding of the complex fates of nations, Justice is not so simple.  And if it were, nations are not authorized, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers.’  These are not small notions.

Keynes said that the leaders in Paris knew that they could not deliver and had lied to their own peoples back home about their capacity to extract money from a bankrupt Germany in the future.  He says that the want of sincerity was palpable.  ‘Then began the weaving of that web of sophistry and Jesuitical exegesis that was finally to clothe with insincerity the language and substance of the whole treaty.’  It was worse than that – the Treaty was negotiated in bad faith and outside the terms on which Germany had laid down its arms.  ‘There are few episodes in history which posterity will have less reason to condone – a war ostensibly waged in defence of the sanctity of international engagements ending in a definite breach of one of the most sacred possible of such engagements on the part of the victorious champions of these ideals.’  Elsewhere, Keynes brands the Treaty ‘one of the most outrageous acts of a cruel victor in civilized history.’

The hottest invective is reserved for his own Prime Minister.  On no grounds of public interest, the ‘popular victor’ allowed ‘the claims of private ambition’ to have him call an election.  This cranked up the rhetoric against Germany and made a decent peace even harder to get.  The diagnosis of Keynes is alarmingly recognizable to those governed by no principle past the last opinion poll.  ‘The progress of the General Election of 1918 affords a sad, dramatic history of the essential weakness of one who draws his chief inspiration not from his own true impulses, but from the grosser effluxions of the atmosphere which momentarily surrounds him.’  The book is worth reading just for that one line.

Did the victors really think that they could screw the Germans for the sweat of their brow for a generation?  How did they answer this proposition?  ‘The entrepreneur and the inventor will not contrive, the trader and shopkeeper will not save, the labourer will not toil, if the fruits of their industry are set aside, not for the benefit of their children, their old age, their pride, or their position, but for the enjoyment of a foreign conqueror.’

Why, asks Keynes, ‘has the world been so credulous of the unveracities of politicians’?  The French would acknowledge his logic but they would always come back to the position:  ‘But Germany must pay; otherwise, what is to happen to France?’  It was not a convenient time for the truth.

Lenin said that the best way to destroy capitalism was by debauching the currency.  He was right.  Inflation involves a secret confiscation of wealth.  ‘Perhaps it is historically true that no order of society ever perishes save by its own hand.’

Where would it all end?  ‘If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp.  Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilization and progress of our generation.’

The fulfilment of that prophecy would be a ghastly tragedy.  Because a few small-minded power crazed men in Paris wanted to punish the children of the vanquished, they paved the way for a worse war to punish their own children.

This book holds many lessons about not putting your trust in princes, and about not understanding that if you drive too hard on a deal, you may wind up with worse than nothing.  Agreements are only as good as the wishes of their parties.  The attack in this book was brought home by a 35 year-old economist from King’s College, Cambridge against his own government and the other victors in Europe.  It is a remarkable testament not just to the intellect but to the courage of one man.

Keynes would later go on to serve his country further by helping it to finance the war he foresaw, and then work out how to make repayment.  The effort was finally two much for him.  It is because of what Keynes did rather than what he said that this book is on this shelf.  It is not too much to say that John Maynard Keynes, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave his life for his country.

Here and there – George Will: The Conservative Sensibility

 

You get some idea of the tone and gist of this book from the following extracts from the Introduction.

Although it distresses some American conservatives to be told this, American conservatism has little in common with European conservatism, which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and–soil nostalgia, irrationality and tribalism.  American conservatism has a clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking….The label ‘liberal’ was minted to identify those whose primary concern was not the protection of community solidarity or traditional hierarchies, but rather was the expansion and protection of individual liberty.  Liberals were then those who considered the state the primary threat to this…..In Europe today, the too few people who think the way American conservatives do are commonly called liberals, and people who think as American progressives do are called social democrats….Progressivism represents the overthrow of the Founders’ classical liberalism.

Later on, we get this – those who believe, as the Founders did, that first come the rights and then comes government, are adherents of the Republican Constitution; while those who believe, as progressives do, that first comes government and then come rights are the Democratic Constitution.  The difference comes down to whether ‘We the people’ is a collective entity or ‘We the people as individuals.’

A number of things follow.  First, this book is about theories and labels.  (I agree with the late G H W Bush – labels belong on soup cans.)  Secondly, it will offer little to the rest of the world because this conservatism is uniquely American and different to that of the rest of the West.  Thirdly, the book will be completely foreign to Anglo-Australians because we prefer experience to theory, results to ideology.  Finally some of the discussion will be as penetrable as the doctrine of the Trinity or the Real Presence, and provoke the question: What contemporary political issue might be enlightened by the application of these theories or labels?

But let us take the mission of this book on its terms.  We are to seek the Founders’ thinking by going back to what they said.  Lawyers are familiar with this process (and avoiding dogmatism in this context will be very tricky).

Let us put to one side that the Founders knew division – between, say, the focus of Jefferson on you and me, and the focus of Hamilton on Uncle Sam.  The Founders had some things in common.  They owned and traded in slaves.  They might fairly be labelled patrician and they were horrified at the thought of what we call democracy.  Alexander Hamilton spoke of the ‘unthinking populace’ and John Adams referred to ‘the common herd of mankind’.  George Washington referred to the common people as ‘the grazing multitude’.  He had the High Tory view that ‘the discerning part of the community’ must govern and ‘the ignorant and designing’ must follow.  His successors now practise the reverse.

As a result, the Declaration contained two outright lies.  The one about all men being equal is well known.  Perhaps I may then refer to what I said in a book about the comparative history of Australia and the U S.

Well, this evasion, if that is the term, on the subject of slavery might be expected from a slave-owner from the largest slave-owning state.  But what was not to be expected was the lack of candour on the causes of the revolt.

The American Declaration of Independence follows the form of the English Declaration of Rights.  It records the conduct complained of to justify the termination of the relationship.  (This is what lawyers call ‘accepting a repudiation’ of a contract.)  The English did so in short, crisp allegations that were for the most part devoid of oratorical colour in the Declaration of Rights.  The allegations are expressed in simple enough terms and were not phrased so as to encourage an evasive form of denial. 

How does the American Declaration of Independence go about this process?  Before it gets to an allegation that the king maintains standing armies, which is a relatively specific charge, it made ten allegations of misconduct that were so general that they would not be permitted to stand today as an allegation of a breach of the law on a conviction for which a person might lose their liberty.  The fourteenth allegation, which is hopeless, but which appears to be an attempt to invoke the English precedent, is that:  ‘He [King George III] has abdicated government here.’  Then there is the fifteenth allegation:  ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’  If that allegation of plunder and murder – the old word was ‘rapine’ – had been seriously put, you might have expected to see it before an allegation of abdication – and before every other allegation.  The eighteenth allegation relates to the Indians. The nineteenth was the allegation relating to slavery and which was struck out.  Those drafting the Declaration were not evidently keen to get down to the subject of people of another race.  Or tax.

Let us put to one side that all these allegations are made against the Crown, and not the government, and that none of these allegations refers to any statute of the British government.  There is no history of the American Revolution that has been written that says that the American colonies revolted from their subjection to the British crown for any of the reasons that are set out in the eighteen clauses of the Declaration of Independence.  The primary reason that history gives for the revolt of the colonists was the imposition, or purported imposition, of taxes upon them by the British parliament – when those being taxed had no direct representation in the parliament levying the tax.  Most divorces are about money, and this one was no different. 

But British taxation is only mentioned once in the Declaration of Independence.  That reference is fallacious.  It is against the King.  The Glorious Revolution made it plain that he could not impose a tax.  The only reference to the English legislature comes when those drafting the documents scold the English for ‘attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us’.  Given that the 1688 revolution secured the supremacy of the English parliament over the English Crown and made it transcendentally clear that only the English parliament could levy a tax on its subjects, it may have seemed a little odd for Jefferson to be suggesting that the American colonies were somehow subject to the English Crown, but not to the English parliament.  ‘Jurisdiction’ is a word that has come to bedevil American jurisprudence, and it looks like the problem may have started very early.

‘For imposing Taxes upon us without our Consent’ comes in near the end of charges against England.  This Declaration is then a very dicey basis for any political theory or catechism.  It’s not much of a rock to build a church on.  And the descendants of the colonists are still skittish about tax.  They are better at spending than paying.  An endorsement of deceit, racial superiority and fiscal irresponsibility may be okay for the current president, but surely not for a Republican, much less a bona fide conservative.

The rest of the West think that the U S has been driven to at least two disastrous political failures by the application of the kind of theories discussed in this book by Mr Will  – free universal health care and gun control.

If you think an ounce of evidence is worth a ton of theory, try this.  In June 1908, David Lloyd George told the House of Commons:

‘These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood … are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal.  They are problems which the State has neglected for too long.’

That proposition is still heresy for those to whom Mr Will appeals. For them, the State has no business in dealing with such problems.  But Lloyd George and Churchill drove through this reform – as they called it – which would be the foundation of what we know as the Welfare State, and the start of the provision of a system of affordable health care that is taken for granted in every country in the West – except America.  England was following the example set by Bismarck in Germany.  Well over a hundred years later, Americans were still mouthing silly labels like ‘Socialist’.

What do Americans get for their primitive and puritanical purity?  Not just the worst health system in the Western world, but the most expensive.  And they get something from between pity and contempt from the rest of us who regard free universal health care as non-negotiable in a society that likes to call itself civilised.  You can quote Plato and Hegel till the cows come home – decent health care provided by government is for us an inescapable part of our social fabric.

The same goes for gun control.  Americans pay a frightful sacrifice in human life in obedience to what we see as a hideously loaded ideological reading of a clause in their Bill of Rights that had nothing to do with the cruel aspirations of the NRA. .  The same Bill of Rights is part of our legal dispensation, but only a lunatic would assert that it has the same lethal consequences for us.

You get some idea of the depth of the gulf separating us when you read ‘So, constitutional lawyers are America’s practitioners of political philosophy.’  That is not our way here.  English and Australian jurists would be horrified at the notion that they should engage in political philosophy while on the job.  And we worry about Mr Will’s grip on reality when we read: ‘most Americans want altars kept apart from the state’s business.’  Is all that stuff we read about Evangelicals just fake news?

The Index to the book makes no mention of Trump, or, in a book riddled with –isms, populism.  As best I can see, the book contains no discussion of the current status of ‘conservatism’ for Republicans in America.  If they are the two main issues facing America today, then tossing intellectual playthings about like shuttlecocks makes Nero’s fiddling look while Rome burned positively sane.  If this book correctly reflects a ‘conservative’ spectrum in America today, then we may better understand what many see as the moral and intellectual collapse of the Republican Party and any reasonable application of ‘conservatism’ to the U S in 2019.

By contrast, near the end of Jefferson and Hamilton, John Ferling said:

Presciently, and with foreboding, Jefferson saw that Hamiltonianism would concentrate power in the hands of the business leaders and financiers that it primarily served, leading inevitably to an American plutocracy every bit as dominant as monarchs and titled aristocrats had once been.  Jefferson’s fears were not misplaced.  In modern America, concentrated wealth controls politics and government, leading even the extremely conservative Senator John McCain to remark that ‘both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.’  The American nation, with its incredibly powerful chief executive, gargantuan military, repeated intervention in the affairs of foreign states, and political system in the thrall of great wealth, is the very world that Jefferson abhorred.

Well, that was way back in 2103, and since then the abhorrence of Jefferson has got so much worse as the United States has fallen flat on its face in the gutter.  And, yes, Hamilton was killed in a duel.  And the rest of the world looks on in sadness as the United States increasingly looks more like its current president – the spoiled child who never grew up.

None of this would have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville.

…..in America the people regard this prosperity as the result of its own exertions; the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his private interest, and he co-operates in its success, not so much from a sense of pride or duty, as from, what I shall venture to term, cupidity…As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured; for it is not only his country which is attacked upon these occasions, but it is himself…Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.’

And ‘irritable patriot’ is a reasonable title for the current incumbent at the White House.

Here and there – A different kind of president

Here and there – A different kind of president

Harry S Truman was substantially raised in a farm in Missouri.  His family were simple decent people who shared in the life of their community.  His mother would live to see him become President.  He was educated at the local school in an undistinguished way, except that very poor eyesight meant that he wore glasses, and the he was taught to play the piano.

Then, when Harry was about seventeen, his father went broke after risky trading.  (Young Harry won on a horse at 25 to 1 and did not bet on a horse again for 25 years.)  Harry had to go to work to support the family.  One job was in construction on the railroad – ten hours a day, six days a week, $30 a month plus board.  He learned about all kinds of profanity from altogether a different class of person.  ‘A very-down-to earth education.’  He learned how to get on with the men, and they responded in kind.  ‘He’s all right from his asshole out in every direction.’  He learned to keep it simple.  One night groping in the dark he ran right into a pump.  The next day, he painted the pump white.

When the U S got into the Great War, Harry was medically unfit and his family relied on him.  He was about to marry.  He memorised the sight test and joined up.  His troops elected him as an officer.  He told Bess she would wait for him to come back to marry in case he did not.  Harry put duty above personal interest.  Always.  This was ‘a job somebody had to do.’

In four months on the Somme, the Germans lost more than both sides in the entire U S civil war.  Harry received intense training which he had to pass on.  He was terrified when he first had to address his troops.  But he was the boss.  ‘I didn’t come here to get along with you.  You’ve got to get along with me.’  For their first engagement, they arrived in pitch dark at 3 am, the rain pouring down, and men and horses exhausted.  Harry lost twenty pounds when learning how to lead and look after men in the horror of war.

When he got back home, Harry went into business selling high end men’s wear, and he became heavily involved with the Masons.  That business went broke, and he had to pay off its debts.  The local Missouri Democrat machine was run by the Prendergasts – like English lords of the 18th century.  With their patronage, Harry went into politics and got into the Senate.  His personal loyalty meant that he felt obliged to stand by his patrons even when that did not suit him politically –as when their chief drew heavy jail time. Then Harry felt that his career was over – but he hung on and recovered.  Harry had not ducked for cover.  (His opponent took a hit when it was learned that his chauffeur was required to give him a military salute.)

Harry made his name in the Senate inquiring into corrupt practices.  He attacked Wall Street and the larger danger of money worship.  He told Bess: ‘It will probably catalogue me as a radical, but it will be what I think.’  He was repelled by ‘wild greed’ and showed the traditional Missouri suspicion of concentrated power and the East.

How these gentlemen, the highest of the high hats in the legal profession resort to tricks that would make an ambulance chaser in a coroner’s court blush with shame?…..We worship money instead of honour.  A billionaire, in our estimation, is much greater in these days in the eyes of the people than the public servant who works for public interest.  It makes no difference if the billionaire rode to the wealth on the sweat of little children and the blood of underpaid labour.  No one ever considered Carnegie libraries steeped in the blood of the Homestead steel-workers, but they are.  We do not remember that the Rockefeller is founded on the dead miners of Colorado Fuel & Iron….People can only stand so much, and one of these days there will be a settlement….

Had the world heard anything like this since Lloyd George in 1909?  We hear nothing like it now.  Even if you could find someone who had those beliefs, they would be too scared to voice them.

When World War II came to the U S, Harry wanted to volunteer.  Marshall told him he was too old.  Harry admired Marshall above all others.

Truman hated McCarthy – as did Ike – but he refused to play dirty.

You must not ask the President of the United  States to get down in the gutter with a guttersnipe.  Nobody, not even the President of the United States, can approach too close to a skunk, in skunk territory, and expect to get anything out of it except a bad smell.

When Roosevelt died, Churchill was saddened, but he soon came to appreciate Truman.  ‘He takes no notice of delicate ground, he just plants his foot down firmly upon it.’  He had no trouble dropping the bomb – to save American lives.  He surrounded himself with men of the highest calibre – Marshall, Acheson and implementing the Marshall Plan, this veteran of the First World War reversed the two deadliest mistakes of the Allies at the end of the First.  He repudiated nationalism, embraced and saved Europe, and helped secure three generations of comparative peace under a rules based order anchored on the stability and integrity of the United States.

By applying immense concentration and diligence, Truman made decisions such as those, and on Israel, Korea and Macarthur that others may have ducked.  He did not seek personal praise.  David McCullough said that more ‘than once in his presidency, Truman would be remembered saying it was remarkable how much could be accomplished if you didn’t care who received the credit.’

In January 1952, when I was six years of age, Churchill dined with Truman and leading members of his government.

The last time you and I sat across the conference table was at Potsdam, Mr President.  I must confess, sir, I held you in very low regard then.  I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt.  I misjudged you badly.  Since that time, you more than any other man have saved Western civilisation.

Well, if you are a bona fide big hitter – and these two plainly were – you are entitled to make statements as large as that one.

Two of the biggest decisions this great man took were the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and the decision to fire Macarthur.  The two may be related.  Macarthur had wanted to drop thirty to fifty atomic bombs on Manchuria and the mainland cities of China.  If Truman had not prevailed, we might not be here.

But the comparison with the present White House is enough to make a man cry.

Here and there – An exquisite irony in Ireland?

 

In 1366 – three centuries to the year after the Conquest – the English passed the Statutes of Kilkenny.  The English part of Ireland was called the Pale.  Those outside the Pale were ‘Irish enemies’.  This version of apartheid was based on the contempt felt by the English for the inferior peoples of Ireland.  The problem was one of race.  English settlers were to be protected from degeneracy by various prohibitions.  It was only much later that differences in religion further soured relations between the English and Irish.  It is therefore ironical that the original English invasion of Ireland – at least in the view of Paul Johnson – was carried out at papal request and with papal authority.

Ireland will forever stain the name of England.  Six centuries after the Statutes of Kilkenny, Ireland was still convulsed by divisions wrought in and upon it by the English.  For two hundred years prior to that time, enlightened English rulers – like Pitt the Younger and Gladstone – had sought to extricate England from Ireland.  On each occasion they were blocked by radically conservative members of the aristocracy – and in at least one case (George III), the monarchy.

Let us take two examples of radical aristocratic opposition to Irish Reform.  Lord Curzon’s family went back to the Normans. He went to Eton, of course, and had more indicia of nobility than you could point a stick at.  On Ireland, he was fanatically opposed to Home Rule.  During the Irish War of Independence, but before the introduction of martial law in December 1920, Curzon suggested the ‘Indian’ solution of blockading villages and imposing collective fines for attacks on the police and arm.  He was the apogee of the aristocracy.

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,

I am a most superior person.

My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,

I dine at Blenheim once a week

Lord Halsbury was another aristocrat who was manic about Ireland – possibly because of Irish blood on his mother’s side.  He was not, poor fellow, educated at Eton – his Daddy looked after him at home before packing him off to Merton College, Oxford.  In speaking against a Home Rule Bill, Halsbury said that some races were unfit to govern – ‘like the Hindoos and Hottentots’ – and the Irish.

In 1972, Paul Johnson said that Halsbury was a ‘white supremacist.’  In the name of heaven, which builder of the British Empire was not a white supremacist?  Did they go into Asia or Africa believing that the natives were their equals, or that the meek would inherit the earth?  And when their sons and daughters spread out over America and Australia, did they believe that the indigenous people they were killing were their equals?  You might recall that that paradigm of the Tory aristocracy, the Duke of Wellington, remarked that the Irish could put a reasonable army in the field – provided they had white officers.

Is it not therefore an exquisite irony that Ireland may finally become unified because of the radical opposition of the boys from Eton to the dilution by Europe of the purity of the English nation?

And they may even lose Scotland and Wales as well.  It is impossible to resist quoting the well-known lines of Gibbon.

But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness.  Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.  The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.

Here and there – Fidelity and Emma

[How England broke faith with its greatest sailor, Lord Nelson.  Final part.]

Part II 

6

The Nile was a world changing event.  Nelson had destroyed the French fleet.  He had immunised his country from Napoleon’s threatened invasion.  It was as if he had saved the civilisation of the whole world.  The Ottoman Sultan and the Tsar of Russia joined in homage to this new Caesar (from which the word ‘Tsar’ derived) who, like the old, did now bestride the world like a colossus.  The First Lord of the Admiralty fainted when he heard the news (but he later he got mean with the honours to Nelson on a point of precedence and rank).  Haydn wrote a mass.  Crowned heads of Europe would bow before their saviour.

Nelson, his body broken, returned to Naples.  And to the solace of Lady Emma Hamilton.  We have the canvas of George Romney and other artists to attest to her beauty.  She was drop-dead gorgeous – and God had done her no favours when he made her that way.  The mutilated body of Nelson bore frightful witness to the physical toll of war.  It would be silly to suppose that his psyche had stayed in mint, virgin nick.

Nelson sailed to Malta and while doing so, he wrote to his Commander-in- Chief, Lord St Vincent.  He said that ‘I am writing opposite Lady Hamilton…..our hearts and our hands must be all in a flutter.  Naples is a dangerous place and we must keep clear of it.’  His Lordship was a man of the world and he quite understood.  He wrote to Lady Hamilton.

Ten thousand thanks are due to your ladyship for restoring the health of our invaluable friend, on whose life the fate of the remaining governments in Europe whose system has not been deranged by those devils, depends.  Pray, do not let your fascinating Neapolitan dames approach too near him; for he is made of flesh and blood and cannot resist their temptation.

Since word of the relationship, as we now incline to say, had already reached Admiralty and Lady Nelson, you can interpret that admonition as you will – but it does look like a suggestion that if Emma were to bite the apple, there could be one Hell of a price to pay.

Who was Emma?  She is worth a book of her own.  From a humble background, she took service as a maid at twelve.  (It is a symptom of how different these times were that both these future lovers were thrown on to the work-force at the age of twelve.)  She then did bucks’ nights for the better people, sometimes starkers it is said, and then she got pregnant.  It must have been dreadful for a young girl – and an under-age one at that – to dance nude on a table top before drunken, gruesome oafs who were morally blinded by ingrained caste.  Emma then took to the stage and she became a sensation in London as Romney’s model.  She became the mistress of a leading politician, a loathsome jerk called Greville.

When Greville needed to take a rich wife, he palmed Emma off on Sir William Hamilton, the ageing British envoy to Naples.  Emma was shipped out to be Hamilton’s mistress, but they fell in love and they got married.  She was twenty-six.  He was sixty.  Emma was at the commanding height of her powers of attraction.  About two years later, she met Nelson.  She was by then resigned to not having a child by her husband – as was the case with Nelson with a wife who was older than him.

There, then, was the powder keg just waiting to go off in Naples.

7

And now a whole new threat arose.  Nelson had to confront the price of fame.  Nelson was not enjoying being ensainted.  He wrote to Lady Hamilton.

To tell you how dreary and uncomfortable the Vanguard appears is only to tell you what it is to go from the pleasantest society to a solitary cell, or from the dearest friends to no friends.  I am now perfectly the great man – not a creature near me.  From my heart I wish myself the little man again!  You and good Sir William have spoiled me but for any place but with you.

There may well be some male coquetry here, but there is little reason to doubt the main premise.  Nelson was content to play the part allotted to him in battle by England and Shakespeare, but dolling it up in peace or being divorced from his true office were steps too far.

To go back to Gibson, the English nation came alight at the news that Gibson had led a daring raid that had blown up German dams.  Overnight, Gibson became a household name, a celebrity.  Churchill made him into what we would call a poster boy.  Richard Morris says that Gibson ‘intensely disliked being exhibited as a war hero.’  Before Gibson set off to tour America with others, Antony Eden warned of ‘the torrents of alcohol and adulation with which they will be deluged, and such tours of fine fellows can degenerate disastrously.’  Later, Bomber Harris told Cochrane that he thought the Americans had ‘spoiled young Gibson.’  Harris was sorry that his protégé had had his head turned – and he would be sorrier when Gibson kept what now looks to have been his inevitable appointment with death over Holland.

Then two things happened that also look to have been inevitable.  The two ladies met, and Lady Nelson snapped.  We may be sure that as with the wife of Wellington, Lady Nelson’s friends kept her tightly hooked up to the grapevine.

Nelson’s solicitor was with them at breakfast one morning when Nelson mentioned Emma.  ‘I am sick of hearing of dear Lady Hamilton, and am resolved that you shall give up either her or me.’  What else could Fanny have done?  The solicitor’s account looks like it may have been taken from notes made at the time.

Lord Nelson, with perfect calmness, said, ‘Take care, Fanny, what you say.  I love you sincerely, but I cannot forget my obligation to Lady Hamilton or speak of her otherwise than with affection and admiration.’  Without one soothing word or gesture, but muttering something about her mind being made up, Lady Nelson left the room, and shortly after drove from the house.  They never lived together afterwards.

Now, that account may be partial, but it is what you might expect from an English gentleman who was used to command, but who found himself unable to deny to his wife that, for better or for worse, he had fallen in love with another woman.  In truth three people had been on a collision course that providence and nature had made inexorable.  That is the stuff of tragedy.

Lady Nelson said that her husband’s last words to her were ‘I call God to witness, there is nothing in you or your conduct, I wish otherwise.’  Carola Oman does not know whether Lady Nelson sent the following letter.

My dearest Husband,

Your generosity and tenderness were never more strongly shown than…for the payment of your very handsome quarterly allowance, which far exceeded my expectations….Accept my warmest , my most affectionate and grateful thanks.  I could say more but my heart is too full.  Be assured every wish, every desire of mine is to please the man whose affections constitute my happiness.  God bless my dear husband…’

It is a fact of life that marriage breakdowns commonly involve a descent into Hell.  This separation doubtless caused grief, but it looks to have been made in heaven when put beside the usual case.  Shortly after the separation, Emma bore Nelson a child, a daughter they named Horatia.  The couple was very happy, although the customs of the times precluded public acknowledgment of the parenthood.

We know now that Nelson dared death once too often at Trafalgar and lost.  Emma had been an object of prey before her adulthood, and gradually she slipped back to that condition after the death of the father of her child.  Crushed by predators, debt and a turning public, Emma, the sometime slut, took to drink and died a miserable death at Calais before turning fifty.  The woman in these stories never gets the monument.

8

That then is the sad tale of Nelson and Emma.  How is it that anyone could claim to sit in judgment on either of them – or of Wellington?  I have no idea.  First, I am not God.  That self-evident proposition is sufficient to dispose of the issue. Secondly, and relatedly, we have no chance at all of understanding the social or military forces of a different era and place.  For starters, we now have little understanding of their view of marriage or their law of divorce; or bastardry; or caste.

It was the insight of the great German historian von Ranke that every age is ‘equally immediate to God.’  This is to look eternity in the eye – all ages are equal in the eye of God.  God is not subject to the constraints of time as we are.  The historian has to look at each period in its own terms.  It makes little or no sense to say that the Renaissance was in some way better than the Middle Ages.  In a different way, it is very silly to seek to compare the infidelity, if that is your chosen word, of Wellington with that of Nelson.

It is enough to say that the evidence is that Nelson fell in love with another woman and that Wellington did not.  These things can happen; if it were otherwise, Hollywood would go bust.  The fascination that some feel for the gory details is a reminder of the meanness of our mediocrity.  As Shelley remarked about those nasty people that sent the Cockney John Keats to the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, we are like gnats straining at a camel.

But we would have loved to have been a gnat on the wall when these two very great men came to meet by accident in 1805 not long before Trafalgar.  They had both been asked to call on Lord Castlereagh, but they were kept waiting because Cabinet was sitting.  Wellington recognised Nelson because of the eye and the arm – and the notorious egotism.  ‘He entered into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side, and all about himself, and, really, in a style so vain and silly as to surprise and almost disgust me.’  But then Nelson must have guessed he was talking to somebody, so he stepped out to inquire.  (How very English!  But what a clash of egos!)  Nelson came back quite a changed man.

All that I thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked … with a good sense….in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman….I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more.

Then came the news of Trafalgar and the death of the man that England until then had relied on to defeat Napoleon.  Wellington was there at the Guildhall where Pitt, the nation’s youngest ever Prime Minister, was thanked for saving Europe.  He heard Pitt utter perhaps his most famous statement.

I return you my thanks for the honour you have dome me; but Europe is not to be saved by any single man.  England saved herself by her exertions and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.

A long time after he had defeated Napoleon, His Grace, as he had become, said: ‘That was all; he was scarcely up two minutes; yet nothing could be more perfect.’

Well, the wars killed Pitt as surely as they had killed Nelson.  Wellington would survive and go on to lead the nation in another capacity, and it may not be fanciful to suggest that in that role, he helped England avoid its version of the French Revolution.  But you don’t have to be Burns to know that no matter how high a man rises, he stays a man.  People who forget that wind up in the wrong end of Shakespeare.

9

When quitting Portsmouth to go to Trafalgar, Nelson had tried to escape quietly by the back entrance of the George Hotel.  He could not fool the crowd.

He pushed his way through a pressing multitude, explaining that he was sorry he had not two arms, so that he could shake hands with more friends, and it was soon evident that his Portsmouth following felt more poignantly than the admirers who had mobbed him daily in London.  As his figure came in sight, some people dropped to their knees in silence, uncovered and called out a blessing on him; tears ran down many faces….After the Admiral’s barge had pushed off…he turned to Hardy as the regular dip of oars gained pre-eminence over Portsmouth cheers on an afternoon of flat calm, and said, ‘I had their huzzas before.  I have their hearts now.’

On the morning of the battle, and within sight of the Combined Fleets of France and Spain, Nelson got Hardy and another captain to witness what he called a codicil.

…I leave Emma, Lady Hamilton, therefore a Legacy to my King and Country, that they will give her an ample provision to maintain her rank in life.  I also leave to the beneficence of my country my adopted daughter, Horatia Nelson Thompson; and I desire she will use in future the name of Nelson only.  These are the only favours I ask of my King and Country at this moment when I am going to fight their Battle.

When news of the victory in battle and the death of Nelson made the London papers, something entirely out of the English character happened on the streets of London.

Many contemporaries attest that when London newspapers appeared on November 6, with the heading ‘Glorious Victory over the Combined Fleets.  Death of Lord Nelson’, the instinctive comment of the British public was: ‘We have lost Nelson!’ and strangers stopped one another in the street to repeat the news and shake hands to an accompaniment of tears.

For many years, some English families kept framed copies of The Times:

If ever there was a man who deserved to be ‘praised wept and honoured’, it is LORD NELSON.  His three great naval achievements have eclipsed the brilliancy of the most dazzling victories in the annals of English daring.

10

But Pitt died before the King and Country could honour Nelson’s last wish ‘when I am going to fight their Battle’ on behalf of Emma and Horatia.  King and Country did not honour their obligation to two people who had depended on Nelson, and the course of their breach of faith with their hero is too painful to relate.  People who feel the need to rate infidelity might care to dwell on this one.

Nelson’s prayer for Horatia was eventually answered.  She married a clergyman, and she had many children who got on.  She had a full and happy life.  She died at the age of eighty-one.  She had lived more than thirty years longer a life than that of either her mother or her father – she later discovered who her father was, but she was never to learn or accept who her mother was.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

The transit of Emma Hamilton from gutter to gutter was a dreadful tragedy.  We defiled Emma as a child and we defiled her as she aged and in her death.  We just used her up and dropped her each time.  We were obliged to Nelson and he sought our assurance that we would answer to that obligation for the woman he loved and his daughter when he was gone.  So, when he was gone, and of no more use to us, and he could not bear witness to what we did, we built a great monument that made us feel good.  And we forbade Emma from attending his funeral and we would not allow Horatia to know her mother.  Whatever fidelity might mean, we did not show it to Nelson.  Our breach of faith was complete.

You may wish to bear this in mind the next time you are in Trafalgar Square underneath Nelson’s Column mixing it with the tourists and their cameras and the pigeons with their shit.  Grandeur usually comes at a price; but discomfort is one thing; dishonour is something else altogether.  What a falling-off was there!

**

*Wellington said something about this that escaped the liberators of Iraq.  ‘I always had a horror of revolutionising any country for a political object.  I always said, if they rise of themselves, well and good, but do not stir them up; it is a fearful responsibility.’

 

FINIS

Here and there – Fidelity – and Emma

How England broke faith with its  greatest admiral, Lord Nelson: in two parts.

Part I

1

The English have erected only two statues outside their parliament.  They are of Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill.  In their prime, these men loomed larger over their people than did any European monarch or Eastern potentate.  We have not seen anything remotely like either in our time.  Each was the ultimate servant and master of that gift of England to the world called parliament.  Each was a fierce and successful defender of that parliament, the first against a devious, grasping monarch; the second against a vicious foreign dictator.  On each count their nation and we are grateful to them and we celebrate their memory.  Each remains subject to bitter recrimination, but putting to one side the war crimes that Cromwell perpetrated in Ireland in the name of God, that hostility smacks of jealousy, meanness and mediocrity.

The City of London has two great monuments to national heroes: the Wellington Arch and Nelson’s Column on Trafalgar Square.  Each of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington was one of the greatest commanders of armed forces that the world has ever seen.  Each had come up the hard way and learned his craft from the bottom up.  Each showed a kind of courage that could scare the rest of us or at least look reckless.  Each had the gift of command – each had the insight to see the issue and the character to pursue his answer to it.  What we miss most in public life now is the courage of decision.  You cannot teach this; nor can you measure it.  The best that you can do is mutter the word ‘genius’ in something like awe and shrug your shoulders – like you do with Shakespeare, Mozart, or Newton.  And as a result, and most importantly, each was a winner.  And mutter though Tolstoy may, each of Nelson and Wellington turned the whole course of history by the force of his character.

And they have something else in common.  Each was reputed to be unfaithful to his wife.  Fidelity is the first call of the fighting man.  Another word for fidelity is loyalty – what counts is constancy.  We must see at least some part of it between all of us if we want to get on together.  And it has to be a two-way street – as the authors of the medieval Sachsenspiegel knew and as the current President of the United States will eventually discover.  When Churchill spoke to the nation about ‘the miracle of deliverance’ at Dunkirk, he went into overdrive on the role of the RAF.  He spoke of their valour, perseverance, perfect discipline, faultless service, resource, skill, and ‘unconquerable fidelity.’  In this and other speeches, Churchill was calling on all the reserves of a singular nation that had been built up by people like Cromwell, Nelson and Wellington.

Our previous readiness to put a curtain around the marital infidelity of a commander in chief has been shattered by the appalling misconduct of commanders like Kennedy, Clinton and Trump.  We now also see a change brought about by a growing conviction that one half of the human race may be as good as the other and an accompanying sense of guilt over our past behaviour.  Yet somehow the cloud of infidelity that lours over the house of Lord Nelson seems so much darker to some than the cloud over his Grace, the Duke of Wellington.  Why is this so?

As it happens, in looking into this aspect of our frailty, we may come across another and perhaps worse cloud that lours over all our houses.

2

Before looking at Wellington and Nelson, may we briefly consider the claims of Napoleon?  Andrew Roberts wrote a book in which he sought to justify the title Napoleon the Great.  Was the little Corsican up there with Nelson or Wellington?  Not on your bloody Nelly, Mate.

Nelson and Wellington won; Napoleon lost.  He lost because he invaded both Spain and Russia.  (Hitler committed only the second of those errors, but he had the example of Napoleon before him.)  Napoleon committed those errors because, like Hitler, he lived for war.  War for both of them was like a Ponzi scheme for crooks.  It perpetuated itself because it had to.  Napoleon’s most balanced biographer, Georges Lefebvre, said that Napoleon gave France and the world la guerre éternelle because ‘he was a man whose temperament, even more than his genius, was unable to adapt to peace and moderation.’

Napoleon left France in ruins and he left Europe to bury five million dead.  He ignored the warning of Robespierre that no one likes armed missionaries*, and he sought to impose hopelessly inept members of his family on places they could not possibly fill, in a way that has only been matched since by Donald Trump.  He was profligate with even French casualties, but above all, and undeniably and unanswerably, he walked out on his own army not once but twice – something that Nelson or Wellington could have done as easily as travelling from London to New York – by foot.

3

The liaison between Nelson and Lady Hamilton was public, and later admitted, but people throughout celebrated it with the kind of verve that we now associate with the paparazzi doing a number on the royal family thirds or fourths or a serial Hollywood divorcée.  This is a big part of the difference.  By and large, Wellington was more discrete.  There was from the beginning something about the Nelson case that brought out the worst of the voyeur in all of us, and that ghastly mean, green streak that gives us a guilty form of comfort in seeing someone who is so much better than us cut down to size.  (If you wanted to look for the world champions in this callous levelling, you could do worse than start here in Australia.)

Both Nelson and Wellington served overseas to endure long separations from their wives at a time when the stresses of their position were the most wearing – and when they were being white-anted at home.  Elizabeth Longford quotes an officer who served with Wellington in India as saying that Wellington ‘had at that time a very susceptible heart, particularly towards, I am sorry to say, married ladies.’  That was before he was married, but not before the marriages of the objects of his attention.  Adultery can of course occur at either end of an affair.  I daresay that His Grace would have had some trouble coming to grips with #MeToo, but even at that distance from the year of Our Lord 2019, even the most the most complete patrician could have seen complications from an officer sleeping with the wife of a man of lesser rank.

My namesake, Guy Gibson, was one of the great heroes of World War II, and he will remain so for me, but Old Jack, my neighbour at Blackwood, who flew forty seven missions in Mosquitoes, said that he and his mates took a very dim view of Gibson dating girls from lesser ranks.  You don’t need training in moral philosophy to sniff the abuse of power.

But there is not much doubt among historians that at least after Spain, Wellington was putting it about in France.  Andrew Roberts says of Wellington and Napoleon.

Attractive to women and voraciously sexual, neither man enjoyed a happy marriage.  They did share two mistresses however, or, more precisely, Wellington picked up two of the emperor’s cast-offs.

How do you know someone had a voracious sexual appetite if you haven’t been to bed with them?  Is there a failure to distinguish between the power of sex appeal and the sex appeal of power?

Well, there is no doubt that Wellington got up people’s noses by his infatuation with at least one of those cast-offs.  He gazed upon Guiseppina Grassini, the onetime La Chanteuse de l’Empereur, with ‘ecstasy’, and Kitty, his wife, was appalled to see this notorious woman on the arm of his Grace.  As Elizabeth Longford remarked, ‘What she did not see, her friends told her about.’  When asked if he had received all that feminine adulation, His Grace replied: ‘Oh, yes!  Plenty of that! Plenty of that!’  It was conduct like that which had turned some off Nelson.

It does look like Wellington consorted with what we would call high end call girls.  The result was a contribution to our language.  One very lubricious tart gave him prominence in her memoires.  Wellington was invited to pay their owner to suppress them in order to protect his name.  His response: ‘Publish and de damned.’  (The asking price was £200 – the New York attorney, Mr Cohen, may have tried that response, but his client was an established coward.)  Her story was said to be flawed because she said Wellington wore his badges of honour to her assignations – but one French count said that he did the same to reduce the risk of getting a girl with the clap.

Another tart who was well qualified to assess the Duke and the Emperor in bed said; ‘Mais M le duc était de beaucoup le plus fort.’ Well, His Grace would have been gratified, but he did not learn that stuff at Eton (although well-bred young Englishmen were then commonly shouted a trip or two to a knock shop by their fathers to break their duck and send them on their way).

We can imagine the Englishman’s competitive streak being activated.  Breguet watches are hugely expensive.  The brand name got a kick along because it was known that Napoleon had one.  Breguet still trades on that history (and a mention by Stendhal).  Obviously His Grace was not to be outdone.  He bought himself a Breguet – for the stellar price of three hundred guineas (about $A30,000?).

So, Wellington’s dalliances with the demi monde were predictable if sordid, hurtful to the long suffering Kitty, but hardly an affair of or a threat to the State.  His Grace would later find politics more difficult – it was easier to give an order than to herd opinionated cats.  And crass snobbery and brutal honesty is not a good political mix, even in a High Tory Duke.  Someone said he had a ‘social contempt for his intellectual equals, and an intellectual contempt for his social equals.’  And the dalliances went on.

4

How did it stand with Nelson?

Before looking at Nelson, may I go back to Guy Gibson, VC, to make two obvious points?  First, the fact that man is a hero doesn’t mean he’s not a man.  Secondly, people get called on to do things in war time that they don’t do in peacetime.

In December 1942, Gibson had become close to an extrovert rugby international, Group Captain Walker, who had a reputation for ‘Hun hate’ to match his own.  Some incendiaries had fallen out of a parked Lancaster and were burning under a 4000 pound ‘cookie’.  With matchless courage, Walker was seeking to rake the fire when the cookie went off.

The thump was heard twenty miles away at the RAF hospital.  Two nurses, including Corporal Margaret North, were despatched.  Walker was in an appalling condition.  Maggie and another got him back to the Crash and Burns Unit.  The next day, North told Walker, in the presence of his wife and Gibson, ‘You and I held hands last night.’  Gibson thought that this was hilarious.  He got to know North and took her out.  (There is a photo of Margaret North in 1941 looking just like my mum at that time, but in uniform.)  According to the wonderful biography of Gibson by Richard Morris, Maggie was ‘wary, being conscious of her non-commissioned rank and the presumption against fraternising with officers.’  (I may have forgotten having read this when Old Jack commented on the point.)

They saw some films together.  Gibson liked musicals.  (We know that from the film.)  He called at the hospital one night looking like death.  He had just lost a mate, and he was reflecting on mortality – surely his end was just a matter of time.  Maggie’s superior told her that she had better go out to see him.  Gibson was in his car chewing obsessively on an unlit pipe, and shaking uncontrollably.  At length he pleaded ‘Please hold me.’  She did, and after about half an hour, the tremors subsided, and he regained control.  He never spoke of it again.

The nurses were used to dealing with pilots who got love-lorn.  Gibson then started showing those symptoms.  Maggie North had suitors, one of whom had proposed.  These things happened faster in war time.  When Maggie told Gibson, he simply said ‘Don’t do it.’  She in turn broke down in tears when she spoke of her dilemma with her friends.  Gibson rang her on her wedding day to beg her not to go ahead.  She then finally gave the sensible response of an English woman of her time.  ‘Guy, you are spoken for.’  You see, Gibson was not just of senior commissioned rank – he was also married.  And even in the most devastating war known to man, a woman had to draw the bloody line somewhere.  Margaret North did, and she got married a few hours later.

Next to no one reading these lines will have had any experience of the life forces confronted by Guy Gibson and Maggie North – or by the elements confronting Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton.  If we were to ask what happened between those two, we might get two responses.  What bloody business is it of yours?  How the hell would you know?

5

Happily, we can trace a course for Nelson and Lady Hamilton through letters and a well witnessed confrontation.

Nelson was the son of a Norfolk clergyman.  He joined the navy as an ordinary seaman at the age of twelve.  He became a midshipman and progressed through the ranks.  The brutality of the British navy then defies our understanding.  It made the hell of English boarding schools look almost sane, and it would lead to the nation-threatening mutinies that Melville wrote about in Billy Budd. 

Nelson was a natural sailor who had the gift of leadership, and the nerve to pursue the insights of his cunning in both tactics and strategy.  He was one of that tiny band who leads through his own example and who will never ask a man to do what he had not done himself.  No sailor at war could ever have asked to serve under a better officer and leader of men.

Nelson also routinely engaged in what we call hand-to-hand combat.  The law of prize then rewarded naval officers financially for taking enemy ships.  Nelson personally led boarding parties.  It was enough to drive his wife Fanny to distraction.  After one engagement that saw rewards, honours and promotion, and reports of Nelson’s being wounded, Lady Nelson, as she was then entitled to call herself, wrote:

What can I attempt to say to you about Boarding?  You have been most wonderfully protected; you have done desperate actions enough.  Now may I – indeed I do – beg that you never Board again!  LEAVE IT for CAPTAINS.

Her Ladyship raised the stakes in her next letter.

With the protection of a Supreme Being, you have acquired a character or name which, all hands agree, cannot be greater; therefore rest satisfied.

That was decent sensible advice from a decent and sensible wife, but something in Nelson’s make-up led him almost to flaunt himself before God.  He knew he could not be immortal, but something inside drove him to see how far he could push hubris before nemesis intervened to level the score.  He was frequently wounded.  He lost an eye and an arm when surgery was a barbaric lottery.  He would also confess to miserable, repeated and incurable sea sickness.

During the battle of the Nile, Nelson was again shot in the head.  He was blinded.  As he fell, he said ‘I am killed.  Remember me to my wife.’  In her beautiful biography, Carola Oman said:

This was the end he had long foreseen, and it was indeed as good as he could ever have hoped, for he had fallen when a victory, to be greeted as ‘the most signal that has graced the British Navy since the days of the Spanish Armada’, was already assured.  He proceeded to carry everything in the high style dear to him and Shakespeare.

What a happy phrase!  The wound was far from fatal, but every word there prefigures Trafalgar, not least ‘the high style dear to him and Shakespeare.’  For very good reasons, there was more than a touch of showman about both Nelson and Wellington.  (George Patton would later understand that his men wanted their leader to put on a show.  It comes with the job.)

[To be continued.]

MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 28

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

28

THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

T B Macaulay (1980)

Folio Society, 1980; edited by Peter Rowland; introduction by J P Kenyon; red cloth embossed in gold; with stone slip case.

Perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind, if anything which gives so much pleasure  ought to be called unsoundness … Truth indeed is essential to poetry; but it is the truth of madness.  The reasonings are just but the premises are false.

This is how an English gentleman, and man of letters, a member of parliament, described the founding of his national church:

A King, whose character may be best described by saying that he was despotism itself personified, unprincipled ministers, a rapacious aristocracy, a servile Parliament, such were the instruments by which England was delivered from the yoke of Rome.  The work that had been begun by Henry, the murderer of his wives, was continued by Somerset, the murderer of his brother, and was completed by Elizabeth, the murderer of her guest.  Sprung from brutal passion, nurtured by selfish policy, the Reformation in England displayed little of what had, in other countries, distinguished it, unflinching and unsparing devotion, boldness of speech, and singleness of eye.

Here is an assessment of the key players.

We do not mean to represent Cranmer as a monster of wickedness.  He was not unwantonly cruel or treacherous.  He was merely a supple, timid, interested courtier, in times of frequent and violent change.  Henry, Cranmer, Somerset and Elizabeth were the great authors of the English Reformation.  Three of them had a direct interest in the extension of the royal prerogative.  The fourth was the ready tool of any who could frighten him.

But Macaulay likes the result obtained in the English church.

From this compromise, the Church of England sprang.  In many respects indeed, it has been well for her that, in an age of exuberant zeal, her principal founders were mere politicians.  To this circumstance, she owes her moderate articles, her decent ceremonies, her noble and pathetic liturgy.  Her worship is not disfigured by mummery.  Yet she has preserved, in a far greater degree than any of her Protestant sisters, that art of striking the senses and filling the imagination in which the Catholic Church so eminently excels. 

This book is a collection of essays as is a similar book published by Folio on England in the Eighteenth century.  You can therefore have Macaulay on the whole history of England, as his masterpiece, The History of England from the Accession of James II, starts at the beginning.  Thucydides, Gibbon, Carlyle and Namier were conscious stylists.  Maitland was not.  Macaulay certainly was.  ‘There will however be some passages which will not require constant references to authorities; and such passages I may be able to compose and polish in my chaise or at an inn.’

The principal work is a celebration of the Glorious Revolution, and is seen as the Bible of the Whig view of history.  Since the word ‘Whig’ had a different meaning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and has none now, that term is at best slippery.  But it would be churlish to write off the truth that underlies the triumphalism.

The highest eulogy which can be pronounced on the revolution of 1688 is this, that it was our last revolution … And if it be asked what has made us to differ from others, the answer is that we never lost what others are wildly and blindly seeking to regain.  It is because we had a preserving revolution in the seventeenth century that we have not had a destroying revolution in the nineteenth. 

That is dead right, and was shown in 1789, 1848 and 1917, and will be shown in every nation in the Middle East and North Africa.

Macaulay of course had his dislikes.  Here he is on Strafford.

He was the first of the Rats, the first of those statesmen whose patriotism has been only the coquetry of political prostitution, and whose profligacy has taught Governments to adopt the old maxim of the slave-market, that it is cheaper to buy than to breed, to import defenders from an Opposition than to rear them in a ministry.  He was the first Englishman to whom a peerage was a sacrament of infamy, a baptism into the union of corruption.  As he was the earliest of the hateful list, so was he also by far the greatest; eloquent, sagacious, adventurous, intrepid, ready of invention, immutable of purpose, in every talent which exalts or destroys pre‑eminent, the lost Archangel, the Satan of the apostasy.

You might think that is over the top, but I have heard similar passion, if not venom, displayed about the apostasy of Paul Johnson by a descendant of a people of haters, and those views would have been widely shared by English people when they determined that Strafford was ‘so dangerous as to require the last and surest custody, that of the grave.’  The means used were, both Macaulay and Churchill had to concede, revolutionary.  ‘Stone-dead hath no fellow.’

Penn was traduced but the Establishment was not immune.  Churchill’s ancestor regularly got a backhander.  ‘Churchill, in a letter written with a certain elevation of language, which was the sure mark that he was going to commit a baseness ..’; ‘…endowed with a certain cool intrepidity which never failed him in either fighting or lying …’; ‘Churchill … made his appearance with that bland serenity which neither peril nor infamy could disturb’; ‘it was written with that decorum which he never failed to preserve in the midst of guilt and dishonour.’

This is England at the height of its imperial power with its first empire.

The situation which Pitt occupied at the close of the reign of George III was the most enviable ever occupied by any public man in English history.  He had conciliated the King; he domineered over the House of Commons; he was adored by the people; he was admired by all Europe.  He was the first Englishman of his time; and he made England the first country in the world.  The Great Commoner, the name by which he was often designated, might look down with scorn on coronets and garters.  The nation was drunk with joy and pride.  The Parliament was as quiet as it had been under Pelham.  The old party distinctions were almost effaced; nor was their place yet supplied by distinctions of a still more important kind.

Then they lost America.  How?

We are inclined to think, on the whole, that the worst administration which has governed England since the Revolution was that of George Grenville.  His public acts may be classed under two heads outrages on the liberty of the people, and outrages on the dignity of the Crown.  As he wished to see the Parliament despotic over the nation, so he wished also to see it despotic over the Court.  In his view, the Prime Minister, possessed of the confidence of the House of Commons, ought to be Mayor of the Palace.  The King was a mere Childeric or Chiperic, who might well think himself lucky in being permitted to enjoy such luxurious apartments as St James’s, and so fine a park at Windsor……The Stamp Act was indefensible, not because it was beyond the constitutional competence of Parliament, but because it was unjust and impolitic, sterile of revenue and fertile of discontents.

Macaulay will be read while the English language lasts.  His description of England in 1685, the last minute conversion of Charles II, the depredations of Jeffreys, and the trial of the seven bishops are integral to the English story.  His account of the massacre at Glencoe is high theatre, a kind of genocide that the Scots inflicted on themselves.  ‘The extirpation planned by the Master of Stair was of a different kind.  His design was to butcher the whole race of thieves, the whole damnable race.’  He began by referring to ‘the Glen of Weeping….the most dreary and melancholy of all the Scottish passes, the very valley of the Shadow of Death’.  This was said to be typically over the top.  I have been to Glencoe three times and you need no sense of history to feel that this stark outcrop is pregnant with doom.  And his explanation of the awfulness of it all is just right.  The passage ends with his saying that we could not imagine that ‘Robespierre would have murdered for hire one of the thousands whom he murdered from philanthropy’.  The following should be printed and shown in every house of government:

We daily see men do for their party, for their sect, for their country, for their favourite schemes of political and social reform, what they would not do to enrich or avenge themselves….virtue itself may contribute to the fall of him who imagines that it is within his power, by violating some general rule of morality, to confer an important benefit on a church, on a commonwealth, on mankind.

Here and there – Disraeli – Portrait of a Conservative

 

On 26 February 1868, the leader of the Tories in the House of Commons called on Her Majesty Queen Victoria at Osborne on the Isle of Wight.  The queen ‘came into her closet with a very radiant face and saying ‘You must kiss hands.’’  This her caller did, heartily, falling on one knee.  Well, that was and is the traditional way in which the English sovereign acknowledges the choice of her parliament for the office of Prime Minister.  In a letter preceding the kissing of hands, the queen had said in that third person mode: ‘It must be a proud moment for him to feel that his own talent and successful labours in the service of his country have earned him the high and influential position on which he is now placed.’  It certainly was a proud moment.

The grandfather of this PM had migrated to England sixty years before he was born.  Benjamin Disraeli, the grandson of an Italian Jew, was the leader of the Tory Party, the Prime Minister of England, and he would become the closest confidant and adviser to the most powerful monarch in the entire world, and whom he, Disraeli, would anoint as the Empress of India.  It is a truly remarkable story.

It had not always been so smooth.  Disraeli had been a frightful dandy, and he had an acid tongue.  The queen had called him ‘detestable, unprincipled, reckless & not respectable.’  Her husband had dismissed him as ‘having not one single element of the gentleman in his composition.’  Well, Her Majesty and His Royal Highness may have had held strong views, but they were free to change their mind.  And Disraeli could ‘work’ the queen.  He said that with her, you had to ‘lay it on with a trowel’ – and he did so, ever so shamelessly; and he was always careful to heap honour and praise on the late Prince.  Her Majesty loved it, and she loathed poor Mr Gladstone.  She felt like he addressed her like he was addressing a public meeting.

And besides, having a PM with a background in finance might be useful.  In 1875, the bankruptcy of the Sultan of Turkey left the Khedive of Egypt wanting to sell his shares in the Suez Canal.  The French were in the market.  Disraeli was determined to get this stake in the Canal.  He could not get the money from Parliament as it was in recess.  He sent his private secretary to ask Baron Rothschild for a loan of 4,000,000 pounds.  Baron Rothschild asked two questions:  ‘When?’, and after eating a grape and spitting out a grape skin, ‘What is your security?’  (The crown jewels?)  The money was available next day to the British government at 2 ½ %, and a one-off fee of 100,000 pounds.  Disraeli wrote: ‘It is just settled: you have it Madam.’  The Queen was ‘in ecstasies’ but was keen to hear how her Prime Minister had got the ‘great sum.’  ‘What particularly delighted the Faery was the thought of Bismarck’s fury, for only shortly before, he had insolently declared that England had ceased to be a political force.’

Not long after this, the French nation would be convulsed by controversy over the fate of a Jewish officer named Dreyfus, and it is more than a little difficult to imagine the third generation of a migrant Jewish family becoming Prime Minister of any country in Europe at that time.

What I have said so far about Disraeli comes from something I wrote years ago. Since that was supposed to be a constitutional history of England, you can guess how keen I was to get those anecdotes out there.  That is the kind of stuff I live for.

One leading  biography was written by André Maurois. That name can evoke the same kind of snobbery that the name Puccini does.  Maurois was a writer rather than a historian.  And he excelled in biography.  He followed in the steps of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (which is looked at here) – although he did say that Strachey was ‘a shade nastier than is really fair’: which sounds like a very English thing to say.  Maurois said:

The search for historical truth is the work of a scholar; the search for the expression of a personality is rather the work of the artist; can the two things be done together?

Putting the question that way focuses on the writer.  What about us – the readers?  We know what we want.  For someone like Pitt the Younger or perhaps Gladstone, we might stick with the prosaic.  But for titans like Disraeli, Lloyd George or Churchill, we want Romance – with the Full Monty.  And Maurois delivers in his inimitable style.  The word ‘readable’ could have been invented for him – even when read in translation.

What was the dandy like?  ‘A coat of black velvet, poppy-coloured trousers broidered with gold, a scarlet waistcoat, sparkling rings worn on top of white kid gloves.’  What drove Disraeli in the Commons?  Perhaps it was the standing, cheering ovations, or the opportunity to say: ‘I am not one who will be insulted, even by a Yahoo.’  Why did he marry Mary Anne?  For money – and it may have been the most loving marriage ever felt.  How did he feel on becoming PM?

The adventurer, his genius tolerated by some, his authority contested by others, referred to as ‘Dizzy’ with a familiarity sometimes affectionate, sometimes scornful, had now become an object of respect….No people are more sensitive than the English to the beauty wherewith time can adorn an object; they love old statesmen, worn and polished in the struggle, as they love old leather and old wood.

You can see that there is great merit in reading an urbane Frenchman portray an English comet – a man described by Lord Sumption in the Reith Lectures as possibly the only authentic genius to reach the top in English politics.  (And there was merit in having a Scot, Thomas Carlyle, write a long tone poem about the French Revolution.)  Disraeli was a titan who walked among giants.  Now we get pygmies following charlatans.  The agony of our fall is made explicit by this gorgeous book.

Here and there – Shakespeare on Chivalry

 

 

The Iliad of Homer ends: ‘So the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.’  The death of Hector marks the end of the play Troilus and Cressida of Shakespeare written more than 2000 years after the Iliad.  This, then, is an enduring myth.  Horses hardly figure in the Iliad, but later they became decisive in war.  The medieval knight on a horse (cheval) was their Panzer tank.  Tales were told about the deeds of knights (chevaliers).  They had their own code – chivalry – and it in turn was a fertile source of myth.

What does the word ‘chivalry’ denote?  ‘The character of the ideal knight, disinterested bravery, honour and courtesy’ (OED).  The word ‘ideal’ suggests that we may be near romance.  There is much romance in the epic tales of chivalry – like those of Arthur and Roland.  They speak of knightly love, and they end in tragedy.  They are also full of blood and guts, but Kenneth Clark in Civilisation got lyrical about it all.  He thought that the age of chivalry now looks ‘infinitely strange and remote’.

It is as enchanting, as luminous, as transcendental as the stained glass that is its glory – and, in the ordinary meaning of the word, as unreal.

That unreality had been revealed by two of the great characters of Western letters.  Don Quixote and Falstaff came to us at about the same time.  Each was a torpedo under the ark of chivalry and knightly love.  Falstaff was a dangerous ratbag, but we have too much of that in each of us to let that put us off a man who makes us laugh so much at our betters – and ourselves.  Don Quixote was dead-set mad, but we have the insight that we all tip-toe around that particular volcano, and the Don comes down to us as kind of off-centre Christ.  These are two of our most loved characters.  You would have to have to be really mad to describe either as ‘disinterested.’

By contrast, Troilus and Cressida is a far more brutal demolition job on chivalry and knightly love, and there is hardly a decent person in it.

So, how does Troilus start?  In the second line we get one of those nuggets that this author puts in our path.  The Greek princes sailed for Troy, we are told, ‘their high blood chafed.’  Those four words tell us the story of this pointless war.  What were they chafed about?  A wife of one of their princes has shot through – with a bloody Asian!  Well, at least that romance was consensual.  When the Greeks get to Troy, Achilles is sulking because his king has pinched his Trojan trophy, a woman that Achilles has taken a shine to – notwithstanding his love for Patroclus (who is here described as a ‘male whore’).  Then our two lovers no sooner get into bed than Cressida is traded for a Trojan prisoner.  And when she gets traded, she starts to enjoy herself sexually far too quickly.  Her uncle, Pandarus, is a pimp who has set up the consummation.  Her father, who is a priest and a traitor, sets up the trade.  Women are just tradeable commodities, handy in bed if your taste goes that way, but otherwise useless.  So much for courtly love.

When Don Quixote could not think of a better way to start a fight, he would demand that his protagonist acknowledge the supreme beauty of Dulcinea (who did not exist).  That is how single combat is set up in this play.  The protagonists go to defend the honour of their ladies  Aeneas, a very unpleasant puppet-master, taunts the Greeks in his challenge saying that unless they accept the challenge, the Trojans will say that ‘Grecian dames are sunburnt and not worth the splinter of a lance.’  The slippery Ulysses pulls the levers so that the mad Ajax goes to fight Hector.  But by this time, Achilles, who is not too bright, realises that his ‘reputation is at stake’ and that his fame is ‘shrewdly gored.’  When he runs into Hector, the two confront each other like ruckmen before the bounce in a grand final.  And when he comes across Hector unarmed, he instructs his version of the Waffen SS to murder Hector in cold blood.  So much for chivalry.

The repudiation of chivalry is express.  Troilus taxes Hector for sparing the lives of vanquished Greeks.  Hector actually uses the term ‘fair play.’  Troilus responds with ‘fool’s play’.  Troilus was dead right.  The unarmed Hector asks Achilles to ‘forgo this vantage’ in vain.  In this play, the ball-tamperers win.  Those who don’t cheat are losers and bloody idiots – and this play has lots of references to fools and idiots.

At the start, we are told that ‘expectation, tickling skittish spirits…sets all on hazard.’  But young Troilus experiences the kind of emptiness felt by young Prince Hal.  He thinks there are fools on both sides.  ‘I cannot fight upon this argument….It is too starved a subject for my sword.’  But when the Greeks offer to call it off if they get Helen back – she presumably not being consulted – Paris and Troilus fall out with their brother Hector.  Hector says Helen is not worth the cost of her keeping.  Troilus refers to that weasel word ‘manhood’ and the most lethal word in the language – ‘honor’.  He then equates worth, or dignity, with value.  Hector asks the kind of question that some of us might ask about our role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

…..Or is your blood

So madly hot that no discourse of reason,

Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause,

Can qualify the same?  (2.2. 115 – 118)

Troilus is a shallow sulk.  He tamely lets Cressida go.  His first concern is that Aeneas does not reveal that he found Troilus in the same house as Cressida so early in the morning.

But Cressida gets what might be called the full Anita Hill treatment.  That unfortunate woman was branded ‘a little bit sluttish’.  When Cressida gets handed over to the Greeks, the big hitters take it in turns to kiss her.  ‘Lewd’ is the word.  Ulysses says:

…..Her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body…

……Set them down

For sluttish spoils of opportunity

And daughters of the game.  (4.5.56 – 63)

The last line is scarily modern.  And revolting.  The appalling behaviour of these ageing white males may in part be behind the insight offered to us by Tony Tanner that there ‘is a kind of hapless honesty about Cressida.’  Beside her male elders, including her own family, she comes across like a saint.

This play may be the most brutal repudiation of war outside of Goya.  As you would expect of a classic, it still speaks to us now.

Ulysses and Aeneas are political operatives – manipulators.  Like our shock jocks now, they embody what a wise man called power without responsibility, the ‘prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’.  They think that they can manipulate the politicians – by, for example, playing on the hideous vanity of Achilles – and then get the mob to take the bait because they are mostly fools or idiots.

They do all this in a world that has no moral base.  We saw that Troilus equated dignity with value.  Ulysses says that ‘no man is the lord of anything’ until he communicates to others and that he will not know himself until he sees himself realised in the applause of others.  (Just ask yourself if any of this catalogue does not apply word for word to Donald Trump.)

How some men creep in skittish Fortune’s hall,

While others play the idiots in her eyes!

How one man eats into another’s pride,

While pride is fasting in his wantonness.  (3.3. 134 – 137)

In this moral desert – ‘war and lechery confound all’ – the political leaders treat the people with contempt.  It is a measure of the empty vanity of Achilles that he tolerates Thersites, the most crude cynic of our stage, but this nasty clown sums up the play when he says that Achilles is the ‘idol of idiot-worshipers.’

They are of course heavily into spin and fake news.  No sooner is Hector murdered, than Achilles is telling his bodyguard to broadcast that ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’  They even have alternative facts.  When Pandarus and Cressida discuss the complexion of Troilus, Pandarus says ‘to say truth, brown and not brown’ and Cressida says ‘To say the truth, true and not true.’  When Troilus sees Cressida being too fresh too fast with the Greeks, he says that it is not Cressida – at least not his Cressida.  Or as the President of the United States says ‘There is no proof of anything.’  Reality has just gone.

So, this play was written by someone who could have seen at firsthand the heartless inanity of a Trump rally, or the workings in the inner sanctum of an Australian political party.  The play still, therefore, has a lot to say to us.

But it is painfully long.  Cassandra, Pandarus and Thersites are all ghastly to listen to.  For our taste, there is too much word-play of the type that students of rhetoric enjoyed in the early comedies.  And if Qantas plonked Ulysses beside you on a flight to New York, you would want to sue the airline.  The full version of the play is painful in the Wagnerian sense.  The BBC version is repulsive.  This play really is a problem play in production – as difficult for me as Cymbeline.

At the risk of upsetting some, I would suggest that we would enjoy the play a lot more, and take more home from it, if it was cut – say, in half.  For our taste, the play as written breaches the first rule of advocacy – if you have a good point, make it, and don’t bugger it up by banging on.

Since starting this note, I see that I have referred before to the bad press on chivalry in a book about the middle ages.

But the prize for the most appalling hypocrisy must go to the members of the ruling class called knights.  They invented this wonderful code of chivalry about defending the helpless and maintaining the right.  It was almost entirely pure bullshit.  They became mercenaries for hire – the Knight of Canterbury Tales might be a paradigm.  They depended on and lived by violence.  If the Crusades had not been ordained by God, chivalry would have had to invent it to satisfy their lust for blood and booty.  Their crimes against innocent Jews and Muslims are a perpetual stain not just on Christianity, but on humanity at large.  Dante put Saladin in a pleasing part of hell for answering back so handsomely.

Then, after they got home, and whipped their serfs into line, the knights would drift into some dreamy, droopy adolescent puppy love – for another man’s wife, a mother substitute.  If they succeeded in consummating their affair, which we may suspect was almost never, and they got caught, the same code of chivalry would have required them to fight to the death on a point of honour; and, depending on the jurisdiction, and the ripeness of the detection, the guilty wife might have been run through on the spot.

And enfin, do you know what really gets on our wicks about these knights?  Their high blood chafes far too easily.  They had too many tickets on themselves.  That’s why Cervantes and Shakespeare took them down.

MY TOP SHELF -21

21

BLOOD, TOIL, TEARS, AND SWEAT: THE GREAT SPEECHES

Winston Churchill (1940)

Edited by David Cannadine; Penguin Books, 1989; rebound in quarter red Morocco, with navy blue label, embossed with gold, and stone cloth boards.

 

I am a child of the House of Commons.  I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy….There are less than seventy million malignant Huns some of whom are curable and others killable…

 

The four statesmen whom I admire are Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman.  Two of them – Lincoln and Churchill – had two things in common when they came to power.  Their nation was in mortal peril and the other members of their government did not trust their leader to be able to save them.  Each of Lincoln and Churchill had to win over and secure the faith of his government and then his nation.  Each did so, and each then went on to lead his nation to safety and victory.  For each, it was a colossal personal victory, brought about by a force of character that we have hardly seen again.  But for each, the issue facing his country could have gone the other way, with God only knows what consequences.  Had Lincoln not held the U S together, would England have been able to hold off Germany twice or even once?  Had England made peace with Hitler in 1940, would I be writing this in German?  Would my Jewish friends be here?

 

This is how Churchill recorded his feelings on taking office as Prime Minister.  ‘But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 am I was conscious of a profound sense of relief.  At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.  I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.’  We can imagine other big hitters talking big like this, but big hitters we would not trust – as it happened, the world then needed a man of precisely that fibre.

 

If I had to nominate one clutch point for that war, it would have been a meeting of the War Cabinet at the time of Dunkirk.  Churchill was yet to win the confidence of his cabinet, and Halifax wanted to deal with Hitler.  Churchill convened a full cabinet meeting.  He told them the alternatives.  He concluded: ‘We shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if at the last the long story of this island is to end, it were better it should end, not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground.’  Churchill would later say he was surprised at the warmth of the reaction from hard-bitten politicians – many jumped ‘from the table and came running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back.’

 

Another version has: ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’  The plain truth was that the nation was crying out for leadership and found it.  Churchill laid down that they would never lie down.  The doubts were gone.  The way was clear – if hard.  For the first time, Hitler was confronted by a leader superior to him, one who could hold his nation together for long enough to get the U S into the war.  This, as it seems to me, is the great moment of truth in that war, and if you are ever asked what real leadership is, there it was.

 

Before looking at some of the speeches, let me remind you of what Roy Jenkins said in his great biography: ‘With their high-flown eloquence, which in less dramatic times would have sounded over-blown, they could be regarded as a form of self-indulgence.  They not only matched the mood of the moment, but have for six decades etched in the memory of many who were young at the time and are old now.  They were an inspiration for the nation, and a catharsis for Churchill himself.  They raised his spirits and thus generated even more energy than was consumed in their composition.’

 

The best way to take these speeches is to listen to them – and watch, where film is available.  Most are matter-of-fact, and given with apparently child-like candour.  Where we have film of Churchill talking to an audience about giving the Germans back some of their own medicine, we may better see the sterility of suggestions that he was too war-like.  He was merely giving supreme voice to the grief and outrage of his people.

 

Here, then, is the famous peroration of the speech to the House of Commons on the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.  We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

 

Here is the lead-in to the equally famous ‘finest hour’ ending.

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over.  I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin.  Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.  Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.  The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.  Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.  If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.  But if we fail, the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

 

To read these words now is to see how far our public life has fallen.  These words are plain and short, and to the point, but infinitely moving.  There is not a bath-plug or spin doctor in sight and the speaker was the author.  It is all now quite beyond our world.

 

My own favourite is not in this book.  Before the war, and early in it, Churchill had gone out on a limb for France in a way that de Gaulle and the French would not reciprocate.  The English had to destroy the French fleet.  Churchill referred to his at the beginning of a speech given on Bastille Day 1940.

And now it has come to us to stand alone in the breach, and face the worst that the tyrant’s might and enmity can do.  Bearing ourselves humbly before God, but conscious that we serve an unfolding purpose, we are ready to defend our native land against the invasion by which it is threatened.  We are fighting by ourselves alone; but we are not fighting for ourselves alone.  Here in this strong City of Refuge which enshrines the title deeds of human progress and is of deep consequence to Christian civilization; here, girt about by the seas and oceans where the Navy reigns; shielded from above by the prowess and devotion of our airmen – we await undismayed the impending assault.  Perhaps it will come next week.

 

This is how Churchill ended this speech.

This is no war of chieftains or of princes, of dynasties or national ambition; it is a war of peoples and of causes.  There are vast numbers, not only in this Island but in every land, who will render faithful service in this war, but whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded.  This is a War of the Unknown Warrior; but let all strive without failing in health or in duty, and the dark curse of Hitler will be lifted from our age.

 

At the end of his biography of Churchill, Roy Jenkins said that he had thought that Gladstone had been Britain’s greatest PM, but that he now thought that title should go to Churchill, ‘with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity and his persistent ability, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life.’  Jenkins frequently referred to the ability of Churchill to cry at the drop of a hat.  Long after he had left us, Churchill can still make us cry now – but at rather more than the drop of a hat.