Thursday, June 16, 2005

Evil Book Thingy

Tagged by Shuggy and Blimpish so here goes ...

Number of books I own:

I’d never counted before, but 1200-1500 seems about right. As I grew older and had kids I learned to pass second-hand bookshops by as taking up too much time, but I can’t resist a table of books at a jumble sale. The village I live in has good jumble sales – Churchill’s ‘My Early Life’ and Kipling’s ‘ 21 Tales’ are current favourites from this source. I rarely get rid of any, though I did get rid of a load – unwanted thrillers mostly - to Oxfam a while back.

Last book I bought:

Biggles Flies West, by Capt. W.E. Johns – I’m rebuilding in middle age my childhood collection. Secondhand from a stall at a market.

Hopelessly un-PC, hideously white, this tale of derring-do (or imperialist racism) ends magnificently with the discovery of treasure and the death or disablement of the villains, as our heroes cut loose with a handily-discovered armoury of seventeenth-century cannon and flintlocks.

Last book I read:

The Ascent of Woman – A History of the Suffragette Movement and the Ideas Behind It, Melanie Phillips. I can hang a thread from this one.

Thirty years ago I read Anthony Burgess’ novel The Wanting Seed, about an overpopulated globe where homosexuality was privileged in an attempt to reduce the birthrate. Governments only fell into two categories, Pelagian and Augustinian, and swung between the two forms.

Augustinian governments believe in Original Sin, that man is naturally given to vices which need to be checked. Tend to be hierarchical and militaristic.

Pelagian governments believe in Man’s perfectibility and innate goodness. As this fails to produce the perfect society, so do initially liberal Pelagians tend to turn towards coercion, more laws and greater police powers. Remind you of anything ?

‘’Pelagius is fond of police,
Augustine loves an army’’

It’s fascinating to see that the ideas of Rousseau, the hippies and the Guardianistas were being expressed nearly two thousand years ago by Pelagius.

Similarly with Melanie’s book, a rattling good read for those of all political persuasions and none. Nary a hint of the Divine Ms M’s fervent polemic. Not much Daily Mail about it either. But a terrific book on two levels.

The first is as a balanced reminder of the vices and virtues of the Victorians. Only an idiot can hold to the classic left stereotype of a land groaning with misery from one end to the other.

But to a cultural reactionary there’s the reverse temptation - to see the age as one golden English summer, a land full of earnest Nonconformists busily running the industrial revolution, while the churches were packed, Evangelicals were remoralising society, and the muscular Christian sons of our schools were running an Empire. Vitai Lampada on stilts.

All very true – but nowhere near the whole story. This was also a society undergoing huge change and upheaval – phyically as the railways shrank the land and technology changed the world of work from field to factory, mentally as the revelations of Darwin detonated under Christianity. To Matthew Arnold, writing ‘Dover Beach’, the sea of faith was well in retreat already. Everything was in flux. The secular left turned gratefully to science – particularly eugenics (‘the pure races – that respect their women and guard them jealously from defilement, are the tough, prolific, ascendant races’).

It was also a society with much evil alongside much good, and Melanie gives us the evil in full measure. The Evangelical reformers weren’t making a fuss about nothing – the descriptions of London child brothels circa 1881 sound like an Islington children’s home circa 1981.

The second revelation is that pretty much every currrent of twentieth century feminist theory had its nineteenth or eighteenth century counterpart. All the groupings and distinctions of modern feminism were present then.

The Magna Mater Melanie presents us with the seperatists, nineteenth-cenury Julie Bindels or Catherine MacKinnons, for whom men, their sexuality, their violence, are the problem. Biology is destiny – for blokes. We meet a Polly Toynbee who would like the children of the feckless or immoral to be raised by the State. We meet the free-love exponents and the Puritans. All sorts and conditions of women.

Melanie points out that today’s feminists are still grappling with the questions of the nineteenth century. Are women demanding equality because they are equal to men ? Or will true equality lead to a better world, because women are morally superior to men ?

Five books that mean a lot to me:

August 1914 – Solzhenitsyn

This sprawling, chopped-about novel based around the battle of Tannenberg contains all the themes that concern me - human frailty, bravery, corruption, the tensions between pacifism and militancy, patriotism and internationalism, revolution and gradualism, idealism and cynicism. And a whole lot more. Read it and loved it as an idealistic leftie, love it now. The wonderful thing about Solzhenitsyn is that there are few villains in his books. He has an eye for the compromises and self-deceits that can make us ‘either tyrant or traitor or prisoner’.

I love the scene where Vorotyntsev’s men come under a massive artillery bombardment (S was an artillery captain in the Great Patriotic War) – or the quiet conversation between two officers, resting and watching the stars as they await an enemy attack.

One passage in particular stayed with me - where towards the end of the book, all being lost and the army shattered, an idealistic though flawed conscript lieutenant, a left-wing student radical, joins Colonel Vorotyntsevs' haggard band of Russian soldiers escaping from German encirclement, and argues with him over whether they should carry a badly wounded soldier who is a quasi-fascist 'Black Hundreder'.

"At a time like this, ensign, party political differences are just ripples on the water."

"Then what differences mean anything at all ?"

"The difference between decency and swinishness, ensign !".

I do think the concept of decency left the UK left somewhere around the time they got rid of Clause Four, though people like Norm and Harry keep the flame flickering.

The Hand of Ethelberta - Thomas Hardy

As an O-level student of Hardy I hated ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ and actually didn’t finish it – not good when it’s your set book. Three years later as an undergrad I was shelling out more than I could afford for a third edition, and collecting the Victorian magazines in which he was first published. Not one of his best known works – courtship, class and money in nineteenth-century England, with a delightful heroine (not Ethelberta) and a sly, quasi-happy ending.

Families Without Fatherhood – Norman Dennis

An Old Labour man to his core looks at crime, family life, and what’s happened to the ‘respectable’ working class in Sunderland and elsewhere. Read it free here.

The Abolition of Britain – Peter Hitchens

Your one stop guide to the cultural revolution. I read this just after I’d read Will Hutton’s ‘The State We’re In’, and it was like the difference between a McDonalds bun and a granary roll. Makes you want to desecrate Roy Jenkins’ grave.

Whether it makes as much sense to someone with no memory of antediluvian Britain I’m unsure.

All Must Have Prizes – Melanie Phillips

Bought this when I started wondering why maths teaching was so poor in my child’s primary school and discovered that learning the times tables by heart had been abolished. A must read if your children are at a State school.

I hate chain letters. So with apologies I hereby tag Caberfeidh, Marcus The Bard, The Gray Monk, Peter C. Glover and Cecile Dubois. I'll add links later ....

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