Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday Essay - Oliver's Endless Adventure 1

Earlier in the week and feeling the need for a break from the environment and other current concerns, I grabbed a new book off the shelf for my train reading. This was another of those almost random choices, a selection from books once owned by my father or grandfather that I had either not read or, at least, not read for a long time.

I have only one rule with these selections. Once chosen, I must finish the book.

This may sound an odd rule, but it is a necessary one. The whole point of the selections is to read books that I might not otherwise read, to allow a degree of chance to take me on whatever stream it chooses. If I stop, then I defeat the process.

This is particularly important because, by their very nature as inherited items, the books that I am selecting from were written some time ago. They are both writings on a subject and an example of style, attitudes and approach at a point in time.

They are generally all "modern" books in the sense that the writers saw the age that they lived in as "modern". At a personal level, I try to avoid the use of the word modern because modernity is simply a rolling point in time. The semi-random nature of the reading brings this out quite clearly.

We are all creatures of our own age and of the age in which we grew up. This creates a degree of discomfort with past attitudes and expressions, one that is arguably stronger today because current society has become in some ways quite rigid and censorious.

I do not want to argue this, and indeed people could easily point to a combination of certain current freedoms and past events and attitudes to mount a counter case. For present purposes, my point is that I am no more immune to the grip of current attitudes than anyone else.

In a number of the books selected I find myself conscious at an early point in the book of ideas that seem odd or even just plain wrong. J H Curle's The Face of the Earth is an extreme example (here, here). I wrote in my first post:       

The book is laced with comments about nationality, race and ethnicity expressed with a freedom that would not be tolerated today. I almost put the book aside after the first chapter with the thought do I have to read this stuff? I kept going because I had, after all, deliberately chosen the book as a window into a past world.

While I kept going because I had to, this proved to be one of the most valuable books that I have read.

Mr Curle wrote well; his travel descriptions are quite fascinating once his attitudes are set aside. More importantly, the book provided an entry point into eugenics and Social Darwinism. Mr Curle's views about nationality, race and ethnicity may sound repulsive, although they are more nuanced than current simple frames allow, but they were representative of a whole stream of then "modern" and indeed "scientific" thought.

Eugenics and Social Darwinism may seem dead and certainly their expression in past forms is verboten. Yet many of the underlying ideas are in fact alive and well. We just talk about them in different ways. What else, for example, is the emphasis on national improvement and competition but a form of Social Darwinism?  

My latest train reading has been F S Oliver's The Endless Adventure, Volume One, The rise of Sir Robert Walpole to the Head of Affairs, 1710-1727 (MacMillan & Co, London, 1931).

Before going on and for those who have never heard of Walpole, he was leader of the government in Great Britain from 1721 to 1742. While he was never called Prime Minister, his long rule actually established the position. Number Ten Downing Street itself was a gift from the King to Walpole.

The first part of the book is a long, ninety page, introductory essay on politics and politicians. Here I might have put the book aside because early on I found his views grated.

Oliver himself is a Scot. He writes of a time when the concept of "British" is still evolving. Indeed, he argues at one point that "English" can properly be used as a term to cover those living in the two kingdoms, rousing some of the issues put strongly by Norman Davies The Isles. Fortunately from perspective, he really puts this aside.

I will deal with Oliver's own position and views a little later. For the moment, the important thing is that I kept reading and became absorbed. His descriptions of politics in an evolving constitutional structure at a critical period in British history is quite masterly.

In his introduction, Oliver himself denied that his book was either history or indeed biography. The book could not be classified as history, he suggested, because he was telling a story based on other people's writing. There was no primary research as such. The book could not be classified as biography either, because he wasn't telling the story of Walpole's life, just a story of a man in politics at a particular time.

Despite these denials, the book was classified as history by both reviewers and readers, becoming a major best seller. The clue to this lies in his writing. There is something a little old fashioned in the style even by the standards of the time; Oliver was near the end of his life when the book was published. Yet some of the writing is quite gripping, his judgements acerbic. To take just one example, he writes of Spanish Prime Minister Alberoni:

It was an age of adventurers. Alberoni's career, so far, reads like a fairy tale, and it had not yet reached its zenith. He was a mountebank priest, a shameless fellow, an eater of toads - what you like!  but he was no imposter, for his talents in the Government of men were nearly equal to his ambition. "Give me," he said, 'but four years of peace, and I will make of Spain the first power in Europe."

Alberoni did do wonders in a short time, but was not to get the time he needed:

Elisabeth Farnese (Queen of Spain) was not nicknamed 'the termagant' in irony. She was not one of those women, like Elizabeth of England or Catherine di Medici, who have the deadly art to bide their time. It was hard enough restraining her for a matter of six months: to have held her for three years might have broken the arms of Hercules. Moreover, the dull-witted Emperor (of Austria) chose this occasion for offering various provocations that drove her almost to a frenzy. .... Alberoni was the worst sufferer from the agitations of these two disordered royalties. His hand was forced, and his plans miscarried.

This is not balanced, objective, history, but it's fun to read!

I know exactly the point in the book that Oliver won me to the point that I forgot my objections and went along for the ride.

Oliver is something of a cynic; more precisely, he does not have idealised perceptions of human behaviour; people are people with all their faults.

I have become a little tired of the tendency to impose unreal expectations on our leaders. We have ended by judging politicians not on results, but on their conformity to certain patterns of behaviours that really have nothing to do with their performance,

Oliver has no such perceptions. Indeed, he does not think that ideals (sets of values as espoused) and idols (ideals as institutionalised in various ways) have much role in politics. To illustrate his point here, he simply takes a set of commonly held ideals and turns them on their head to show how ideals can conflict.

To Oliver, the role of a politician is to get and hold power. To do this, they will genuflect to ideals as appropriate, comply with idols as required. That is part of their craft.

This sounds deeply shocking and cynical to current ears. However, Oliver himself is not cynical about politics and politicians. It's just that he is coming from a different viewpoint.

Walpole was a success as a politician not just in holding power for a long time, but because of the results of that power. In particular, his practical approach, his avoidance of war, improved the condition of the people.

I will continue this essay tomorrow looking at Oliver in the context of his time, at the way in which the book shows how Oliver's own views were shifting in light of events. 

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