Winchester, Simon. Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain. London: Faber & Faber, 1981.
It’s sometimes difficult for Americans to understand how the titled class in Great Britain manages to hang on and on, in what is supposed to be a democracy. In fact, under various Labour governments, Britain has been far more radically socialist than the United States — but the dukes and earls and barons have always survived. Is it just the British love of tradition? Probably not. In fact, Winchester makes a very good argument, well supported by charts and tables, that class is still alive and well in the U.K. and that the upper class still controls the nation’s land to a startling degree. A number of inquiries, even by the government, over the past century have been unable to nail down just how much land each peer controls, but the author estimates the total at something like four million acres — not much to a large Texas rancher, perhaps, but that constitutes about one-third of all the land area of Britain. And it’s in the hands of fewer than 1,500 families. This is not something British aristocrats really want publicized and, in fact, they go to some lengths to at least obfuscate it. Winchester actually had finished this book in 1978, but his publishers came under assault by a number of titled persons who figured in it. The legal system in Britain pretty much allows individuals who are the subjects of books, no matter how much in the public eye they may be, to suppress such works before publication. It was only with the assistance of a few sympathetic specialist lawyers — especially Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, the foremost authority on peerage lore in Britain — that his work finally saw the light of day. But this lively volume is far from being a dry socioeconomic study! Winchester went and visited as many dukes and earls as would talk to him (some did), as well as chatting up a broad sampling of the barons who constitute the lower rungs of the aristocracy. Some of these, such as the Duke of Devonshire and Baron Mowbray, he seems to approve of, more or less. In other cases, he lets the man’s personality and opinions speak for themselves. And it’s not a cliché that hunting, fishing, dining, and collecting account for the majority of interests of a great many of the titled. Winchester also describes at length the qualitative differences among the five ranks of the peerage: The special place of the dukes, who are far, far higher on the ladder than even the marquesses next below them; the fact that retiring prime ministers have traditionally been created viscounts; the peculiar inferiority complex of many among the ranks of the barons. There are also some curious effects that follow enoblement.”Those who carry a title as a consequence of their birth are not in one single case as distinguished in any field as was the first holder of the title; in every single case they are either as comfortably settled as was the first holder or are considerably more settled than was that first holder. . . . In short, the elevation to the peerage has brought the group firmly within the Palace gates of the Establishment, yet appears to have done little to increase their usefulness, as a group, to the society that honoured their forebears. Small wonder that most peers, of recent and of ancient creation, are reluctant to give up what privileges they have.” So while the author has nothing personal against most of the peers he has observed, he does not think stripping the upper class of most of its acreage and the House of Lords of its remaining legislative powers would be a bad thing. There’s also a great deal of anecdotal history in this book (or it might have been considerably thinner), most of it fascinating and some of it hilarious. The heralds and pursuivants who make up the staff of the College of Heralds often do not approve of those to whom titles and arms are granted, for instance — and you don’t want to annoy someone with a title like Portcullis or Rouge Dragon! (6/30/01)
Jackson, Robert. Unexplained Mysteries of World War II. NY: Gallery Books, 1991.
This book is not only rather dull, it’s also mis-named. The disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the fate of Martin Bormann and the LADY BE GOOD, and the German motivation in shooting down Leslie Howard’s plane are almost the only “mysteries” investigated. “How close was Hitler to perfecting the atomic bomb?” is an interesting sidelight on the war, but it’s not a mystery, nor is the self-sinking of the submarine TANG in 1944. Many of the illustrations included are pure padding and have little or nothing to do with the subject under discussion, and because the author is a Brit, he stretches to include details of British involvement in events in which they were very peripheral. (6/21/01)
Minear, Richard H. Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel. NY: New Press, 1999.
I’m one of those who grew up in the ‘50s with the Dr. Seuss books, and I still enjoy them. But I was somewhat disappointed with this collection of his editorial cartoons from 1941-42. Partly, that’s because his creativity seems to have stumbled in doing them — especially if you compare his work to, say, Herblock’s wartime cartoons. And partly, it’s because the book itself could have been much more informative. The lengthy notes on each drawing mostly just describe what you’re already looking at; there’s very little analysis. Aside from that, I’m puzzled at the comments by all the critics on Dr. Seuss’s apparent “racism” in depicting the Japanese. This was wartime, folks! Of course there was anti-Japanese racism in the United States! Portraying the enemy in extremely uncomplimentary terms was part of the war effort. Remember the buck-toothed Japs with Coke-bottle glasses in the Warner Brothers theatrical cartoons? Remember the official U.S. government own visual interpretations on recruitment posters of the Japanese? Granted, it was stronger in the case of our Asian enemies because (1) there were relatively far fewer Japanese-Americans in 1942 than there were Americans of German and Italian descent, and (2) Asians simply stand out more prominently in a predominantly European country. Well, hindsight is a wonderful thing. And while it may be politically incorrect for me to point this out, it certainly doesn’t make me racist to make the observation. (6/20/01)
Smith, Godfrey. The English Companion: An Idiosyncratic Guide to England & Englishness from A to Z. London: Pavilion Books (NY: Clarkson Potter), 1984.
The English are often a puzzlement to us Yanks, whether we’re trying to do business over there or merely reading Dorothy Sayers over here. Smith, a novelist, short story writer, and columnist, has done a pretty good job at explaining various odd English-isms, such as kippers, the jug of ale vs. the straight glass, the six kinds of football, and the tendency to reply to “Thank you,” with another “Thank you.” He also writes tidy little mini-essays on quintessential English writers such as Jane Austen, Anthony Burgess, Stephen Spender, and A. J. P. Taylor — even when they’re actually Irish, like George Bernard Shaw. Considering that this book was written seventeen years ago, some of his efforts haven’t worn so well, especially the essays on each of the decades of the 20th century and almost every mention of the Labour Party and of Margaret Thatcher. Still, I’ve always wondered what the Cotswolds were. (6/19/01)
Wood, Michael. Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England. NY: Facts on File, 1986.
Wood is best known as a BBC “presenter” of the PBS variety, but he’s also an Oxford-trained historian. His books (and television series) are solid history but still accessible. These two books are almost two halves of a whole, an investigation of what happened in England between the departure of the legions and the arrival of William’s Normans, and why, and what the effects were on the further development of the “English” (. . . Celtic, Danish, Norwegian, Norman French . . .) people. Lots of maps and illustrations, lots of archaeological plats, and a nice turn of phrase in nearly every paragraph. (6/12/01)
Varley, John. Steel Beach. NY: Ace, 1992.
As I said before, I’m a big fan of Varley’s work. I first read this one, which is easily his best, when it first came out. In the near-decade since then, I had forgotten most of the details . . . which means it was time to re-read it and enjoy it all over again! The Invaders mopped up Earth in three days and went about their business — think of it as spraying for termites — and mankind is now limited to the eight worlds of our solar system to which we had already managed to spread. Now it’s nearly the Bicentennial, and keeping Luna running and all its millions of inhabitants happy is the job of the Central Computer. And C.C. has done a pretty good job of it, too. No one messes with research in physics anymore, but the biological sciences have exploded to the point that changing your sex involves no more than a quick trip to a boutique. Everyone’s body is loaded with nanobots (thanks to the Central Computer again), hardly anything is illegal, and the oldest Loonies are pushing three hundred years. And then the Central Computer begins to develop psychological problems. . . . Varley’s style is similar to Heinlein’s — but far better developed — and he also models himself on R.A.H. in spewing out novel ideas and quirky thoughts on every page. This is a fat book, more than 560 pages, but trust me: You’re going to wish there was more. (5/27/01)
Holland, Cecelia. The Death of Attila. NY: Knopf, 1973.
I’ve been a fan of Holland’s ever since her first novel, written while she was an undergraduate and published the year after; that was in 1966, a year ahead of me. I’ve been collecting first editions of her works for years, and she remains, in my considered opinion, the best historical novelist writing in English today. Still, I like best her earlier stuff, most of which is set in various corners of medieval Europe. This one is about the last days of Attila (in a.d. 453), who formed the diverse Hiung tribes into a nation, and the almost immediate disintegration of his empire without him to hold it together and impress his will upon it. But the story itself focuses on Tacs, a young warrior and something of a ne’er-do-well, though brave in battle and intensely loyal to the Kagan. Then there’s Dietric, son of the subject Gepid king, Adaric, who’s fascinated by the Huns and becomes friendly with Tacs. There are Tacs’s cronies, Monidiak and Yaya and Bryak, also single, who join him in annoying their neighbors, and The Fluteplayer, a great shaman and sort of a surrogate father to Tacs. And there’s the Roman monk, Aurelius, who hopes to convert the heathen Hun but ends up understanding them much better than he expected. Holland, as always, puts you right in the midst of the people, showing you how even the strangest of strange cultures makes perfect sense to those immersed in it. (5/20/01)
Atkinson, Kate. Behind the Scenes at the Museum. London: Doubleday, 1995.
Ruby Lennox tells the story of her own life, beginning with the moment of her conception in 1951 in York, largest city in the north of England, moving agilely from near-slapstick to sly wit to very dark humor indeed. Alternating with the present-day chapters as Ruby gets older are chapter-length “footnotes” that examine the lives and parallel experiences of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and their siblings. In fact, there are numerous themes that develop here in parallel: What it means to be a mother, a sibling, a sister, what it means to leave everyone behind, what it means to grow up. An awful lot of people die in this book, but seldom in uninteresting ways, and often with a bit of waggish coincidence thrown in. Atkinson is very astute at portraying and developing her characters and possesses a nearly flawless sense of timing, although you may want to sketch out a pedigree chart to keep track of who’s who and their relationships to everyone else; I had to keep turning back to check. The chapter on the Great War and its effects on the participants is especially moving. If you’re thinking “chick book,” just forget the labels. When you finish it, it’ll be weeks before you find anything else that seems equally worth reading. This is an extraordinary piece of work for a first novel and it deservedly won the Whitbread Prize in Britain (think Pulitzer or National Book Award). (5/16/01)
Gravett, Christopher. Hastings 1066: The Fall of Saxon England. London: Osprey, 1992.
The Norman invasion of England has always fascinated me, as it has a great many English-speaking historians. Gravett is a military historian/wargamer, so his approach is very detailed. You can follow the invasion, from the geopolitical rationale behind it to its preparation and the landing at Pevensey, almost day by day, mile by mile. And the culminating battle — a pretty close thing, actually — minute by minute and yard by yard. The strategic and tactical maps are excellent and there are also a number of plates displaying typical arms and armor on both sides. (5/10/01)
Liss, David. A Conspiracy of Paper. NY: Random House, 2000.
Put John Grisham in knee breeches and a fullbottomed wig and he might have produced this very entertaining story of high finance and the law in early Georgian London. Benjamin Weaver, born Lienzo, is a Sephardic Jew long estranged from his family, an ex-pugilist (and highwayman and burglar and various other sordid occupations), and now a highly sought after “thief-taker” who seeks out debtors and stolen goods for a fee. The murder of his father, whom he had thought he hated, sets him in pursuit of an unknown killer — but he finds himself quickly caught up in the complex and often bewildering affairs of the South Sea Company. The Company and the Bank of England are competitors for the enormously profitable business of servicing England’s national debt, and the Company at least is apparently willing to go to some lengths to protect its potential profits. But Weaver also is given to violence to gain his ends and his enemies had just better watch out. The plot is complicated but Liss, an expert-in-the-making on the subject of early 18th century English finance, explains things through his characters in a thoroughly informative way, from the ways in which an urban society functions in the absence of a police force, to the shift from “hard” money to fiat paper. His characters are, for the most part, realized in such great depth and with such believability that they take complete shape before the reader. Some of them — especially his Uncle Miguel, the well-to-do goods merchant and importer, and Miriam, his late cousin’s widow — are marvelously done. So too is Abraham Mendes, fellow Jew and cold-blooded henchman to Jonathan Wild, the first modern crime czar. Liss also has a perceptive knack for approximating the idiom of the time and place without losing the reader. This novel is a very impressive debut. (5/06/01)