To qualify for admission to Great Britons it is necessary, first, to have died between 1915 and 1980. Ideally, the candidate should have performed some work of noble note, or at least public note, but there is room for the select two or three who fell down on the job (the diplomats who failed to rumble Hitler) or those who, like Guy Burgess, simply did something the influence of which on events is ‘too profound to ignore’. So much for the word ‘Great’. The word ‘Britons’ is also strained by the inclusion of, for example, Gandhi, Smuts and De Valera. The subtitle ‘20th-century Lives’ does not disqualify a Great Victorian like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was born in 1836 and in 1873 became the first woman member of the British Medical Association (she died in 1917).
Harold Oxbury is principal editor of the Concise Dictionary of National Biography 1901-1970 and it is from the parent volumes that most of the information has been rendered down, with augmentations from recent books or personal recollections. The object is to be ‘brief, readable and reliable’. The volume has attractive and well-chosen photographs, notably one of a posturing Shaw rehearsing his cast in Androcles and another of the Evelyn Waugh family warily grouped at their garden gate. Gertrude Lawrence is pictured twice, once in her own right, once with Coward.
The trawl is wide: statesmen, benefactors, cricketers, spymasters, captains of industry, band leaders, bishops, kings, a flower arranger, a golf writer, the pioneer of mother-craft, the editors of Medium Aevum, the Journal of Pomology and The New Phytologist, the creator of Billy Bunter, the murdered Beatle. There are names which have not been on anyone’s lips for a long time, like that of Sir Valentin Chirol, a crusty eminence of the Times. The first woman doctor is kept company by the first woman barrister, Ivy Williams. The first private to win a field-marshal’s baton, Sir William Robertson, is missing. Billy Smart, the circus proprietor, is in, though not Sir Alan Cobham, whose private air force introduced millions to flying, or Sir Donald Wolfit. Tom Webster, the sports cartoonist, gains his niche, but not ‘Beachcomber’. Enough of that; the game is too easy to play.
The entries are skilfully ‘potted’, judicious in the DNB manner, but the more one browses the more it is apparent that a double standard is operating. In one class, that of the learned editors, the physicists and the cataract surgeons, the subjects’ private lives are either inviolate, or uninteresting, or unknown (save as may be fallibly deduced from ‘He was unmarried’). The second, smaller class consists mainly of those in the creative arts whose careers stickily attract phrases like ‘he never married, being a homosexual,’ ‘not always faithful’, ‘his amorous adventures continued unabated,’ ‘basically homosexual’, ‘a confirmed homosexual’, ‘after his marriage he continued to philander,’ ‘he became her lodger and later her lover,’ ‘Bertrand Russell was among her lovers,’ ‘a curious relationship between two bisexual people’, ‘their association precluded neither of them from amorous adventures,’ ‘her reputation was not above reproach,’ ‘a curiously amicable ménage à trios’, ‘he had affairs with women, but preferred the company of boys and men,’ ‘he did not pretend to be otherwise but he always behaved with dignity and restraint.’ Even a lack of amorous adventures can be worthy of remark, as in ‘Lowry ... unlike his contemporary, Stanley Spencer, appears to have had no sex life.’
One of the subjects described as a homosexual was a mathematician (his orientation was not revealed in his original DNB entry). Does this disclosure help us to understand him any the better? Most readers will have their own views on how much peering behind the blinds is necessary in a ‘readable’ reference book. It is all rather invidious, since those on whom there is no sexual ‘form’ escape scrutiny, while others well-known to have been sexually ambivalent are treated with old-word reticence.
But then biography was always an invidious business. How do we know, for example, that some felt the pain of bereavement more than others? Was Sir Edward Parry the only one of whom it could be said that ‘the First World War effectively destroyed his world,’ or Leonard Woolf the only one qualifying for the remark: ‘The Second World War put paid to his hopes for international sanity’?
Some subjects, like the Duke of Windsor, are let off lightly. Sir Roger Casement, executed for treason, was judged ‘honest and honourable’ by those who knew him, but the victim of ‘misguided extremism in time of war’. ‘Misguided’ is a useful word on these occasions. Nancy Mitford was ‘buried ... beside her misguided sister, Unity’. For once, there is an absence of people who ‘did not suffer fools gladly’; perhaps one of them was Lord Inchcape, who ‘deeply resented any encroachment by the State into the life of the individual’. Here and there we find people attempting tasks which nobody had supposed to be within their powers, like Beaverbrook who ‘failed to secure the re-election of Churchill in 1945’.
The entry on John Masefield strikes a new note. ‘In “Sea Fever” he wrote: “I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gipsy life,” but, in fact, he had settled in London, and in 1907 began to work on the Manchester Guardian.’ Naturally one turns to Yeats to see whether the man who said he must arise and go to Innisfree, and plant nine bean rows there, is chided for preferring to take tea with Lady Gregory. He is not.
For the serendipitous, there are quaint facts in plenty. The first man suspended for saying ‘damn’ in the Commons seems to have been that flamboyant Scot, Cunninghame Graham, then Liberal Member for South Lanark. Lord Vansittart is surely the only British diplomat to have written a play in French and seen it run for four months in Paris. Joe Orton and his friend got six months for defacing library books. Serendipity reveals, incidentally, that on page 322 the name of the spy Fuchs has been spelled as one would expect a compositor under notice to spell it.
A number of characters from Great Britons appear, often informally, in The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes. Orde Wingate is encountered in a very private moment, trying to cut his jugular. Montgomery turns up as a young sword-waving subaltern, capturing his first German with a kick in the groin. Kitchener sits contemplating the Mahdi’s skull and wonders whether to send it to the Royal College of Surgeons. Field-Marshal French is outrageously snubbed by General Lanrezac after mispronouncing the place-name Huy. Haig, rather surprisingly, is the subject of no anecdotes at all.
Wisely, Max Hastings decided not to have five hundred solid pages of anecdote, but to include longer passages describing, in the liveliest prose available, famous events: Horatius holding the bridge, the Waterloo Ball, Rorke’s Drift, the charge at Omdurman and so on, ending with Hastings’s own brisk account of the entry into Port Stanley in 1982. Military anecdotage, as most people would recognise it, does not really start until the 18th century. With the Napoleonic Wars it reaches a fine flood, thanks to a new breed of young officer and not a few literate private soldiers.
Some famous chestnuts are here. Brummell begs the Prince Regent, his commanding officer, to be allowed to resign his commission in the 10th Light Dragoons because the regiment has been ordered to Manchester: ‘Think, Your Royal Highness – Manchester!’ Compare and contrast, as they say, with the story of the young Osbert Sitwell’s application to spend his leave in London, provoking the reaction: ‘London! Why, you could not even kill anything there!’ On the subject of short leave, we have the Duke of Wellington’s ruling that 48 hours is as long as any reasonable man would wish to spend in bed with a woman.
The book may stimulate some basic thoughts on how high commanders should treat their opposite numbers. Sir John Ligonier, a British (Huguenot) general captured by the French, was entertained with such politeness by Louis XV that he knelt and kissed the royal hand in gratitude. When Montgomery invited the defeated Von Thoma to dinner in his desert caravan, there were protests in London. Churchill, remembering Monty’s horror of post-prandial cigar smoke, commented: ‘Poor Von Thoma! I too have dined with Montgomery.’ During hostilities there were ethical rules to be observed. The Iron Duke, hearing that his guns were trained on Napoleon’s position, said: ‘No! No! I’ll not allow it. It is not the business of commanders to be firing on each other.’ Yet Napoleon left money to a would-be assassin who tried to kill Wellington in occupied Paris.
As a war correspondent, Hastings does not shrink from telling a story at the expense of a master of his craft. After the sack of Lucknow, William Howard Russell professed to be much put out because, through lack of ready money, he was unable to buy a box of looted jewels from a private soldier. Delane, editor of the Times, sympathised with him in his misfortune. (Could either, or both, have been joking?) Other stories in the book show the low regard in which war correspondents were held by all ranks.
Anyone who may have tried to picture Enoch Powell at war will be fascinated by an account of a hazardous drive across Algeria, with the ‘Professor’, then a lieutenant-colonel, in minimal control of the vehicle, giving impromptu lectures on Classical matters. If only there had been, in the back seat, the equivalent of Trooper Cumberbatch (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), who, one night on sentry-go, was able to tell two of his officers that the Greek text they were misquoting was not, as they thought, from Euripides but from the Oedipus of Sophocles.
One of the grimmer anecdotes in this richly variegated book tells how in 1914 General de Maud’huy, espying a man being marched along the street by a firing party, intervened to give him a kindly talk on the value of discipline (the offender had deserted his post). It was necessary, the general explained, that he should die so that others should not fail. ‘Surprisingly, the wretch agreed, nodding his head.’ And die he did, after the general had shaken his hand, saying: ‘Yours also is a way of dying for France.’ With generals like that, who needs a chaplain?
It would be over-fanciful to picture Lord Palmerston addressing similar words of comfort to a poacher en route to the gallows. Charles Smith, convicted of wounding (but not killing) one of his lordship’s keepers, did not die for England, but to uphold the sanctity of England’s game laws. His trial, in 1822, is minutely examined by Harry Hopkins in The Long Affray, a masterly account of the poaching wars of last century. In France the game laws were scrapped in the Revolution and the gentlemen of England greatly feared for their own coverts. Hopkins, who is no foaming radical, challenges the received view that our native aristocracy were able to hold on to their privileges because they lived on their estates, exuding benevolence: his book suggests that, by blatantly upholding their feudal ‘game privilege’, with all its ferocious penalties, they pushed their luck to the limit. Their keepers, comparable to an army of occupation, easily outnumbered the police; their woods were mined with lethal machines; and the casualties of this unending combat suffered ‘sevenpennorths’ (seven years transportation) or long stretches of penal servitude. It was not really in the spirit of Lord John Manners:
From rank to rank the generous feelings ran And linked society as man to man.
Poachers took game for food, for sport, for gain and for revenge on the system; and farmers whose crops were ruined by innumerable hares and game birds turned a blind eye on game-stealing, and even joined in. A ‘lady farmer’ (and strong Tory) who had to abandon her holding on the Sandringham estate wrote an acid book about the system: it was, says Hopkins, bought up and destroyed on behalf of the Prince of Wales (Edward VII). When Charles Kingsley’s Yeast, a novel ‘soft’ on poachers, was serialised in Fraser’s, it had to be wound up because the squires objected.
Hopkins in his closely-woven narrative shows how, eventually, a sense of outrage against the game laws became part of the campaign for social change, with Joseph Chamberlain and Gladstone taking over from Cobbett and Bright. As Nonconformist radicals joined in the fight, so town-dwellers joined in the poaching, among them the 2000 ‘biscuit boys’ of Reading. Even Richard Jefferies began to have doubts about the way the masses were being encouraged to despise property and law. The cult of the ‘Phasian bird’, destined to fall as meat from the skies, had much to answer for. This is an excellent foray into coverts where few historians have trod.