Dark Tom

Christopher Ricks

  • Beyond the Pale: Sir Oswald Mosley 1933-1980 by Nicholas Mosley
    Secker, 323 pp, £8.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 436 28852 4
  • Rules of the Game: Sir Oswald and Lady Cynthia Mosley 1896-1933 by Nicholas Mosley
    Fontana, 274 pp, £2.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 00 636644 9

‘The human craving to believe in something is pathetic, when not tragic; and always, at the same time, comic.’ The life of Sir Oswald Mosley was pathetic, tragic and comic, and his son’s humane deliberated biography is itself a notable contribution to ‘The Literature of Fascism’ which T.S. Eliot was judging with that sentence in 1928. In 1928 Oswald Mosley was still an up-and-coming Labour MP. It was the year after Eliot had made manifest that the something which satisfied his own craving to believe was Christianity. Mosley as Fascist soon came to crave this craving in others; he could always tap it, but he could never satisfy it for long, since the drugging or hypnoidal power would necessarily wear off and then the faithfully addicted would need a new fix of their idées fixes. What Mosley gives (to apply Eliot’s fearful evocation of history, in the immediate aftermath of the great mowing-down in 1914-1918) he gives with such supple confusions that the giving famishes the craving. To famish a craving is to incite a cycle of short-lived satisfaction and life-long insatiability.

Fortunately for English public life and for his salvation, Eliot believed, saw indeed, that Fascism and Christianity were irreconcilable. Writing a letter about the Blackshirts in the Church Times in 1934, he of course observed every propriety, and – while quoting four immitigable statements by Mussolini – affected only to be asking about Fascist compatibility with Christianity. ‘I am not answering this question, but putting it.’ But to put it so was to permit of only one responsible answer. ‘The point is not whether a large number of people, with or without the inspiration and example of Sir Oswald Mosley and Lord Rothermere, are both zealous Fascists and devout Christians.’ But in 1934 ‘the inspiration and example’ of Mosley would have been words drily to call up rot dry and wet. The caddish effrontery of Mosley’s private life (Eliot made the relevance of this explicit though not for publication) had culminated in 1933 in the death of his long-suffering wife and in the ensconcing of a short-suffering Mosley with his other help-meet Diana Guinness née Mitford. Mosley’s biographer Robert Skidelsky avers that ‘Mosley always tried to maintain the old English distinction between private life and public life.’ But Mosley came up against that other, even more powerful, old English tradition or law which has recently snuffed out Parkinson’s individual talent, the tradition of countenancing no such distinction. It was fortunate, though not merely lucky, for English anti-Fascism that Mosley was a bounder. He was a veteran liar both in public and in private life, a master of the untrue categorical denial: why should one think it a mere confusion of categories to infer a deep untrustworthiness seeping both ways? There are those who will never be able to bring themselves, even under the threat of Reagan, to want Edward Kennedy as President.

Mosley did appreciate the existence, though not the nature, of the human craving to believe something. What he really offered to meet, though, was different: the human craving to believe in someone. (Not the satisfaction which looks smaller but is larger – believing someone.) His son will always be, as every son is but momentously more so, the victim-beneficiary of being his father’s son. Nicholas Mosley wanted when young to believe in his father; he moved on to wanting to believe his father; he moved on again to wanting to believe that his father – well, many things, but mostly that his father was not a monster and that his survival into an old age which had much love and happiness in it was in the end less unjust than just. Nicholas Mosley’s own survival is remarkable, not least as being so much more than survival. Without priggishness, with undull decency, he makes it clear how and how much he has learnt, and the deepest personal sadness in the book (personal as against the pity of war and of peace) is the inescapable admission that his father learnt nothing.

We reviewers ought to acknowledge that we are not likely to be doing justice to this book, because Sir Oswald will not have it so – Sir Oswald, still peremptory, oppressive, charming, and brutal, is determined to claim more than his share of Limehouse and limelight. The book itself is alive with counterpointings, comic and touching; the account of the author’s courage, his winning the Military Cross fighting in a war in which he did not then believe and which his father fought against, is un-ingratiating, piteous and finely paced. The same is true of the visits to, and correspondence with, Mosley in prison during the war, with all the sad and weird affinities to the son’s boarding-school. But Sir Oswald’s power to impel and repel – compounded as it is by the recent Government decision to release much of the hitherto secret material about Mosley and British Fascism – will necessarily and not unreasonably loom larger in discussion of the book than it does in the book’s own art. One of Mosley’s books was called The Alternative; Nicholas Mosley’s is constituted as An Alternative. In sum: you might think from the extensive praising reviews of this book that you needn’t actually read it, because it would seem to be the kind of book that reviews can sufficiently gut and précis and anthologise for you, but you would be wrong, since much of what gives the book its patient power – its balance and sustenance of alternate tones and of alternating currents – will not be figuring in reviews.

A tribute to Nicholas Mosley needs to acknowledge not only the difficulty but the impossibility of his enterprise. Both are endemic in the simplest, most recurring, matter of all: how to refer to the man. Rules of the Game spoke of him well nigh throughout by the name by which his friends knew him: Tom. Chapter One was called ‘Tom’; its first words were ‘My father Oswald Mosley’, whereupon the naming by relationship and by the name Oswald Mosley fell away. It had a disconcerting effect, this use throughout of Tom. It made the reader feel as if he too were a friend of Mosley’s, of Tom’s indeed; it made all the personal and intimate parts of the record feel illuminatingly continuous with the daily life that Mosley actually led while all the public parts felt darkly discontinuous and even peripheral. Since the person who was doing and saying all these public things, even while spoken of as Tom, wasn’t Tom to all those people out there, it somehow can’t really have been Tom who was that person. Then again the name Tom was disconcerting because Mosley didn’t seem to be one of nature’s Toms. One may speak of the demonology of Mosley without implying that there was not indeed a great deal, hideously much, that was demonic about him: that said, it can be admitted that ‘Sir Oswald’ was and is a powerful contributor to the demonology. It is not only that Oswald is an insufferable name (Who was Oswald Fish? asks the initialled onomast A.N. Wilson), awash with the sub-Shakespearean sinister and histrionic, and darkly seconded by Mosley’s middle name (‘Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley’). For Tom is such a relief of a contrast to Oswald. It would have been difficult, however well-justified, to animate the demonology of Sir Tom Mosley: why, he sounds like a thoroughly homespun trade-union leader or vice-chancellor. There is a post-war anecdote about the father of Nicholas Mosley’s girlfriend, exclaiming: ‘But I would rather shake hands with Oscar Wilde than with Oswald Mosley!’ Mosley was not amused but bemused: ‘Does her father think I’m a bugger?’ ‘No, Dad, it’s not that he thinks you’re a bugger.’ But one of the good things about the anecdote must be its onomastic antics: for Oscar was always a difficult name which Wilde made impossible, and the same goes for Mosley’s Oswald.

This second volume, Beyond the Pale, eschews Tom almost entirely. (The name occurs once in a quotation, is decoded, and then escapes into the neighbouring text before being promptly apprehended and liquidated.) Instead it mostly says ‘my father’ even when family or familiar matters are not in question; sometimes it says Mosley; sometimes, wary and ceremonious and on edge, it dilates to ‘Oswald Mosley’. There is nothing dishonest or disingenuous about these decisions and variations: what there is, though, is unignorable testimony to the unsatisfactoriness of all the ways of referring to the most important and (pace John Vincent, who has been wonderfully at it again) the most interesting person pondered in the book. There is no one way that is neutral, or natural, or complete, of referring to Sir Oswald Mosley in this book, nor could there be. And if the difficulties of tact and the problems of principle arise with so immediate, so small and so omnipresent a matter as how to refer to the man, what then must the full complexities and delicacies be? To find for any father, and then for such a father, words at once true and kind, or not untrue and not unkind: this is to seek to combine Larkin’s domestic truth-telling with Lowell’s visionary acumen about those soldiers (Napoleon’s, Mosley’s) who have ‘Grand opera fixed like morphine in their veins’. To a follower, Mosley was the Leader (agreeable how much the English language falls short of the thrill of Führer): to his son, he is mostly ‘my father’. The son himself, in a small-scale way which brings home what the large scale is, presents a difficulty to his reviewer. Must I keep saying Nicholas Mosley? To say Mosley would be confusing; to say Mr Mosley would sound circumspect, and not the usual practice in these pages, and moreover our author is really Lord Ravensdale (or Nicholas Mosley the author, but not ‘Mr Mosley’).

‘British Union stands for peace’ – and for no nonsense from those who question the claim, or who believe that peace with Hitler is impossible. Mosley came, or came on, as a man of peace. But then, in the opening words of a song from Bob Dylan’s new album Infidels:

Look out your window, baby. There’s a scene you’d like to catch.
The band is playing ‘Dixie’. A man got his hand outstretched.
Could be the Führer, could be the local priest.
You know sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.

The Führer or the local priest? Does the Church collide with or collude with Fascism? But as Skidelsky acknowledges, Mosley’s ‘peace campaign’ was notable for ‘its absolute refusal to criticise any German actions’. Mosley’s ability to deceive himself was even more remarkable than his ability to deceive others, and it looks as if he, or some part of him, did genuinely and self-deceivingly believe that he was mustering, in Nicholas Mosley’s words, ‘a fascist movement dedicated to peace’ and ‘an army that would march to prevent future wars’. He even managed to persuade himself that had it not been for this (needless) war, Hitler would never have murdered the Jews. His refusal to contemplate how early Hitler was insane is scarcely sane.

Even when Mosley came to repudiate Hitler, he managed to make it sound as if he were only scorning and deprecating him. ‘My father never, it seemed, much liked Hitler: in old age he used to refer to him as a “terrible little man”.’ Those three words are cited again later in the book. Their reduction of opprobrium to social condescension, especially in that ‘little’, is evidence of Mosley’s insensibility and worldly fortification. It is characteristic of him that he should warp to his own brutal polemic purposes the bone-deep fatigue of Macbeth at what mankind had come to seem; Macbeth’s corrupted vision of man, ‘that struts and frets his hour upon the stage’, becomes in 1946 Mosley’s derision of corrupt (other) men: ‘What a chance for every mediocrity and dunce on the fringe of politics; for every little “Tadpole” and “Taper” to strut his little hour!’

‘I withdraw not a word I have ever uttered, nor ever will.’ He never repented or recanted, so there are no words of contrition to assess stringently, but even when he came to dissociate himself he yet cultivated guilt by dissociation. In 1933 he said that ‘Hitler has made his greatest mistake in his attitude to the Jews’: but this did not stop him from taking a leaf out of Hitler’s black book. ‘His greatest mistake’: this rang a cracked bell for me. Less than twenty pages later, we bump into Ezra Pound at Mosley’s Black House, along with his pamphlet for the British Union of Fascists, ‘What is Money for’. Pound, who eventually came to contrition’s lockjaw, spoke too of a mistake – his own, which is at least some advance on Mosley’s disembarrassment. Donald Davie has spoken for Pound: ‘To take only the most blatant and damaging of the charges, his anti-Semitism, should we not respect him for admitting, however belatedly, “the worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism”? It appears not. On the contrary one gets the clear impression that for Pound to confess his faults is almost worse than having committed them.’ This is tinged with forgiveness as inattention. For Pound’s confession is marred by the insufficient gravity of the word ‘mistake’ (it is Davie who speaks here of faults), and it is vitiated by the prejudicial vehemence of ‘suburban’ (‘terrible little man’). In the very moment which we are urged to respect for its rising above prejudice, Pound sinks back into it: ‘that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism’. The word ‘suburban’ can be so counted upon to do its prejudicial work as not even to be visible, it seems, as prejudice. That the remark is inaccurate (one might wish that it was only or mainly suburbs which had housed anti-semitism) is important, but less important than the incorrigible habit of mind which found it useful.

Anti-semitism, which is more than a mistake, is unmistakably the nub of the Mosley question. A man is not his sister-in-law’s keeper, though Unity Mitford stood in need of one, but her demented forthrightness is always a dark undercurrent in the Leader’s followers: ‘Today he’ – Hitler – ‘was so kind and so divine I suddenly thought I would not only like to kill all who say and do things against him, but also torture them. It is wonderful to think that someone like him can ever have been thought of.’ On the next page of this book there follow her words: ‘I want everyone to know that I am a Jew hater.’

To the end Mosley claimed that he was not against Jews as such, only against their dragging England into a war that was not Britain’s business (‘Mind Britain’s Business,’ and ‘Britain Fights for Britain Only’). Jews could be forgiven for not deducing this from Mosley’s cry that ‘stronger than even the stink of oil is the stink of the Jew,’ or from the congratulatory telegram from Streicher about ‘the forces of Jewish corruption’. All of this was riven with contradiction and worse: Mosley so little succeeded in disciplining and controlling rabid anti-semitism in his henchmen, his followers and his publications as to make it impossible to believe that he could have controlled an empowered Fascism even if he had wanted to. Among his turbulent wishes was this one, to ride and reap this whirlwind.

‘A revolutionary idea,’ wrote Eliot in 1929, ‘is one which requires a reorganisation of the mind; fascism or communism is now the natural idea for the thoughtless person.’ A political movement as thoughtless and even mindless as Fascism needed scapegoats, needed to find its energy in negation, not in the positive positing of anything. As early as 1929, and à propos of Italian Fascism, Eliot had thrown in a syntactically comic throwing-up of the hands: ‘The really interesting thing about fascism is its syndicalism, its organisation of workers, and its financial policy, if it has any.’ Odd to say that the really interesting thing includes a policy which may not even exist. But in the 1930s, as again in the 1980s, no one except a historian or philosopher of Fascism could mount even a five-minute lecturette on Fascist syndicalism and the workers: that was not the hiding place of its power. Mosley’s Fascism was not only null, it was dedicated – devoted, in the old double sense of pledged and doomed – to nullity. When Nicholas Mosley says that ‘there was nothing in the philosophy of fascism necessarily to do with racialism or the desire for conquest which were the drives which pushed Hitler to destruction and eventually to self-destruction,’ he does, honest as he is, have immediately to add: ‘On the other hand some archetypal drives (even excesses?) seem to be necessary if groups are to be welded dynamically into a single force.’ Or dynamitically. For his words could be interrupted: ‘there was nothing in the philosophy of fascism’ – exactly. There was nothing in it, and there was nothing in it. The human craving to believe in nothing is pathetic, when not tragic; and always, at the same time, comic.

‘One of the points of these books – biography or autobiography – has been the attempt to create an attitude by which the darkness in people (there is always darkness) might be made to seem not so much evil as somewhat ridiculous.’ The difficulties of the enterprise can be seen in the slight wobble of ‘might be made to seem’: might be seen to be?

Mosley made promises lightly; he also promised light. But it was darkness, black-shirted, which was alluring. In a superb poem about the tragic compromises with tyranny which democracy may be moved to make, ‘Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959’, James Wright flashlit the dark disingenuousness of Fascism:

Franco stands in a shining circle of police.
His arms open in welcome.
He promises all dark things
Will be hunted down.

The Fascist leader proceeds with a travesty of ordered enlightened equability; he promises all dark things will be hunted down. No, he really promises what was fleetingly intimated, a discreet amputation of that, an apocalyptic line-ending. He promises all dark things. There was nothing in the philosophy of Fascism.

The anti-Fascist is not immune to the convenience of the scapegoat. It cannot exactly be said that this book inculpates William Joyce since William Joyce, sick in the head and foul in the mouth, is sheerly culpable: but the book is sometimes tempted to suppose that Joyce’s direct guilt for Fascism’s anti-semitism somehow lessens Mosley’s devious guilt. The book wrestles with the fallen angel, and in the end it wins. An unforgettable page describes Mosley rebuking an inordinate subordinate:

There was an incident from the early days of Union Movement just after the war that stuck in my memory. My father had summoned to him one of his lieutenants who had disobeyed orders that members should not become involved in the breaking-up of opponents’ meetings: my father reprimanded the man in a room next door to where Rosemary and Diana and I were having dinner. My father shouted at him for a time; the man was saying, ‘Yes sir, sorry sir’; then my father said quietly, ‘Well don’t do it again.’ And as he showed the man out into the passage some sort of wink seemed to pass between the man and my father – some touch on the arm perhaps – a recognition of comradeship or complicity beyond the demands of discipline. And it was as if we all knew that the man of course would do whatever he had done again; my father knew this; the man knew that my father knew this – it was as if the reprimand was just some ritual by which my father might effectively not quite let his left hand know what his right hand was doing. And it must have been something like this, I supposed, that had happened in the Thirties – both with my father, and with other national socialist leaders.

No one can write seriously and at length about anti-semitism without giving offence, and Nicholas Mosley will be held to have palliated or extenuated his father’s evil. One might go further: not only must it needs be that offences will come, but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh. It is unimaginable that anyone could ever judge these matters exactly right, alive fully to justice and to mercy. There are, of course, offences and offensivenesses; the smart thing to do in the New Right of Cambridge lately was to quote (oh of course to quote, not to take the rap for coining) the remark that the real charge against Hitler was that he had made an intelligent anti-semitism impossible.

Nicholas Mosley’s honourable words sometimes carry an intimation that is not quite what he meant to say but which is a wrung admission. He himself draws our attention to the ‘perhaps tellingly ambiguous phrasing’ of the Jewish World when it urged Mosley to repudiate William Joyce and said of Mosley: ‘either his or Mr Joyce’s scurrilous claptrap is the authentic revelation.’ So when Nicholas Mosley writes that ‘during 1933 Oswald Mosley went out of his way to try to disassociate himself from Hitler’s anti-semitism,’ we might want to think about certain implications of ‘went out of his way’; and when, three pages from the very end, he says of Mosley, ‘He did come more to accept the horror of things that had been done under the Nazis,’ we might notice the perhaps tellingly ambiguous phrasing that gathers around ‘accept’ there. The first page of the first chapter says of Mosley’s fore-marchers, the British Fascisti, that they were ‘not particularly anti-semitic’ Those words rang another warning bell. A greater writer than Nicholas Mosley – one whose poems fortified him during the war, and moved him to imitation, and one who was loathed by the British Fascists (‘It is time that Mr Eliot was told that mankind has plenty of use for courage and sense of direction, none at all for defeatism and disease’) – once delivered himself of, and up with, such words. Eliot in 1944 replied to a review by Lionel Trilling of his selection of Kipling’s verse. Trilling had said: ‘Mr Eliot, it is true, would not descend to the snippy, persecuted anti-Semitism of ironic good manners which, in “The Waster”, leads Kipling to write “etc” when the rhyme requires “Jew”.’ Within his letter of reply, Eliot remarked: ‘I would observe that in one stanza, at least, the rhyme required is not to do but to done: and the obvious rhyme for done is not Jew but Hun. Kipling made several opportunities for expressing his dislike of Germans; I am not aware that he cherished any particularly anti-Semitic feelings.’ With a felicitous infusion of Eliot’s dryness of manner, Trilling turned upon that phrase: ‘As anti-Semitism goes these days, I suppose Kipling is not – to use Mr Eliot’s phrase – particularly anti-Semitic.’

It is all a minefield, and being innocent, or not particularly guilty, will not save anyone from being blown up. Even the demolition people sow their own bombs; it was thought reasonable for a philosopher in Scrutiny in the very month of September 1939 to say as mere say-so that ‘the German people are as a people politically young; their political philosophy is philosophically immature,’ and then to proceed: ‘Those of us who have not the misfortune to be Germans ...’