Book Review

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Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, by Ben Schott

I have to confess, with [I feel quite justified in saying] only a small degree of shame, that I have never in my 67 years [to the best of my knowledge, anyway] previously read a Jeeves & Wooster book by the original, universally revered author, Pelham Grenville [P.G.] Wodehouse, so I’m not able to make a comparison with this “Homage” from author Ben Schott [although I draw a very firm line at “An Homage” for specific grammatical reasons: if it had been described as “An Hommage”, from the original French, I would not have quibbled; whereas the H in the English version, Homage, should be pronounced, requiring A as an indefinite article rather than An; but that’s just my pedantry – don’t get me started on “An historical …”]. Having sounded that note of discord, I do want to praise, in advance of the story itself, albeit somewhat arsa versa [to borrow from the following], the copious chapter notes at the end of the book which, despite being unusual for a fictional narrative, do provide very useful explanatory background, as well as a layer of legitimacy which I can only guess at, given my initial observation.

From the obviously German origin of the name of the author, about whom I know nothing, it is no great surprise to learn that, among his other non-Wodehousian publications is “Schottenfreude — a vital compendium of new German words for the human condition.” Apparently, this is “his second novel, following the triumphantly received publication of Jeeves and the King of Clubs in 2018.” This story is [publishing hyperbole notwithstanding!] the “eagerly anticipated sequel” to the aforementioned, but the two stories are sufficiently independent for me to have enjoyed the latter without recourse to reference to the former. I was already aware, from my research for the biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, that Wodehouse had lampooned Oswald Mosley in several of his books written between 1938 & 1971, casting him in the character of Sir Roderick Spode, aka Lord Sidcup, self-styled Leader of The Saviours of Britain party, more commonly known as the Black Shorts, from the black “footer bags” the adherents were wont to sport as an essential element of their uniform: this was a masterstroke of deflating ridicule by “Plum” Wodehouse. In the text, reference is made to Sidcup’s forthcoming debate at the Cambridge Union, a direct parallel of Mosley’s 21 February 1933 debate against Clement Attlee, “That this House prefers Fascism to Socialism”: Attlee won the debate by 335 votes to 218.

The story itself is, no doubt [given my ignorance], suitably inconsequential, within the context of rich, over-privileged roués of the 1930s, although Wodehouse’s skill is evident, assuming Schott’s style is authentic, in his gentle contrast of the upper classes, with all their foibles, with Jeeves’s all-encompassing & ever-present mastery of any given situation; although, whether Jeeves could be described as working class is debatable; however, Bertie’s involvement with the British security services and, simultaneously, a very eligible and evidently reciprocally amorously interested young lady who is a member of that organisation, does seem to somewhat run counter to the customary perception [unless I am mistaken] of the character of Bertie Wooster, not least because he seems to avoid responsibility in most forms but, especially, matrimony with almost monotonous regularity: according to the notes, he has had “twenty-two near-Mrs”, which are helpfully catalogued by the author, according to year & publication, although “The precise number of Bertie’s engagements is hotly debated by Wodehouse scholars, and opinions differ.”

I hope readers will accept when I say that I can’t give an opinion on this book as an example of Wodehouse’s oeuvre, but as a story using Wodehouse’s characters & fictitious world, I would recommend it, because I enjoyed reading it, without feeling in any way patronised; I’m no better equipped to tackle The Times crossword, a fictitious example of which is given in the notes [and others are referred to in the narrative], however, than I was previously, despite Jeeves’s masterly explanations of the clues: they always seem so obvious, once explained. This hardback version that I read was published in 2020, by Hutchinson, London, ISBN 978-1-786-33193-9; it is also available in paperback, ISBN 978-1-786-33194-6.

Book Review

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Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!

A book for Christmas?

Wilfred Risdon at his office desk in 1937

Just by way of an annual reminder (you can’t have forgotten, surely?), books make an excellent Christmas present, especially at the moment, when we might have rather more time on our hands than hitherto, so if you enjoy reading biographies of people with fascinating/engaging or even objectionable lives, why not think about, either for yourself, or as a gift, the life story of Wilfred Risdon? He was a man whose career divides itself quite neatly into two distinct halves (although there was some overlap, to be fair, in terms of the principles that drove him): the early political activism, fighting for the interests of the British working man (and woman, or course), which took him eventually down the dark road of fascism, in its British manifestation; and the second half, fighting the cause of defenceless animals, endeavouring to impede where possible, or ideally curtail completely, the barbaric practice of experimenting on animals in the cause of human medicine.

The book is available in paperback (and it still only costs GBP15.00, plus postage & packing!) and delivered by post (so please take delivery times into account when ordering), and digital download forms (still only GBP5.00): all variants are available; PDF, ePub, and both popular formats of Kindle, .mobi & .azw3. Each chapter is fully supported with comprehensive notes, and there are also several appendices at the end, with faithful reproductions of literature which was relevant to Wilfred’s life; the most significant of which was his interrogation by the Defence Regulation 18B(1A) Appeal Committee in July 1940, to decide if he could safely be released from internment in Brixton Prison; and even some biographical information about a (second world) wartime Polish pilot, Jan Falkowski, who bought Wilfred’s house in Ruislip, north west London. Whatever your views about the rights and wrongs of right & left in political affiliation, this is a very detailed examination of the life of a 20th century activist who is not well known, but whose work does deserve to be better known. The book can be ordered direct from the Wilfred Books website (which is, assuredly, safe, despite what over-cautious browsers might want you to think) by clicking on this link. If you do order the book, thank you, but nonetheless, Merry Christmas!

Was Orwell guilty of bias?

It is perhaps too easy to assume that a writer such as George Orwell, if not actually saintly, was very well-balanced and even-minded, but the truth of the matter is that he was equally given to bias in his thinking and consequent written output as any other comparably well-educated person would be. I have just taken the opportunity to read his  The Road to Wigan Pier; I actually quote from it in Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles (note 16 to chapter 6; page 150), coming to it by a circuitous route, but I have neglected reading it in toto until now. Initially, it was the desire to read such a well-known book that impelled me, and I already had a general sense of what it embodied, but as I read, I realised that there was a significant relevance to my aforementioned biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon, because Orwell’s book was written in 1936, when he spent some time in the north west of England, experiencing life with ‘working class’ people (a term that seems strangely outmoded today, even though class distinctions are not yet entirely absent) especially miners.

Notwithstanding Wilfred Risdon’s experience as a miner, albeit in the south west of England, and then south Wales, and some fifteen years or thereabout previously, I was interested for two reasons: would Orwell mention the presence of Mosley’s party, the British Union of Fascists (BUF), in the ongoing debate about unemployment, and working people’s lives in general; and, would he acknowledge, in any terms, Wilfred Risdon’s work in Manchester only a year earlier, when he had a staff of 20 under him, and the BUF had driven “an energetic campaign in Lancashire to enlist cotton workers for Fascism …” and “opened about a score of propaganda centres in the cotton towns which, under Risdon’s direction, enrolled new members by the thousand and were so successful as seriously to worry the Labour Party.” (The Fascists in Britain, Colin Cross, Barrie & Rockliff, 1961; an online version can be accessed at https://www.questia.com/library/79757/the-fascists-in-britain) Were miners so different from cotton workers, and did their lives never overlap?

Orwell’s book is in two clearly separate parts; the first details his travels and observations; the second is his polemic against the iniquities of contemporary life, particularly for working people, and how he considered that, notwithstanding his belief that only Socialism offered any hope of achieving any sort of equity, it was socialists themselves who were, in the main, hindering efforts to achieve this equity (he is also somewhat scathing of what he deems Utopian ideas): I was nearing the end of the book without seeing a specific reference to British Fascism, and beginning to wonder if he was going to ignore it completely. However, on page 197 (of 215 in the edition I read) it appears:

When I speak of Fascism in England, I am not necessarily thinking of Mosley and his pimpled followers. English Fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate at first, it won’t be called Fascism), and it is doubtful whether a Gilbert and Sullivan heavy dragoon of Mosley’s stamp would ever be much more than a joke to the majority of English people; though even Mosley will bear watching, for experience shows (vide the careers of Hitler, Napoleon III) that to a political climber it is sometimes an advantage not to be taken too seriously at the beginning of his career. But what I am thinking of at this moment is the Fascist attitude of mind, which beyond any doubt is gaining ground among people who ought to know better. Fascism as it appears in the intellectual is a sort of mirror-image — not actually of Socialism but of a plausible travesty of Socialism. It boils down to a determination to do the opposite of whatever the mythical Socialist does.

Although there is plenty in Orwell’s book that could be quoted & analysed, the paragraph above seems to be the crux of his attitude to what was going on all around him, especially ‘on the other side of the fence’, so to speak. Is there any need to denigrate Mosley’s followers as “pimpled”? However much distaste he might have had for what Mosley was doing (and it is questionable whether Orwell had taken the trouble to ascertain the totality of what Mosley was trying to do), justifiably, of course, with respect to the racism that Mosley condoned, this ad hominem denigration, albeit mild, was unworthy. He considers that English (note: not British) Fascism has not yet arrived, and yet Mosley’s party (one of several initially, but his very quickly became dominant) had been in existence for three and a half years when Orwell started writing his book: enough time to make a very significant impact, like it or not, on British politics.

The character assessment of Mosley is not entirely undeserved, but it surely should be a given that any personality strong enough to create & lead a new political movement, whichever side of the notional political divide he or she might be, is always going to display character traits that are ripe for lampooning? Towards the end of the paragraph he becomes somewhat wooly, as well as potentially arrogant: surely, “the Fascist attitude of mind” was already demonstrably well-established, and who were the “people who ought to know better”? It would have been helpful here, instead of inviting speculation (unless he means “the intellectual”: a sweeping generalisation), Orwell could have been specific. The final sentence does have the ring of truth about it, and I regret to have to say that this still appears to be the situation today: ever more so in our tawdry, polarised political arenas.

I have set out my views on Wilfred Risdon’s politics in his biography, so I see no need to reiterate them here in detail; but aside from his belief in Nationalism and the concomitant necessity for the State to be all-powerful, albeit (in his view) benign if all the members of the body corporate worked positively toward the same beneficent end; and aside from his distaste for Jews and their modus vivendi, as much a product of the times in which he lived as of his somewhat non-conformist Christian upbringing; he was a lifelong socialist & trade unionist, and his primary concern, which in a man of higher social status than he might be considered patrician, was his fellow man, in the generic sense, and especially all who struggled against the yoke of restricting social conditions, and consequently, he was prepared to put his trust in Mosley, for all his faults, to create the more egalitarian society he saw as being possible.

Orwell’s final thoughts return to the evident dichotomy, containing both the ever-present hobby-horse of class, and, notwithstanding another example of his own potential nationalism, another grudging admission that Fascism in Britain was a force to be reckoned with:

Yet I believe that there is some hope that when Socialism is a living issue, a thing that large numbers of Englishmen genuinely care about, the class-difficulty may solve itself more rapidly than now seems thinkable. In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialist party that we need, or we shall not get it. If we do not get it, then Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicised form of Fascism, with cultured policemen instead of Nazi gorillas and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika. But if we do get it there will be a struggle, conceivably a physical one, for our plutocracy will not sit quiet under a genuinely revolutionary government. And when the widely separate classes who, necessarily, would form any real Socialist party have fought side by side, they may feel differently about each other.

I have a feeling (and I apologise for not reading Homage to Catalonia to support this assertion) that Orwell might have had a different viewpoint on the last sentence of the above quote (most likely, decidedly negative) when he returned from Spain in a couple of years’ time: he had practical experience of the difficulty, and almost inevitable conflict, resulting when “the widely separate classes” come together in socialism and its extreme relative: communism. He could not know what lay in store for British Fascism with the coming of war, notwithstanding that it ran out of steam through a combination of circumstances. It is interesting to speculate whether Len Deighton used Orwell’s verbal image of the “cultured policemen” in his concept of a defeated Britain in his novel SS-GB; nevertheless, Wilfred Risdon saw, only three years after Orwell’s book was written, that Mosley’s chances of achieving the power by political means to effect the social change that Wilfred saw as essential were minimal, so he moved into an area of activism that was equally important to him: animal welfare.

Featured image credit: Sascha Ehrentraut.

 

A German Life: are we all Pomseline?

Pomsel

A documentary film was made in 2013, and shown recently on British television; it might have been shown here on a previous occasion, but this was the first time I saw it. It was made by film-makers Christian Krönes, Olaf S. Müller, Roland Schrotthofer, and Florian Weigensamer; it had the title Ein Deutsches Leben (A German Life), and it enabled the then 103 year old Brunhilde Pomsel (affectionately known by her friends & family as Pomseline) to tell her life story, as best as she could remember it, which was surprisingly well (without wishing to be in any way patronising). A book, entitled The Work I Did, and the reason for this post, was written by Thore D. Hansen, and published in an English version, with a translation by Shaun Whiteside, in 2018 (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2018).

What makes this book and, of course, its source material, the subject of the first section, so interesting, is that it is the chronology of a woman whose most notable employment, in the context of 20th century history, was as a typist in the office of Joseph Goebbels who, for those who might not already know, was effectively second only to Hitler himself in the hierarchy of the Nazi machinery until the very end of the second world war. In itself, that would make for a fascinating read, for those of us with a thirst for knowledge of recent history, but she was by no means an ardent Nazi: not quite the reverse, but it is her apparent indifference at the time to events that were unfolding all around her, with the probable inevitable inference to be drawn that she was driven almost entirely by self-interest (and was also possibly not being entirely candid) that galvanised Thore Hansen into presenting a written record of the interviews, followed by an analysis of her recollections, and what relevance they have for the recent re-emergence (interpreted by many as a danger) of right-wing nationalist parties on a global scale, but more specifically in a European context.

But of course I’m guilty in the sense of being stupid. But it wasn’t what everybody wanted. They promised themselves a new revival after the loss of the First World War, and at first that actually happened. A re-blossoming of a humiliated people who had lost the war and not gained some of the rights that could have grown out of the Treaty.

Hansen points out how easily she could have informed herself about contemporary events, using information that was easily available to her, but “[t]he desire for personal recognition and her blind sense of duty towards her superior took precedence in the young secretary.” When the aforementioned documentary film was premiered, the current detachment from, and lack of interest in politics & the democratic process, on the part of large sections of people around the world, giving rise to ignorance, passivity and apathy, enabling those already radicalised to recruit those who are credulous & gullible enough to follow them, was emphasised; Paul Garbulski of the German Vice magazine was quoted as saying: “I have always tried to protect myself from others, and it is the ordinary person in me, filled with sufficient weary absurdity, who paves the way for betrayal and the violence of entire armies. Let us pay attention to the little bit of Pomsel within each of us.” (Gib acht vor der Nazi-Sekretärin in dir {Watch out for the Nazi secretary in you}; VICE Magazin, 17 august 2016, at: http://www.vice.com/de/read/sind-wir-nicht-alle-ein-bisschen-pomsel, visited 28 December 2016)

According to Hansen, “… currently many people are turning away from the democratic system because they do not question the mechanisms that lead to the breakdown of social and human solidarity — or perhaps because they don’t want to question them? In Pomsel’s life, or at least so it seems, little mattered apart from her own advancement.”

And now that was my fate. Who is in control of his fate in such agitated times? Very few people can say: I did this and this for that and that reason. It just happens to us!

What is happening in Europe & the United States is what is engaging Hansen on our behalf, and the parallels between the 1930s and the present day: “Are parts of the population, most of whom have not yet been radicalised by the new demagogues, in the end just as passive, ignorant or indifferent towards current developments as Pomsel described herself and those around her when she was aged twenty-two to thirty-four? Is youth today just as apolitical, and is the political disenchantment of the middle class the actual threat to democracy? Have the democratic elites failed by ignoring the long-term consequences and causes of an increasing political disenchantment? Are we returning, open-eyed, through our passive attitude and apathy, to the 1930s? And can we really draw conclusions for the present day from Pomsel’s biography — conclusions that will stir us into action? Anyone who does not wish to see totalitarian states emerging should take the experiences of the 1930s and Brunhilde Pomsel’s life story seriously.”

He goes on to give a specific example of this fear, as embodied in Turkey: “In our own times we are seeing a dictatorship emerging in Turkey. In the end it is people like Brunhilde Pomsel who have, at the behest of of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, brought the opposition, parliament and the media under the sole control of the president to ensure Erdogan’s power. We don’t know how much opportunism these police officers, functionaries and other henchmen displayed or had to display just to live (or survive) in Erdogan’s new system, but they are calling democracy into question. … The death penalty is due to be reintroduced. The Turkish parliament has been stripped of its power, and the powers of the president have been strengthened. These are all signs clearly reminiscent of the Nazi dictatorship, under which Brunhilde Pomsel began her career in the Reich Broadcasting Corporation after it was cleansed of Jews. What we are observing in Turkey is also happening elsewhere in the world, but we are talking about a country aspiring to membership of a community of democratic values — the European Union. … Democracy is the constant attempt to safeguard and protect the rights of the individual. The new right-wing populists, should they come to power, will deny individuals these rights again, and the old anti-fascist warning ‘Resist the beginnings’ is being uttered far too late.” I have only been able to scratch the surface here of this fascinating book, and there is plenty in it to stimulate thought about the current state of the world without, I hope, giving rise to pessimism: positive action, even in a small way, is possible, and can achieve tangible results.

This subject is of particular interest to me, given my own involvement, as a research subject, with British fascism in the 1930s, having discovered many years ago that my grand-uncle was a major player in the movement, before he detached himself, for reasons explained in his biography, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, to concentrate (very successfully, in my humble estimation) on animal welfare in general, and anti-vivisection specifically. It was always stressed, from the top, in the person of Oswald Mosley himself, down to the rank & file (with some notable exceptions, such as William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, it has to be said) that fascism in Britain, such as it was in its limited and, with the onset of war, failed manifestation, owed nothing to National Socialism in Germany; rather it was modelled on (but not cloned from) Mussolini’s Blackshirt movement in Italy, with its system of corporate government, rather than polarised party politicians who could be (and still can be, in many countries) easily bought. It is futile to speculate from the standpoint of the early twenty-first century whether Mosley could have been the mythical ‘benign dictator’, had he succeeded in his ambitions; my own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that such a thing is impossible, now, especially within the all-pervasive capitalist system, which surely only the most ardent (and blinkered) free-market proponents could resist admitting has failed miserably, but until the world sees sense and transfers all resources to common ownership, we will have to prop up democracy as best we can, to avoid global catastrophe. However, this does mean that we must all engage with politics, even if only to the minimum extent of voting, ideally for issues of importance, rather than being constrained by party straitjackets or, worse, submitting to apathy, expecting other people to decide their fate for them.

There is a fascinating, and rather poignant, postscript to the Brunhilde Pomsel story, which for reasons not elucidated in the book, concerns part of her life that wasn’t revealed during the filming: before the 1936 Olympic Games she met a half-Jewish printmaker & illustrator in Berlin. It is evident that Pomsel must have had more information at her command with regard to the plans of the German administration for the Jews in Germany than she had admitted to during the film, because as a result of their conversations, Gottfried Kirchbach (son of the painter Frank Kirchbach) moved to Amsterdam after the Games to escape persecution. Pomsel was pregnant, but Kirchbach felt he wasn’t ready or prepared to set up a family home in a foreign country and, sadly, Pomsel had to terminate the pregnancy because of the danger to her health from the lung disease she had been subject to for many years. Pomsel was able to visit Kirchbach a few times in Amsterdam, but this became too dangerous for her, and after the war started, she never saw her lover again. Kirchbach died in Amsterdam (no details given) in 1942; Brunhilde Pomsel never had any children after this, lived alone and died in Munich in the night of 27 January 2017, aged 106, and it is mentioned in the book that this is the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Photo credit: still from A German Life, via The Times of Israel: https://www.timesofisrael.com/shot-in-black-and-white-a-german-life-paints-wwii-in-chilling-shades-of-gray/