Category Archives: books

On Robin Fleming’s ‘Britain After Rome’

Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070 should perhaps have been a different book altogether.

The product of ten years’ work on the part of Robin Fleming, a professor at Boston College (Boston, Massachusetts, USA), Britain After Rome was commissioned by David Cannadine within the Penguin History of Britain series. It covers the huge span of time — nearly seven centuries — that elapsed between the departure of the Roman legions and the arrival of William the Conqueror. As such, it follows in the footsteps of at least two other Penguin volumes: The Anglo-Saxons (James Campbell et al, 1991) and The Beginnings of English Society (Dorothy Whitelock, 1963).

Based on all this, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Britain After Rome was intended as a general introduction to this large, complex and in many ways intractable subject — a book for students, clearly, but perhaps also for the casual museum visitor who has been stunned by the splendour of the Staffordshire Hoard and wants to know more, the casual reader wondering to what degree The Lantern Bearers (1959) makes any sort of historical sense, the anxious observer of current affairs hoping acquire a longer view regarding the challenges, curiosities and catastrophes of our own time.

Yet Britain After Rome in fact strongest precisely at the point where it stops trying to pass itself off as a generalist introduction. Far and away the best thing about the book is the final chapter, “Living and Dying in Early Medieval Britain: The Fifth to Eleventh Century” [sic]. Here, with the end in sight, as it were, Professor Fleming is at last able to bypass aspects of human experience that don’t seem to engage her quite so fully — religion, politics, warfare, agriculture, craftsmanship, linguistics — and can concentrate fully on the part of her subject to which she brings the most obvious energy.

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Blasting & Blessing: a long overdue edition

Hadrian's Wall, between Milecastle and Housesteads, summer 2010

So, that’s summer 2010 done, then. And while, over the past three months, there are plenty of things I’ve done — travelled as far afield as Haltwhistle, Bedford and Bracknell; refinished precisely one third of the staircase leading down to the kitchen; bruised a toenail while walking along Hadrian’s Wall; eaten a mulberry; bought a copy of World of Interiors; read a small book by Roger Scruton; sewed name-tapes onto school uniforms while listening to William Walton’s music for Henry V; daydreamed ineffectually about planting apple trees and harbouring rescue hens; cat-napped — there are also plenty of things that I haven’t done.

This latter category is, alas, both large and highly relevant to Fugitive Ink, including as it does not only writing and large-scale reading, but also engaging in sustained mental exertion of any sort, productive or otherwise. I suspect I’ve totally forgotten how to write. How better to encourage what’s left of my blogging skills to creak back into something resembling working condition than with a brief bout of blasting & blessing?

First of all, most obviously and urgently, let’s blast this whole William Hague business. As implied in at least one previous post, our present fascination with the details of our elected representatives’ expense claims, hiring policies and overall extra-curricular deportment seems to me as radically tiresome as it is fundamentally misguided. For heaven’s sake — if we’re forced to trust these wretched men and women to make serious decisions affecting virtually every aspect of our lives, as the current version of democracy seems to suggest we must, then do we really need to micro-manage every nuance of their public and private behaviour as well? Might it not be a better idea just to give them each a set sum of money — possibly a bit less for backbench MPs, a bit more for ministers — and then just let them get on with it, judging them ultimately not on the process of governing itself, but rather on results? For whether they choose to spend the money on duck houses or moats, expertise or companionship, baseball caps or worse, it’s still the same money being spent — and still the same irrelevance to the basic question of whether or not they deserve our confidence or, as far as that goes, our electoral support.

Finally, sentimentally fond though I am of Guido Fawkes, surely he shouldn’t be wasting his malice on obscurely under-qualified special advisors when real trophy targets like Andy Coulson are there for the taking? You know, Guido, the sort of targets who commit actual crime, not mere silliness? Just a thought …

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On James Lees-Milne and the National Trust

Blickling Hall, Norfolk, bequeathed to the National Trust by the 11th Marquess of Lothian upon his death in 1940.

Is it purely fortuitous that the decline of our civilization and the collapse of the country house way of life are coincidental?

— James Lees-Milne, ‘The Country House in Our Heritage”, in The Destruction of the Country House by Roy Strong et al, Thames & Hudson, 1974.

i.

A professed enthusiasm for the published diaries of James Lees-Milne comes, we learn too late, at the cost of having to defend their late author against a catalogue of failings — only some of these entirely imagined or misguided.

A few accusations, at least, can be fended off easily enough. Wasn’t JLM a snob? Yes, of course he was — but then he was neither the uncritical confidante of duchesses, the worshipper at the gaudy shrines of wealth and success nor the self-congratulatory anosmiac in matters of public and private morality that some believe him to be, not least because to have been any of these things would have exemplified a predictability both boring and unattractive — and JLM was, of course, neither. Wasn’t he a reactionary, though? Not really, more’s the pity. Because for all the encouraging rants against trade union militancy, redistributive taxation and Irish republicanism notwithstanding, there’s also enough Harold Nicolsonian liberalism, Duke of Edinburgh-style ur-environmentalism and dandyish personal eccentricity here to ward off any accusations of ideological consistency. Politically, as in most other ways, JLM remains hard to pin down. In these paradoxes, maddening though they can be, lies more than a degree of his diaries’ enduring appeal.

Admittedly, there are problems. JLM was, on the basis of these same diaries, both anti-semitic and racist — but so very mildly so, by the standards of his age and class, that one often ends up wondering more at the mildness itself, than at the unremarkable nastiness and stupidity of yesterday’s rightly discredited prejudices. He was capable of remarkably homophobic pronouncements — somewhat oddly, given his promiscuously bisexual, mostly guilt-free history. His patchy wartime service — six months in the Irish Guards, followed by a year of convalescence and a welcome return to civilian life — looks unimpressive, especially when compared with the heroism of so many of his contemporaries, although the stress-induced onset of hereditary Jacksonian epilepsy would clearly be a kinder explanation than whatever combination of nervous collapse and cowardice unsympathetic critics might otherwise postulate in its place. JLM also went on a lot about liking houses more than people, which is rarely a good sign — although in practice, the individual qualities of house and person tended to soften the edges of any comparison — so perhaps he can be excused on that particular score.

In any event, however, we may perhaps agree that JLM was not an unambiguously admirable human being. As the diaries make plain — nor does Michael Bloch’s brilliant biography do anything much to dispel the impression — JLM could be petty, headstrong, arbitrary, vain, self-justifying and also extremely selfish. But JLM was, as the diaries also reveal, clear-eyed regarding his failings. And herein, I suppose, reposes his greatness as a diarist. For the perfect imaginary companion, while he surely ought to be more alert, more perceptive and more fluently confidential than even his brightest readers, at the same time cannot be seen to be superior to them. ‘You were silly like us …’ Even more than his wit and social reach, JLM’s contradictions, his failings and that unsparing yet somehow affectionate self-criticism are what render the diaries perfect company, as much so on tiresome days as on happy ones. A better man would, in short, have been a worse diarist. His enthusiasts end up loving him as much for his contradictions, contrariness and flaws, real though these may be, as despite them.

Yet for all that, there is one aspect of JLM’s story which continues to fill me with unease — his relationship with the National Trust.

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On Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’

Amongst the lesser pleasures of parenthood should be numbered the opportunity, not only to re-visit the favourite books of one’s own early childhood — those fictive universes invariably now out-of-scale and slightly unconvincing, like some once-familiar infant school encountered in later life, the ceilings far too low, the chairs too small, the prospect out the window disenchanted, no water-dish put out for the headmaster’s gentle ambling dog, presumably now dead these thirty-something years or more — but also — perhaps even more so, because less obviously blurred with the stuff of memory and mortality — the opportunity to encounter as an adult the children’s books one missed in childhood. Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth is very much a case in point.

Some children’s books are, admittedly, too much like hard work for the old. I spent most of 2006-07, for instance, reading Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea. The experience was, looking back on it dispassionately, akin to that of some seventh-century anchorite walled up in his desert fastness, having bid farewell to the world outside forever, resigned to mouthing that hieratic, unearthly liturgy through dry lips — reading while the light held, reciting when it failed — in those early months perhaps seeking to understand the words he enunciates, later meekly accepting them, finally seeking only to appease his sometimes angry, often capricious but eternally untiring Listener.

Yet although I expended more time, effort and persistence on my examinations of this slim volume than I had, for instance, on any text related to my own doctoral dissertation, the Tiger‘s essential mysteries did not, in the end, reveal themselves to me. Almost certainly, I was not worthy of them. Continue reading

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Blasting & Blessing: a rainy day edition

cats considering the nature of rain

It’s rained a lot in London over the past few days. Surely, though, that’s no bad thing?

For while it would be wrong to underestimate the greater and lesser inconveniences of rain — flooding, the hazards posed by deceptive reflections or slippery pavements, cabin fever on the part of those who, for whatever reason, won’t go out when it’s wet — there’s a lot to be said for the miscellaneous pleasures of swimming in an outdoor pool when it’s raining, going out for the sort of walk where it doesn’t matter at all how soaked one gets, or indeed, as far as that goes, staying in, and enjoying civilisation’s greatest perk — the primal satisfaction of observing gale-force winds and driving torrents from the safety of a warm, dry, comfortable, sociable shelter. Bless buildings.

Some man-made structures deserve more blessing than others, though, which brings us to the subject of Crossrail. In a word, blast Crossrail. For those of you fortunate enough to live in ignorance of this eye-wateringly expensive, entirely pointless enterprise — proof positive, as if we needed any more of it, that Britain is no good at all at les très grandes projets — Crossrail is a scheme involving digging up much of central London over a period of half a decade, demolishing historic buildings and causing unendurable levels of disruption to local residents and workers, in order to connect by rail a number of locations already connected by public transport. Yes, quite. Continue reading

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On Rory Stewart’s ‘Occupational Hazards’

I wanted to build a gate for the souk as a permanent gift from the [Coalition Provisional Authority] to Amara, so that there would be at least one enduring trace of our presence. We discussed this with the governor, showed him photographs of traditional souk gates from Egypt to Kuwait, and suggested a competition for the design. The governor returned the next day with a design for a concrete arch, to be faced with bright modern bathroom tiles and fairy lights. Again we had to choose whether to empower the governor. We overruled him; the gate was never built.

Acknowledging failure is never an easy thing. It requires maturity, character and practice, so much so that the spectacle of seeing it done really well is strangely moving — at once levelling and liberating. This, for example, probably explains why even those of us who can’t stomach Orwell’s politics nevertheless regard Homage to Catalonia as a masterpiece. Effective rhetoric matters as much as sincerity: lack of bitterness is as important as the appearance of candour. Irony is necessary, up to a point, yet if taken too far becomes unwelcome, a distraction both from that necessarily wry, ‘what can I have been thinking?’ tone, but also from the flashes of real, still-raw anger, without which the whole exercise fails to persuade or convince.

By any standard, Rory Stewart’s Occupational Hazards (2006) deserves to be set alongside Homage to Catalonia. In September 2003, the 30-year old Stewart — an ex-diplomat whose almost uncannily assured, entirely compelling account of a journey on foot across part of Afghanistan, The Places In Between, appeared in June 2004 — was appointed deputy governor first of Amarah and then Nasiriyah, provinces in the marsh regions of southern Iraq, working on behalf of the occupying Coalition Provision Authority [CPA]. Continue reading

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On Richard Overy’s ‘The Morbid Age’

not very morbid at all

The research, erudition, earnestness and effort that went into Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars might well have made up three or four striking and worthwhile books. Instead Overy has given a single volume, 521 pages long, in many ways highly unsatisfactory.

In The Morbid Age, Overy seeks to demonstrate that in Britain during the period 1919-1939 ‘a strong presentiment of impending disaster […] touched many areas of public discourse’. Although the economic slump of the late 1920s and the rise of Hitler constituted ‘real historical dramas’ — to which, presumably, at least a degree of pessimism would seem an appropriate response — he tracks this ‘culture of crisis’ back to the 1920s, and indeed the period prior to the Great War, where — he implies — they may have been less appropriate and, hence, more similar to the ‘phantoms and extrapolated fantasies’ he detects in our own time: ‘how often in the last few years has the “defence of our way of life” or “the defence of democracy” been mobilized as an argument, as if they really were endangered from within or without,’ he laments early on, although the bracing parallel seemingly proposed is, in the end, never quite followed up — a serious disappointment jostling amid a crowd of less profound ones.

For the first few chapters of The Morbid Age, minor annoyances provide a distraction from more fundamental flaws. Let’s start with the editing. In his Acknowledgements, Overy thanks his ‘new editor in New York’ who has ‘rightly asked me to make the “Englishness” of the text more accessible and has made it a better book as a result’. The most obvious fruit of this enterprise is the proliferation of those banal and bleakly reductive explanatory tropes so beloved of trans-Atlantic middlebrow journalism, whereby, upon introduction, Albert Schweitzer must always be ‘the distinguished missionary Albert Schweitzer’, Arnold Toynbee ‘the historian Arnold Toynbee’, Siegfried Sassoon ‘the poet Siegfried Sassoon’, Wyndham Lewis ‘the futurist artist and writer Wyndham Lewis’, and so on, ad infinitum and before long also ad absurdum, so that by the time one encounters ‘the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’, ‘the Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes’ and ‘the German philosophers Georg Hegel and Karl Marx’ — the dictator Adolph Hitler is, I think, uniquely honoured in being allowed to enter the text unadorned with an explanatory adjective — one begins to wonder whether readers to whom the names ‘Hegel’ and ‘Marx’ suggest very little might actually be better off setting out on what might well be a rather long intellectual journey with the help of something other than Overy’s bulky, dense yet often meandering survey. Continue reading

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