Is it a bird, is it a plane?

Peter Clarke

  • The Pleasures of the Past by David Cannadine
    Collins, 338 pp, £17.50, March 1989, ISBN 0 00 215664 4

Sometimes in the London Review of Books I find the sort of review that grabs me by the throat: a review that bowls me over, staggers and stuns me, dazes and dumbfounds me, astounds and astonishes me – in short, exhausts the thesaurus to impress me no end (do wonders, work miracles, surpass belief, beggar all description and beat everything). Then again, in the New York Review of Books I sometimes discover this same dash and élan, this zest and vim, this fire and mettle, this fizz and verve, this pep and go, this vehemence and violence, this thrust and push and kick and punch. What livewire or quicksilver – dynamo or dynamite – can be responsible for such truly transatlantic triumphs? Is it a bird, is it a plane? Well, as often as not, it turns out to be David Cannadine – easily mistaken for a plane, of course, because, as he confides in this volume of collected reviews, ‘not a few were pondered and drafted in mid-air.’ Now that this brilliant brain has dramatically drained, from Christ’s College, Cambridge to Columbia, and has lingeringly looked on the Last of England from the Heathrow departure lounge, he leaves us with a welcome reminder of what we have lost – and of the fact, too, that this is surely not the last of Cannadine.

Cannadine is unusual in having made an international reputation as a historian before the age of forty; and almost unique in having done so, not as the author of a big book which bowled over (etc) the profession with a revisionist thesis, but fundamentally on the strength of his own intellect and the force of his own personality. He is, of course, an immensely prolific writer, who has published one well-regarded monograph on urban landlords, a sheaf of learned articles on cognate aspects of economic history, and a mixed handful of speculative and wide-ranging essays. But he is not chiefly renowned for his own research: instead his reputation is sustained by his literary talents. This is a particularly striking achievement in an age when professional history has notoriously retreated behind the rebarbative ring fence of its own scholarly apparatus, where professional historians repeat or refute each other, and the old-fashioned literary virtues of the subject are in danger of being unjustly neglected and disparaged.

It is refreshing, then, to find someone who is ready, willing and able to turn his hand to appraising a diverse assortment of historical studies, with an unmatched facility either to bring them alive or leave them for dead. Happy is the historian who finds his book reviewed by Cannadine, for it will undoubtedly receive attention. His characteristic method is to provide an exposition of a book’s theme which invests it with a trenchancy not always found in the original. He has the fortunate knack of combining fidelity to the author with entertainment for the reader. At his best, he succeeds in distilling opaque empiricism into limpid aphorism. Occasionally, however, an author might justifiably complain that his sophisticated arguments are simply being guyed in the process of vulgarisation, and that the chief pleasure is no longer that of the past but of the pastiche.

It is Cannadine’s ability to open up the big questions which distinguishes his approach. He is without fear, unawed alike by conventional disciplinary boundaries or established historical reputations. This is the way in which he has made his mark – and his enemies. Even his friends have good reason to be terrified. Lawrence Stone, for example, who stuck his neck out as an early champion of Cannadine’s merits, finds that his cherished thesis about the persistence of a largely closed élite in English society does not fall within the meaning of the Old Pals’ Act, as interpreted by his remorseless reviewer. Here is a good example of Cannadine’s strategy – a formidable exercise in concise exposition of complex and erudite arguments, followed by a devastatingly frank dismissal of all the central claims. Moreover, in writing of ‘Stone’s long-running battle with Geoffrey Elton, his only real rival in the Early Modern historians’ war of words’, Cannadine displays an unerring instinct for saying what will simultaneously cause maximum offence to each of them: ‘For forty years they have been slugging it out, in books and articles, lectures and reviews, each utterly convinced that the other has had a totally bad influence on historical scholarship, and both sublimely unaware of just how much like each other they actually are.’

No sycophant, then, no courtier, it may seem odd that he is so persistently fascinated by royalty. It is, of course, not an unusual taste, as the publication of Lady Longford’s entertaining scrapbook abundantly testifies.[*] She gives us, for example, the full story of the Daily Express’s scoop in 1982: ‘INTRUDER AT THE QUEEN’S BEDSIDE – She kept him talking for ten minutes ... Then a footman came to her aid.’ We are told that the man had shinned up the drainpipe, and thus managed to snatch his few brief moments of early-morning chit-chat with Her Majesty. It is not recorded that he was a historian, who would expect a footnote coming to his aid well before ten minutes were up, but the obscure compulsion which gripped him sounds all too characteristic. How otherwise to account for the fact that no less than six out of Cannadine’s 30 essays are devoted to royalty?

Devoted, of course, may not be the right word. Like the Marxist who remains a devoted reader of the Financial Times because that is the best way to understand the inner workings of the capitalist system, he is a connoisseur of royalty because he sees it as ‘dangerous for a nation in Britain’s current condition to be quite so proud of this essentially ornamental and anachronistic institution’. He writes, not by royal appointment, but as the self-appointed demystifier and debunker. He dates most of the mystification and bunk to the last quarter of the 19th century, when the invention of tradition took wings in creating a more appealing image for the monarchy: ‘the hitherto unpopular and reclusive “Widow at Windsor” found herself reincarnated as the mother figure of the world’s greatest empire, the most venerable woman on earth, more an icon and symbol than a real human being.’ The idiosyncratic styles personified in her successors – ‘decent and dutiful’ (George V), a threat ‘to the probity and the pageantry’ (Edward VIII), ‘simple yet sacred, mundane but magical’ (George VI) – are seen as functionally subordinate to the ‘romance and escapism’ which has sustained this up-market soap opera for so long. In recent years, moreover, the cleverly projected domesticity of the Royal Family has seen its ratings rise while Britain’s stock has fallen; the plaudits have gone to the corgis while the country has gone to the dogs.

If Cannadine is ready to bite the hand that fed him with such a good subject, he is equally mean and hungry when it comes to the upper crust, into which he likewise sinks his teeth. Himself a historian who has specialised in analysing the role of the traditional landed élite in the shaping of a new urban and industrial Britain in the 19th century, he shows no inclination to succumb to the aristocratic embrace. ‘Brideshead’ is an epithet which he spits out – as the poet said of the Romanov dynasty – ‘like the butt of a cigarette’. Nostalgic regret for the world of the country house, as the seat of our national cultural heritage, is not for him. ‘When Britain was a rich country with a rich élite, great treasures were acquired; now the nobles and the nation are poor, they are up for sale again,’ he briskly concludes. ‘And, with Britain’s economy in the state it is, what else is it reasonable to expect?’ The same rationale, one might add, underlies the export of some of our most precious intellectuals. It is comforting to know that the operation of market forces in this area leaves no hard feelings, and that a public appeal by the Master and Fellows of Christ’s to save one of its greatest ornaments for the nation was unnecessary.

The most worthwhile pieces in this indefatigably stimulating collection are, in the end, the biographical essays, whether of royalty (Prince Albert, the Duke of Windsor, Mountbatten), or artists (Lutyens, Elgar), or politicians (Neville Chamberlain, Eden). These are brief lives which, in each case, reflect the play of an incisive and acute mind upon a substantial biography: pulling out the plums, drawing order and insight from a sometimes prolix chronicle, glimpsing the angel (and occasionally the devil) in the marble. Such successes abundantly justify this volume and make one glad that these fugitive pieces have been rescued and preserved for lasting enjoyment. Let us concede to austere critics of this genre of publication that there are not many reviews, even in the LRB, which merit such treatment. I know that I would not dare reprint this piece between hard covers – after all, it might then be sent for review to David Cannadine.

[*] The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes, edited by Elizabeth Longford (Oxford, 546 pp., £15, 20 April, 0 19 214153 8), spans the centuries, from Boudicca to the present incumbent. It is a well-presented anthology which contains a few anecdotes which would be worth telling about anybody and many more which are breathlessly dependent on being about Somebody. If one likes this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing one likes.