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.




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.



[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.]



John Waller Hills (1921)

Allan and Co, London, 1921; republished by Freshet Press, New York, 1971; quarter bound in green leather, gold embossed with covered cloth boards; facsimile of original edition.

Then you see your fly too.  Nothing is hid.  When the fly comes over him, you see him prepare to take it – or treat it with stolid indifference.  You see him rise and take.  The whole drama is played out before your eyes.

The followers of some past-times can be a real pain – wine buffs, film buffs, public schoolboys who never leave school, followers of Wagner’s Ring – the very princes of pains in the arse – and bowlers at the RSL are examples.  Golfers are notorious for leaving their wives or evading their husbands.  In this country, shooters are either too low or too high on the social scale.  Cricket has become irredeemably vulgar and tennis is as mentionable as a grunt over dinner.

When it comes to fishing, a curious dichotomy has spawned itself in this part of the colonies.  Salt-water fishing – bait fishing, Old Boy – tends to be seen as the go for the common sort of people who follow Rugby League – western suburbs Micks, blue-collared, black trackies and tats.  Fly fishing is seen as the go for the better sought of people who follow Rugger – people from School.  This image is the kind of bullshit that you have to put up with in a country whose communal neurosis compels it to continue to import its Head of State from the Old Country.  As I tried to learn about fly fishing, I had the benefit of being a member of a country fly fishing club that contains as decent a bunch of bastards as you might want to meet – including, if it matters, women – and is as serenely bereft of class as it is possible to get in this duckpond.  They were also devoted conservationists.

But, there is no doubt that fly fishing has an air about it – a mystique.  This is partly because it combines physical skill and grace in dealing with nature – or, as we might prefer to say, the bush – perhaps in a way not entirely different to what happens in wine-making or cheese-making.  The other reason is that people know that the art or craft of fly fishing is a very subtle one that has a long and distinguished history – longer than that of other sports except horse-racing, hunting, and possibly royal tennis.  Fly fishing has been served by men of letters, keepers of the flame, at least as well as cricket and golf, and it continues to hold a place in the public imagination even though it is not subject to mass coverage – perhaps because it is not subject to mass coverage.  And it is not at risk of seeing its technique cheapened or degraded by technology – which is now frighteningly the case with golf.

The mystique of the art of fly fishing is nowhere better shown than in this beautiful little gem of a book by John Waller Hills.  I do not know if the author is the man of the same name who served as a Major in the Great War and became a Conservative MP – this book is most gracefully written, perhaps partly as a result of the influence of Eton and Balliol.

The thesis of the book – if that is the term – is that there was not much difference in fly fishing between the time that America was discovered and the Great war – although dry fly fishing – keeping the fly afloat – did not arrive until the nineteenth century.  The author surveys the beginnings of sporting literature – all French – and his survey of the fly literature begins with ‘Treatise of Fishing with an Angle’ by Dame Julyan Barnes in 1496, and Izaak Walton’s ‘The Compleat Angler’ in 1653.  No facet of the sport or its literature is omitted.  This book is at once a work of scholarship and enthusiasm and grace, from gear, to stalking, to upstream or downstream, to the tying and casting of flies.

Here is Mr Hills’ advice for the March Brown: ‘I rather like Chetham’s pattern, for black sheep’s wool is brown when held up to the light, and if spun on red silk might give the reddish brown of the body which is so hard to copy.  And then a partridge quill feather is good.  The perfect fly is still to come, but meantime it is worth noticing how little it has changed in what is nearly two centuries and a half.’  Here he is on the Iron Blue: ‘Chetham is the first to mention this also, and he made it ‘of the Down of a Mouse for body and head, dubbed with sad Ash-coloured Silk, wings of the sad coloured feather of a Shepstare quill.’’  If you have ever tied a fly, you will see how apt and engaging these words are.

But the book is really alive when talking about other books, or engaging with nature through the sport.

The casting too has its fascination.  On your day – and such days come to all of us, to make up for the many when we are either maddened or drugged and stupefied by our incurable ineptitude – how delicately and how surely you could throw.  You mean your fly to fall four inches above the fish, and sure enough it does, not an inch more or less.  Nothing is too difficult; drag has no terrors; head wind is a friend not an enemy, for does it not enable you to put a curve on your gut which brings your fly over the fish first?  You know exactly what to do, and you do it.  Wherever the fish may be rising, your fly sails over him, hardly touching the water, wings up, floating like a cork, following every crinkle of the slow current.  You gain an extraordinary sense of power.  Your rod and line, right down to the fly, are part of yourself, moved by your nerves and answering to your brain.

Well, I am yet to know that feeling with a fly rod or a rifle or a sand-wedge, but, transposing continents and seasons, I know how the author felt the following (possibly about the valley of the Test River).

As April runs into May, the valley changes greatly.  It becomes green everywhere; so of course do other landscapes, but its special character is that it shows so many different shades of green, and shows them all together.  The yellow green of the young willows, the bright green of the reeds, the blue green of the iris, the vivid green of some water weeds – these are seen simultaneously.  But perhaps the chief cause of the valley’s beauty is reflected light.  Light is reflected at all angles off the glancing water, and gives the leaves an airy and translucent appearance, which you do not get elsewhere.  May, too, is the month of the hawthorn, and thorn trees flourish particularly well on the chalk.  Then also the birds come, and sedge and reed warblers make the banks musical.  Opinions will differ as to whether May or June is the better month.  May has the charm of novelty not yet worn off, but June has that of perfect fulfilment.  And to the chalk-stream fisherman June is the best month of all, for who would not if he could choose a windless day in June?  It is the month of the meadow flowers, and though the different shades of green are less marked and are merging into their summer sameness, the yellow iris makes the banks a garden, the wild rose stars the hedges, and the guilder rose hangs its cream-coloured lamps over the carriers.

Few people can write so well.  Nevill Cardus could about cricket or a concert; Kenneth Clark could write about light; Whitney Bailliett could write about jazz – but there are not many.  And what these passages bring home is that these fishermen – for some reason few women stick with it – are passionate about the natural world around them.  They are real conservationists, and they go quietly, and not like militant, didactic martinets in the big smoke who look like they would never get their feet wet.

Perhaps one reason why more women do not take up fly fishing – where there are no social or physical barriers to their entry – is the reason that they do not hunt – they are not hard-wired as hunter–gatherers.  Who knows?  There is another myth about the two sports of fly fishing and hunting with rifle or shot-gun.  They are all forms of hunting aimed at killing animal life (including birds and fish) for food or trophy, although very many fly fishers do not now detain their catch, but put it back.  Hunting in Australia is seen as down market –precisely the reverse is so in Europe.  It is also seen as more cruel than fishing.  It is hard to see why.  Pain and animals are an emotive mix, but what would you rather be – a bunny knocked stone dead by a .22 bullet, or a rainbow trout drifting along its path in God’s domain until some devious bastard contrives to drop an anchor down your gob and then haul you out and either toss you back or deliver the coup de grace and eat you up?

Well, nearly a hundred years ago, Mr Hills, for better or for worse, was not confronted by any metaphysical doubts in his quest for peace in nature.  He did however leave this enduring testament to our enjoyment of our natural world, and he deserves to be read and remembered and thanked for doing so.

Here and there – Sowing the Wind


Sowing the Wind by John Keay (available in Folio Edition) is a balanced and luminous account of how the West imperially but brutally dismembered almost every part of the Middle East.  The result is that, as the Bible said, we are now reaping the whirlwind.  The lessons of this book are vital, but those who would like to concentrate on the West to the Exclusion of the East would want to have nothing to do with this book.  It shows, among other things, why the isolationist response is so fallacious and dangerous.

Robert Fisk raises the issue squarely in his Foreword.

Why does the West think it can lecture the Arabs on their history, their beliefs, their way of life, their ‘culture’?  How can this fundamental imbalance between ‘Occident’ and ‘Orient’ – themselves weirdly Western creations – be corrected or even understood?

And here we touch the essence of the difference between Christianity and Islam in its present tragic stage.  I do not think that we in the West believe in God these days.  American evangelists, no doubt.  Yet their refusal to accept evolutionism is oddly similar to that of ISIS, whose own concept of God refuses to countenance any Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest.’  The ‘fittest’ were those who followed God’s word, to the very letter, and that is an end to it.  Judaism offers a more nuanced response to God’s role and purpose in the creation of life.  Increasingly, however, Muslims find that God the ‘all-creator’ presided over evolution; hence the extraordinary – and to Westerners surprising – Islamist fascination with science.

But in the ‘West’ our gods tend to be human rights and the United Nations, Amnesty International and international law.  That is why our history books no longer speak of Islam and Christendom, but of Islam and the ‘West’.  So how is it……that a people who still believe in God, who still believe that the Quran is the word of God himself, for whom religion lies at the centre of the family and all that life holds, should find itself in submission – militarily, economically, socially, culturally – to a people who have largely forsaken their God?

What is the answer?

Keay tells us that in negotiating the Sykes-Picot agreement, Georges-Picot was ‘the scion of a colonialist dynasty’ and a firm believer in France’s mission historique et civilisatrice.  He therefore demanded and got all of Syria and CiliciaThe agreement was of course the one in which France and England casually carved up the Middle East between them so as to betray almost everyone involved.

Even when he knew the Arabs had been betrayed, Lawrence hoped for a new world order ‘in which the dominant races will forget their brute achievements, and white and red and yellow and brown and black will stand up together without side-glances in the service of the world.’  He said: ‘Unless we or our allies make an efficient Arab empire there will never be more than a discordant mosaic of provincial administrations.’  Keay says:

For all the fine words about building a new Arab nation, Lawrence was as intent as Brémond on creating a post-war Middle East that would be easily manageable in his own nation’s interest.  Syria, in Lawrence’s reckoning, was no more a suitable subject for sovereign independence than Arabia.  It was by nature a vassal country…..Mesopotamia/Iraq would be ‘our first brown dominion’

Lawrence said he was involved in ‘fraud.’

But there was neither sense nor virtue in identifying with the Arabs to the extent of condoning their political presumption.  The Bedouin, even in Lawrence’s piercing blue eyes, were uncouth and unmanageable; settled Arabs he was loth to consider as Arabs at all; and as for the educated, Westernised classes, they were the worst of all….’Europeanised youth’, ‘native Christians’…and ‘nationalised hot-heads’ were abominations who offended British conceits about both class distinction and racial privilege.  Their manners were appalling, yet they were precisely the people who, who, given a chance, would be running the ‘dream-palace’ [Lawrence’s term].  It was unthinkable.

After the armistice Clemenceau asked Lloyd George what he wanted.  ‘I wanted Mosul attached to Iraq and Palestine from Beersheba to Dan’.  ‘You shall have it.’  Why Mosul?  The oil, stupid.

The English bombed Iraq in a 1920 revolt.  The War Office said that they should not use the word ‘rebel’.  That may have entailed something like ‘sovereignty’ in Iraq.  They tried ‘insurgent’ and then ‘revolution.’  The same contortions and lies took place this century in Iraq.

In the Great Revolt in Iraq in 1920, the British lost 400 mostly Indian troops and Arab losses probably topped 8500.  (The Arabs now endure similar ratios against Israel.)

Jordan was set up as a place to park a loose cannon.  ‘Its political viability, even its value to the British, had yet to be proven; its international status had yet to be determined; and its frontiers had yet to be demarcated.  A child of political expedience, it had neither an economic or geographical rationale’.  The same went for Lebanon, but the French wanted to look after Maronite Christians.

Churchill thought of chemically bombing the Kurds, ahead of Hussein.  The Sunni Shia split made things worse.  Do you not see how all these things come back to haunt us?

The Great Revolt in Syria in 1925 saw France bomb Damascus.

That what was reputedly the world’s oldest city could be indiscriminately bombed and shelled in the name of one of the world’s most civilised peoples simply beggared belief.  In the heat of the First World War, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Damascus itself had all changed hands with no more than occasional rifle fire within their revered precincts.  Yet here, without the sanction of war, the champions of religion, equality and fraternity were delivering death to the innocent and destruction to the hallowed while supposedly discharging a sacred trust on behalf of the League of Nations and operating within the consensual constraints of one of its mandates.

Look at what is left of Damascus now and ask yourself who is really responsible.

The Balfour Declaration implied that the ninety per cent of people in Palestine who were not Jewish possessed no national identity and no political rights.  Neither alone nor as part of some other existing entity were the local Arabs reckoned to be a putative nation.  The mandate had no time limit.  For Christians, Palestine was predominantly a Land (capital L) so Holy (capital H) that in respect of its inhabitants, the norms of nationality and government need not apply.  The indigenous Arabs may well have thought that the British treated them in the same way that they had treated our indigenous people – by the simple expedient of saying that their presence did not stop the occupying power doing what they liked.

There were massacres on both sides in Jerusalem in 1921.  This religious or race war is now nearly a century old.  Zionists would not tolerate a representative body since they were a minority and such a government would be prejudicial to the establishment of the national home.

Orde Wingate was involved in training Jewish fighters.  His family was Plymouth Brethren.  He and other Englishmen trained Jewish Night Squads to counter Arab terrorists.  They – people like Menachem Begin and Moshe Dayan – became terrorists.  Wingate told them ‘You are the first soldiers if the Jewish army.  This provoked Arab responses.  The Jewish terrorists had the same motivation as the Arabs – they had God on their side – the only right God.

In one of the more signal failures of the West, the Vichy French fought the British in Palestine.  (One of my neighbours, who is no longer with us, was in the AIF in Syria where he was shot at by the French.  He joined the Air Force in disgust.)

Militant Jewish groups resembled those of the Nazis.  Keay says that ‘Buoyed by prophecy and desperate for sanctuary, the Zionists of the European ghettoes disdained legal restraint…’Churchill referred to ‘a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany.’  The most senior British politician to be killed in the Second World War was assassinated in the name of Zion.

Keay says that after the first war:

The ruling elites of all the Arab states who had failed to prevent this disaster found themselves fully discredited in the eyes of their own people….Revolution, long in the air, had now entered the bloodstream.

The author goes on to say how MI6 and the CIA installed the Shah; how the British and French were humiliated at Suez; and he mentions the massacres at Shatila and Sabra.

That is where he stops.  The disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria still go on.  The assault on the twin towers looks nigh on inevitable in the face of the inane cruelty and provocation of the Arabs by Europe and the U S.  The world may have been much better off if Europe and the U S had kept their hunger for power and oil to themselves.  The whirlwind has a very long way to go, and the conflict between Israel and its Arab and Persian neighbours looks to be soluble only by obliteration of the lines drawn during the death throes of the imperialism of Europe.  Just try to imagine what your reaction may have been if it was Europe that was Muslim and the Middle East that was Christian and that the Christians had carved up and insulted Europe in reverse and without asking dumped a group of the fold in Europe.  How well do you think the Europeans would take all that?  Would you not expect to see at least the level of terror that the Americans, Irish and Zionists used against Britain?  Was it not inevitable that each of those three nations was to be born in terror?



[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.]



Marc Bloch (1920)

Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, Paris, 1920; facsimile reprint Slatkine-Megariotis, Geneva, 1976; rebound in quarter vellum with red cloth boards and red label embossed.

I was born in France.  I have drunk the waters of her culture.  I have made her past my own.  I breathe freely only in her climate, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests.

Winston Churchill used the term ‘unconquerable fidelity’ to refer to some of the people opposing the Third Reich.  It is a very just epitaph for the French historian, Marc Bloch.  Coming from a family of assimilated Alsatian Jews, Bloch studied in Paris at the Ecole Normale Supérieur and then in Berlin and Leipzig.  He served in the infantry throughout the First World War and attained the rank of captain.  He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.  Between the wars he won an international reputation as an historian and helped to found the Annales School.  He invoked the work of German historians and his great work spanned all Europe.  He re-joined the army in 1939 and wrote a book Strange Defeat after the capitulation.  He worked on historiography, and he also served the Resistance, code named ‘Narbonne’.  Vichy police took him and handed him over to the Gestapo who tortured him and shot him shortly before the Allies arrived.  His friends had asked him to get out of France, but he had thought that he had a duty to stay.

In Strange Defeat, Bloch had uttered those most beautiful words that are set out at the head of this note.  I shall come back to his execution when looking at War and Peace, but it is enough to say now that Marc Bloch was a man to whom the word ‘patriot’ might be applied both fairly and decently.

Rois et Serfs (‘Kings and Serfs’) was Bloch’s doctoral thesis that looked at emancipation ordinances of 1315 and 1318 and found that the references to ‘natural freedom’ did not represent an endorsement of human liberty – they were just part of a conventional formula, a drafting device, although Bloch saw behind it a conflict between the ideals of the church fathers of equality and the reality of their hierarchy.  The work prefigures his later work with its focus on royalty and the functions of royal officials and the ways of the common people.  It contains valuable advice for lawyers today.  Ces discourses préliminaires tournaient tousjours dans le même cercle de pensées ou de lieux communs, sans avoir la vie reelle qu’un bien lointain rapport, – étant forcement elogieéux pour le personage qui avait commandé l’acte, et presentant invariablement ses motifs sous le jour le plus flatteur.  In translation – statutory preambles are self-serving propaganda.

But this book stands here for the great ‘Feudal Society’ (La société féodale), a clear and simple picture of feudalism that offers us a picture of medieval Europe.  It is extremely wide in its scope but, like the work of Maitland, it is rooted in the concrete and it is graphically written.  It is one of those great histories that can be read and enjoyed equally by the specialist and the general reader.  It is in truth a masterpiece of composition – in French or English.

Here are some extracts to show the style and substance of this colossal achievement.

Yet the revival of interest in Roman law provoked lively opposition.  Fundamentally secular, it disturbed many churchmen by its latent paganism.  The guardians of monastic virtue accused it of having turned away the monks from prayer.  The theologians reproached it with supplanting the only forms of speculative activity that seemed to them worthy of clerics.  The kings of France themselves or their counsellors, at least from Philip Augustus on, seem to have taken umbrage at the too easy justifications which it provided for the theorists of Imperial hegemony.  Far from arresting the movement, however, this opposition did little more than attest its strength.

The principal difficulty, therefore, which faced the central government was to reach residual subjects, in order to exact services and impose the necessary sanctions.  Thus there arose the idea of utilizing for the purposes of government the firmly established network of protective relationships.  The lord, at every level of the hierarchy, would be answerable for his ‘man’ and would be responsible for holding him to his duty.  This idea was not peculiar to the Carolingians….Under the Carolingians, on the other hand, various royal or imperial edicts were concerned with defining precisely the offences which, if committed by the lord, would justify the vassal in breaking the contract.  This meant that, with the exception of such cases, and apart from separations by mutual agreement, the tie lasted for life.

Yet, whatever the inequalities between the obligations of the respective parties, those obligations were none the less mutual; the obedience of the vassal was conditional upon the scrupulous fulfilment of his engagements by the lord.  This reciprocity in unequal obligations….was the really distinctive feature of European vassalage.  This characteristic distinguished it not only from ancient slavery but also, and very profoundly, from the forms of free dependence known to other civilizations, like that of Japan, and even to certain societies bordering on the feudal zone proper.

In reflecting on this picture of people being bound together by mutual agreement and ties, we are speaking of times more than a millennium ago.

It was there in the commune that the really revolutionary ferment was to be seen with its violent hostility to a stratified society.  Certainly these primitive urban groups were in no sense democratic.  The greater bourgeois, who were their real founders and whom the lesser bourgeois were not always eager to follow, were often in their treatment of the poor hard task masters and merciless creditors.  But by substituting for the promise of obedience, paid for by protection, the promise of mutual aid, they contributed to the social life of Europe a new element, profoundly alien to the feudal spirit properly so called.

There is a riveting insight there, both French and universal.

Assuredly the English parliamentary system was not cradled in ‘the forests of Germania’.  It bore the deep imprint of the feudal environment from which it sprang.  But the peculiar quality which distinguished it so sharply from the Continental systems of ‘Estates’, and, more generally, that collaboration of the well-to do classes in power, so characteristic of the English political structure so long ago as the Middle Ages – the origin of these is surely to be found in the firm establishment on English soil of the system of assemblies composed of the free men of the territory, in accordance with the practice of the barbarian epoch.

The book ends with these words.

Nor was it an accident that in Japan, where the vassal’s submission was much more unilateral and where, moreover, the divine power of the Emperor remained outside the structure of vassal engagements, nothing of the kind emerged from a regime which was nevertheless in many respects closely akin to the feudalism of the West.  The originality of the latter system consisted in the emphasis it placed on the idea of an agreement capable of binding the rulers; and in this way, oppressive as it may have been to the poor, it has in truth bequeathed to our Western civilization something with which we still desire to live.

So much of all this is treasure.  Here is the work and the writing of a man of immense learning and authority.  This great French scholar and patriot gives me the same feeling that I get when I am reading Maitland – that I am in the hands of an historian whose judgment has been forged in the mastery of his evidence and whose integrity is assured by the demonstration of his technique. You are blessed indeed if you ever get to read a work of history that is as enlightening – as illuminating – as ‘Feudal Society’.

Here and there – The Courtiers of King Henry VIII and President Donald Trump


A very long time ago – about, say, five or six centuries – the kings of England did not just reign, they ruled, and their subjects owed fealty to them personally.  Then you could still sensibly speak of an absolute monarchy, as was certainly the case in France, and the rule of law was an idea whose time had not yet come.  That was the case – more or less – with Henry VIII.

Donald Trump thinks that it should be the case for him – and he behaves as if it is.  He is about half a millennium out of date, as are those despotic regimes, like Russia and Saudi Arabia, which Trump most admires.

His gross appearance, his blustering demeanour, his vulgarity, his arrogance, his sensuality, his cruelty, his hypocrisy, his want of common decency, are marked in strong lines.

Every word applies to Donald Trump, but it was written by a famous English critic (Hazlitt) about Henry VIII as seen by Shakespeare in the play of that name – and his Harry might be thought to be mild compared to the historical king.  The play ends with the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth and before King Henry VIII became a retail terminator of his wives and first ministers.

Both Trump and Henry are – I will use the present tense for both – blustering, arrogant, sensual, cruel, hypocritical and lacking common decency.  The essential thing about them is that each of them is so full of himself that there is no room for anyone else.  Being a courtier to either is therefore tricky.  No courtier, no matter how high, ever knows when his time might be up.  The Prologue speaks of great people followed by a thousand friends –

…….Then in a moment, see

How soon this mightiness meets misery….(29-30)

Before looking at what Trump may have in common with Henry VIII – both in history and on the stage – we should notice some differences.  Henry is intelligent, religious and intent on doing the right thing by the country he rules.  None of that is true for Trump.  He is a stupid man with no room in his ego for God or his nation.  Sir Geoffrey Elton said that Henry was ‘intelligent, a capable musician, quite well-seen in theology, a patron of the arts and learning’ and that ‘foreign ambassadors as well as his own subjects praised him to the skies.’  How very different is Trump.  But Elton also said:

Of all Henry VIII’s follies none cost his country dearer than his illusion that he was an old and experienced king who knew his business and needed no one to do it for him.

That’s Trump to his toe nails.

There are other differences.  Young Harry was very well educated.  Young Donald was not.  Henry was fluent in four languages.  Trump has trouble putting a sentence together in one.  You would have as much chance of getting a definition of ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’ from Trump as you would of seeing his school report cards.

King Henry disrupted the body politic in order to give the nation a secure heir to the throne.  That was his duty.  President Trump disrupted the body politic in order to secure places for his family.  That was a breach of his duty, and this vulgar family intrusion continues to generate conflicts of interest that would be laughable if they were not so gross.

What then do they have in common?

Each of the King and the President is a monument to the wisdom of the admonition ‘Put not your trust in princes’ (Psalm, 146:3).  Indeed, one of Harry’s principal victims (Cardinal Wolsey) echoed just those words:

…..O, how wretched

Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!

There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,

That sweet aspect of princes and their ruin,

More pangs and fears that wars or women have.

And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,

Never to hope again.  (III, ii, 366-372)

A strong leader does not have to claim the authoritarian powers of Stalin or Hitler before he reduces his senior advisers to nervous wrecks who look like menials – and whose consequent apparent weakness makes them only a more likely target.  They are made to look and feel servile.  Trump and Harry have this in common with dogs – they can sense fear and this arouses them.  They pleasure themselves by exploiting fear in others.  For each of them, it is a double hit of showing off his power.  They live to put people down and this means that neither has the mettle of a leader.

On this ground, too, neither has a sense of humour.  That is one way that the rest of us oil our humanity, but for each of these man-eaters, a joke is just a badly disguised kick to the groin.

The play Henry VIII sees the fall of three eminent persons – the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey – all engineered by the King.  We also have a putsch against Archbishop Cranmer that is scotched by the King (and what high theatre we have there).  The later execution of Anne Boleyn was little more than judicial murder.  Whether it was more cruel than the casting off of Queen Katherine is a question on which reasonable minds may differ.  The first minister, Cromwell, the prime author of the legislation giving effect to the Reformation in England, would also fall.  And if he fell like Lucifer, the fall was also far more terminal – what Buckingham refers to as ‘the long divorce of steel.’  Wolsey escaped the axe; Cromwell and More did not.  Some of Henry’s victims suffered death, but the list of Trump’s victims is so much longer – and in a much shorter time.

And yet, at least in the play, they all go quietly in the end.  As did most victims of Stalin.  The lethal reputation of the ruler induces a kind of resignation and acceptance.

This looks to be the case with the victims of Trump.  With the exception of James Comey, of the FBI, most went quietly to their end, although as often as not that end was pronounced in the most cowardly and vulgar manner.

Henry VIII appears to be as much a bully as Trump is.  The flip side of the bully is the coward.  Harry fancies himself as a latterday medieval man of steel.  Medieval kings had to rule in a personal way that does not apply to current presidents – at least outside of world war.  The cowardice of Trump is notorious – from his evasion of military service, to his refusal to show his tax returns, to his cringing before real despots – but at least in one respect Harry shares that cowardice.  In his recent biography Thomas Cromwell, A Life, Diarmaid MacCulloch says that Henry is ‘a thorough coward’ when it comes to ‘personal confrontations.’  Trump always gets a minion – like a demeaned three star general – to deliver the pink slip, and he could not bring himself to listen to the tape of the murder of a journalist – before he went ahead to acquit the murderer.

Although Henry is far more intelligent than Trump, we get the impression that both could be unduly swayed by the last person either spoke to.  That disability is nigh on terminal for a judge, but it also creates disharmony in the court of a ruler.  Courtiers suspected that both Wolsey and Cromwell had got to a position of dominance with King Henry.

He dives into the King’s soul, and there scatters

Dangers, doubts, wringing of the conscience,

Fears and despairs.  (II, ii, 26-28)

That is precisely what we could have heard from some in the White House when Mr Bannon was closeted alone with the President, or when Mr Kushner gets to be so now.  Both those gentlemen have the misfortune to look to be at their most dangerous when they look to be doing nothing.  (It is hard to imagine anyone showing outright blankness in the way Mr Kushner does.  Is anyone ever at home?)

Both rulers are relentlessly insensitive.  Eleven days after Anne Boleyn’s execution, Henry VIII married Jane Seymour.  It was rumoured that he was pleasuring himself at the moment of her decapitation, but Harry has a capacity for self-deception – delusion – quite equal to that of Trump.  As he saw it, this marriage – his third – was his first proper one.  On the day of the execution of Cromwell, Henry diverted himself by marrying Katherine Howard.  Perhaps intercourse eases decapitation.  Both Henry and Trump have an alarming capacity to violate basic decency.

Some may think it is hard to accuse Trump of hypocrisy.  If you don’t believe anything, what is there that you can betray?  But with our Harry, Shakespeare lays it on with a shovel.  The middle aged man who is about to trade in his middle aged wife for a new model fairly wallows in his own moonshine.

O, my lord,

Would it not grieve an able man to leave

So sweet a bedfellow?  But, conscience, conscience!

O, ‘tis a tender place, and I must leave her.  (II, ii, 140-143)

Each ruler fairly glows with any praise.  MacCulloch says that ‘Henry always showed a touching confidence in other people’s admiration of his abilities as a ruler, and the prospect of anyone in mainland Europe expressing unalloyed support for his marital troubles was additionally thrilling.’  For Harry to get sympathy in Europe for his penchant for divorce would be like Trump getting support in Europe for his soft spot for coal.

Each is very touchy and easily kindled to incandescent rage and a lust for revenge.  Each is a born hater.  ‘Anne was now victim of Henry’s ability to turn deep affection into deep hatred, and then to believe any old nonsense to reinforce his new point of view.’

That is vintage Trump.  The original attraction may well have been affected, although the felt need to live in the present could make a sucker of both rulers; but the later loathing was sincerity itself.  Indeed, both claim to have been let down so badly so often that they must concede that they cannot pick the right people to have with them.  That is not a good result for a ruler.

Because neither can be trusted and each rules by fear, their court is a deeply unhappy place.  One of Harry’s courtiers laments ‘he will never give credit against you, whatsoever is laid to your charge; but let me or any other of the Council be complained of, his Grace will most seriously chide and fall out with us’  It is notorious that loyalty flows in only one direction for Trump, but this Tudor cri de coeur leads MacCulloch to comment that ‘the leading men at Court eyed one another and judged the moment to plant a negative thought in the mind of their terrifyingly unpredictable royal master.’

It is hard to think of a better description of what goes on in the White House – except that things are much, much worse there because of the close involvement of the members of the family of the ruler, none of whom knows what to do.  What you get is courtiers looking at each other with what Keats called ‘wild surmise.’

In truth, it is downright dangerous to walk into either court.  Three different fates might await you.  You might get it wrong, in which case a mere firing is an act of mercy.  Or you may have to take a hit for the ruler because it is universally acknowledged that he can do no wrong.  Or worse, you may put part of his gleam in the shade in which case you are really for it.

The Oxford History of England says that King Henry VIII was a ‘great king’.  Their criteria for greatness may be a bit wobbly, since they also say:

Henry VIII was brutal, crafty, selfish, and ungenerous….and as the years passed, what there was in him of magnanimity was eaten up by his all-devouring egoism.  His triumphant ride through life carried him unheeding over the bodies of his broken servants, and though he had an outward affability for use at will, he was faux bonhomme.

There again is Donald Trump á la lettre. David Hume said that Henry may have been great but not good, and that ‘every one dreaded a contest with a man who was known never to yield or to forgive, and who, in every controversy, was determined to ruin either himself or his antagonist.’

Courtiers are companions and councillors.  Both suffer under each of the king and the president.  ‘This enormous man was the nightmare of his advisers.  Once a scheme was fixed in his mind he could seldom be turned from it; resistance only made him more stubborn; and once embarked, he always tended to go too far unless restrained….The only secret of managing him, both Wolsey and Cromwell disclosed after they had fallen, was to see that dangerous ideas were not permitted to reach him.’  Churchill said that of King Henry; Bob Woodward said much the same of President Trump.

It is remarkable how many good lives and careers have been ruined when people have strayed into the court of this king or this president.  They seem to taint all whom they touch.  So many were crooked before they entered the orbit of Trump that for some time now he has had trouble attracting decent people.  Time spent with Trump does not look good on your C V now – how bad might it look in a few years’ time?

We had need pray,

And heartily, for our deliverance,

Or this imperious man will work us all

From princes into pages.  All men’s honours,

Lie like one lump before him, to be fashioned

Into what pitch he pleases.  (II, ii, 44-49)

Now let us see another difference.  Trump has no time or respect for the Constitution or its organs.  It would be silly to say he might leave a good legacy.  The future is not his shtick.

There was next to nothing about religion in the Reformation in England.  It was all about politics and England was much better off politically for getting its version of Home Rule.  And because King Henry chose to split with Rome by acts of Parliament – mere royal fiats would not have done the job – its status was greatly advanced.  We were on our way to the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law – and the colonies that would become the United States would be prime beneficiaries of this ascent.

Now may we end with something else that President Trump and King Henry VIII have in common?  For some of us, hardly a day goes by with Donald Trump when we are not reminded of the deathless words of a Boston attorney named Joseph Welch who, after another outrage committed by Senator McCarthy, asked: ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’  Nowhere is that want of decency more on show in this king and in this president than in their hunt for skirt and in their complete lack of judgment in how to go about it.

Well, at least the Tudors did not have to put up with wall-to-wall and coast to coast centrefolds, and the women allotted to King Henry were alleged to have some form of pedigree if not some kind of mind.  These things are sadly different now in this uncomely Playboy swamp in the New World.

Here and there -Political Instability – And the Sad Passing of Conservatism – Then and Now


Political stability is a consummation devoutly to be desired.  How quickly may we lose it?

Professor J H (later, Sir Jack) Plumb delivered the Ford Lectures at Oxford in 1965.  They were published in 1967 as The Growth of Political Stability in England 1675-1725.  In them, Plumb said that lasting political stability was not common until recently and that ‘it is certainly far rarer than revolution.’  He defined political stability as –

…the acceptance by society of its political institutions, and of those classes of men who control them.

Instability comes from ‘conspiracy, plot, revolution and civil war’.  Plumb thought that political instability came in England because of three things –

….single party government; the legislature firmly under executive control; and a sense of common identity in those who wielded economic, social, and political power.

Since we now see political instability in England, America and Australia, especially in those parties that brand themselves ‘conservative’, we might learn from Plumb’s account of the arrival of stability.

There is one warning.  Anyone who thinks that the Whig v Tory divide might resemble the split between the two major parties in any of the three nations now is dead wrong.  The old concept is as simple as that of the Holy Trinity.  (Upon the arrival in England of the Germans (Hanoverians) in the person of George I, Sir Lewis Namier said that the ‘Tory gentlemen worshipped the Throne and loathed the Court, believed in authority and disliked Government…..expressing these contradictory feelings in harmless fancies about the ‘King over the water’, a royalty uncontaminated by administration.’  Try threading that needle with a knight of the shire after a few snifters in front of the fire after the hunt – while remembering the terminal penalty for treason.)


Migrant nations have become familiar with the resentment of migrants, especially among those who have missed out on the glittering prizes in their new home.  They see newcomers as trespassers on their property, as threats to what they have achieved.  (Our common law started with arguments over the forms of writs, and the earliest, and most fruitful form of writ was the writ of trespass, the word that figures in the King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer.)  Those protesting against migrants sense that the migrants are debasing or diluting the currency of their citizenship – which might be their most valuable asset in their nation – and threatening to deprive them of a livelihood that is already precarious.  What you get is the syndrome ‘kick away the ladder.’

This issue often figures in what is called ‘nationalism’ – like America First – and is often a front for something worse.  People who want to puff out their chests about their nation often puff out their chests about themselves.  In their grosser form, you get megalomaniacs like Mussolini and Trump.

For some people – again those who are not among life’s winners – the colour of their skin is an asset that that allows them to fulfil a need to put some people beneath them on the social ladder.  These crude and nasty instincts are fanned – for profit – by those parts of the press that we least admire.

The Tory party would eventually lead to the Conservative party.  The ancestors of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage did not like foreigners.  (For a while England had a Naturalization Act.)  The dislike of outsiders, Plumb instructs us, was rife among country Tories.  ‘Xenophobia was a very strong concomitant of Toryism.’  If you wanted to find a closet Tory, you just had to mention the Dutch.  Of course, the French later became the bête noire of the Englishand General de Gaulle did all in his power to keep them there – to the extent that de Gaulle may be honoured as the spiritual founder of Brexit.  His rank ingratitude has come back to bite Europe on the bum.


The tags Whig and Tory did not so much stand for differences on policy, but different attitudes about how to get and handle the levers of power.  In the time we speak of, England ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption.  ‘The vote was the basic coin for traffic in influence.’  But, then as now, if political parties stand for too little or too much, they splinter.  The death word is faction.  Without a strong, rooted balance of power, a party is exposed to the cancer of faction.  The result is, almost by definition, incoherence.  The party has to confront the proposition that if it cannot govern itself, it cannot govern the nation.  That is precisely the problem faced by the soi disant conservative parties in our three nations.  The plots and conspiracies in Australia have acquired an aura of vaudeville.

Walpole is seen now as England’s first prime minister.  He had a genius for managing the business of government.  Someone called him the greatest bomb-disposal expert in history.  ‘Walpole created a centre of gravity at the heart of the administration.’  Previous monarchs had not achieved that and ‘every Cabinet from 1689 to 1714 rapidly disintegrated into faction; their composition rarely remained stable for more than a year.’

We have seen that in the U K and here, and it looks very likely that the political pressure that is about to be applied to the Republicans will see them go the same way.  They have so far shown an appalling lack of moral fibre in allowing a political brute to trash almost every part of their political dispensation.

What is different in Australia is that two generations ago all the factions, cranks and crooks were on the other side of politics.  Now they are on the so called conservative side, and you can watch their inanity being aerated every night on Sky News or each morning with The Australian as Rupert Murdoch inflicts on the land of his birth the lesions he has so sadly inflicted on the land of his choice.


It follows a fortiori that a government that cannot control its parliament or congress is by definition unstable.  Trump now finds himself in a position similar to that of the prime minister of the U K and Australia.  Both got where they are faute de mieux after a squalid faction fight and each looks both transient and wobbly – the antithesis of the required centre of gravity.

Plumb tells us that after 1601, the Commons were ‘fundamentally out of hand – difficult to screw money from and a hotbed of criticism; no one could manage them for long, neither James I, Charles I, Cromwell, nor Charles II.’  They were in truth king-baiters from hell.  (In another work, Plumb memorably said of the arrival of George I: ‘He was not in any way enamoured of his new subjects.  They had an evil reputation amongst monarchs for shiftiness. He was aware that most of the noblemen who fawned on him at his arrival had dabbled in treason.’)

All three nations have taken the benefit of the English settling their constitution in dealing with the caprices of the Stuarts, but blood and pain had to be drawn to achieve that settlement.  Seventeenth century England is a terrible lesson of a parliament out of control.  And that’s without looking at the mayhem in the outliers.


Failures in the political system have a snowball effect.  People lose respect for institutions that have caused or at least allowed these fissures to open up.  People then tend to align themselves by interest in distinct groups rather than as a citizen of the nation or a member or supporter of a party.

Plumb spoke of ‘a sense of common identity’ by those who wield power and the acceptance of the institutions and those who control them.  All that has gone clean out the window in Australia – and it does not look healthy elsewhere.  There is scarcely a political, religious, business or sporting body that does not have a dark cloud hanging over it.

An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that only the planet is worth conserving – but it is precisely on this issue that self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’ have betrayed us and themselves – morally, intellectually, and politically.  England’s dull, imported Hanoverian kings were better with logic and science than our native born dunces.  It’s OK for the shock jocks – they are just there for the lucre and their vanity.  But have our would-be statesmen no care for the rest of us?  Nor does it help that their most voluble stooge, the IPA, covertly gets its gelt from Madam Coalminer Extraordinaire.


Scare tactics have been known since Pisistratus, but Walpole brought them to a form of squalid perfection.  There is an appeal – overt or covert – to that bad actor called patriotism.  Plumb says:

Patriotism, almost xenophobic in its intensity, had long been regarded by the Tories as one of their own sacred principles; it was an emotion, they half believed, that no one could feel so intensely as themselves.  Hence, if Walpole could reveal, not once but time and again, that leading Tories were involved in treason, he knew the effect would baffle many a country squire proud of his Englishry, and draw him to support the Crown.

The bogeyman then was called Jacobitism – the prince across the water, the threatened return of the Stuarts and the Church of Rome, and a return to the hell of the previous century.

And of course, accusations of Jacobitism were extremely useful at elections….Like McCarthyism in our own time [they] generated public fear and sapped the will to oppose.

The bogeyman now is Islam and it is a sitting duck for brutal bullies because it is even less coherent than its pursuers – and given the unhinged hysteria of Trump about a migrant caravan, that is no small suggestion.  Ruling by fear itself leads to instability, because it demeans the institutions that permit or require it.


Now for the bad news for those who call themselves conservatives.

But, first, what is there left in the name ‘conservative’?  How may that word be usefully applied in a welfare state facing the slow death of churches and the fading of once grand institutions?  Plumb was after all speaking of a time more than two centuries before the evolution of the welfare state in England.  Some ‘conservatives’ say they want small government.  Well, the role of government was very much smaller in England before they set up their jails down here.  This was a time of which Lord Shelburne could say, offhandedly enough: ‘Providence has so organised the world that very little government is necessary.’  England then was just like a well-run cricket club, and you were OK as long as you played cricket.

To return to the bad news:

It is necessary to stress this moral collapse….. the Tory party was destroyed, destroyed by its incompetent leadership, by the cupidity of many of its supporters, by its own internal contradictions; weakened by its virtues and lashed by events, it proved no match for Walpole…..It failed to provide an effective barrier to Walpole’s steady progress towards a single-party state.

Walpole, Plumb says, made ‘the world so safe for the Whigs that they stayed in power for a hundred years.’

Only a very robust and blithe member of the Conservative, Republican or Liberal Party could now suppress a heart tremor on this recall of history.  Can they divorce themselves from one word of the above citation?  In stressing the ‘moral collapse’, Plumb was warning us of the weakness of character and failure of nerve that is destroying political parties in our time.  It’s a shame that more historians don’t bite that bullet – au fond, political issues involve moral issues.


Now for some worse news.  So far we have sought to find guidance from Sir Jack Plumb in looking at our current instability here and elsewhere.  But Plumb did not have to confront what some see as our biggest problem.  The English were and are beset by caste as well as class.  We do not have the first problem as a matter of law: and for the most part, we do not have much of the second problem as a matter of fact.

But we have a huge worry with inequality of wealth and income – that looks to keep getting worse.  A bank teller may be paid one hundredth of what her boss gets paid – and that pay is likely to go up by his firing more people like her.

Any social group must rest on an implied and shared assumption of fairness, decency, and tolerance.  The bank teller cannot retain any faith that that assumption still holds good.  If that is right, our ship of state is in very dangerous waters.  Since at least 1789, people espousing what some are pleased to call Western civilisation have been committed to some form of equality.  If our want of it is too great or painful, the result is not just instability, but revolution.

‘Identity politics’ is a vogue but shifty phrase.  (What else underpins trade unions, churches, cricket clubs, towns, party politics, or nations?)  But if you want to see how all hell breaks loose when a group of people come together out of interest at the unfairness of their lot in life, have a look at the sans-culottes – roughly, blue collar ‘tradies’ – in France after 1789.  Just look at how they doted on Robespierre, then they rejected him, then they slew him, and then they forgot him.  Bored with mere lynchings, they had turned to the guillotine, then the Committee of Public Safety, and then the Terror.  They were plainly not our first terrorists, but they did terrify people by killing others.  They killed to avoid being killed.  And they did so in the name of equality – or what some call justice.

Too many people in political parties that were once truly conservative are now flirting with the mob – or, if you prefer, the gutter.  My dad didn’t have much truck with politicians, but he said to me more than once: ‘Son, if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.’

And if there is one thing that is transcendentally clear about the nature of conservatism, it is that people who claim to be under that umbrella while indulging the mob – while looking warmly at Hanson, Abbott, Farage, Johnson or Trump – are not just deluding themselves, they are spitting in the face of the history of mankind – if not of God.

In truth, the crowds that cheer on Farage and Trump have a lot in common with the crowds that cheered on Jack Cade and Barabbas.

Here and there – The vendetta before Hamlet


We can see the dawn of our laws not in Eden but in our felt need to control the vendetta – unless the law intervenes, a blood feud may have no end.  If the law helped to contain the vendetta, then a failure of the law to deliver justice to the family of the victim may well see a revival of self-help.  We can see that word for word in the beginning of The Godfather.

Homer saw the vicious the cycle.  Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, elopes to Troy.  The Greeks, led by King Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus, want to go after her.  This is the Trojan War, the subject of the Iliad.  The gods hold them up.  Agamemnon is persuaded to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia so that his boats can sail for Troy.  After the war, his wife, Clytemnestra, who has taken Aegisthus as a lover, kills Agamemnon to avenge the death of a daughter.  Then her son, Orestes, with another daughter, Electra, kills Clytemnestra to avenge his father.  And so the vendetta goes on.  This theme is treated by the three great tragedians of ancient Greece – Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.

Beowulf is replete with the blood feud – that is one reason we refer to that time as the Dark Age.

In Hamlet, the king is murdered by his brother who then speedily marries the widow.  The child of the marriage, Hamlet, is revolted by the conduct of both his uncle and his mother.  Her descent into those ‘incestuous sheets’ makes him ill.  Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells the young prince that his brother killed him and that Hamlet must avenge his death.

Was Hamlet morally obliged or entitled to kill the king to avenge his father? A C Bradley apparently thought so.  A Mafia don may feel it now.  But this was not the Dark Ages.  There are exchanges of students to fine German universities.  The royal family is firmly Christian.  Would they still be wedded to the vendetta?

Surely, no.  The answer is given by Tony Tanner.  (I know I have referred often to this before, but the point is worth it.)  Tanner described how western tragedy began two thousand five hundred years ago.  A play, the first in a trilogy, begins with a troubled guard on a battlement on a castle where the people live in disquiet.  A member of a ruling family has to avenge a murder.  Shortly before he executes his mother, Orestes pauses.  But not for long.

The play Hamlet is at the birth of modern drama nearly two thousand years later. It opens in the same way with a guard on a battlement over an unquiet people.  The hero again pauses before taking revenge.  But this time the pause lasts for nearly the whole play. Why?  ‘Because between Aeschylus and Shakespeare, something has taken place which permanently changed the western mind – namely, Christianity and, more particularly for the Elizabethans, the Reformation.’

Tanner went on to say out that although the Greeks dwelt on guilt, they had no word for conscience (a word that occurs seven times in Hamlet).

How, then, did the Greeks handle the vendetta?

The first in time is the trilogy of Aeschylus called The Oresteia.  Agamemnon deals with the murder of the husband; The Libation Bearers deals with the murder of the father; and The Eumenidies seeks to offer a solution – a court of law.  The difference to Hamlet is almost absurd here.  Having butchered the lover, Aegisthus, Orestes turns to his mother, Clytemnestra.  She reminds Orestes that she suckled him as a child.  Orestes pauses and asks his friend what he should so.  Should he be ‘shamed to kill his mother’?  His friend reminds Orestes of the oracles and their oaths in three lines.  Orestes then says:

I judge that you win.  Your advice is good.

Orestes tells his mother:

You killed and it was wrong.  Now suffer wrong.

Now madness is at hand.  Orestes is pursued by the furies of his mother – ‘the bloodhounds of his mother’s hate.’  The play ends:

Where is the end?  Where shall the fury of fate

Be stilled to sleep, be done with?

The Orestes of Aeschylus was, then, a different cup of tea to Hamlet

It is not quite so with Euripides.  His Orestes opens after the murder.  Electra tells Helen that Orestes killed himself when he killed his mother.  Orestes explains his sickness:

I call it conscience.  The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime..I mean remorse.  I am sick with remorse.

(I am not qualified to warrant the validity of the word ‘conscience’ there in light of the remark of Tony Tanner, but we are reminded that in all translations we are asked to take a lot on trust.)  Orestes had already prefigured the injunction given to Hamlet when he told Electra:

I think now

If I had asked my dead father at the time

If I should kill her, he would have begged me,

Gone down on his knees before me and pleaded,

Implored me not to take my mothers life.

What had we to gain by murdering her?

Later he says he was ordered by a god, Apollo, to commit the murder.  This leads him to this question.  ‘Was he [the god] competent to command a murder, but now incompetent to purge the guilt?’  That is a very fair question for that god.

The father of Clytemnestra can recall when they did things better:

Where I want to know, can this chain

Of murder end?  Can it ever end in fact

Since the last to kill is doomed to stand

Under permanent sentence of death by revenge?

Their ancestors banished the murderers and bound them to silence.  ‘They purged their guilt by banishment, not death.  And by so doing, they stopped that endless vicious cycle of murder and revenge.’  After that, the play takes a dive in tone.  Orestes says ‘I can never have my fill of killing whores’, and in trying to escape judgment for their crime, they plot to murder Helen and take her daughter Hermione hostage,

Euripides also had an Electra , but you get the Full Monty of the vendetta with Sophocles.  Electra is waiting for the return of Orestes to avenge her father’s death.

Come, how when the dead are in question,

Can it ever be honourable to forget?….

What sort of days do you imagine

I spend, watching Aegisthus sitting

On my father’s throne, watching him wear

My father’s self-same robes, watching him

At the hearth where he killed him, pouring libations?….

She [Clytemnestra] is so daring that she paramours

This foul polluted creature and fears no fury…..

But I am waiting for Orestes’ coming,

Waiting forever for the one who will stop

All our wrongs.  I wait and wait and die.

For his eternal going-to-do-something

Destroys my hopes, possible and impossible.

Now, there is a whole lot of Hamlet there – not least the sexual jealousy.  And while Hamlet feigned madness to give himself cover, Orestes put it out that he was dead – and sent an urn with his remains to his sister.  So, our heroes were cruel to those they loved – they were cruelled by their mission.  (The other phrase you see is pathei pathos or ‘suffering brutalises’.)

When Electra realises that she is in truth talking to a very much alive brother, we have one of the great set pieces of our stage.  It is wonderfully handled here by this great playwright.  Electra then taunts her mother before her death with the deadly steel that Queen Margaret applied to the Duke of York.  The Chorus says:

The courses are being fulfilled

Those under the earth are alive;

Men long dead draw from their killers

Blood to answer blood.

Electra asks Orestes ‘Is the wretch dead?’  There is then more icy dramatic irony – or the blackest humour – when Orestes leads Aegisthus, who is next to die, to believe that the corpse in the shroud is that of himself rather than that of Clytemnestra.  Orestes endorses justice on all who act above the law – ‘justice by killing.’

In Euripides’ version, Orestes does pause before the horror of killing his own mother.  Then he said he covered his eyes before sinking the steel in her neck.  Electra also put her hand to the sword.  Then Orestes is horrified by his deed.  ‘My god, how, how she bent to earth the legs which I was born through?’  But Orestes has a line that is straight Hamlet: ‘What must I do to punish the murderer and purify my mother from adultery?’  (And, yes, when there is adultery, it is always Mum who needs purifying; a quiet word is usually enough for Dad.)

When first rereading the two relevant plays of Euripides for this note, I thought that he had got too close to Neighbours and The Untouchables.  If sympathy for the hero is essential in tragedy, these plays have problems.  But two translators in the Folio edition have changed my mind.  As we saw, these plays are set after the law had provided a remedy.  Orestes and Electra now look petty or vicious – Germaine Greer saw ‘a shared craziness.’

This Orestes is aptly compared with another difficult play, Troilus and Cressida –‘tragedy utterly without affirmation, an image of heroic action seen as botched, disfigured and sick, carried along by the machinery and slogans of heroic action in a steady crescendo of biting irony and the rage of exposure.’  That is spot on for Troilus. Unloveliness pervades both plays, but when Orestes is set in what we would call modern times, we can see the characters for what they are.  Both children look more worried about lifestyle than morality.  Orestes, like Hamlet, has a grudge that his dynastic leanings have been crushed, and the plays raise an alternative motive – if the children don’t get Aegisthus, he will get them.  (And Claudius did go after Hamlet.)

But you get this sense of bourgeois tawdriness that roused one critic to say ‘Electra is a self-pitying slattern, Orestes a timid ruffian, Clytemnestra a suburban clubwoman, Aegisthus a courteous and popular ruler, the murders as dastardly as conceivable.’  The neighbours at Elsinore don’t look so bad now.

That, then, is in part how the Greek tragedians looked at the vendetta.  Two things.  First, none of these three great playwrights seeks to excuse the vendetta – Electra does not see that she is committing precisely the crime for which she seeks to punish her mother, and Orestes is at best cloudy on that point.  Secondly, we will never know if Hamlet would ever have obeyed the ghost.  When he returns to Denmark, he has enough evidence to slot the king, but Hamlet kills him because in seeking to kill Hamlet, the king had just killed Hamlet’s mother.

The two worlds were very different.  The Sophocles Electra is very high theatre; it is great theatre.  Little wonder that Strauss built an opera on it.  We hardly see either version.  One reason may be that this Electra at times makes The Godfather look like Snow White.  Sometimes we may just want to steer clear of those dark lakes lying in all of us.  And we must recall that the Greeks got into trouble with a human sacrifice to start a pointless war when they got the vapours about the fall of a Greek wife to a man of an inferior race.

The heroic code and chivalric ideal take heavy hits in these Greek plays and Troilus.  They may then be plays for our times when truth has gone clean out the window and people smirk at plain human kindness.  In his note on Troilus, Tony Tanner spoke of the ‘great meltdown of distinctions and values.’  It was chivalry versus barbarism.  Troilus is a ‘sour and abrasive’ play in which ‘rampant appetite is allowed free rein’.  That goes for these Greek plays.  And in Troilus, it is the Greeks in the black hats.  How stands it with us?



[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.]



Sir Lewis Namier (1930)

Second Edition, Macmillan, 1961; rebound in quarter red Morocco with gold embossed label and stone cloth boards.

Restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness, is much more valuable in politics than ideas which are ahead of their time; but restraint was a quality in which the eighteenth-century Englishman was as deficient as most other nations are even now.

When Ved Mehta wrote a book about English intellectuals, he went to see a star pupil of the late Sir Lewis Namier, and a keeper of the flame, John Brooke.  A woman showed Mehta to Brooke’s room and said: ‘Mr Brooke is a very eccentric man.  When it gets cold, he wears an electric waistcoat plugged into the light socket, and reads aloud to himself.’  Such conduct would come within my understanding of the word ‘eccentric.’

Brooke said that Namier looked on history as bundles of biographies; his interest was in the small men rather than the big; he believed that psychology was as important to history as mathematics was to astronomy; he looked at how men and women responded to the pressure of circumstances; his east European Jewish background enabled him to see his adopted and idolized nation in perspective; unlike liberals, he had no faith in progress – it was not that he did not wish to reform institutions that were decrepit – he just hated seeing them go; he would hammer out the first draft of a work with two-finger typing, and not be able to revise it until his secretary had finished the first draft – a process that might be repeated ten or more times.  He would go back and forth between his research boxes and indexes and his typewriter.  ‘It would be a constant process of writing and rewriting, shaping and reshaping, agony and more agony – and the biography was not more than a seven-thousand word job.’

There were other sources of pain.  He never relished acceptance by the English intellectual establishment; his deeply withdrawn nature led him to psychoanalysis; he suffered a cramp in the arm that got worse with the ill treatment of the Jews in the thirties – he was so terrified by the thought of a German occupation that he got a bottle of poison from a doctor friend and carried it in his waistcoat so that he could kill himself if the Germans came.

But his work, beginning with The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III in 1929, hit English literature like an earthquake in much the same way as F R Leavis did with literary criticism – and people who shake up the Establishment like that can expect a backlash.

Namier was, I am told, not an easy person to be with.  He was not respected as a teacher, and in good English universities that is a real minus.  John Kenyon referred to his ‘granitic seriousness, and the monomaniacal way in which he would impose his thoughts on others’  Sir Jack Plumb referred to the vulgar name-calling: ‘Constipation Namier – the big shit we can’t get rid of.’

Rejection was not new to Namier – his father cut him off for his espousal of Zionism – but exclusion breeds resentment and more exclusion – Namier became a frightful snob and name-dropper, and he fell for the English aristocracy.  He would never be offered a chair at Oxford, Cambridge or London – according to Kenyon, his commitment to Zionism ‘increased the coolness of an Arab-orientated upper class.’  A more rewarded historian – a man named Butterfield – had what might be called the Establishment view that ‘the point of teaching history to undergraduates is to turn them into public servants and statesmen…but I happen to think history is a school of wisdom and statesmanship.’  Butterfield thought that Namier’s factual inquiry was cutting the ground from under the feet of would-be philosopher-kings.

Why not just try to open their minds?  Things have changed.  The advocacy of the ideas or ideals of a dying empire now looks to us like a prospectus for a School for Bullshit.  But Butterfield and others went after Namier like gnats straining at a camel, and Namier became a kind of celebrity.

To those who have had to make findings of fact on inadequate and conflicting evidence, the Namier revolution seems to be the unsurprising suggestion that history should be based on evidence rather than romance.  From this book on the shelf, we have the following.

The basic elements of the Imperial Problem during the American Revolution must be sought not so much in conscious opinions and professed views bearing directly on it, as in the very structure and life of the Empire; and in doing that, the words of Danton should be remembered – on ne fait pas le proces aux revolutions.  Those who are out to apportion guilt in history have to keep to views and opinions, judge the collisions of planets by the rules of road traffic, make history into something like a column of motoring accidents, and discuss it in the atmosphere of a police court.

No wonder the idealists and the Glory Boys were crestfallen, but on Namier’s death, an undergraduate wrote to Lady Namier saying that ‘he was probably the only truly great man that I have known personally.’  It is not hard to see how Namier could have had precisely that effect.  He was like a great artist who has taken the trouble to learn how to draw.  After Namier had done the hard work of amassing and sifting the evidence, he could allow himself a go with the broad brush.

‘Characteristic of English social groups is the degree of freedom which they leave to the individual and the basic equality of their members, the voluntary submission to the rules of ‘the game’ and the curious mixture of elasticity and rigidity in these rules; most of all, the moral standards which these groups enforce or to which they aspire.  Characteristic of the German social group is the utter, conscious subordination of the individual, the iron discipline which they enforce, the high degree of organisation and efficiency which they attain, and their resultant inhumanity.  The State is an aim in itself….The English national pattern raises individuals above their average moral level, the German suppresses their human sides.’  (Conflicts, 1941)

‘And it was again on the masses that Hitler drew: what was worst in the Germans, their hatreds and resentments, their envy and cruelty, their brutality and adoration of force, he focused and radiated back on them.  A master in the realm of psyche but debarred from that of the spirit, he was the Prophet of the Possessed; and interchange there was between him and them, unknown between any other political leader and his followers.  This is the outstanding fact about Hitler and the Third Reich.’ (Personalities and Powers, 1955.)

‘But revolutions are not made; they occur…..The year 1848 proved in Germany that union could not be achieved through discussion and by agreement; that it could be achieved only by force; that there were not sufficient revolutionary forces in Germany to impose from below; and that, therefore, if it was to be, it had to be imposed by the Prussian army.’  (Vanished Supremacies, 1957)

‘The proper attitude for right-minded Members was one of considered support to the Government in the due performance of its task…But if it was proper for the well-affected Member to co-operate with the Government, so long as his conscience permitted, attendance on the business of the nation was work worthy of its hire, and the unavoidable expenditure in securing a seat deserved sympathetic consideration.’  (Structure, etc., 2nd Ed, 1957.  ‘Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…’)

‘Trade was not despised in eighteenth-century England – it was acknowledged to be the great concern of the nation; and money was honoured, the mystic common denominator of all values, the universal repository of as yet undetermined possibilities….A man’s status in English society has always depended primarily on his own consciousness; for the English are not a methodical or logical nation – they perceive and accept facts without anxiously inquiring into their reasons or meaning.’  (England in the Age, etc., 2nd Ed, 1961; ‘….Fox would probably have found it easier to account for his fears than for the money…’).

On Charles Townshend: ‘He did not change or mellow; nor did he learn by experience; there was something ageless about him; never young, he remained immature to the end…Conscious superiority over other men freely flaunted, a capacity for seeing things from every angle displayed with vanity, and the absence of any deeper feelings of attachment left Townshend, as Chase Price put it, “entirely unhinged.”’  (Crossroads of Power, 1962).

The English aristocracy survived, almost alone in Europe.  They had been able to reach an accommodation with the Commons in shaping the English constitution, and they reached an accommodation with business and money in shaping British trade.  This triumph of the English aristocracy is unique in all Europe, and the failure of English historians to notice it, let alone celebrate it, is a sad reflection upon the provincialism and specialization of too much of English historical writing.  Namier saw it plainly, but he was from out of town.  Maitland frequently stressed the need for a comparative outlook, and was deeply interested in German history.  French historians such as Marc Bloch and Georges Lefebvre laced their analyses of the history of France and Europe with comparisons with what was happening across the Channel, and their work was so much more illuminating as a result.  But English historians do not often return that serve.  How often do you read in English history how the French law of derogation precluded the French lords from engaging in trade?  For example, under the heading La Noblesse et L’Argent, (The Nobility and Money), Georges Lefebvre remarked that the French lords envied the English lords who became rich on mixing with the bourgeoisie and who, thanks to their Parliament, formed the ministry and government of the nation.

The English lack of interest in Europe has borne fruit, and is currently celebrating a kind of mordant vindication, but the mind-set may also be at risk of being described as insular – definitively insular – with all the darkening and proud exclusion that that state of mind entails.

They are the kind of sparks you come across when reading Namier.  I can imagine he was difficult, a stranger to his new people, and possibly disloyal to his old people, and he was denied the acceptance that he craved and that he had so plainly earned.  My copy of The Structure, etc., has a letter signed by Namier on faded blue paper Shepherds Bush 2445, 60 The Grampians W 6, 14 December 1950.  The tone is antiseptic, but the signature is defiantly formal and straight.

When I read Namier, it is like being overtaken by a Bentley or listening to Joan Sutherland – you just know that there is plenty left in the tank.  Just as I think that Maitland’s intellect was far stronger than that of Pollock’, so I think that Namier was stronger than Berlin – it is just that the other two were better at the game.

Sir Geoffrey Elton was another import with a name-change who changed the way people saw his part of the history of England.  Elton said this about the reaction to Namier: ‘….the violence provoked by Namier owed much to the astonishment felt in conventional circles at the uncalled-for appearance of a historian with tory predilections who clearly outranked the liberals intellectually.’  We all recognize that syndrome immediately – the refuge of the tepid, the mediocre, the smug, and the fellow-travellers.  I have been a fan of Namier since 1963, and I will stay loyal to him.  I am not aware of anyone writing history now who comes even close.  He had a most formidable and penetrating intellect.  And how many historians now would have the courage to refer to ‘plain human kindness’?

Here and there – Frontier Justice


Like a lot of people busy in the birth of the United States, John Marshall came from Virginia – Fauquier County between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers.  (It’s hard to get more American than that.)  Mary Marshall was eighteen when John was born.  She would later have fourteen more children.  John’s dad was a surveyor, as was another local called George Washington.

John Marshall fought the English beside his father.  It was in truth a brutal form of civil war.  ‘Liberty or Death’ was inscribed on their jacket, and they were armed with a tomahawk and scalping knife.  When it came to this kind of fight, the white people were content to ape people they described as savages.

John would later qualify as a lawyer.  He too would have a large family whom he provided for by giving them land and slaves.  He was intensely political, but he is remembered for serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for thirty five years, a record that still stands.  Even Australian lawyers know of Marshall, C J, as the judge who affirmed that the Supreme Court could tell politicians where to get off by striking down laws of Congress that the Court found to be against the Constitution.

This story is crisply told by Richard Brookhiser in John Marshall, The Man who made the Supreme Court.  The author is a writer, not a historian or lawyer.  Given contemporary scholarship in either field, that is a huge plus.  Just tell the story and let us chase up the evidence or the law if we want to.  I am sick of acting as unpaid editor for bookish workaholics who feel the need to lay out the results of years of trawling that just obscure all that we need to know about the subject.  This book comes in at under 300 well-spaced pages, and the subject turns twenty before the book does (an achievement of Roy Jenkins on Churchill).  And the fact that the author is not a lawyer might serve to revive that wonderful old fairy tale that we should all be able to understand the law.  (That reminds me of a remark by an English judge that justice was open to all – just like the Ritz Hotel.)

The book justifies its subtitle.  Marshall brought to this new constitutional organ dignity as well as power.  He understood and acted upon the wisdom of our English ancestors that people don’t like or trust division in government.  A split in the highest court in the land is as welcome, or suspect, as a split in cabinet, or even in a political party.  Our ancestors forbade the publishing of any dissent within the Privy Council sitting in either its executive or its judicial capacity.  We preserve that doctrine for cabinet.  ‘As much as possible, Marshall made them [the justices] not six or seven men but one body.’

Marshall did so by juristic leadership, intellectual humility, and personal charm – in which Madeira played its part.  Not for him, or the people, the prima donna, or prima ballerina, or prima donna assoluta.  God only knows what the founding justices would have thought of the massive footnoted encyclopaedias scatter-gunned over the land by hugely over-resourced untouchables sealed away from the masses in a barren federal fastness.

For better or worse, the highest courts in common law countries now spend a lot time legislating.  The need for one voice then becomes imperative.  Our parliaments inflict misery and indignity on us, but not to the extent that they offer alternative, and not consistent, versions of a new law.  Yet our judicial law-makers do just that to us all the time.

There is another problem, one that is at least as bad.  You do not have to subscribe to the radical fringe of one political party to complain that we have too much law – and too much that is incomprehensible as well as suffocating.  Our judicial law-makers need to understand one simple truth.  Your decision may add to the law or it may not.  If not, you don’t need to say anything, except perhaps to apologise to the parties for putting them to an expense that has no point.  But if you are adding to the law, the odds are long that you will make it worse – either ipso facto just by adding to the volume, or because that’s just the way it is unless you are one of the All Time All Stars – and they come along about once each century.  On this point, the lawyers need to get their act together in parliament, the executive, and the judiciary.  You only have to look across the Pacific to see the awful fate that waits us if we don’t.

That I think is the point of the book, and it is a big one.  But the book gets there with lots of anecdotes that are the main reason we turn to biography.  (Why do we turn our noses up at ‘anecdotal evidence’?  Does not all evidence rest on a report of what has been perceived, just as all history resolves into parts of biographies?)

After Marshall had been on the court some time, he was joined by Joseph Story.  I have on many occasions consulted Story on equity.  He is up there juristically with Holmes, Ames and Pound – and on Kanchenjunga, the atmosphere is lofty.  Story and Marshall were very close.  Story helped Marshall bind the court.  Marshall could not have had a better man riding shotgun.  They also did comic routines.  The judges dined in a boarding house.  It was their custom to take wine only if it was raining.  Marshall would ask ‘Brother Story’ to look out the window and check the weather.  If he reported that it was sunny, Marshall would reply that ‘our territory is so large it must be raining somewhere’.  Grown men in high places who can act with that sense are doing something right.

Americans were then and are now much more attracted to oratory.  It was an art form and you got in for free.  Society came to hear the big guns.  When Dolly Madison arrived at the court with a party of ladies, counsel stopped and recapped the argument for their benefit.  Daniel Webster was a very big hitter.  In terms that only he could have found, Carlyle compared his eyes to ‘anthracite furnaces needing only to be blown…I have not traced so much of silent berserker rage in any other man.’  (I felt a bit like that with Tom Hughes in a case more than thirty years ago – and I was on his side!).  In one massive case about Dartmouth College, Webster at the conclusion of his argument, looked directly at the Chief Justice and said: ‘Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak; it is in your hands….It is, sir, a small college.  And yet there are those who love it.’  In our terms, that is not something you try on at home, but two people who were there said that the room was deadly silent or in tears.

Another hotshot was Pinkney who was ‘acerbic, arrogant, and vain. He bullied opposing counsel, laced himself into corsets, and used cosmetics on his face.’  If you out to one side the underwear and make-up, we all know these people.  They commonly have a chip on their shoulder, often about their status before they rose up in the world.  Pinkney’s dad was a Tory who lost all in the Revolution.  The son started by sweeping out law offices.  When he was on the rise, he went to London to settle war claims.  He met Pitt and Fox and other greats.  He felt humiliated when these ‘Oxbridge-educated aristos’ were discussing Euripides.  He could add nothing.  ‘I resolved to study the classics’ – in other words, he would not be shamed again.

Marshall was able to champion the Constitution as the supreme voice of the people.  The high romance of its history helped him, even if much of it was invented.  (It’s harder for us.  Our founding document is in the schedule to an act of the British Parliament and Queen Victoria.)  In one case, he held that the power to tax was the power to destroy, and since the power of Congress to charter a bank was supreme, no state could claim a power that might destroy it.  States’ rights were and are much more lively there than here.  The author refers to one loaded states’ rights judge as a man of ‘strong passions and morose manners …who could not endure a superior.’  Well, we too know all about those judges, but Robert E Lee would lead his fellow Americans to pay a hideous price for his putting his state before the union.  (It is not surprising that some in the north later wanted to hang Lee and Davis.)

Marshall hated Jefferson with heat all his life and Jefferson responded in kind all his life.  (For some reason, I am not surprised that Jefferson got up some people’s noses.  The Declaration of Independence is for me full of that self-serving humbug that so troubled de Tocqueville about the American character.  The Convention did Jefferson and us a big favour by striking out the most purple passages.)  Marshall called Jefferson ‘the great Lama of the mountains.’  He had told Hamilton that Jefferson was a demagogue.

His great power is chiefly acquired by professions of democracy.  Every check on the wild impulse of the moment is therefore a check on his own power, and he is unfriendly to the source from which it flows.  He looks, of course, with an ill will at an independent judiciary.

God only knows what wan thoughts those words might arouse in a Chief Justice who every day might be called to check ‘the wild impulse of the moment’ of a president who makes Jefferson look like a Trappist monk on industrial strength sedatives.

Nor was Jefferson found wanting.  ‘Marshall makes history descend from its dignity, and the ermine from its sanctity’.  Jefferson spoke of the ‘slipperiness of the eels of the law’ and decisions ‘hanging inference on inference, from heaven to earth, like Jacob’s ladder.’  And we lawyers need to remember which side in this fight will get the popular vote – even putting to one side what is softly called ‘the base.’

Some of the stories look apocryphal, but they throw light nevertheless.  James Kent was a very learned judge in New York.  He had idolized Hamilton.  Aaron Burr was another figure larger than life.  He had killed Hamilton in a duel and would go on to dabble in treason.  When Kent saw Burr in the street, his Honour permitted himself the loud observation that Burr was a scoundrel.  Burr, the author tells us, ‘answered suavely’ that his Honour’s opinions were ‘always entitled to the highest consideration.’

And so it went on.  Jefferson died on the fiftieth anniversary of his Declaration.  Marshall kept going, although some prima donnas made a splash in the pool.

Every February, the same justices came to Washington, roomed at the same hotel, drank the same wine rain or shine, and followed Marshall’s lead regardless of their own party affiliation.

It was a colossal achievement.  Marshall would be followed by Taney.  The Dred Scott decision would sanctify the Original Sin of the Republic.  Marshall had wrestled with the ugly notion that ‘conquest gives a title which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny’.  It would take the genius, and the murder, of Abraham Lincoln and the blood of 600,000 Americans to begin to erase the infamy of slavery.  Lincoln referred to Dred Scott in his first inaugural.  Taney sat behind him looking like a ‘galvanized corpse.’

When Marshall died, he had been on the court for nearly two generations.  From 1812 to 1823, the personnel on the court had not changed.  The only comparable period would come in 1994 to 2005.

Eight years after the death of Marshall, his friend Justice Story said that such men ‘are found only when our need is the greatest.’  History suggests that his Honour then uttered a great truth.  But the author is surely right to refer to another tribute.  Marshall had been a life-long member of the Richmond Quoits Club.  (I gather that they threw horse shoes.)  This was a very sensible and convivial body for a very sensible and convivial man to belong to.  There was a flat ban on any talk about religion or politics, but the members did not mind a drink.  When Marshall died the members resolved that he was irreplaceable and that the club should always have one less member.  I don’t know whether this gesture founded the tradition of retiring the number of a great player – like Babe Ruth – but it was a charming gesture on behalf of America to a very great American.