Brexit: a modest theory

The Times digest of events in the Great War and Mike Schuster’s Great War Project continue to come down the wires once a week, together with scores of daily Tweets from the Imperial War Museum, from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, from individuals visiting the war graves of their relatives in distant places. Segments of Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s poppy installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ continue to tour the country, we have just lived through three months of official and personal commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele, thousands still embark on visits to the battlefields. The nation’s engagement with World War I hasn’t loosened one bit since 4 August 2014. I for one am surprised by that.

It makes me reconsider an idea that first popped up just after the result of the EU referendum, which, if you remember, was held shortly before the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme (a ‘sacred, holocaust moment’, David Reynolds has called it). I regularly see three French newspapers and three German ones (but I only buy one in any given week). Since August 2014 there have been interesting articles about aspects of the War in each — most memorably, a full-page photograph with text of ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ in Die Zeit, which I regard as the best newspaper in Europe. But there has been nothing in them remotely like the coverage in British newspapers. Although, of course, I have seen media reports of official commemorations in France, Belgium and Italy, I do not get the impression that the War has seized people in those countries, for instance in terms of online family research, the way it has in Britain. Of course I may be mistaken, but I feel Britain’s engagement with the event has been more complete, more deeply reaching, more visceral, more painful.

In the shock of the referendum result, I considered whether our preoccupation with 1914-18 could have affected it; but I quickly rejected the idea as rationalistic and simplistic. How many people who voted Out could realistically have been influenced by events a hundred years ago? Mind you, a Brexiteer businessman neighbour whom I don’t know well recently expressed to me his frustration with the EU’s negotiators by saying: ‘They don’t get it! They don’t understand that we’ve twice had to save them from themselves in a century!’ Although our emotional entanglement with the First World War seems to exceed that in the rest of Europe, it was still impossible, I thought after 23 June 2016, to believe there is any direct rational link between, say, the first day of the Somme and voting Out.

But I am now seeing the subject differently. It was hilariously naive of me to dismiss the hypothesis in terms of reasoning, of rational decision. Any election or referendum is going to be influenced by emotion, and there are those who believe that Brexit was entirely decided by it! The question still is, though, how all our emotions about the centenary could have influenced the vote, and I am not suggesting that they directly influenced it. I suggest that the mood and overwhelming sense of the national commemoration affected us unconsciously, subconsciously, and this may have influenced the vote.

Our commemoration focusses us all the time on ‘going into’ Europe, not on ‘being part of Europe’. We stood morally by the Belgians, French, Italians, but we had physically to join them across the water (and we know that as early as post-Mons there were people who wanted us to pull out). I would go so far as to say that the commemoration of the First World War daily re-enacts for us Churchill’s idea, expressed in print in 1930 and again in the House of Commons in 1953, that we are ‘with’ Europe but not ‘of it’, we are ‘linked but not combined’, ‘interested and associated but not absorbed’. I increasingly feel that the commemoration’s continuous ‘message’ that we intervene from outside in European affairs — that we always ‘go into’ and then ‘come out of’ Europe again — reinforced the Out vote. Looking back, might historians conclude that?

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Dulc(e) et decor(um) est…

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen, c. 1916

I have always been uncomfortable with what I take to be the popular interpretation of Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum est.

My first experience of it was in about 1962 from the lips of our young English teacher, a socialist just down from Cambridge, and he certainly put the full phlegm of disgust into his reading of the final stanza (‘devil’s sick of sin’).

The idea we were given was that Owen’s disgust was with war as such, with war as an imperialist phenomenon, and in particular with the ‘British Establishment’s War’ that Owen ‘had’ to fight in.  One should remember that the early 1960s were when the First World War was rubbished by Alan Clark, Joan Littlewood, A.J.P. Taylor and others, and kitchen sink drama specifically ridiculed Edwardian values and the Edwardian military.

So that was it: Horace’s ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (‘It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country’) was a lie, it was in no circumstances right to take part in war, Owen was a tragic victim of the Edwardian upper classes.

Even at fourteen I was uneasy with this for a number of reasons. Could poetry be that simple? I mean, we all knew that war was horrible and should be avoided; this was hardly a new, profound, or interesting message. Was that all Owen had to say? Then I assumed that Owen had joined up willingly, because he did so before conscription. (But I did not know at the time that he even insisted on going back to fight in 1918 after being treated for shell-shock in Blighty for over a year, could have stayed on home-duty, and won the Military Cross before being killed on 4 November 1918.) So he must have felt that the war was worth fighting; no-one was forcing him to go, but something was impelling him to. And finally, I thought, everyone believes we were morally impelled to defeat the Nazis, so why was it wrong to stop the Germans crushing countries in World War I?

At fourteen, of course, you don’t have the experience and confidence to say to yourself — let alone to your teacher — ‘no, poetry isn’t that simple, it isn’t journalism or propaganda, there must be more to this poem’; but I doubt whether I returned to Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ for fifty years. I simply rated other poems of his, especially ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Greater Love’, ‘Futility’, or ‘Strange Meeting’, much higher. Incidentally, a couple of years later our French master gave us a jolt by lambasting those who reel off Horace’s line as an English trochaic heptameter (Dulchee et deecorum est pro pattria moree) instead of eliding the end of ‘dulce’ and ‘decorum’ as Latin scansion requires, hovering over the caesura, and putting the right long-vowel stresses on patria and mori. Owen’s rhyme glory/mori suggests he knew how it should be read.

In my post of 17 February 2016 I defended ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, particularly the ‘devil’s sick’ stanza, against what seems to have been Seamus Heaney’s belief that it is bad art. I now fancy I perceive that the moral balance of the poem is so fine, so ambiguous, so apparently paradoxical, that it is not surprising if the poem has been publicly reduced to a mere ‘anti-war poem’.

The problem, it seems to me, arises from Owen’s contextualisation of the poem; the fact that he sets it all between the first four words of Horace’s Latin line as his title and the full Latin line as his ending. When you read the title, you get something positive: ‘It is sweet and fitting’. Something ‘sweet and fitting’ has got to be good and right. If you add mentally ‘to die for one’s country’, you may even think: ‘Yes, it is good and right to die defending your country’s values in a just war.’ However, we know that the poem was originally dedicated (sarcastically) to the verse-publicist Jessie Pope who ‘with such high zest’ (l. 25) in the popular press urged young men to sign up for ‘the game’ as she called it, echoing Henry Newbolt’s most famous poem. ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ is just the kind of Edwardian upper-class cliché-quote that she and other white-featherists could have used. If we know that the poem addresses Pope’s obtuse glibness, we interpret its title negatively: ‘Dulce et decorum est’ becomes an expression of jingoism and even aggression. Indeed, the context in Horace’s ode seems to be not a defensive war but a war of Roman imperial aggression and colonialism. But Owen removed the dedication to Jessie Pope and that leaves us with the positive reading of Owen’s title: ‘It is good and right to die defending one’s country.’ Naturally, then, when the statement ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ is reprised at the very end and we are told it is ‘the old Lie’, we are most likely to think that it is the content of the statement that is being attacked as mendacious, not its fraudulent use by jingoists and white-featherists. We forget, perhaps, that Owen has accused Jessie Pope (‘My friend’) of telling this ‘Lie’ to ‘children ardent for some desperate glory’ — in other words it is not necessarily the content of the line that is mendacious but the way she and others exploit it. After all, Owen volunteered to die fighting a (defensive) war, so how could he believe the statement was a lie?

Yet I fully concede that he does call it ‘the old Lie’! This is what I meant by the poem being so finely balanced. He cannot, because of his own act of moral choice, possibly believe that the statement in the sense of ‘die for one’s country in a just defensive war’ is wrong, but neither does he quite leave us thinking the statement is wrong because it is immorally misused by the likes of Pope and particularly in the cause of aggressive war. Alas, Horace’s line as quoted doesn’t specify whether Horace is talking about defensive (just) or aggressive (unjust) war.

The paradox — that it is simultaneously right and a lie to give one’s life for one’s country — is, I believe, contained in the word ‘mori’. If this infinitive is understood as perfective (‘to die’) then Horace’s line is just a very abstract statement that it is dangerous to read particulars into: ‘To die for one’s country is a sweet and fitting thing.’ If you believe, as Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and George Calderon did, that the soil of Britain was worth dying for because certain values grew in it, then you could agree with Horace’s statement using the perfective infinitive, ‘to die’. However, the second half of the poem is devoted to describing how horrific dying in war can be, and how witnessing it happening can traumatise your fellow-soldiers for life (‘In all my dreams before my helpless sight/He plunges at me’). Owen has shown that if you take ‘mori’ as an imperfective infinitive, ‘to be dying’, then Horace’s line is a lie, because the act of dying for one’s country is sheer Hell (‘devil’s sick of sin’). Owen may, I’m sure did, believe that to die for one’s country in a war for its survival was right, good, ‘sweet’, but he knew that the actual dying for it stank.

They shall grow…not old.

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Russia (concluded)

John Hamilton the Great (Engraving)

John Hamilton the Good, c. 1860

A hundred years ago today Red Guards began occupying key installations in St Petersburg. By early tomorrow morning the Winter Palace had been infiltrated and the Provisional Government arrested. The Bolsheviks, a party of fanatical, fascistic Utopians, subsequently seized power all over Russia. Estimates of the deaths caused directly or indirectly by their tenure of power range from 15 to 66 million. Whichever figure you accept, it was the greatest known act of state genocide in history.

Responsible for executions amongst these numbers were the Bolshevik secret police from the Cheka to the KGB. Vladimir Putin was a member of the KGB under Communism and believes passionately in its so-called ethos. One can hardly expect him, then, to lose any sleep over the physical elimination of his political opponents and the shooting down of a foreign airliner causing the deaths of 298 people. Moreover, paranoia is a vocational requirement for an intelligence officer. Putin hates real democracy because he knows he could never stay in power under it, and he perceives it as merely Western. He therefore fears democracy and the West alike.  He is paranoid about both and must attack them all the time. The former he can attack at home physically, the latter he is actually too weak to attack other than cybernetically, or with threats, or by proxy war.

It would be pointless to speculate on how the Putin regime will end, but I don’t think many people are confident that his successors will be much better. In any case, beneath Putinism lurk enormous unspoken and unresolved problems for Russia and its future. Psephologically, Putin may appear unassailable, but according to Die Zeit in elections to the rigged Duma only forty per cent of young Muscovites with higher education actually vote, and less than fifty per cent of Russians with an average income vote. Is this a protest against the Putin regime, or is it political apathy? A recent poll indicated that 73% of Russians don’t want to live in Russia. The population itself is shrinking. As a former Soviet dissident wrote to me in 2010: ‘Why is everything falling apart? Because there has been no repentance of the genocide, no recognition of the sins and mistakes committed.’ He was echoing Nadezhda Mandel’shtam, who said that ‘until we have made sense of our past, there can be no hope for the future’.

Nevertheless, there is a democratic movement in Russia, with a tradition of over fifty years behind it, and some of Russia’s finest people are involved. But one must be as apprehensive as Andrei Amal’rik was in 1970 that it can sufficiently survive the organised attacks of the government ever to come to power itself. Amal’rik even said that he was doubtful a democratic government could ‘stay in power long enough to solve the problems that the country is faced with’. I am as sceptical myself in 2017.

Clearly Putin is well ahead in repressing and dividing such a movement. But there are deeper problems for it than persecution. The leader of the biggest unofficial opposition party, Alexander Navalny, describes himself as a ‘nationalist democrat’. He is hoping to stand for the presidency in 2018. It is perfectly clear what Navalny is against — the corruption of what he calls ‘the party of crooks and thieves’ (Putin’s United Russia Party) — but he does not have a programme singlemindedly focussed on democratic principles such as the rule of law, freedom of the person, separation of the judiciary and executive, freedom of the media, free elections and peaceful transfer of power. He does not appeal to people to change Russia into a modern open society and democratic state.

One has to fear that this is because, as George Calderon recognised in 1896, many Russians don’t want ‘a Parliament, a free press and the rest of it’, and Navalny knows that. After 1917, Russia experienced nachatki (‘shoots’) of real democracy only once in the twentieth century, and that was for a few years following the fall of Communism. As a ‘nationalist democrat’, Alexander Navalny could vindicate yet again Amal’rik’s view that ‘the mass ideology of this country has always been the cult of its own power and size’. Despite the fact that Russia has no present equivalent to Pobedonostsev (see my post of 23 October), there are remarkable resemblances between the official religio-nationalism of the 1890-1900s and the Putin version. One may legitimately ask whether Russians today are able to live without a nationalist autocracy. Would a ‘nationalist democrat’ government be able to tolerate opposition?  Would it enable and sustain a pluralistic society? Are Russians capable of embracing non-violent, democratic politics?

I know of no better expression of the challenge facing Russia and Russia’s democratic movement than a passage from an 1852 letter about Irish independence from Kittie Calderon’s father, John Hamilton, an Anglo-Irish landlord who financially ruined himself and his family by supporting his hundreds of Irish tenants through thick and thin in the Irish potato famines (not a single one died of starvation):

The people are not yet fit to rule because they are not yet capable of willing obedience to any rule for the general benefit. Till they are so they cannot rule, and it is better till then that they be ruled even by despotism; and they feel it to be so, but do not see the remedy. I am in principle a more utter democrat than any I ever met with, but before the people can govern, they must be able to govern, the test of which is willingness to be governed for the general good; for the people who govern must govern something, and in this case that something is themselves.

I must reiterate what I said in the first of these four posts on the occasion of the centenary of the Bolshevik  seizure of power: I am not a Russian and it would therefore be incongruous for me to criticise, pontificate or recommend about Russia’s current system and political future. In fact I am philosophically indifferent to its fate (as opposed to that of my own country), although I may not be emotionally uninterested.

As someone who had long been persona non grata in Russia and has no intention of ever returning there, I was gratified that in 1992 the popular newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets described me as ‘a great friend of Russia’. Here, with apologies to Edmund Burke, is the utmost message that I can send my Russian friends now:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil in a country is that good men and women emigrate.

In the last twenty-seven years about five million Russians have emigrated to the West. If I were Russian, I would call on them to rediscover their patriotism, return to Russia (along with their money), and work tirelessly to make Russia a democratic state on the German model — one that will be a threat neither to itself nor the rest of the world.

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Russia (to be concluded)

Andrei Amalrik

Andrei Amal’rik

My favourite Soviet dissident was Andrei Amal’rik (1938-80). He was short, he had suffered physically during two terms of exile in Siberia, but he was very squarely built and radiated resistance and survival. His black hair was cut in what is called a ezhik, i.e. ‘hedgehog’ (crew cut), but it was always growing out and therefore more resembled bear’s fur. As his absurdist plays show, he also had an irrepressible sense of humour. He was a very lovable Russian bear with the hardest political head around.

Amal’rik’s most famous work — for which he served five years in Kolyma — was Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? He finished it in 1969, when I was a twenty-one-year-old student in Moscow. I read about it in the western press, but it was impossible to get a copy in samizdat: it was simply too hot to handle. It was published in Amsterdam in 1970 and I read it as soon as I returned from Russia that year.

You do not see it referred to much these days, which is a pity and a mistake. In what Putin has called ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century’, the Soviet Union actually broke up in 1991. There is a vague feeling, then, that Amal’rik got it wrong and is passé; that he did not foresee the way in which the USSR would collapse, let alone the ascendancy of the KGB, and has nothing to say about Russia today.

It is true that Amal’rik was glaringly wrong to predict a war with China that would lead to the regime’s demise. Also, there is amazingly little reference in his book to the KGB. It seems astonishing now that he thought the army was more powerful and might stage a coup. But Amal’rik was very focussed on the growth of a Soviet ‘middle class’, as he called it, which he believed would ultimately demand change. He hoped it would espouse the values of his ‘Democratic Movement’, which on his own admission in 1969 accounted for only ‘a few dozen active participants and a few hundred sympathisers’.

However, in my experience at least one in five members of this ‘middle class’ worked for the KGB. Although the Soviet ‘middle class’ did not espouse western democratic values, and the KGB are now in control, Amal’rik was therefore absolutely right about the future of the ‘middle class’! Moreover, when he spoke in Cambridge in the late seventies he said that he had badly underestimated the intelligence and power of the KGB, and now believed that if the Communist Party died of old age and the USSR started to break up, of all the parties and factions that would come out of the woodwork probably only the KGB could hold the country together. Possibly he also suspected that the then chairman of the KGB, Iurii Andropov, was heading for the general secretaryship of the Party.

Above all, though, Amal’rik was right in 1969 that the Soviet system was in terminal decay. At the time, hardly anyone in Russia or the West agreed with him. Shuffling with the ‘demonstration’ across Red Square past the mausoleum on May Day, 1970, I certainly couldn’t believe it myself. But Andrei had only chosen 1984 for literary/marketing reasons; he actually thought the collapse would occur between 1980 and 1985, and let’s face it, in terms of historical time he wasn’t far out.

Andrei Amal’rik died in a terrible, but at least not staged, car accident in Spain in 1980. On my final visit to Russia the year after, it was utterly clear that the Soviet regime was sclerotic. People were openly wondering and worrying about how it would end and what would replace it. I asked a highly educated friend of mine, at the top of his literary profession, what Russians like him wanted. ‘What you have in the West — free elections, freedom of speech, rule of law,’ he replied simply. I asked his wife, similarly at the top of her intellectual profession, what she thought would happen if the whole system collapsed. ‘Budet russkii bunt, bessmyslennyi i besposhchadnyi,’ she answered, quoting Pushkin and meaning ‘There will be senseless, merciless violence in the Russian manner’.

As we know, neither statement came true. The Soviet ‘middle class’ did not want the hard work of establishing democracy, they chose Yel’tsin’s nationalism, which opened the way for Putin. They thought that if everyone started wearing Orthodox crosses and eating cabbage pie in Lent, Russia’s future would be assured.

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Russia (continued)

Konstantin Pobedonostsev January 1902

Konstantin Pobedonostsev, January 1902

Chapter four of my biography, ‘Who Had He Been?’, relates amongst other things what George did in Russia between 12 October 1895 and the summer of 1897. I think it will be a revelation to a lot of people. It was always going to be difficult to piece the narrative together here (he wrote home regularly, but no letters have survived after 1895, he hardly ever talked about what he had experienced in Russia, and Percy Lubbock picked up very little about it for his 1921 memoir). There are still long stretches of time when we don’t know what he was doing in Russia. Having done my forensic best for this chapter, I moved on as biographers must. It is really only now, when the book is finished, that I feel I see the whole of George’s engagement with Russia — i.e. from 1895 to 1915 — in perspective.

Basically, it seems to me a paradigm of certain Britishers’ cultural and psychological response to Russia both in the Communist period and today. I don’t know of any other Victorian/Edwardian examples of this paradigm. It’s profoundly instructive and salutary.

When George arrived in St Petersburg, he wrote wonderful illustrated letters to his mother and father enthusing about the street scenes, the unique palette of Russian life, Russian steam baths and billiards; he wrote vibrant features for Pall Mall Gazette on the same subjects, as well as about the Winter Gardens, skating and sledging, gipsy singers and Russian women. True, he found it difficult moving about and ‘getting things done’. The internal passport police were rather concerned about what he was doing in Russia (as well as teaching at this point, he was culling information about the Russian navy from public libraries and sending it home to a journalist friend!), and they seem to have insinuated an informer into his digs every so often to chat to him. True, he found it irksome having to spend most of a day at the Custom House collecting a parcel from Britain. The insolence and indolence of the numerous petty officials drove another petitioner to a hysterical fit and reduced a peasant literally to tears. But George was able to turn all this to humour:

At last they brought me a number of papers to sign, demanded money under various headings — customs, censor, outdoor porterage, indoor porterage, lighterage, demurrage, insurance, bottomry, &c., and then gave me my package. It proved to be a small pamphlet (privately printed) by my dear old tutor, on the ‘Ontological Value of Consciousness’. I have lent it to a friend out here who goes in for that sort of thing, and am sending my tutor a box of caviare and some cucumbers in return.

For a man of reflexive disposition there are few pleasanter ways of passing a couple of hours than at the Petersburg Custom House.

(Pall Mall Gazette, 20 February 1896)

By the time George arrived in Moscow in May 1896 to cover the coronation of Nicholas II for the Standard and Pall Mall Gazette, he was getting exasperated. In both papers he criticised the ‘attitude to the common people’ of the ‘Russian system of government’, the degeneracy of the upper classes, the potholes in the streets, the drunks, the police, and especially Russian priests, ‘than whom it would be impossible to find a more untidy, unkempt, and uncouth-looking body of men […] illiterate in the highest degree’. He criticised Tsarism itself:

It is amazing that with so many particular sources of well-doing at its command, the Russian system of government should produce so dismal a result. What is the use of an autocracy if it fails in those very respects out of which it expects, or expects others, to justify its existence? […] Everyone that comes to Russia complains of ineffectiveness of the system.

(Pall Mall Gazette, 12 May 1896)

We can only speculate about the impact on him of seeing hundreds of corpses being carted through the streets of Moscow after the stampede disaster on Khodynka Field in the early hours of 30 May 1896, then joining the crowd of about 100,000 who gathered at Vagan’kovskoe cemetery to look for missing friends and view the mass grave. In a despatch he stated that the coronation ‘festivities’ were continuing and ‘not a flag had been lowered or a shutter closed’:

Almost universally, the disaster is attributed to the total want of precautions, usually so conspicuous in Russia when they are wanted least, and to the lack of foresight, and even of elementary common sense, shown in the arrangements for the distribution of the [Tsar’s] gifts [on Khodynka Field]. […] The exasperation of the people is intense.

(Standard, 2 June 1896)

Although, George noted in the Pall Mall Gazette of 6 July 1896, the callousness of the Russian system would ‘drive other countries to a revolution in less than a fortnight’, he had to recognise that ‘Russia does not want a Parliament, a free press and the rest of it. Russia is Russia, and constitutionalism cannot be manufactured out of a peasantry’. He controlled his anger and stress by telling himself it was Russia’s and Russians’ affair, not his or the West’s. He concentrated on his teaching, his friendships and his research into Russian folklore. Nevertheless, he told Pall Mall readers, there was a ‘hopeless tedium’ about ‘everything civil, political, or commercial in Russia’.

I am sure that the curve of George’s response to Russia whilst he was living there matches that of thousands of other young British people who lived for a year or so in the Soviet Union as students. Certainly, after one visit many never wanted to go back. George himself never returned to Russia after 1897. But the ‘paradigm’ I have referred to is not that, it lies in what happened after George got back to England.

Naturally, he wanted to earn his living using his knowledge of Russian and Russia. He could make some money as a translator of quasi-technical texts (‘difficult’ ones, Flowerdew’s translation agency emphasised in their testimonial), he could review works of Russian literature, but to write about Russia itself was a minefield because the subject was so politicised. On the Pall Mall Gazette, for instance, it had been a delicate subject ever since the editorship of W.T. Stead, who was hopelessly entangled with the Russian agent Olga Novikoff. Either you supported the establishment in Russia, i.e. the Tsarist status quo, or you supported the emigrant opposition, headed by such figures as the terrorist Stepniak-Kravchinskii and the anarcho-communist Kropotkin. The Garnett family and many other London intellectuals threw their weight behind these extremists, but George rejected them and decided to engage with the Russian ‘establishment’ in London.

He became a member of the Anglo-Russian Literary Society (ARLS), which was packed with Tsarist patriots like his friend Manya Ross, and on 4 December 1900 he gave a brilliant paper to them entitled ‘Russian Ideals of Peace’. In it, he talked extremely knowledgeably about Slavophilism, Hegelianism, and their impact on the last tsar, Alexander III, and his son Nicholas II. Actually he was wrong about this: the Tsarist regime was as suspicious of Slavophilism and Hegelianism as of any political philosophy other than its own nationalism. But in conveying to his audience that he understood very well what they themselves believed in, and that he accepted it was what ‘Russians’ wanted, he gave them the idea that he approved of it all himself and was on their side. They duly cast him as a sympathiser with Tsarism.

Olga Novikoff kept a close eye on the press and Anglo-Russian activities in the whole country (this is how she had spotted W.T. Stead when he was still a journalist on the Northern Echo). The next thing George knew, she had alerted her old friend Konstantin Pobedonostsev, chief ideologist and propagandist of the Tsarist regime back in St Petersburg, to George’s article in the Monthly Review of May 1901, ‘The Wrong Tolstoi’. Pobedonostsev, who had recently achieved his great ambition of having Tolstoi excommunicated from the Orthodox Church, published his own Russian version of it as a pamphlet. George’s article — probably the best thing written about Tolstoyanism before Orwell’s 1947 essay ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ — had focussed on the cognitive dissonance of Tolstoy’s ‘philosophy’, whilst expressing his admiration of Tolstoi as a man and writer. Pobedonostsev mistranslated, deliberately distorted, rewrote and mangled George’s article in ways that a modern propaganda machine would be proud of. The article became a diatribe against Tolstoi, one that Pobedonostsev hoped would gain all the more credence amongst Russians for having been produced in an ‘open society’ with a ‘free press’. (The necrotic Pobednostsev himself was a fanatical enemy of democracy: one of his most famous sayings is ‘parliaments are the great lie of our time’.)

George had been compromised. His name must have been mud amongst liberal Russians everywhere, because Pobednostsev had made him appear to attack Tolstoi like Pobedonostsev, one of the most hated figures in Russia. But what I mean by the ‘paradigm’ is this: George had only himself to blame, because he had given the Tsarist establishment in London to believe that he was their friend and they had repaid the compliment by making him a ‘fellow-traveller’. The phenomenon has been repeated thousands of times with ‘well-meaning’ Britishers in Stalin’s, Khrushchev’s, Brezhnev’s and Putin’s Russia. These people, including George, give the impression of playing with fire without knowing that fire is hot.

What could George do to set the record straight? Britain had no copyright agreement with Russia. In any case, perhaps Olga Novikoff had sounded George out about publishing the article in Russian, he had made encouraging noises, and been too naive to foresee what would happen to it. It was too late to undo; too late to attack his Tsarist ‘friends’, even though he cooled off towards them and left ARLS by 1905. Conversely, he could hardly re-invent himself as a Russian oppositionist and throw in his lot with Kropotkin, the Garnetts and Co. He could have attacked what Pobedonostsev had done in an article in the Monthly Review, or even The Times, but would there be enough interest for their editors to publish it? It would certainly never be published in Russia, where the damage had been done. I think George found himself in a quandary. He had been put on the spot by Russia’s disinformationists. Surely he felt he had been made a fool of. He seems to have been lost for words. As far as one can tell, he said nothing.

And he was confused, in both his political thinking and his thinking about Russia. His last article for the Monthly Review, ‘The Obstinacy of the Romanoffs’ (April 1903), urged readers to accept that Russia was ‘different’, that it had a political culture of its own:

It is natural enough to thank heaven that we are Britishers; but it is wholesome at times to try and realise that there are other civilisations in the world, and that in their poor way, and for the poor folk that are born into them, they have a raison d’être. It is unjust to picture the Tsar as a benighted Oriental potentate, scion of a house of tyrants, waking at last from Asiatic sloth, as he listens to his German Sheherazade [Alexandra] telling him what is being done in the Western world. The Romanoffs have seen and rejected our civilisation since Romanoffs were. They have borrowed our mechanical arts, but never our social order.

With justification, George claimed that ‘English opinion of Russia’ was ‘educated chiefly by exiled revolutionaries, yet it might be surmised that many Russians actually approve of the system under which they live’. So far so good; this was a mere constatation of fact. But George continued that even though we in Britain lived under a form of democracy, ‘if we never tire of abusing the faults of our civilisation’, from the ‘evils of our political system’ to slums and the ‘licence of the press’, what was so superior about it? Our parliamentary system was not even representative, since ‘in each constituency there is a large minority, the unsuccessful party, which has no representative in Parliament at all’. This notion, he claimed, is ‘abhorrent to the Russian creed of justice’. The Tsar, according to George, ‘sits for minority as well as majority, and for the Country as well’; consequently ‘theoretically there is much to be said for the autocratic system’.

It was admirable that George should be stressing the ‘differentness’, the ‘autonomy’ of Russian political culture, but what from his cultural point of view was the ‘much’ that could be said for autocracy? What reservations lay behind that word ‘theoretically’? He seems to have found the Russian system disastrous enough when he was living there. What of the many Russians who wanted western-style democracy? Were they wrong? If the British ‘never tired’ of criticising aspects of their own political life and society, was that not precisely what democracy was for? George’s determination to pursue acculturation to Russia again made him look like a fellow-traveller or apologist of Tsarism.

Sadly, I think this reflects George’s own doubts about democracy, which were sown by the fissiparousness of British politics in the Edwardian era and are most fully expressed in Dwala. In the article I have just discussed, he regrets the absence of Proportional Representation in the British democratic system; but his only solution seems to be autocracy! Similarly, he saw no reason for extending the franchise to women or working-men. It is not surprising that in the 1910s he proposed forming a centre-right party in Britain that would operate outside Parliament

Personally, I think George Calderon learnt his lesson about Russian power politics. He certainly appears never to have expressed himself in print about the ‘advantages’ of the Tsarist autocracy again. The events of 1905 in Russia changed the attitude of many people to the regime, including members of ARLS. An encounter between the Calderons and Olga Novikoff in 1904 suggests that George kept her at arm’s length. After returning from Tahiti in 1906, he concentrated on Russian literature, particularly, of course, translating and staging Chekhov.

The only other major pronouncement on Russia that I have come upon in George’s writing dates from 1914. On 5 October, waiting on Salisbury Plain to leave for Flanders with the Blues as an interpreter, George had time to write to Kittie and his mother, but also to draft a letter to the press headed ‘Philosophy and the War’. Its gist was that Nietzsche had had less influence on the Germans’ ‘outlook on their historic purpose’ than Hegel. Both the Kaiser and the Tsar, according to George, were professed Hegelians who believed in ‘the imposition of the newest and highest [national civilisation] on the world at large’. In the Russians’ case this ‘civilisation’ was a blend of Slavophilism, Orthodoxy, and Russian nationalism. ‘It would be a poor office for the Belgians, French and British’, George wrote, ‘if we were fighting merely to set up a Slav world-domination instead of a Teutonic.’ Few people at the time, I think, would have believed that Russia had imperial designs on the West. However, after I read out this letter in a lecture I gave on George at the Armistice Festival in London in November 1988, a Russian came up to me and said: ‘What a prescient view of Soviet intentions after the Second World War!’

Although Pobedonostsev had destroyed George’s credit in Russia for some time, and George’s views about Russia certainly alienated from him left-wing opinion in this country, I think we should show understanding towards him; towards the fact that he had fallen into a paradigmatic elephant trap. After all, in the early twentieth century neither he nor anyone else had yet had experience of the Bolsheviks’ and Nazis’ exploitation of what Lenin called ‘useful idiots’. We, in 2017, have no such excuse.

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Russia (to be continued)

 

Alexander Pushkin by Kiprenskii, 1827

There is something I dread at dinner parties: being asked about ‘Russia’. I hope and pray, pray and hope, that no-one has heard I was a ‘Russianist’ in another life, lived in Russia under the Communist regime, smuggled for Sakharov etc, played cat and mouse with the KGB, saw and experienced ghastly, even terrible things. Normal English people find this all so exotic and fascinating that they can’t resist asking me about it. Before you know what’s happened the subject is dominating the dinner table and there’s no way back. On the whole, it’s not a good idea to discuss death at a dinner party. It kills conversation.

But 7 November will be the centenary of what many would regard as the biggest disaster to hit Russia since the Mongol Invasion, namely the Bolshevik seizure of power. It would be a misinterpretable act not to say something on this occasion. In any case, George Calderon had at least as deep an experience of Russia as me, he witnessed something more traumatic than me — the immediate aftermath of the trampling to death of 1300 people in Moscow during Nicholas II’s coronation in 1896 — and the development of his attitude to Russia between 1895 and 1914 is instructive.

Let us take the plunge, then, in George’s company.

The kinds of question normal English people can’t wait to ask me are: What do you ‘think’ about Russia? How/why did Russia end up with Putin? Is Russia really a threat to the West? What is going to happen to Russia after Putin? Is authoritarian rule all that Russians ever want? Do any Russians desire democracy, the rule of law, mafia-free markets etc? What do you think Russians should do? Does Russia have a future?

I will touch on these questions, but only very lightly. You see, I haven’t been a ‘Russianist’ for over twenty years and I never wanted to be one in the first place. In the 1970s I was interested in certain Russian writers: in Chekhov, rather than Tolstoi and Dostoevskii, in Pushkin, Tiutchev, Voznesenskii, Brodsky. But in those days you couldn’t just be interested in Russian literature, you had to buy into the whole of Russia’s past and present. You had to ‘catch the Russian virus’, as the saying goes. Russians expected you to become Russian, to live like them, think like them, preferably marry a Russian (I received a few proposals!), and where the regime was concerned you had to take sides (I went with the dissidents). That is a way of getting inside a foreign culture, of course, but personally I had to come out of it again. I could only grow from my very English roots; although the Russian compost was undoubtedly beneficial. Most weeks I still read something by Chekhov, Mandel’shtam, Pasternak or Brodsky, but that’s the extent of my interest in ‘Russia’ (i.e. as some vast Gestalt or ideo-historical system). I engage with Russian writers as writers, but I have absolutely no desire to get involved with ‘Russia’. This means I have no desire to opine about ‘Russia’. It doesn’t interest me.

There is another reason, however. I don’t consider I am qualified by identity to opine about Russia. As an English person, I have an attitude to Russia that derives from my cultural and political values, but it would be absurd for me to criticise Russia or say what I think Russians should think or do about their country. That is the prerogative of Russians, and I am simply not a Russian. As Pushkin wrote to his friend Viazemskii:

Of course, I despise my native country from head to toe — but I’m annoyed if a foreigner shares with me this feeling.

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Is a dog literally…forever?

An alternative title to this post would be: ‘Why are there no cats’ cemeteries?’

Three weekends running we have visited local stately homes that were inhabited in the Edwardian period, and each of them had a Pets Cemetery in its grounds. However, it was clear from the statuary, from one or two still legible tombstone inscriptions, and the photographs in the house itself, that these were dogs’ cemeteries. Where were the cats?

I am not an expert on the history of British domestic animals, but one explanation that instantly occurred to me was that until Louis Wain cats were just regarded as mousers, as farmyard killers who didn’t, for instance, necessarily live inside your house. (The only reason I know about Wain is that the most plausible hypothesis for why George signed himself Peter in his letters to Kittie is that in Late Victorian times Wain’s Peter was the most famous tom’s name you could put with a female cat, a ‘kitty’.) As you will see from my link, Wain felt his hugely popular cat drawings had helped to ‘wipe out the contempt’ in which he considered the cat had been held in Britain.

But the more likely explanation of the lack of Victorian/Edwardian cats’ cemeteries is that the cats didn’t want to be buried in cemeteries!

It is difficult to deny, I think, that dogs want to dedicate their whole existence to their owners — they want to live and die inside their owners’ lives — whereas cats are only interested in manipulating their owners’ deluded belief that they, cats, wish to do the same. If dogs had their way, they would actually be buried with their owners. Dogs must die in the family, preferably at their owners’ feet. Cats, when they know they are near to death, disappear. They just want to go off somewhere and die a cat, not a humanoid.

All of this set me thinking about what it is that dogs give their owners; why the bond with a dog is so individual and strong; why George and Kittie always had a dog.

Bunty c.1924

Bunty, taken at ‘Kay’s Crib’, Petersfield, c.1925

Actually, the last statement needs qualifying. I don’t think George had ever had a dog before he married Kittie, and ‘their’ first dog was Kittie’s and Archie’s. Jones was a thoroughbred Aberdeen terrier that Kittie and Archie had bought in the first year or so of their marriage (1895/96). Perhaps the breed had been recommended by Kittie’s mother, Mary Hamilton, who was Scottish. Anyway, Jones was a very intelligent and playful dog whom (which?) they both loved and who (which?) was a great bond between them.

After Archie Ripley’s death in 1898, as a close friend of Archie’s George was given the task of looking after Jones at Eastcote and exercising him on the golf course when Kittie, living in central London, was away. George evidently took to Jones, and Jones became a great bond between Kittie and him, as one can tell from the fact that in visitors books he always features with their names. Nevertheless, when Jones died in 1909 whilst Kittie was staying with Jones at Acton Reynald, Nina Corbet wrote to her from London:

I do indeed feel for you — I know so well too how he was so part of the past — in a way how he was part of Archie and your Mother — you will know what I mean though I put it clumsily. But you made him so happy — and after all that is a big thing to have done for anyone — and you taught him to love.

Just to confirm: in the last sentence Nina is talking of Jones, not Archie. Nina herself had a leash of Pekes. Jones appears to have been buried in the Pets Cemetery at the Corbets’ family seat, Acton Reynald.

I have a hunch that the Calderons’ next dog, Tommy, started out as George’s dog, so to speak. All we know about him is his name and the fact that, in Percy Lubbock’s words, he was an ‘old, tangle-haired scapegrace’. When the Calderons were living in the Vale of Helath, next to Hampstead Heath, George had taken Jones for a walk there first thing every morning. When Jones died, therefore, perhaps George came across Tommy as a stray on the Heath and took him in? George mentions Tommy in the last sentence he ever wrote Kittie, on 3 June 1915 from Gallipoli: he wished he was ‘back in the bosom of Tommy, Shady, Elizabeth & Co.’.

These words tell us, incidentally, that he and Kittie were not just ‘dog people’, since Shady was their cat Shadrach. They had three cats (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), but it is not known whether they owned them simultaneously or consecutively; in the early 1920s only Abednego features on a photo.

Kittie’s last dog, the Cairn terrier Bunty, was very special to her indeed. In 1922 Kittie decided she must at all costs leave London, where she and George had always lived. Her life had fallen apart in 1921 when Nina Corbet died suddenly. It is also possible that she was sickened by London literary people’s insensitivity to George’s memory and his sacrifice. There is little doubt that her decision to leave London was a terrible mistake influenced by her state of stress. Very recently a fragment from Christmas 1922 was discovered in which she writes: ‘Bad times have descended on my head with a wump — and I have cast myself out of London into Kay’s Crib/Little Sheet/Petersfield.’ But she had bought herself Bunty to go with her, Bunty became a further bond between Kittie and her general maid, Elizabeth Ellis, and somehow you can tell how ‘humanly’ close Kittie and Bunty were from this photograph at the end of Bunty’s life.

A few years back, I managed to speak on the phone to the person who had just bought Kittie’s last house, White Raven. She asked me whether I thought there could be a dog’s grave in the garden, because, without digging it up, it seemed that that might be indicated. Yes, I answered, it’s probably Bunty’s.

The differences between dogs and cats have been expatiated on for centuries, of course. So I hesitate to generalise… For instance, it’s tempting to feel that with a dog you have a bond, with a cat you have a relationship, and that you most commonly hear of people wanting to share a life beyond the grave with their dog, not their cat. But in a well-attested instance of the opposite, a bachelor Fellow of my old college, at the point of death in hospital, raised his arms, stared into mid-air, and cried: ‘It’s Ginger! It’s Ginger my cat!’ (However, because the college’s regulations forbade cats, Ginger had officially been a dog.)

Despite the fact that I was born on a bed that had a large dog under it, who growled menacingly at the G.P. as he attempted to approach my mother, and despite the fact that I was given a Yorkshire terrier when I was about ten that lived to be twenty-one, I think I am really a cat bloke. I confess to not understanding what it is that dogs give their owners; why their owners need them. I find the bond rather mysterious. Here, to sign off, I offer words from my recent dialogues with scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne:

PM: And what about the rest of creation? I mean the created world on this planet other than humans?

JP: Yes, well, I feel sure that – perhaps in a slightly sentimental way – there will be animals in the world to come. But I don’t think every animal ever will be there, and certainly I hope not every virus is there. I mean the important thing is, I think, that Christianity doesn’t simply see the whole of created order as a ‘backdrop’ for the human drama which could then be rolled up and stored away… And nothing of good is lost in God. If there are worthwhile things in the physical world – and I think there are – then they will be retained in some appropriate way. It’s difficult to think that the fulfilment of creation, the life of the world to come, doesn’t include animal life in it. I have never thought animal life is simply a means of getting to human life. It has value in itself.

PM: Oh, that’s very interesting.

JP: This is a celebrated conundrum, and of course nobody knows the answer. But when people say, ‘I don’t want to go to heaven unless my doggy comes with me’, they’re expressing a real relationship with that animal and what I would always wish to say is that nothing of good is lost, and how it finds its further expression is not by any means foreseeable, so…it’s an open question but not a ridiculous question. You know, you don’t laugh at the person who says to you ‘I can’t go to heaven without doggy’, or you don’t say ‘my goodness, that’s nonsense’, you just take it.

PM: What I think is interesting is that you don’t have a doctrinal answer. If you were a Russian priest, you would say: ‘Animals have unbaptised souls. FACT. So, of course, these souls will survive in the next world.’ But you lay the emphasis on the human nexus…

JP: Well, eschatological hope doesn’t mean everything that exists in this world has to exist beyond it. Again the wait and see, leave it to God argument, though infuriating to critical inquiry, is nevertheless an inevitable result at some stage in this argument.

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Enough (43) is enough!

Researching publishers and editors in depth, honing letters and email proposals to them, assembling different forms of synopsis and samples, dealing with the comeback (or lack of), and negotiating with publishers over the past nine months, has been hard work. It has also occasionally been stressful: the arrogance and offensiveness of some has beggared belief even by today’s standards. I’m afraid to say that with one or two I was driven to repay them in kind. I shall be revisiting John Dewey’s comments and George Orwell’s essay on the subject and comparing them with my own experience in a future post. The personality obstructions have sometimes been dire.

But altogether it has been a much more varied and positive experience than I was expecting. After all, I had three offers from quite big names, even though these offers turned out to come with conditions that I could not accept and the publishers never considered compromising on. The most impressive publishers were the three or four who responded immediately, asked for samples or the whole thing immediately, read them promptly (in one case, even, over the weekend), then sent me civilised emails explaining in detail why the book wasn’t for them. The reasons they gave made impeccable sense, but I couldn’t have foreseen them, so I don’t regret the exercise.

Most publishers take up to three months to reply (I think this is just about acceptable), or don’t respond at all. Since January, I have approached 43. I have had 15 rejections, 3 acceptances, and applying the three-month rule I’m sure I am now never going to hear from 16. That means I have nine still ‘in hand’. Some of these are actually quite promising, but as my last proposal went out on 14 September I may not know what the outcome is until the middle of December…

All things conspire, then, to get moving with Plan B. The book MUST and WILL come out next year, the 150th anniversary of George’s birth (2 December). It would be terrific if one of the nine commercial/academic publishers took it on and met that deadline, but in case they don’t we must start work on the alternative now. The groundwork has been done over the last few months. Younger heads have persuaded me that if ‘publishing’ means ‘putting it out there where people can read it’, then Kindle is the cheapest for writer and reader alike and, even, the most effective. I feel no sentimentality about this. Yet it is undeniable that the biography has old-fashioned-book-biography aspects to it and ought to have a hardback edition. Printers, publishing outfits and binders have been researched for that and I shall be visiting some of these soon for firm quotes.

So the present Plan B is to produce a limited edition in hardback to the very highest standard, then to go with Kindle, assuming the illustrations can be fixed. Kindle, of course, are run by Amazon, and if a customer doesn’t want an ebook but a paperback, they will produce it. There seems no point in my publishing it in paperback, as that will never encourage anyone else to bring it out in hardback, and Kindle/Amazon is cheaper anyway.

I take this opportunity to thank all those who over the past few years have encouraged me to self-publish and recommended ways of doing it: Anthony Cross, John Dewey, June Goodfield, Robert Jeens, Patrick Marber, James Muckle, Harvey Pitcher, Andrew Tatham, Carole Welch, Anthony Werner.

The timetable for Plan B is to have the self-publishing all set up by the middle of December so that we can go if all the commercial/academic approaches have failed by then. This means we are aiming to bring the book out by the middle of 2018, giving us the marketing hooks of the 150th and the centenary of the end of the War.

Well…all I can add is: Watch This Space. I will report on progress every so often, whilst continuing to blog weekly on a wide variety of topics. This week I have completed the first draft of the last thing I shall ever have to write for the book: the Acknowledgements. On my last count, there were 243 institutions and individuals to thank. At 2759 words it is almost another chapter. I do hope it does not have to go through as many shreddings as the blessed Introduction.

I shall continue to visit Waterstone’s, Heffers, newspaper book reviews, the Web etc on the lookout for possible publishers, but I think it is now statistically unlikely I shall find any. Yes, I admit: I am relieved that proposing to publishers is over.

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Proto-Poldark?

Many followers will have realised, I think, that I kept my previous post in pole position for a month because I thought it might give my last batch of prospective publishers a good idea of the book’s scope and, dare I say it, novelty. I am aware that at least one follower is waiting with bated breath for an announcement on 30 September about the book’s future — and he shall have it, he shall have it.

Meanwhile, I thought it was about time that I posted a sample of George’s reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement, which was first appreciated by the novelist, critic, poet and Times naturalist Derwent May in his Critical Times: The History of the Times Literary Supplement (2001). Mention of the novels of Cornishman Arthur Quiller-Couch in two recent Comments by Clare Hopkins sent me straight to this by George, published in the TLS of 29 October 1908, pp. 376-77:

‘David Bran’

The people of Trescas, the Cornish village in which Mr Morley Roberts lays the scene of DAVID BRAN (Eveleigh Nash, 6s.), are not quite like the people of other villages. Their speech is full of dark sayings about wisdom and destiny and the heart of man; they pass their lives in a state of wonder at each other and at the ways of heaven. They are cast in heroic mould; the women all have strong hearts and strong hands; the men are giants; and, as for David himself, seven at a blow would be nothing to him. The old men in the blue jerseys, smashing their pipes by the shore, do not spin yarns and crack ribald jokes, as in other seaside places, but wag their beards continually over David and his love affairs. There is very little mental life in Trescas, except wondering about David and Lou and the white maiden with the shining golden hair and the eyes of blue. David had a wonderful way with the women; they used to waylay him in the dark and say, ‘Oh! be good to me; kiss me once, David’, but he never really cared about it. He loved but two. This is the story of how he wooed a dark maiden and a fair maiden at the same time, and could not possibly do with less. And when he married Kate he would still punch Isaac’s head if he so much as spoke to Lou. Mr Roberts has the courage of his opinions. He detects a bigamous instinct in man, and justifies those that give it active expression because they fulfil their nature. His heart bleeds also for the women who never marry; and he would like to kill both these birds with one stone. About the instinct of many men he is no doubt right, though the instinct is not universal; and, indeed, other men-novelists have often made the bigamous instinct the theme of their novels (women-writers never — each sex demands monogamy in the other); it is the basis of ‘Richard Feveral’ and ‘Harry Richmond’, of Tourgeniev’s ‘Smoke’ and ‘Spring Waters’. But Mr Roberts presents the theme in its most unconvincing aspect. In real life there is always parenthesis, or eclipse; in ‘David Bran’ both passions are present in equal force at the same moment. While David is kissing Lou on the cliff he is thinking about Kate, and on the eve of his wedding with Kate he is leaning against a wall and crying because he feels that it is a kind of separation from Lou. The book is interesting; but it moves slowly; there is really no more than material in it for a short story, and this is eked out with not very recondite moralizations by the author, couched in an archaic Trescas dialect, compounded out of Malory and Moses and Dr Gilbert Murray’s Euripedes.

This review is a good example of what Derwent May calls George’s ‘witty scepticism’, which ‘aligned him wholly with the younger group on the paper’ that included Virginia Woolf and Percy Lubbock. What made it possible for Mr May to write his fascinating history was the fact that the authorship of the unsigned reviews had been cracked by matching the number of lines in the review to the payments by line in the TLS account books. This revealed, for example, that George had written 54 reviews between 1905 and 1912, earning him a useful £13,160 at today’s prices. He was originally taken on to write about ‘serious’ subjects like folklore, Russia, the Balkans, psychical research, but the editor, Bruce Richmond, discovered by chance that George was most entertaining on novels, of which he reviewed fifteen in 1908 alone.

What intrigues me about George’s review is that it seems to display a Cornish novel that already contains features — one might say stereotypes — of other Cornish novels through Daphne du Maurier down to Poldark and Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness (1993). Was there already, in 1908, a recognisable Cornish equivalent to the ‘kailyard school’ of Scottish novels? Is the Cornish novel a purely literary genre that can be practised by anyone, whether Cornish or not, or is it strictly speaking a nationalist genre, in which case are its topos-es (‘stereotypes’) supposed to be genuine features of Cornishness? I look forward to someone telling us!

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Edwardian love, sex and the ‘T’other’

The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2017 is undoubtedly right to intone the mantra ‘edit, review, revise and then edit again’, but when you have read your 420-page typescript as many times as I have in the last six months, and made over a thousand changes, you need some specific stimulus to make you read it closely yet again.

A fortnight ago, that stimulus came along in the form of the discovery of the Visitors Book for Acton Reynald, the nineteenth century home of the Corbet family in Shropshire. A sensational find! Lady Caroline (Nina) Corbet had first met Kittie when they were very young, they became inseparable as teenagers, it was known that Kittie stayed at Acton Reynald many times until Nina remarried in 1913, and Nina got on well with George.

Visitors Books are invaluable to biographers. The one for Foxwold (q.v.) exists, and Mr John Pym deserves a medal and my undying gratitude for having copied out for me every entry for the Calderons from 1912 to 1940. If only the Visitors Book for nearby Emmetts existed too, as the Calderons were regular visitors and it would help date, for instance, George’s Cinderella: An Ibsen Pantomime, which was first performed there.

The Acton Reynald Visitors Book has a very special significance. I had worked out long ago from circumstantial evidence when Kittie and, I presumed, George, stayed there. For instance, it was clear from the envelope of a letter written by William Rothenstein to Kittie after settling George on his ship to New Zealand in a delicate nervous state in 1906, that Kittie did not see George off herself, she left for Acton Reynald to stay with Nina Corbet. Similarly, a letter from George at St Andrews in December 1909, following the Glasgow premiere of his translation of The Seagull, reveals that he and Kittie are off to spend Christmas with the Corbets at Acton Reynald. On other occasions, for example the funeral of Nina’s husband Walter on 23 December 1910, I had assumed both Kittie and George were present, and in the latter case stayed on until New Year as they had the year before. But only the Visitors Book could confirm such things and supply firm dates.

I cannot thank the descendants of Walter and Nina Corbet warmly enough for finding the Acton Reynald Visitors Book, copying out every entry for Kittie and George from 1893 to 1913, and supplying me with images of many of them.  It is an amazing document in itself. Clearly the Corbets welcomed a steady stream of guests. Many of the names in the image below are familiar. For instance, G. Ormsby Gore, below George’s signature, is 3rd Baron Harlech, Sir Walter’s commanding officer in the Shropshire Yeomanry. The mysterious Mr Jones, placed between Kittie and George, is their dog.

George and Kittie in a Visitors' Book 1902

A page of the Acton Reynald Visitors Book for 1902

The first entry for Kittie (with her mother) is Christmas 1893, two years after Walter Corbet inherited the baronetcy and moved into Acton Reynald. In August 1894 she stayed there with Archie Ripley, who was to become her husband the following year. However, Ripley never visited Acton Reynald again before his death in October 1898, although Kittie did, both alone and with her mother. (Bear with me, this may be significant.)

George first stayed at the Corbets’, with Kittie, in September 1901, ten months after their wedding, then again in 1902 and 1903. After that, though, I discover from the Visitors Book that the pattern changed somewhat. I had assumed they both attended Lesbia Corbet’s christening on 18 March 1905, but in fact only Kittie (one of the two godmothers) did. Kittie’s next visit to Acton Reynald was as George was leaving for New Zealand/Tahiti in April 1906, when she stayed (with Mr Jones) for over a fortnight. In 1907 both Calderons were at Acton Reynald in August, but George absented himself for a week on a lone walking holiday. The only other occasion — according to the Visitors Book — that George and Kittie were together at Acton Reynald up to January 1913 was the Christmas of 1909, whereas Kittie visited on her own four times and probably more.

What struck me first from the Visitors Book is that, contrary to my assumption, George never accompanied Kittie on any occasion that was particularly personal for Nina, viz. Lesbia’s christening, Walter’s funeral, or Nina’s second wedding at the Corbet family church in January 1913. It is extraordinary that George did not attend the funeral of Sir Walter, whom Kittie described as ‘nice to look at and nice right through’ and whom George, as far as I can see, liked. Kittie stayed with Nina afterwards for a fortnight. This took in the whole of the Christmas season 1910. So where was George? He had been at Acton Reynald with Kittie the Christmas before, but that was his last recorded visit ever.

Of course, there could be practical reasons why he was not with Kittie in 1905, 1910 and 1913. In 1910 both he and Kittie may have been committed to spending Christmas with the Lubbocks at Emmetts, Walter Corbet died after a short illness on 20 December, the day Kittie arrived at Nina’s side, and perhaps they had agreed that one of them, at least, should keep the Lubbocks’ invitation. In January 1913 George may have been ill. However, there is no obvious reason why he could not travel to the christening in March 1905.

Naturally, I don’t wish to compose a spoiler to my book, but the relationship between Nina Corbet and Kittie vis-à-vis Kittie’s two husbands is a vital thread in it. Nina and Kittie’s relationship long predated Kittie meeting Archie Ripley and George Calderon. It seems to have been about as close as friends can be. They had often slept in the same bed together as children and teenagers, but there would be nothing unusual at the time about that. When Kittie was depressed, Nina promised to ‘coodle you up, and up and up’, which was presumably Edwardian for ‘give you a really good cuddle’, whatever that involved. Even after Nina married, Kittie would accompany the couple on tours as a companion and chaperone, and when accommodation was divided by gender they again shared a bed. However, in letters that were meant to have been burned after Kittie’s death but miraculously turned up in another part of the country six years ago, Archie Ripley makes it clear that he has to draw the line at vacating the marital bed for Nina when she comes to stay after their marriage. Kittie insisted on telling George all this before they agreed to marry, which is probably why George was afraid Nina would ‘dissuade you [Kittie] from loving me’; but Nina didn’t. The biggest problem Kittie had during George’s courtship of her was his physical passion compared with Ripley’s, who seems to have been transiently homosexual.

Caroline ‘Nina’ Corbet, c. 1890

So did George accept Kittie’s very close relationship with Nina Corbet? The evidence is, yes. He understood that Nina needed Kittie; she needed her for comfort, advice, understanding and joie de vivre in all kinds of (documented) situations after entering into what was essentially a dynastic marriage of convenience. I don’t think George was always happy with the situation, any more than Ripley was, for obvious reasons, but George decided he must respect that side of Kittie’s life and let her pursue it freely. You will have guessed, then, that what I feel the newly discovered Visitors Book demonstrates is that George decided to leave himself out of the relationship at Acton Reynald whenever he could. The closeness of the two women’s bond, incidentally, is movingly borne out by another discovery made at the same time. They had always called each other ‘My T’other’. On an unknown New Year’s Eve Nina addressed an envelope ‘For my T’o.’ and enclosed a card in French with a pansy on (for pensées) and a French phrase meaning ‘My last thought is of you, 31 December 11.59 p.m.’. In a word, all this new material suggests that Kittie’s relationship with Nina was even more exclusive than I had thought before and the Calderons’ marriage more ‘open’ on that side than I had suspected.

The key document here is George’s letter of 17 August 1902 to his friend the French Slavist Paul Boyer; a letter that Boyer, in his reply of 15 November 1902, described (in English translation) as ‘a veritable moral diagnosis, which I shall preserve as a precious document exposing the “state of mind” of the English of our day’. A key document…which unfortunately has not survived in Boyer’s archive in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

It is not difficult, however, to work out from Boyer’s letter what George had told him. Boyer had asked George ‘an indiscreet question: one of those that we are sometimes rather embarrassed to ask men of your nation’, viz. about English sexual mores and ‘hypocrisy’:

I think you are absolutely right and your analysis of the English character in this matter is perfectly just, viz. that (1) they display “modesty”, (2) they have a secret “tother-thing”. Personally, from what I know of England and the English myself, I don’t share the opinion of so many continentals that the English are essentially hypocrites. What some call English hypocrisy is in reality merely their natural reserve. […] I am very touched by the frankness of your reply.

Boyer, surely, could not have known the significance for George of that particular spelling ‘tother’. In cruder times, ‘tother-thing’ may sound uncomfortably like ‘a bit on the side’. But I think this is to underestimate the other word, ‘secret’ (i.e. reserved). By ‘modesty’, I think, George is referring both to fidelity to the contract of marriage and continence in extramarital relationships. Perhaps he even meant it is a single, exclusive extramarital relationship, as in the case of Kittie. And this is kept not only ‘discreet’ but ‘secret’. Within the Edwardian marriage, then, there would be no hypocrisy, just an acceptance of the ‘t’other’. The trouble is, of course, that we think of this as the classic Edwardian vice of ‘keeping up appearances’. Yet for the Calderons, say, or the Newbolts (a live-in Lesbian and heterosexual threesome), there were no appearances to keep up: everyone involved knew the situation, accepted it, and regarded it as nobody else’s business.

An acquaintance with the volumes of  À la recherche du temps perdu set in the Edwardian period suggests that Boyer was probably amazed by the difference between British and French sexual mores, just as one might be today on learning of the French ‘5 to 7’!

If the above was George’s belief about English arrangements within marriage, did he have a secret ‘tother-thing’ himself? I used to think not, because of the unfailing love and tenderness of his letters to Kittie. However, I know of at least four women in their twenties with whom George inimitably flirted when he was in his thirties and older; but no Edwardian would have paid any attention to the age difference, as it was normal for men to marry in their thirties women who had just reached twenty-one (the Corbets, and the Wrens in The Fountain, would be cases in point). There is absolutely no evidence that George’s relationships went beyond flirtation, but then there wouldn’t be, would there? Two sentences in his anti-suffragist pamphlet of 1908 have always intrigued me:

We men, with few exceptions, are all Mormons at heart. We have made the great sacrifice of monogamy, and much must be forgiven us.

Is there a touch of guilt about these assertions? The idea that we are ‘all’ potentially promiscuous, and there is a lot we must be forgiven, might suggest it. And what if women too had made ‘the great sacrifice of monogamy’?

Yes, the Edwardians were masters of ‘discretion’ — what today we might call secrecy, spin, disinformation, or downright hypocrisy. They were so successful at it that for decades their descendants believed the bulk of Edwardians were paragons of monogamous familial rectitude. We have been naive about the Edwardians in this respect, as in so many others. If what George said to Boyer about the ‘tother-thing’ was widely true, the Edwardians’ attitude to amorous and sexual arrangements was far less hypocritical than the Victorians’: it was actually a ‘reserved’, un-self-advertising recognition of gender reality.

So the discovery of the Acton Reynald Visitors Book, related material, and previously unknown testamentary documents of Kittie’s, has led to my tweaking dates, facts and statements throughout my biography. This may not amount to much new text, but the shift in presentation of George and Kittie’s marriage is significant. And re-reading my whole text, I was struck for the first time how the penultimate chapter, which recounts Kittie’s life 1915-22, is actually the most visceral, because it includes the impacts of both George’s and Nina’s death on her.

*                    *                    *

Paragraph three of my ill-starred but now settled Introduction tells readers ‘There has been a popular interest in the love life of Edward VII and his courtiers, say, or the Edwardian elite’s open display of wealth, and even the life of the Edwardian working class, but the life of the Edwardian professional class is relatively unknown to the nation.’ Even as I wrote it I wondered whether ‘a popular interest in the love life of Edward VII and his courtiers’ was still true, because Anita Leslie’s classic Edwardians in Love was first published in 1972, the TV dramas about Edward’s mistresses Lily Langtry and ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’ also date to the 1970s, and even Diana Souhami’s Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter is twenty years old. But then, last year, the following was published by Biteback:

Click the cover to find this book on Amazon.

Sure enough, the blurb assures us that ‘For Alice Keppel, it was all about appearances’…  Keppel was a mistress at managing those, as well as the King. ‘Both intriguing and astonishing, this book is an unadulterated glimpse into a hidden world of scandal, decadence and debauchery.’ From the publishing point of view, the author also has the advantage that Mrs Keppel was the great-grandmother of the present Duchess of Cornwall.

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A P.S. to paradox

After the flights of fancy of my previous post, I ought to make it clear that what really interests me about paradox is (1) why were Edwardian writers, particularly George Calderon, so mad on it, (2) is it yet another of the things that puts us off their writing today, and (3) what does the phenomenon add up to? Paradox is an intriguing aspect of what is perceived as the Edwardians’ superficiality. So, committed as I am to re-evaluating the Edwardians through my exploration of George and Kittie’s lives, I have to grapple with paradox.

The most famous paradoxer of the age was George Bernard Shaw. His ‘cleverest’ characters always talk in paradoxes. But this was probably perceived by audiences as just a ‘Socialist’ development of the epigram in Oscar Wilde’s and other Late Victorians’ plays (not to mention Restoration comedy). The element of surprise in Shaw’s ‘outrageous’ paradoxes doubtless provoked gales of laughter, but did anyone take his paradoxes seriously? As my friend Bryan wrote in one of his emails, ‘they are the intellectual equivalent to the old custard-pie-in-the-face gag: it amuses the onlooker but nobody really gets hurt because it’s just froth’. Moreover, Shaw’s clever men talk just like Shaw, whom George plausibly termed a ‘solipsist’.

George’s most successful play, The Fountain, is in many ways a parody of a Shaw play, and in it the Fabian hero Wren spouts paradoxes throughout; in fact his problem and his comedy is that he just can’t stop talking, even as the curtain descends on him at the end. But he also keeps saying things about the Edwardian rich and poor that make sense. Even his paradoxes aren’t just ‘froth’. For example, the words of his that I take as my epigraph to Chapter 10: George Calderon the Dramatist, are:

This general ignorance is the oddest feature of modern life. I knew a case of a temperance mission entirely supported by brewery shares.

The last sentence trips beautifully off the actorial tongue, it sounds witty, it surprises by its Shavian paradox, but perhaps there is something more serious underneath? To quote my mathematical friend again:

I would regard the temperance mission supported by brewery shares as a perfectly logical arrangement, generating a kind of economic negative feedback loop which would be much more stable than alternatives. If the work goes badly, the shares will rise and there will be more resources to beef up the mission; if the work succeeds, the brewery will fail just as the mission’s work is completed. A modern comparison: Cancer Research UK advertises that its scientists are working to put themselves out of a job.

So the paradoxes in George’s full-length plays, The FountainCromwell: Mall o’Monks, and Revolt, are more like Jim Al-Khalili’s P2s and P3s — ‘perceived paradoxes’ and ‘resolvable perceived paradoxes’.

But what I really wrestle with is the problem of George’s self-referential paradoxes, which are P1s in the Al-Khalili classification, i.e. statements ‘constructed in such a way that there really is no way out of the loop’. This type of paradox is at the heart of several of George’s stories and one-act plays. In ‘The Lieutenant’s Heroine’ (1900) kismet (fate, destiny) is proven, disproven, proven, disproven…; in Geminae (1913?) identical twins are identical (one person), aren’t identical, are identical, aren’t identical…; in The Two Talismans (1913/14) character is fate, isn’t fate, is fate, isn’t fate… As Raymond Smullyan says in Alice in Puzzleland (1982), this kind of paradox is akin to saying ‘I know a man who is both five foot tall and six foot tall’. In the case of George’s stories and short plays, it makes them feel curiously empty in the centre. If they just present vicious circles what is the point of them, one asks today?

I have recently come to the conclusion that they are probably products of George’s belief in Taoism (q.v., as they say, along with Raymond Smullyan). George immersed himself in Taoist texts around 1905 and it is possible to find elements of the ancient philosophy in all his subsequent works. The object of creating a play in which the terms of the conflict cancel each other out, would therefore be to prove/suggest that there is a deeper reality (the ‘Tao’) beneath the appearances of the everyday world. This is particularly observable in The Fountain, where Wren refers to himself as ‘the sage’, i.e. the hero of Lao Tsu’s ‘sayings’, and preaches ‘doing nothing’ in order to ‘achieve wonders’ because ‘Progress is Nature’s affair’ — strongly suggestive of the Taoist doctrine of wu wei, ‘action through inaction’. However, this does not make George’s self-referential paradox plays any more likely to appeal to modern audiences.

It may be that in both Shaw and Calderon the paradox is just a means of ‘making strange’ in order to provoke laughter and critical thought simultaneously, and it is only because this Making Strange isn’t part of a whole rationalistic engaged theatre of Alienation Effects, like Brecht’s, that we can’t make sense of it.

Equally, you may think: ‘Give over, Patrick, you’re making ridiculously heavy weather of this, it’s all just Edwardian Fun!’ Hm…well that’s probably how contemporary audiences did take it in George’s plays, but don’t get me started: the Edwardians’ concept of ‘fun’ is as problematical as their love of ‘amateurism’!

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A not-paradox, a not-paradox, a most ingenuous not-paradox

In my post of 8 October 2016 I discussed George Calderon’s love of paradox and suggested that the ‘self-referential’ paradoxes in his plays might have been influenced by his following ‘developments in set theory in the 1900s, as he was an excellent mathematician’. In particular, I wondered if George was not taken by Russell’s Paradox (popularly known as ‘the barber paradox’), but I had to admit that my maths was not up to saying whether the Calderonian paradox is a literary form of Russell’s Paradox.

Five days later, I had a long email from my friend Bryan, who is a Cambridge graduate mathematician I have known for over forty years. He explained that ‘most mathematicians would regard contradiction as the essence of paradox; indeed would probably regard the two as synonymous’. But for mathematicians the ‘form of the paradox is not really of interest, since it is just a big “Stop!” sign saying you have a false assumption, go back and find it, correct it and proceed’. From the Calderonian literary examples I had given, my friend felt that I regarded paradox not as contradiction but mere incongruity, ‘a much weaker standard’. All this set me thinking more about what a paradox really is…

Then in February this year Bryan appeared unannounced at my front door, gave me the first mathematical explanation that I have been able to understand of why Russell’s Paradox is nonsense, and presented me with an inscribed copy of this book:

Click the cover to find this book on Amazon.

(A brief parenthesis on Bryan. He is a terrifyingly clear, logical thinker, but also a lover of the arts including, I think, Chekhov. He is a great fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, but hearing the song ‘A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox’ in The Pirates of Penzance, even as a child he said to himself: ‘There is no paradox here; it is just a description of how the calendar works.’ Not surprisingly, he knows Lewis Carroll inside out. He can be relied on to break the ice at parties by reciting ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. Pace C.P. Snow, he does not believe there are ‘two cultures’.)

I am exceedingly grateful to Bryan for his crystalline explanations in two long emails and over the kitchen table, and for giving me Al-Khalili’s book, which has further expanded my understanding of this subject and which I can heartily recommend to followers.

Jim Al-Khalili starts with a vital distinction:

A true paradox is a statement that leads to a circular and self-contradictory argument, or describes a situation that is logically impossible. But the word ‘paradox’ does tend to be used more broadly to include what I prefer to call ‘perceived paradoxes’. For such puzzles there is a way out. It may be that the paradox has hidden within it a trick or sleight of hand that deliberately misleads the listener or reader. Once the trick is uncovered, the contradiction or logical absurdity disappears. Another type of perceived paradox is one in which the statement and the conclusions, while initially sounding absurd or at the very least counterintuitive, turn out on more careful consideration not to be so, even if the result remains somewhat surprising.

For the purposes of this post, let’s call Al-Khalili’s ‘true logical paradox’ P1, his ‘perceived paradoxes’ relying on sleight of hand P2, and his resolvable ‘perceived paradoxes’ P3.

He further defines P1 as ‘a statement that is constructed [my italics] in such a way that there really is no way out of the loop’. It seems to me that ‘the barber paradox’ is P1 and so are the self-referential paradoxes that George has constructed in ‘The Lieutenant’s Heroine’, ‘The Little Stone House’, ‘The Fountain’, ‘Geminae’, ‘The Two Talismans’ and ‘The Lamp’, not to mention his ‘chopper paradox’ and ‘unexploded bomb paradox’ described in my original post. The classic example of a P1 is the ‘liar paradox’ (‘This statement is a lie’). All P1s, surely, are artefacts. Their makers are people endowed with powers of creative fantasy, e.g. the Greeks or George Calderon.

Without further ado, Al-Khalili tells us that his book is not about such paradoxes, it is about P2s and P3s, and especially P3s in physics, all of which, ‘or nearly all’, can be ‘resolved with a little bit of fundamental scientific knowledge’.

When Laurence Binyon said of George as a student that ‘paradox attracted him’ and ‘his dialectical skill seemed rather sterile’, it is natural to think Binyon was referring to P1s. Perhaps, however, the paradoxes that George perpetrated at Oxford were more ‘incongruities’, to use Bryan’s word? George’s love of incongruities is familiar from his writing in Russia, and is something he shared with Chekhov. But perhaps some of George’s ‘paradoxes’ were P3s.  For instance, in a long letter to the Daily News of 13 February 1899 about overcrowding in London — a great issue of the day — George states that ‘the more houses you put together in one place the less living-room will there be for the people that will come there’. This is a P3 (resolvable perceived paradox) because any modern town-planner would agree that to ease overcrowding you have to decentralise, e.g. to Eastcote where George then lived and which was ‘not in the least overcrowded’.

In his first two chapters, Al-Khalili explodes a number of P2s, especially Zeno’s, then gets down to the P3s in science that naturally interest him most as a theoretical physicist. These include such fascinating ‘paradoxes’ as Olbers’ Paradox (why does it get dark at night?), Maxwell’s Demon, The Pole in the Barn Paradox, and the Paradox of the Twins. The reason I put ‘paradox’ in quotes here is that as P3s they are of course not paradoxes at all: they are resolvable by Einsteinian relativity and quantum physics. This still, in my view, leaves the tricky category of what science calls ‘Anomalies’. For instance, contrary to expectation, the density of water suddenly starts decreasing as temperature falls below 4 degrees C. and goes on decreasing until at zero it is floating on the top as ice. The ‘anomalous expansion of water’ may be completely explicable by the change in molecular bonding of hydrogen below 4 degrees C., but what explains that change? It’s still incongruous, and very fortunate for the survival of life in Earth’s rivers and polar oceans.

The bulk of Jim Al-Khalili’s Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics is about astrophysics, relativity, quantum mechanics and chaos theory. If, as a layman or arts person, you were to digest his clear, direct, ‘popular’ explanations of the P3s in these areas and combine it with a reading of John Polkinghorne’s Quantum Physics: a Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2002), I reckon you would have as good a grasp of these mind-bending subjects as you could hope for. In chapter 7, however, Al-Khalili moves broadly on from P3s and this is where I find myself taking issue with him.

Chapter 7 is entitled ‘The Grandfather Paradox: Going back to the past and killing your grandfather means you would never have been born’. The subject has not got off to a good start on page 14 of the book, where Al-Khalili says that ‘physicists have not yet ruled out the possibility, certainly in theory, of time travel’. A possibility that is certainly theoretical is a very attenuated possibility (feasibility) indeed. Al-Khalili describes the Grandfather Paradox as an ‘argument that goes round for ever in a self-contradicting circle’. It is therefore a P1 and not a P3. The P3s that Al-Khalili considered in his previous chapters had a basis in hard science. Time travel is at most an hypothesis, but one that is unverifiable. He seems to admit as much when he proposes the ‘multiverse and wormholes in space-time’ as ‘a possible solution to time-travel paradoxes’, but writes that such ideas ‘remain just outside conventional science: fun to consider but impossible to verify’. The last third of his book confusingly mixes such ‘ideas’ with P3s like Fermi’s Paradox that have an empirical basis. Actually, time travel, the multiverse and wormholes in space-time seem to me not only unverifiable, but unfalsifiable. They are therefore not science at all, but ‘thought experiments’.

‘Thought experiments’ are all the rage in science today. Anyone, of course, can devise one. Here, for instance, is the Paradox of Miles’s Cricket, which would slip easily into Al-Khalili’s penultimate four chapters:

I have a cricket that I keep in a matchbox. The cricket can travel at 1.1 times the speed of light whilst remaining subject to the Earth’s gravity. As soon as the matchbox is opened wide enough, it jumps out. To the human observer, will the cricket always appear to be just inside its box?

Whether the thought experiment is the Grandfather Paradox, Schrödinger’s Cat or String Theory, it is an act of pure creative fantasy, although String Theory is commonly said to be elegant mathematics as well. The thought experiment in modern science therefore has more in common with metaphysics and P1s — even with literary paradoxes like George’s — than with what Al-Khalili terms ‘resolvable paradoxes in physics’ (P3s). The thought experiment may be ingenious, it may be delightful, it may be intriguing, it may be disturbing, it may be maddening, but it has no scientific content.

The mathematical physicist John Polkinghorne has extended ‘thought experiments’ to theology. Thus, to take an example from The End of the World and the Ends of God (2000), for him the ‘carrier of continuity’ in our bodies is the ‘immensely complex “information-bearing pattern” in which that matter is organised’ and ‘it is this information-bearing pattern that is the soul. […] At death that human “pattern” is held in the divine memory, to be re-embodied in the “space-time matter” of the new creation’. Polkinghorne believes this. Yet it is only a thought experiment. It has no religious content. This is a fundamental disagreement between us.

A strange similarity between Al-Khalili’s book and Simon Baron-Cohen’s, which I looked at five posts back, is that the standard of writing and/or proofreading deteriorates alarmingly towards the end. I am reminded of the 79-year-old Lord Weidenfeld’s claim at a Frankfurt Book Fair that books were being rushed out before they were fit for publication and ‘extraordinary howlers’ were appearing in print largely because publishers under financial pressure were bringing out books quickly and cheaply, at the expense of editorial and design quality. I think he had a point.

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Whoosh and bang!

A correspondent reminds me that on 7 July I wrote:

Since the last approach I made to any of the 31 publishers on my A list was 1 June, I am inclined to think I should wait until at least 1 August before giving up with commercial publishers. I don’t want to do this, as I intended to take a decision about self-publishing by 15 July, but I’ll compromise by making that the 25th.

Clearly, I did not take such a decision by 25 July. The correspondent therefore quotes to me the immortal words of Douglas Adams: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’

Yurss… I think I catch the heft of my correspondent’s drift. I am sure many other followers also wondered whether this was another case of the ‘O fallacem hominum spem!’ (‘How vain are the hopes of men!’, Kulygin, Three Sisters) leitmotif of my posts in 2016, when I was constantly overrunning deadlines for finishing the book. I would humbly ask readers to consider, however:

  1. I did post about the situation on 25 July; I hadn’t forgotten the date!
  2. When I returned from holiday shortly before, I found the situation completely changed, with as many as four publishers in play.
  3. Deadlines are vital if you are to get from A to C.

The situation has changed radically again. I have just lost two publishers in two days. I had to sack one, and the other sacked me within hours of receiving their commissioning editor’s positive report! This makes a total of three, outwardly respectable publishers that I have had to fire myself since the whole campaign opened in January. I fear I cannot say more: to paraphrase Wittgenstein, ‘What one cannot talk diplomatically about, one should keep silent about.’  But, in entirely different ways, these big names were a sad disappointment when we got down to the nitty gritty.

So it is not just ‘whoosh’, but ‘bang’ — I have no contracts on offer at the moment, and just two of my original 31 A list publishers in play. I  spend a morning, then, taking a rigorous look at the ten publishers on my B list (which I hoped never to have to touch). For a variety of reasons, including, woe, the presence of a difficult Russian publisher’s reader, I drop six of them definitively. Fortunately, though, the nice commissioning editor at X, who has read the book, recommends to me two that I hadn’t thought of.

The current situation, then, is: two publishers in play (one academic) and six to approach seriously next week. A friend reminds me: ‘Publishers never answer emails.’ I am currently thinking therefore that the deadline for a decision on self-publishing may have to be 30 September. I go into Waterstones every week looking at the new biographies for promising new publishers, but I don’t find them.

Thud..!

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It makes you think

An anniversary has just passed: three years ago on 30 July I posted my first entry on Calderonia.

I have just asked my blogmaster to analyse the rather confusing statistics generated daily by WordPress, in order to compile a list of the top six views over the last six months, but that wasn’t possible because of the site migrating to its new address over a year ago. (Posts predating that still get hits.) What he has been able to assemble with accuracy, however, is a ranking for the past twelve months:

1. 29 October 1914: ‘toothache in the ankle’
2. 4 June 1915: The Third Battle of Krithia
3. Guest post: Clare Hopkins, ‘One Man and his College’
4. ‘The errors of democracy’
5. 6-8 May 1915: The Second Battle of Krithia
6. Guest post: John Pym, ‘A bit of fun with Calderon’
7. And the asp jumped over the chimney sweeper!
8. 28 April 1915: The First Battle of Krithia
9. The Nastiness Factor
10. Tahiti: An Imagined World?
11. Guest post: James Miles, ‘Schulz and Peanuts’
12. ‘He was away, far away…’

I find it very interesting. Remember that it does not include you the subscribers, as you ‘hit’ every post, whether you read them all or not… It is a list of the top twelve viewed by people all over the world who are looking for something. Not surprisingly, the battles of Ypres and Krithia score well during this centenary; and my posts of them include maps, so that may help. Similarly, there are an awful lot of alumni of Trinity College out there, they have been told about Clare’s superb post on George the student, and evidently they have followed it up! One can also tell from the little flags that WordPress appends to hits that it is mainly Tahitians who investigate the link between George Calderon, Gauguin and Loti.

It all makes me think about what the blog has achieved, where it is going now, and what is its future.

Calderonia (the name invented by James Miles) was first mooted in 2013, when I had been writing the book for two years. Several people impressed upon me that I must increase George’s Web presence — at that time there wasn’t even a Wiki entry on him — and that a regular blog would help achieve that. You only have to read the recent Comment by Lord Strathcarron, chairman of Unicorn Publishing Group, to see they were right about its ‘marketing’ value. There is no doubt in my mind that Calderonia is responsible for a large part of my comparative success in approaching publishers.

Although I could see the sense of what people were telling me in 2013, I was rather wary at first as I couldn’t see how I was going to present the blog; to be blunter, what I was going to write about. It was the enormous interest in the centenary of August 1914 that simply drove me to the ‘blography’ of George’s (and Kittie’s) first year of the war, i.e. posting almost every day about that until George fell at Gallipolli and 30 July had come full circle. I am proud of having got through that year of blography, but it was so eviscerating at times and such hard work that I was ready to stop there.

But again numerous pragmatic friends, notably Andrew Tatham, author of  the wonderful groupphoto.co.uk, told me I would be mad to give up and waste all that marketing potential for finding a publisher and selling copies, especially if I found no commercial publisher and had to self-publish… I hastily took their advice.

In fact, as followers will appreciate, I have found plenty to write about since July 2015, and I have enjoyed it immensely, despite the fact that it has been a quite different experience from ‘1914-15’ when I was living the war from day to day, two-timing writing the blog and the last chapters of the book, and doing goodness knows what else. But it’s now time to ask again where the blog is going and what it’s brought me.

I have written over a quarter of a million words. I have never written so much in three years in my life before. It’s been exceedingly liberating, because I could write about what I liked, and that’s still a major attraction. But…there has to be more to life and letters than marketing? I don’t have anything against journalism; in fact I have an enormous respect and admiration for journalists, their economy with words, the quality of much of their writing, and their ability as professionals to do it perfectly even when they don’t want to. The blog is the nearest I shall ever come to journalism, however, and it’s not my forte. I fear that the blog has had a deleterious effect on my own prose, especially as the social media encourage you to emote onto the screen without exercising proper rational, aesthetic and editorial control. In the last three years, whilst I have been simultaneously finishing George Calderon: Edwardian Genius and composing the blog, I have written nothing else, excepting about three haikus!

Yet I think there are still things I will want to put down on blog-screen, there are still issues with improving the book, with finding the best publisher and doing the deal, and above all there will still be themes and new discoveries about George and Kittie, which I hope followers will still be interested to read about and perhaps (please) Comment on. And that’s quite independent of marketing.

So, unless there is a wave of emails telling me in the kindest possible terms to call it a day, I shall soldier on, with roughly a post a week, until publication day. Is that reasonable? Should one discuss reviews? In the theatre, you are advised to pretend you haven’t even read them. At the moment, I am thinking of a final image of the cover and announcement informing everyone how to buy the book, of always replying of course to comments, but taking a rest then for a year or two until I (might) start up a different blog altogether.

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28 July 1917: A letter to Mrs Calderon

July 28th 1917                                    Havelock Barracks,  Lucknow, India

… we are having some terrible weather out hear, its never stop raining for five days, I don’t think I have ever witnessed it in England to rain, how it does out hear, it comes down heavy to, I hope you like the Indian Rose I am sending you, we don’t often see Roses growing out here, morest we see, is Ants, the land is fairly alive with them, and after it has been raining, and the sun comes out we often have a plague of flying Ants, especialy at night, they always make for the lamps we have hung in the Bugalow, the light seems to attract all the insects there is, what with Grass Hoppers and Moss Keaters, you don’t get much rest…

…you ask me what I mean to do, after I have done out here, well if I have the pleasure of learning Engineering, I think it would suit me up to the Mark, I am saying this as highly interested in anything of that line, so if I am spared to come home, and work till I get a few shillings, and then I can pay to learn. I have wrote to London, to the International Schools for a Book of Engineering hoping I succeed in getting it, I can see I have been a fool to myself in the past, but I’m only young (“prime of life”), but I have learned more this last three years than ever I new, it will be three year’s on the 5th of August, since I listed, of which I am pleased in one way and not in another, as I don’t think I should ever had of joined the colours if the War hadn’t of broke out…

For more about the writer of this letter go here. On the envelope containing ‘Letters from men at the front in the last war’ one of Kittie’s executors, Louise Rosales, wrote: ‘Quinn seems a rare character.’

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Decisions decisions

The most gratifying thing about the whole process of finding the right publisher for my biography of George, which has been going on since January, has been the enthusiasm so many publishers have shown for George himself and his story. ‘So many’ needs qualifying, of course: actually six out of the thirty-one publishers I approached with a letter and synopsis asked to see chapters or the whole thing. But that is far higher than I expected or than my writer friends predicted, because (forgive the refrain, long-term followers) ‘Nobody knows who George Calderon is’… I am truly amazed, then, that relatively many publishers were that interested; I am hugely relieved that several said they were convinced George needed a biography; and I am rather impressed by their open-mindedness.

I’ve now returned from a week away, to a new and unexpected situation.

First — sensationally! — a commissioning editor emails me that she likes my Introduction ‘very much’. This is possibly the first time anyone has said something positive about it since I wrote Draft 1 in 2013. She had just read Draft 18.

Second, having dropped one and a half offers, I now have two good ones and two academic presses waiting in the wings. I really hope to move things on fast with the first two, as time is passing. If I find myself unable in any circumstances to do the things they request, I will have to take up with the academic presses immediately. But I am not sanguine about the latter publishing the book in less than eighteen months, and the absolute latest date it must come out is 2 December 2018, George’s 150th. So I am simultaneously firming up the budgets for the various self-publishing alternatives.

It looks as though there will be some hard decisions over the next three weeks. I am blessed in having such good literary and business friends who give measured, hard-headed advice from their superior experience. In personal terms, after investing six years of my life in this project, there is much at stake.

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