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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Crossing the Line, by John Sutherland

This book was first published in 2020, but an updated version, with an epilogue written in December of that year, was published in 2021 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, ISBN 978-1-4746-1237-1. The epilogue included the author’s response to the pandemic, to the time of writing of course, but also events which had happened between finishing the first publication in 2020 and the end of that year and were relevant to the theme of this book. The title, in conjunction with the cover image of the blue & white striped tape used by police to close off crime scenes, might lead one to suppose that this is an account of instances of when police officers have ‘crossed the line’, or transgressed against their calling, but in fact, the subtitle immediately removes any doubt: Lessons from a Life on Duty. John Sutherland was a Metropolitan Police officer until his retirement after twenty-five years of service, and he is very well aware of the low regard with which officers of all ranks are nowadays regarded, from across the whole spectrum of British society [meaning England & Wales; Scotland & Northern Ireland having their own police services].

It isn’t until well into the book that the author reveals that he suffered a nervous breakdown in 2013, although he was able to return to work after a period of recovery, but that revelation does give some perspective to his observations, because as well as being obviously articulate, he makes it clear that he is not an officious disciplinarian, seeing no need to question the status quo. He is obviously distressed about societal disintegration which he sees as the catalyst for the majority of crime, but he also analyses why this should be, and how it can be rectified. He is unequivocal that the majority of police officers are conscientious, joining the service from a genuine desire to help people, and he separates the areas of crime affecting British society today into ten different ‘challenges’, as he refers to them (although there is inevitably some overlap), and the subject areas are clarified in my brackets:

        I: Drunk and Incapable; [alcohol]

      II: Possession with Intent; [‘drugs’]

     III: Just a Domestic; [domestic violence]

     IV: On a knife Edge; [knife crime]

      V: Places of Safety; [mental health]

    VI: Learning to Listen; [community relations]

  VII: Keeping the Peace; [public disorder]

VIII: The Rise of Extremism; [extremism]

   IX: A Question of Belief; [sexual offences]

     X: On the Register. [child abuse]

Item VII is an area where opinions are generally distinctly polarised: the right to freedom of expression; in this case, the right of the British National Party to operate a bookshop. Although Sutherland, who was still in his probation and hadn’t completed his riot training, missed the violence by the time he arrived on the scene of an earlier riot in October 1993, he takes what he considers to be an impartial view: “Though I may despise the BNP and all they stand for, I am still bound by duty and law to protect what’s theirs.” This has a bearing on the research I did for my biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, and the right to express contentious views is just as controversial now as it was in the 1930s.

I can’t share his implicit support for the “respectable folk from rural communities” who participated in “a large demonstration [arranged by the Countryside Alliance] to protest against government proposals to ban fox hunting”, which descended into a standoff between officers & demonstrators near Parliament Square. He says that “At the time, I didn’t hold any particularly strong personal views about fox hunting, but I was very clear what I thought about people trying to break into Parliament.” In my view, “respectable folk from rural communities” can become violent very quickly when their ‘right’ to slaughter innocent non-food animals is called into question. After the incident, “The then Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, admitted that the disorder had taken the Met by surprise. He also confirmed that the force would identify lessons to be learned from the events of the day and that they would examine the actions of individual officers to see whether any had overreacted in their treatment of protestors. And that is exactly as it should be, because the police don’t always get it right. On occasions, whether individually or collectively, they get it terribly wrong. The death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests of 2009 represents a particularly grim reminder of just how badly things can end.”

So, a commendably even-handed exposition, and he can now comment as an ex-police officer: “I will defend with my last breath your right to protest: about human rights, about foreign wars, about basic poverty, about government policy, about state visits by the leaders of totalitarian regimes, about austerity, about any of the myriad things that matter to you. Now that I am retired, I might even line up alongside you. And I will defend your right to challenge the police to be better at what they do, to act with restraint and to say sorry when they get things wrong. Indeed, I will join you in making that challenge. But I will never defend violence or criminality of any kind. Those are the things that render a just cause lifeless.” Room for subjective judgements there, of course. He does try to end on a positive note, but unfortunately, it only serves to signal that there is plenty of room for improvement: “… hope is not a passive thing: it demands action. We know what needs to be done; we just have to get on and do it. We need to understand that, while the cause could not be more urgent, nothing of lasting worth is going to be accomplished overnight…it is going to take time to mend all that has been broken. It might actually take our lifetimes. In the meantime, we need to recognise just how much it is costing to get things wrong and to start spending our money in a completely different way: independent of political agendas, guaranteed for the long-term and focused relentlessly on the first things that must always come first.”

Whatever your place in British society, this is a book worth reading, to go beyond the stereotype presented by the media and those with axes to grind; police officers are human beings too, and improvements to the system under which they work might have been made, but in June 2021, there are obviously still problems with the Metropolitan Police, perceived or otherwise: Guardian article from the 24th of June here. The Daniel Morgan inquiry, recently concluded, has also not helped inspire public confidence: article from The Canary here.

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.

 

Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain, by Alan W.H.Bates

The latest post in Hilda Kean‘s blog, which is always informative, is a résumé of a recent book on a subject very significant to Wilfred Books, Anti-vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain, by Alan W.H.Bates, in the animal ethics series published by Palgrave. She says:

The impact of anti vivisection upon people’s lives is covered far more interestingly than conventional approaches to the topic. There is good discussion of the Research Defence Society’s hostile approach to the thousands of people campaigning against dog petitions to parliament in the 1920s. There is also interesting discussion of the ambiguous approach of the London and District Anti-Vivisection Society in the 1930s and 40s. … The work is well written, accessible and engaging. Please consider purchasing the book of around two hundred pages to get to a wide range of ideas on this important topic.

On a personal note, there are several references in this book to Wilfred Risdon’s work for the London and Provincial Anti-Vivisection Society, and the National Anti-Vivisection Society (now Animal Defenders International), taken from Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, which was published in 2013.

This book, of 217 pages, is available in hardcover at a cost of £20, including free shipping for individuals worldwide, from the publisher at this link; alternatively, because it is an open access book, it can be downloaded for free here. Please go to this page for further information and a chapter breakdown of the book.

Patience is a virtue (allegedly)

Welcome to the new Wilfred Books blog. After much prevarication, I finally accepted that, as a publisher who is trying to establish some sort of presence in “the global market-place”, it was about time that the company had a blog, as well as a website , essential of course, because that’s where I sell the books, and the social media pages (Facebook  and Google+: I don’t do Twitter) so here I am, at last! It’s only fair to say that I also waited until I had more than one solitary book to sell, because that didn’t make me a publisher, but rather, an author trying to sell a book I’ve published (Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles)! I will return to this point later.

I thought, in my naïveté, that it would be the proverbial ‘five-minute job’ to make a new blog: wrong! Possibly it is simply the usual problem of unfamiliarity with a particular user interface for a specific application, but my frustration is partly the result of having created a blog on my personal website, which was the culmination of a very long & tortuous development process, mainly thanks to my relative inexperience as a coder; I now feel reasonably happy with it, even though I would also be the first to admit that it is by no means perfect (and, whilst I could very easily lists its shortcomings, I think I’d rather lyrically accentuate the positive!).

On the whole, I think I’m glad that I didn’t check out other blogs before I designed my own, because I think it would have influenced my conception of the appearance, whereas I approached the task as a design project, which meant that I could make it look exactly as I wanted it to, rather than having to conform to another application’s parameters. When it came to a blog for Wilfred Books however, I thought it would make more sense to use a templated blog, specifically to save time; one of the major drawbacks with my personal blog is that it isn’t responsive (adjusts to different screen sizes: it only works with screens no smaller than a landscape oriented tablet), whereas I knew it was imperative, given today’s peripatetic lifestyle, that the Wilfred Books site was responsive, which it is, even if the graphic design standard is basic!

In the end, I settled on this one; previously, I had what was probably a totally irrational aversion to WordPress, perhaps because of its ubiquity (I confess to being an unashamed nonconformist), but I am reliably informed that the platform is well known and generally liked for its efficacy. Hence, I can now compile & publish a new blog post in a recognisable and responsive form fairly quickly, which means, given that the delightfully-named ‘back-end’ processes (order processing, etc.) on the Wilfred Books site are working effectively, I can concentrate on developing the publishing aspect of the company.

That’s where you, dear reader, come in: do you have a book that you are desperate to publish, but don’t know how to go about it? My preference is non-fiction books, the favourite genres being auto/biography or interesting/unusual family history, but I will consider other genres if they have merit, of course (although I think romantic fiction might be at the bottom of the list!), so if you would like me to consider your magnum opus, leave your email address in a comment, and I will get back to you! Also, please feel free to comment on the style of the blog: I deliberately kept it quite plain, so let me know if you like it, or if you think it could do with ‘jazzing up’ a bit. Thanks!