Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Of pansies, potatoes, and middle-aged sublimity

Amidst a much longer rumination on ageing by Frank W. Boreham, a popular early twentieth-century English Baptist preacher, one finds...a garden. 

A man’s life is like a garden. There is a limit to the things that it will grow. You cannot pack plants in a garden as you pack sardines in a tin. That is why the farmer thins out the turnips, the orchardist prunes his trees, and the husbandman pinches the grapebuds off the trailing vines.

Life has to be treated similarly. By the time a man enters middle life he realizes that his garden is getting overcrowded. It contains all the flowers that he planted in his sentimental youth and all the vegetables that he set there in his prosaic manhood. It is too much.

There must be a thinning out. And, unless he is extremely careful, he will find that the thinning-out process, will automatically consist of the sacrifice of all the pansies and the retentions of all the potatoes.

It carries on in this vein for some time and then draws some conclusions from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and some thoughts about Habakkuk.

Then: 

The man of forty rests, therefore, under at least three imperative obligations. He must make up his mind that the arrival of middle-age has not closed against him the door of enterprise; he must resolve that, in the mature years of his life, he will cherish some of the more amiable sentiments that inspired his impressionable youth; and he must regard himself as the natural protector of those who are battling fiercely and bravely with the forces through which, not without scars, he has himself passed.

In spite of everything, middle-age may then be made sublime.
Articles "On Being Fifty" and "On Being Sixty" followed, so Dr. Boreham seems to have been speaking with some experience.

Dr. F. W. Boreham, "On Being Forty", The Christian World, 13 June 1940, 8. (Line-breaks added)

The past: perhaps a not-so-foreign country

This feels familiar:

Never before, I suppose, has so much music rolled into our lives as now. I have sometimes thought it would be an ideal thing if a river ran past at the foot of everybody’s garden. That is impossible. But now, with the coming of wireless, everybody may regard his home as being built on the banks of music. We ought never to shut out, however, and never forget, the pleasantness of natural sounds.

It is when somebody has had the wireless going too long, and it is at last mercifully shut off, that we rediscover the charm of the little friendly sounds in and about home—a clock, or the lapping of flames in the firegrate, in winter, or the sparrows thinking aloud or the leaves of trees in a light breeze in summer.

Dr. J.H. Jowett, on a boat up the Thames complained of the people who brought gramophones with them. With the gramophone they cut out much pleasanter and, in that setting, more suitable sounds—the water curling along the side of the boat, the rushes in the bank, talking under their breath.

One day this week I was standing in the garden of some friends of mine; such a garden! Lupins of all shades, like scores of pinnacles above a city, roses healthy and regal, fruit trees with heavy branches of growing fruit—all moist, full, and fresh.

 But when I was there half the garden’s soul was cancelled out. The son of a neighbour, in his teens, had all windows open and was rehearsing his jazz band. La, la, clip, clop, la-di-da, clapperti-klonk. Whatever it sounded like where everything else was artificial, it was a tin-lid-and-dustbin horror there.

The best music made by human beings is wonderful. I love an orchestra. But I love the sound of rain.

"Sparrows thinking aloud" is a very, very nice turn of phrase. 

"Ludgate", "The World Goes By", The Christian World, 13 June 1940, 2. (Line breaks added.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

What forces me to be on the Left?

Eric Rohmer on his political allegiances:

I don't know if I am on the Right, but in any case, one thing is certain: I'm not on the Left. Yes, why would I be on the Left? For what reason? What forces me to be on the Left? I'm free, it seems to me! But people aren't. Today, first you have to pronounce your act of faith in the Left, after which everything is permitted. So far as I know, the Left has no monopoly on truth and justice. I too am for peace, freedom, the eradication of poverty, respect for minorities - who isn't? But I don't call that being on the Left. Being on the Left means endorsing the politics of certain people, parties, or regimes that say they're on the Left and don't hesitate to practice, when it serves them, dictatorship, lying, violence, favoritism, oscurantism, terrorism, militarism, bellicism, racism, colonialism, genocide.

Why did I have to think of Labour under Corbyn when coming across this statement in Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe's biography of Eric Rohmer (Columbia UP 2014)?

Friday, August 12, 2016

Mental slackness. Sort of.

Perhaps a glimpse of an under-researched historical phenomenon?


“Sort of” Girls

“Too many girls are satisfied with a very small vocabulary, and with vague statements—using ‘sort of’ and ‘kind of’ and many qualifying adjectives which indicate mental slackness and contentment with superficial knowledge,” said Miss K. I Sayers, Headmistress of Lowther College for Girls, Bodelwyddan, at a Speech Day celebration.

“I attribute this chiefly to the lack of good conversation in the home. Bridge parties have taken the place of family conversations.”

“What Writers and Thinkers Are Saying”, The Christian World, 30 June 1938, 13.

Lord knows what she'd have made of the Internet.

Though my anecdotal perception after nearly two weeks in London is that approximately two-thirds of young women's sentences open with the phrase "And I was like...".

I doubt that can be blamed on bridge parties, though.

"With peculiar severity"

Spotted in an issue of The Christian World from 1938:

“There was an ugly scene in the House of Commons on Monday when a Conservative member ‘was understood to say’ to a Labour member, ‘Go back to Poland’—and the insulted gentleman very regrettably, but not unnaturally, retorted with a blow. His action was particularly unfortunate in that it may have slightly lessened the resentment felt by the House against the original aggressor. Whether in Parliament or out of it, British public opinion will always express itself, we hope, with peculiar severity in respect of insinuations made against public men on grounds, real or imaginary, of race or religion. This is an un-English practice, and all decent Englishmen should be determined to keep our public life free of it.” 

"Not English" (leading article), The Christian World, 7 April 1938, 10. Emphasis added.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The robbers and the robbed

Spotted in The Christian World in 1937 -- on a page devoted to “What Writers and Thinkers are Saying": a quote from George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier:

“Probably we could do with a little less talk about ‘capitalists’ and ‘proletarian,’ and a little more about the robbers and the robbed. But at any rate we must drop that misleading habit of pretending that the only proletarians are manual labourers. It has got to be brought home to the clerk, the engineer, the commercial traveller, the middle-class man who has ‘come down in the world,’ the village grocer, the lower-grade civil servant and all other doubtful cases that they are the proletariat, and that Socialism means a fair deal for them as well as for the navvy and the factory hand. They must not be allowed to think that the battle is between those who pronounce their aitches and those who don’t; for if they think that, they will join in on the side of the aitches.” (Quoted in The Christian World, 1 April 1937, 13)

A curious spot to find Orwell, though it seems as relevant now as then (even if it should be taken to heart as much by those on the side of the missing aitches as on the other one). 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A war is won on a nation's stomach

Adverts from the Ministry of Food, 1942.

Spotted in the British Weekly,  14 May 1942, p.79:


...and 12 November 1942, p. 83:


(Another installment in the -- now rather intermittent -- "historical bycatch" series.)

"Multitudes of Americans in England"

Spotted in the pages of the British Weekly (a Christian, Free-Church newspaper) from 1943: a short article by Lynn Harold Hough, an American Methodist minister, written after a visit to wartime Britain.

Just now there are multitudes of Americans in England. One meets American officers and men in the ranks everywhere. You see them on the streets, in the hotels, and in the clubs. And they are receiving a most hearty welcome.

Indeed, there is something winning about the way in which your English friends say to you: ‘What can we do to make your American soldiers feel at home among us? We cannot entertain them in the fashion which would have been possible in pre-war days. But if they will take us as we are, and accept such food as in these times of rationing we can offer, we will be glad to have them in our homes.’ And from the American you are apt to hear: ‘I am receiving so many invitations that I cannot accept them all.’

To be sure there are problems. Our soldiers are paid at a higher rate than the British. And sometimes the glamour of the American soldier—a very attractive person—and of the money he has to spend, causes English girls to show more interest in him than in the British Tommy.

Then there is the colour problem. These American Negroes, with their soft voices and gentle ways, are very interesting to the British, who are eager to serve them in their canteens and to welcome them in their homes. The white soldiers from south of the Mason and Dixon line—and not they alone—are a bit astonished. And sometimes more than that.

One asks rather searching questions about the nature of democracy as one confronts this problem.

Interesting: and not simply because I'm the son of one of those "glamorous" American soldiers.

Lynn Harold Hough, "Thoughts in War Time England", British Weekly, 14 January 1943, 197.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"The Hopes of Europe Have Descended upon this Island". Yet again.

Several months ago I submitted an abstract for a paper to the "Britain and the World" conference, organised by the British Scholar Society. It's derived from my current book project on a British Christian intellectual group (though it contained a few non-British non-Christians) in the 1930s and 1940s and its reactions to the European crises of the period.

Little did I know that the conference would coincide with the UK's referendum on its membership in the European Union.

Hence I had little idea that the title of my paper -- which I will now give on the day before the referendum -- would sound so...um...fateful: '"The hopes of Europe have descended upon this island": War, Religion, and the National "Mission" in a British Christian Intellectual group, 1937-1949'

The quote in the bit before the colon comes from an essay in the Christian News-Letter from 1941 by an anonymous author identified as "an able historian with intimate first-hand knowledge of Germany".

I still haven't been able to figure out who he (and it's probably a he) was.

In any case, the essay was titled, "The Nazi Creed" and was mainly about analysing the enemy that Britain was at that time fighting largely alone (though with the support of its empire).

The essay is interesting for a number of reasons, not least for aspects of its analysis of Nazism: "The Hitler movement", it argued, "is suburban, and suburbia is everywhere practically out of touch with the traditions of Europe, including the religious traditions."

Right or wrong -- which is not the point of my talk -- the essay was also the source of my paper's title.

Here is the relevant passage, which consists of the concluding sentences of the essay, in a section titled "The Defence of the European Tradition":

In this war England is certainly fighting for her very existence but she is also fighting for the cause of Europe. She would be still fighting for Europe even if the whole continent should accept the Nazi new order. Success does not affect principles. The hopes of Europe have descended upon this island and there they will stay inseparably bound up with the fate of England.” -- Christian News-Letter #80, 7 May 1941.

What's coming is anyone's bet; though I'd suggest those hopes were better placed in 1941 than 2016.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

For they have maxims, and we have not

Something about this passage, read aloud to me recently by The Wife, seems as relevant now as it likely was in 1860:  

"All people of broad, strong sense have an instinctive repugnance to the men of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy. And the the man of maxims is the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgement solely by general rules, thinking that these will lead them to justice by a ready-made patent method, without the trouble of exerting patience, discrimination, impartiality, without any care to assure themselves whether they have the insight that comes from a hardly-earned estimate of temptation, or from a life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow-feeling with all that is human."

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (Penguin 1985 [1860]), 628.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The worst form of government, except for all the others

From a review of a book by William Beveridge that I've run across in the Church Times

A way must be found to combine full employment with civilized human rights, which he calls ‘British liberties’ – freedom of worship, speech, writing, study and teaching; freedom of association and making new parties, of choice of occupation and of spending a personal income. For that we must have democratic government. What democratic government essentially means he puts very well by saying: ‘I want to be quite certain that I can change the person who governs me without having to shoot him.’  

Well, there are worse definitions. 

And worse systems.

("The Plans of Men", Church Times, 23 July 1943, 381, reviewing Sir William Beveridge, Pillars of Security [Allen and Unwin, 1943])

Monday, January 25, 2016

Those who can't teach ... assess



Good article by Stefan Collini, in the current LRB, on assessing teaching excellence in academia:


Universities should provide good teaching. There has long been anecdotal evidence that they do not always do this. It would be desirable if means could be found to check, so far as it’s possible, when they are and are not providing good teaching, and when they aren’t, to nudge or encourage them towards improvement. The problem is that the Green Paper doesn’t know what it means by ‘teaching quality’. It treats it as the equivalent or sum of a number of things that can be measured. So, if a course provides a clear description of its aims and procedures; if the number of contact hours and requirements for written work are as advertised and the work is marked and returned promptly; if few students drop out; if students on the course have had a good record of subsequent employment; and if many students say they were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the course – then all that is taken as proof that high-quality teaching has taken place. Or, more exactly, that is what, within the proposed framework, quality of teaching will now mean. But all these criteria could be satisfied without there being any reliable indication of the quality of teaching at all, though the information obtained may be evidence of certain kinds of efficient functioning in a university or department. For the most part, it will merely demonstrate that certain procedures have been properly followed, or rather that an institution is good at presenting a paper trail suggesting that those procedures have been properly followed.

In fact, the problem is a deeper one still, since it isn’t easy for anyone to say, in other than the most blandly formulaic terms, what good teaching consists in, and very difficult for anyone, even those involved, to say in any given case whether good teaching is happening (it may be easier to identify and describe certain kinds of bad teaching). I am not suggesting that there is some unfathomable mystery here, or that a Green Paper should be expected to resolve some of the most profound issues in the philosophy of education. But it shouldn’t try to kid anyone that the measures prescribed in this document will necessarily improve the quality of teaching in universities. They may improve some procedures and encourage better record-keeping, but at the cost of creating yet another bureaucratic burden that will make good teaching less likely.


Here in Germany we're as yet nowhere near the relentless self-optimising imposed upon universities in the UK, but there are indicators that something wicked our way comes - another pitiable, wrinkly carrot symbolising a superior position in the academic pecking order, funds and a reduction of teaching hours (!), dangling on a long, long stick.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015



Apt cartoon in today's Spiegel:


http://cdn1.spiegel.de/images/image-928464-panoV9free-exzv-928464.jpg


It made me think of V.S. Naipaul's comment on the high hopes Iranian communists had of the Islamic revolution. Well, we all know better now:

These [communist] volunteers in quilted khaki jackets and pullovers were revolutionaries who, one year on, were still trying to live out the revolution, still anxious to direct traffic to show their solidarity with the police, now of the people, not of the Shah), still anxious to demonstrate the Islamic "union" that had brought them victory [....] Behzad had said in August [...], "This is no a religious occasion. It is a political occasion." The communist son of a persecuted communist father, Behzad had read Islamic union in his own way, had interpreted Shia triumph and misanthropy in his own way, had seen a revolution that could be pushed further to another revolution. And these Islamic revolutionaries, in their Che Guevara costume, did see themselves as late-twentieth-century revolutionaries [....] Injustice, the wickedness of men, the worthlessness of the world as it is, the revenge to come, the joy of "union": Behzad was a communist, but the Shia passion was like his. And in August Behzad, like a Shia, was collecting his own injustices: Khomeini's revolution had begun to turn against the men of the left.
V.S. Naipaul, Among the Believers (1981)

Beware of revolutionaries, even of the wannabe sort. And beware, you revolutionaries, even of the wannabe sort. The utopia you're dreaming up in your suburban "Jugendzimmer" might turn very, very nasty for you.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Shakespeare on Young Men and "Criminal Energy"

SHEPHERD I would there were no age between sixteen and
three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the
rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
stealing, fighting -- Hark you now! Would any but
these boiled brains of nineteen and two-and-twenty
hunt this weather? They have scared away two of my
best sheep, which I fear the wolf will sooner find
than the master  ....
The Winter's Tale (III.iii 58-67)

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Penelope Fitzgerald, (Pop) Cultural Critic

I'm currently reading the collected letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, and have to say they're rather charming and entertaining (oh dear, I'm beginning to sound like Fitzgerald myself). They are full of everyday gems like the following, from a letter to her older daughter Tina:

Quite exhausted emotions raised by Eurovision Song Contest: We felt sure Cliff should have won, though doubtful about his dress of nylon ruffles and dandy's velvet-effect suit. It was very odd Germany suddenly giving 6 votes for Spain, I'm sure it was a vote to promote trade. (Wollen Sie in Spanien gehen?) As usual I was quite wrong as the one I though best got no votes at all, and Sandie Shaw looked frightful in ostrich-effect feathers and was hit by a piece of stage.
Just to remind you of the target of her sartorial critique (and how astute it was):

 

Other passages in the letters are more wistful and melancholy, for instance when she describes a conversation with her other daugher to Tina:

Maria has much depressed me by 1. Looking at Daddy and me and saying: "What a funny old couple you are!" and 2. Telling me that studying art and literature is only a personal indulgence and doesn't really help humanity or lead to anything, and, I suppose, really, that is quite true: she said it very kindly. My life seemed to be crumbling into dust.

The following assessment of, again, her older daughter's disappointment with her English degree at Oxford contains an insight we should pass on to our students at the beginning of each semester:

I'm sorry that the poor English school is so dull too - the truth is, though I would never dare saying it in public, that the value of studying literature only really appears as you go on living, and find how it really is like life - that it all works - and it's a pity this can't somehow be shown in the course, except I suppose in Marxist Free Universities.

I'm not so sure about the Marxist Free Universities (in fact, I don't even know what she means by that), but in the first part of the quote Fitzgerald seems to put the finger on what may be the tragedy of the humanities.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

"The 5th now is considered a holiday by the lower classes"

A few notes from the archives about events on the Fifth of November in the early nineteenth century in Lewes.

Where it sounds like they had a right good time.

 Deposition of James Burridge, constable:

“I also was upon duty as police officer in the Town of Lewes upon the night of the fifth day of November instant and saw a great mob of persons unlawfully assembled together and making a great noise & disturbance, letting off fireworks and having lighted tar barrels through the high street. About ten o’clock I was violently assaulted by the mob who hustled me and threw stones at me and gravel and dirt into my eyes whereby my eyes were much hurt and painful.” 

Deposition of Stephen Clarke, constable:

“I saw a great riot and disturbance in the town with persons letting off fireworks, rolling lighted tar barrels and throwing lighted fire balls….Many of the persons in the disturbance were in disguise having masks and some having their faces black red and white and many of them had very large sticks.” 

Henry Powler Mackay deposed that he saw the tar-barrels fireworks and riotous mob:

“I have not joined in such occasions, there was more than ever I have before. I have not let off fireworks since I left school…The 5th now is considered a holiday by the lower classes. I do not think the town would have been quiet if the police had not been there.” 

Deposition of William Bennett:

“…I have seen bonfire nights in Lewes and it was similar to the one last time, I saw tar barrels last year and windows broken.” 

 According to reports, many of the police were violently assaulted with sticks and clubs.

 Feeling nostalgic for the good old days yet?

(Source: The National Archive, ASSI 36/4 Sussex assizes 1841. These were among the sources I used in my first book, Violence and Crime in Nineteenth-Century England: The Shadow of Our Refinement, which is soon to be available as a paperback.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Counting your blessings, if slowly

Comments by historian (and committed Christian) Herbert Butterfield (who coined the term "Whig history") on "The Christian and history", from the first of a four-part series in The Christian News-Letter, 1949: 

In fact what we are faced with in the twentieth century are the disciples of Marx on the one hand, H.G. Wells (shall we say) on the other, the Protestants and the Jesuits, the Fascists and the Liberals, all producing their selections from the complexity of historical facts and their different organizations of the whole narrative of the centuries – all feeling that there is the absolute explanation, and longing to see it established as the basis for a universal teaching and examining system.

In a cut-throat conflict between these and other systems for the control of schools and universities (in other words for predominance in society) it is not clear that a specifically Christian or Biblical interpretation would in fact prevail at the present day; and though it is a sad thing when any man rejects Christianity, still Christians can hardly have a technical ground of complaint in modern society if universities do not pour all their academic teaching into a specifically Christian mould as in former times. Considering their own record of intolerance and persecution where they had the power, Churches must consider it rather fortunate for them if so often their enemies have been less thorough-going – thankful that, if society is not Christian, it is at any rate not yet wholeheartedly anything else.

While we have Marxists and Wellsians, Protestants and Catholics, Whigs and Tories, with their mutually exclusive systems (historical assertion confronted by counter-assertion), many people, confounded by the contradictions, will run thankfully in the last resort to the humbler “academic” historian – to the man who will just try to show what the evidence warrants, and will respect the intricacy and the complexity of events. In the clash of interpretations somebody will sigh in the long run for an answer to the more pedestrian question, the purely historical question: What is the evidence, and what are at any rate the tangible things which demonstrably took place?

Men are slow to count their blessings but Christians might even be thankful for this “academic” history at the last stage of the argument – thankful so long as no authoritative interpretation of history and the human drama has been rigorously imposed upon our educational system by an increasingly non-Christian society.

– Herbert Butterfield, “The Christian and History. I. The Christian and Academic History”, The Christian News-Letter no. 333, 16 March 1949, 91-92. (Paragraph breaks added.)

(Part of the 'historical bycatch' series; explanation.)