One could argue that this has little to do with conservative history except that the government of this country in 1939 was Conservative under a Conservative Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain who had to lead the country into war, something that he had tried to avoid. By summer 1939 he knew that was a lost cause but he still tried to win some time and, who knew, perhaps ....
Everyone knows about September 1, 1939 when the German army crossed into Poland, September 3, when Britain declared war followed by a reluctant France as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. But how many people know about the next step in Poland: the country's invasion from the east by the Soviet army on September 17 just as Stalin and Hitler had agreed. Here is the photograph that sums it all up: a German and a Soviet officer shaking hands. One can see the about to be dismembered body of Poland between them:
Write my Spectator article. At 11 am (a bad hour) Vita comes to tell me that Russia has invaded Poland and is striking towards Vilna We are so dumbfounded by this news that there is a wave of despair over Sissinghurst. I do not think the Russians will go beyond her old frontier [sic] or wish to declare war on us. But of course it is a terrific blow and makes our victory even more uncertain.He then makes a series of analytical points and predictions most of which are wrong though some not. I love those diaries dearly and Nicolson's other writings but the man was often an ass. Did he not gather from Maisky what the agreement between Hitler and Stalin might have been about?
Chips Channon was not surprised. He had never liked the Bolsheviks, considering them, if anything worse than the Nazis. He was also PPS to Rab Butler at the Foreign Office at the time and may have had more accurate information about events than Nicolson. On the whole Chips managed to get fairly accurate information in or out of his lowly office. His published entry for September 17 reads:
A glorious September day in Kelvedon where I bathed in the pool, and then in a bath towel rang up the FO to be told the grim news that the Russians had definitely invaded Poland. Now the Nazis and the Bolsheviks have combined to destroy civilization and the outlook for the world looks ghastly.The detail about him being in his bath towel when he hears the fateful news is priceless but the phrase "had definitely invaded" would indicate that something of the kind was expected.
On October 10 Chips wrote:
Russia helps herself to a new country every day and no-one minds. It is only German crimes that raise indignation in the minds of the English.Well, why not? German crimes should raise indignation but it might have been useful if Russian (or, to be precise, Soviet) crimes had also been noted then and later. I am now reading David Satter's book about the bloody end of the Yeltsin era and the even more bloody rise of Putin to absolute power with a couple of invasions on the way, not to mention two horrendous wars in Chechnya, and the same cry can be uttered: no-one minds. Or, at least, very few people then or now.
In view of my plans to campaign for the publication of the full version of Chips Channon's diaries I have started re-reading them. I have a copy (much used ) of the 1967 version but the 1993 version has no changes, merely a short new introduction by Robert Rhodes James. Though the newly found late diaries are mentioned they are not added as too many people were still alive (actually not that many by 1993 but both Paul Channon and Robert Rhodes James had been scarred by the original reception of the book).
The moment one starts reading those entries one becomes engrossed. The people and events are fascinating and Chips's descriptions are enthralling. Some of the people are little known these days and so one cannot be sure whether he is right or wrong in his judgements (were those peeresses really so dowdy?) but others are historically important figures and then one can weigh up whether one agrees with him or not.
His adoration of Chamberlain is a little surprising not because the man was evil personified as some people would have it - he was not but a very capable and well-meaning politician - but because there is no evidence that he had the personality, which could excite adoration. Even in this case Chips mentions several times that the government had become a one man show, which is not healthy, and enumerates the speeches that are not all that good in his opinion.
More interesting is his dislike for the constantly seething "Glamour Boys", as he calls them, around Eden who plot to no particular end and who sometimes go into a huddle with the Soviet ambassador Maisky,
the Ambassador of torture, murder and every crime in the calendar.,as Chips wrote on May 3, 1939.
Ah yes, I hear people say, but what of his own lenient attitude to the Nazi regime. Indeed, he was not really harsh enough about them but it is not true that he was always lenient or even pro-Nazi. That is a big subject and I need to write a separate post about it. For the moment I shall keep to the subject of Chips on some of his colleagues in the House of Commons.
He is particularly interesting on Eden, whom he likes personally and whose charm he freely acknowledges but whose abilities he considers rather mediocre and whom he fears because of his lack of control in his international likes and dislikes. His prediction is that Eden's career will continue to be catastrophic, something that was seen to be completely wrong for a while but was eventually proved to be correct. For this, if no other reason, one would like to read Chips's late diaries, which must cover the Suez fiasco and the final collapse of that career.
Meanwhile, here is a quote that made me laugh out loud. It is from his entry for May 10, 1939, after Hitler had "let Chamberlain down" by marching into Prague and Mussolini reneged on the Anglo-Italian Agreement by marching into Albania. War seems inevitable but Chips, as PPS to RAB Butler, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, is still a little hopeful. Even he is losing hope of peace for much longer. This is the wonderful entry:
All morning at the FO intriguing and arranging matters, and the hours passed in a confusion of secret telephone calls and conversations. The startling thing about my intrigues is that they always come off.On the whole that was probably true though eventually he did not manage to keep his job but then neither did RAB. It does, however, explain why Chips had such a multitude of enemies as well as friends.
For a while before and during the First World War Williams was considered to be one of the pre-eminent experts on Russia and, together with such luminaries as Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace (my particular hero in that rather muddled story) and Sir Bernard Pares, he led the campaign for rapprochement and an alliance between Britain and Russia. Looking back on what it led to (the First World War and its various outcomes) one may feel doubtful about the policy and the campaign but with Germany becoming more powerful and the Great Game more or less coming to a standstill while becoming more and more expensive, it seemed like a good idea. (More of that in other postings. I promise.)
During the First World War Williams together with the novelist Hugh Walpole set up the British Propaganda Office in Petrograd, promoting Britain in Russia as opposed to Russia in Britain. Williams and his wife supported the February Revolution, not least because they, like so many other people, thought that this would stiffen the Russians' fighting ability as well as help the country develop into a democracy.
When the Civil War broke out both the Williamses went back and he became war correspondent with Denikin's army. As the Whites lost the war Williams's reputation declined. He may or may not have been reporting accurately or objectively (nobody was, as it happens) but he was involved with the losing side so he had to be wrong. That accounted for him finding it hard to get work in journalism when he eventually came back to Britain but that, too, changed when, in 1921, he became Foreign Editor of The Times. He died in 1928 and that may have contributed to him becoming less important in accounts of journalistic reporting from Russia. The fact that he was fiercely anti-Bolshevik did not help either.
In her recent biography of Harold Williams, slightly awkwardly entitled Russia's Greatest Enemy?: Harold Williams and the Russian Revolutions, the historian Charlotte Alston says in the Introduction that opinions of his journalism were mixed. She then proceeds to quote Maxim Litvinov, the first Soviet Plenipotentiary in Britain who called Williams Russia's greatest enemy but was hardly an objective witness; also Arthur Ransome who was as fiercely pro-Bolshevik as Williams was anti and who saw no need to help his friends the Williamses as they ran for their lives in late 1917; and Philip Knightley who, in his history of war correspondents, The First Casualty, that Williams's very personal involvement with the White movement made him the least reliable correspondent of the period and he ought never have been sent to cover the Russian Civil War. Presumably, Knightley does not think highly of Bernard Pares or Robert Wilton, who was seriously right-wing even by Russian standards, either. On the other hand, why should one think that Arthur Ransome, who was very personally involved with the Bolsheviks (close friend with Karl Radek and others, married eventually one of Trotsky;s secretary) was in any way reliable.
Harold Williams was also a remarkable linguist, picking up languages with ease from a very early age and writing grammar books for those who did not have one. He is said to have known fifty-eight languages but that may be just a myth. Possibly it was no more than fifty.
When his widow, Ariadne Tyrkova-Williams published his biography, Cheerful Giver, in 1935, reviews were mostly positive about the book and about the subject. However, Harold Nicolson decided to indulge in his usual waspishness when he wrote about it in the Daily Telegraph Christmas Supplement, published on November 29, 1935. According to Charlotte Alston:
Harold Nicolson, who also reviewed Tyrkova-Williams's biography, painted a picture of Williams lisping in Maori, speaking in Serbian with a slightly Croat intonation, Rumanian with a Bessarabian lilt and Swedish with 'a decidedly Norwegian accent'.One cannot help wondering how Nicolson, who knew none of these languages and did not think highly of the people in question could discern this. The likely explanation is that he considered both Williams and his wife to be "bedint", his and Vita Sackville-West's favourite term for people they did not think were quite - quite.
It seems about time to start that campaign to have the whole of Channon's diaries becoming available and, indeed, published, as I wrote some time ago. The published diaries are fascinating and often remarkably accurate, despite a comment made by one reader on my posting. Chips may have been shallow (what politician is not?) but his judgements were remarkably accurate and his knowledge of what was going on phenomenal, With all the diaries in the public domain we would see more of that.
In the meantime, I shall have to re-read the existing diaries (well someone has to do these chores). I wanted to get hold of the later edition with that new introduction by Robert Rhodes James but have experienced some difficulty in that. So, the 1967 edition it will have to be. My one problem is that my copy is falling apart. Indeed, I keep it together, somewhat inelegantly, with a rubber ring. Chips would have been horrified.
A visit to the Charing Cross Road bookshops is indicated. It will all make a very good change from the other book I am reading, Tolstoy and his disciples by Charlotte Alston. In fact, there could not be a greater contrast.
There is no question: this blog has been shamefully neglected and one of my resolutions for the start of the new academic year, which, out of old habit, I consider to be more important than the start of the calendar one, is to post on it articles long and short several times a week. Indeed, I fully intend to post articles by other people who consider it worth their while to send me any. Everyone will be fully acknowledged and necessary links put in.
Let me start with a link to an article in an American conservative publication, actually the American conservative publication, the National Review, Bill Buckley's brain child still going strong. The article is by John O'Sullivan, one of the leading conservative thinkers on both sides of the Pond and, these days also in Australia. He is also the onlie begetter of O'Sullivan's First Law, which states that "All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing."
The article is about Theresa May, the second woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Incidentally, how many will there be before the Labour Party has a woman leader?
Ho-hum, I hear you say, how is that related to history? Well, the article places the discussion of her personality and what we know about her ideas (with a good deal of criticism as well) in a historic perspective with references to Margaret Thatcher (naturally) but also to "our Joe", Joseph Chamberlain and his social ideas that have become a very strong strand in Conservative thinking.
How will Theresa May cope with the various problems that have emerged since "our Joe" and his ideas about the working class while concentrating on the complex issues around the Brexit negotiations? We do not know at this stage and can only guess. The article covers many issues and is very well worth reading in its entirety to which end I shall post no quotes. Go away and read it.
As Edmund Crispin he wrote a far too short series of detective novels and short stories about Gervase Fen, Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature.
Anyone who reads his novels (and I can thoroughly recommend them for being clever, witty and often laugh-out-loud funny as well as highly literary) must realize that BM/EC was thoroughly conservative in his outlook. As it happens he was also a Conservative in his political support though not always in tune with the party. David Whittle points out that, unlike many of his friends, such as Kingsley Amis, Montgomery/Crispin never went through a left-wing phase.
Therefore, readers will not be surprised to hear that he was not particularly enamoured with Edward Heath, the bane of all conservative Conservatives. During the last couple of decades of his life he started a number of projects or, at least thought of them, but did not finish them. It was a very sad tale of decline but has to be off-set by the story of his earlier career, which was effervescently successful.
One of the projects (and how one wishes he had completed it) was a novel about two writers who live close to each other, cannot stand each other and are commissioned to write a detective novel together. Because some of the action takes place in a doctor's surgery, the title was going to be What Seems to be the Trouble? and it has the usual Montgomery/Crispin references to his friends
and there is also a savage attack on VAT and on Ted Heath, the Prime Minister for some of the time the book was being written (he is called a 'monomaniac mugwump').A monomaniac mugwump? Absolutely brilliant. I wonder what in particular the monomania was. Somehow I cannot imagine Montgomery/Crispin to be in favour of Britain's entry into the Common Market.