What I’ve Been Reading: The Elizabeth Edition

Well, I’ve mostly been reading 1960s non-fiction (currently David Kynaston’s Modernity Britain, which is excellent), but I’ve also read some other interesting books, all Elizabeth-related. The first of them was The Virgin in the Garden by A. S. Byatt, recommended to me by Sarah during my search for 1950s schoolgirl literature. The review quotes on the back of the paperback edition I acquired were fairly ominous and included the following from the Financial Times:'The Virgin in the Garden' by A. S. Byatt

“One to be reckoned with. It cannot be glibly praised or readily dismissed; it is, massively, there …”

Which I can’t disagree with – it is certainly both “massive” and “there”, “there” being a small town in Yorkshire in the early 1950s, as the community gathers to perform an elaborate verse drama about Queen Elizabeth the First, in order to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. Frederica Potter is the seventeen-year-old schoolgirl chosen to play young Elizabeth, and she’s an apt choice. Frederica is clever, fierce, self-obsessed and hilariously obnoxious, convinced that she is superior to her peers in every way yet secretly hurt that they don’t appreciate her specialness. The other Potters – her bullying father, beaten-down mother, odd and fragile little brother, and a sweet older sister who throws away her Cambridge degree to marry an unintellectual clergyman – are also fascinatingly portrayed. The problem I had with this novel was that I had to wade through a lot of tedious, overwritten prose to get to the good bits. At one stage, a character says, “If we were in a novel, they’d cut this dialogue because of artifice” and I found myself wishing they HAD cut that dialogue, as well as most of the adjectives and all of the page-length sentences. The long sections in which Frederica’s brother and his creepy teacher discuss their peculiar pseudo-scientific theories about the universe were particularly difficult to get through. I wondered if even the author had lost track of where she was going with her story, because the final sentence was: “That was not an end, but since it went on for a considerable time, it is as good a place to stop as any.” And yet, I kept turning the pages, because the author had so many thoughtful observations to make about family relationships, class conflict, women’s roles in society, religion, education, Elizabethan history, art and literature. This is the first in a quartet of novels about Frederica and I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue with it (I saw a very spoilery review of the next book, which indicated that the sole sympathetic character dies in a very stupid manner, which was not an encouraging sign).

My second Elizabethan read was The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford, a sentimental account of the childhood of Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth and her little sister, Princess Margaret, as told by their former governess, Marion Crawford. Apparently it caused a sensation when it was first published in 1950, because it was the first ‘insider’ account of a family treated as minor deities 'The Little Princesses' by Marion Crawfordby most of their subjects and all of the press. Nowadays, of course, we’re used to the British royals exposing themselves (in various unflattering ways) in newspapers and on television, but at the time, the Queen Mother was furious at ‘Crawfie’, as the governess was known, for breaking the code of silence that surrounded the royals and as a result, poor old Crawfie was ostracised1. But actually, Crawfie seems to have gone out of her way to flatter the family in this book. She appears very fond of Elizabeth, a serious, anxious child with a “very high IQ” (not that anyone actually administered an IQ test), while Margaret is described as bright, fun-loving and charming. Mind you, even Crawfie admits Margaret could be “wilful and headstrong” (which seems to be code for “a spoilt and uncontrollable brat” – for one thing, Margaret enjoyed tormenting the servants with unpleasant practical jokes, knowing they could never complain about her behaviour). I was interested (and horrified) to see how limited the education of the princesses actually was. Even though it was known that Elizabeth would eventually become ruler of the entire British Commonwealth, she never attended school and the lessons she had with Crawfie were limited to English literature and (family) history. Teenage Elizabeth did attend some individual history tutoring sessions at Eton, but mathematics, science and economics were deemed unnecessary. It was more important that she learn to sing, dance, make polite conversation in French, and ride a horse. This book covers Elizabeth’s life from the age of six, when Crawfie first arrived, to Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip and the subsequent birth of their first child, Charles. The anniversary edition I read had an introduction by Jennie Bond and contained some great photographs, including one of a young Princess Elizabeth in Girl Guide uniform, learning how to tie knots (with Henry FitzOsborne just out of shot, peering over Elizabeth’s shoulder and shouting, “You’re doing it ALL WRONG! Here, let ME do it!”).

'Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont' by Elizabeth TaylorAnd finally, a novel written by an Elizabeth – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (the English novelist, not the Hollywood star, although the novelist frequently had to deal with people who’d confused her with the actress). This is a brilliant, but bleak, look at ageing and death in genteel English society in late 1960s London. Elderly Mrs Palfrey is not rich enough to stay in her own home with servants to look after her, not poor enough to move into a state-assisted home for the elderly, and not ill enough for a private hospital or nursing home, but is too polite and independent to impose herself on her middle-aged daughter in Scotland, so she decides to set herself up in a respectable London hotel to wait out her final years. There she meets the other permanent residents, including bitter, arthritic Mrs Arthbuthnot; dim, timid Mrs Post; Mr Osmond, who keeps himself busy writing outraged letters to the newspapers and telling disgusting jokes to the waiters; and mauve-haired, drunken Mrs Burton (named, according to one review I read, after the actress). When she has a fall in the street, Mrs Palfrey is rescued by a young, impoverished writer called Ludo, which leads to a strange sort of friendship between them. Each is using the other – Mrs Palfrey now has a handsome, charming ‘grandson’ to show off to the hotel residents and someone to make her feel needed, while Ludo gains a more satisfactory ‘mother’ than his real mother, and also accumulates a lot of useful material for the novel he’s writing (about old people living at a hotel, entitled They Weren’t Allowed To Die There). Elizabeth Taylor’s observations of character are astute and very funny but also very sad. The residents are all bored, lonely and frightened, but feel unable to admit to this, let alone try to help themselves, so they spend their days obsessing over the hotel menus, spreading spiteful gossip, and complaining about modern life. The author has been called a twentieth-century Jane Austen and for once, that’s not an exaggeration. Mrs Post, for example, is described as “too vague, too bird-brained to achieve real kindness. She had always meant well – and it was the thing people most often said about her – but had managed very seldom to help anyone”, while snobby Lady Swayne manages to irritate even mild-mannered Mrs Palfrey, with “all of [Lady Swayne’s] most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements prefaced with ‘I’m afraid’. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common-or-garden Church of England. (Someone had just mentioned Brompton Oratory.) I’m afraid I’d like to see the Prime Minister hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.” I won’t provide any plot spoilers, but I will say that if you’re hoping for a sweet, sentimental look at old age, this is not the book for you. I loved it, but it was rather depressing. And now I’m off to find some more Elizabeth Taylor novels to read.

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  1. Although this article suggests that the initial idea of writing magazine articles about the little princesses came from the Queen Mother herself.

Dated Books, Part Nine: Friday’s Tunnel

A note for the benefit of those new to this series: ‘dated’ means ‘of its time, not ours’. ‘Dated’ books can be horribly offensive to modern sensibilities, or they can be charmingly nostalgic, or they can simply be a bit . . . odd. Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney falls mostly into the charmingly nostalgic category, with the dated bits generally being amusing, rather than annoying. It was recommended to me by Debbie during my search for 1950s schoolgirl books, so thank you, Debbie – I thoroughly enjoyed this book (and took careful notes on the schoolgirl slang, hobbies, clothes and other useful information contained therein). But first I ought to show you the lovely old hardcover I purchased from Rainy Day Books:

'Friday's Tunnel' by John Verney

This was once a library book at the ‘City of Collingwood Junior Library’ and the following letter to ‘Junior Borrowers’ is pasted in the front:

'Junior Borrower' letter

I wish all the adults who borrow books from my local library would follow that advice.

I should also point out that my 1959 (first?) edition includes lots of great illustrations by the author, as well as a detailed map (which certainly came in handy, given the complicated plot).

Friday’s Tunnel is narrated by February Callendar, who we learn is “stuck in bed for ages with a broken nose, a broken pelvis and a broken several other things” and is therefore at leisure to write down the extraordinary story of how she managed to save the world during her summer holidays, when she’d actually planned to spend all her time practising show jumping for the district gymkhana and improving her overarm tennis serve (both of which turn out to be very useful skills when dealing with the villains). She also explains that she intends to write “the sort of book I like to read, which means one with a map and drawings, and talk on every page and not one with long descriptions about the sun’s early rays touching the feathery beech-tips with gold and gossamer quivering in the dew, because I think dew is soppy and anyway I’m usually still asleep when all that sort of thing is going on”.

February’s adventure reminded me quite a lot of the Tintin books, even though she herself never actually leaves England. It involves, among other things, a world crisis triggered by a (possibly fake) coup d’état in a small island kingdom called Capria, a mysterious mineral that might be capable of blowing up the world, a millionaire businessman and his vulgar wife, a mysterious plane crash, a missing journalist, a dead body in a canal, a celebrity racing car driver, secret tunnels, a sinister sweet shop owner and a newspaper cartoon strip that may (or may not) contain vital coded messages.

And as with Tintin, the attitudes are from the 1950s. The villains are all swarthy and “foreign-looking”, even if they’re British. The Caprian President, Umbarak, however, was educated at Harrow, so he is “a Christian and a highly civilised man with Western ideas who had enabled the Caprians to live free of fear for the only time in history”, whereas his half-brother Zayid, the coup leader, is “just a bandit like his Moslem forefathers . . . mixed up in every racket in the Mediterranean and the Middle East”. Umbarak has “a gentle, beautiful face like a prince in a fairy tale” and is described as a “saint”, while Zayid looks “splendidly fierce”. I don’t think Zayid is actually Muslim, though, because he drinks alcohol, gambles, sells dope and smuggles “Jewish emigrants into Palestine”. It must also be noted that February and her brother Friday are much more sympathetic towards Zayid (February thinks he sounds “more fun” and she “rather sympathised with him for shutting Umbarak up in the Jenin Palace”, while Friday thinks Umbarak sounds “wet” and that one of Zayid’s more ingenious dope-smuggling rackets is “a wizard idea”). A friend of February’s father, a Very Important Man in the War Office, later gives a pompous speech about how Britain ought to take charge of all the stock of the mineral caprium because “England is the only Great Power who could use caprium as it must be used if the world is to survive”, although his view is countered by the newspaper editor who says, “We happen to believe that if the world is to survive, Great Powers simply must stop grabbing everything they think they can get away with and try behaving openly for a change.” (Sadly, the current leaders of the Great Powers do not appear to agree with this last viewpoint. And I think the characters in this book are being overly optimistic to describe Britain in 1959 as a “Great Power”.)

But it was all the science-y bits that had me either groaning or laughing at their dated-ness. I’ve noticed during my recent 1950s reading that fiction writers of the time seemed obsessed with the notion that science was about to annihilate humanity (which I guess is understandable after nuclear bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945) and that all scientists, but especially physicists, were believed to be secretive, incomprehensible and slightly deranged. So I was not surprised to see that science plays a large role in this book. A schoolboy friend of February’s is “mad on chemistry” and is constantly doing dangerous experiments (which, by the way, cause no concern to his parents, even when he burns off his sister’s hair with acid). He buys a lot of different cigarette brands (one of which is supposed to be “non-cancer”) to test, and wonders why one is wrapped in paper that won’t burn. His father, the village doctor, thinks the paper is probably made of asbestos:

“No reason why it shouldn’t be used instead of tin-foil,” he said. “Perhaps it preserves the cigarettes better in some way.”

Then he wanders off (probably smoking his pipe). Mind you, this is the same doctor who cheerfully discusses his patients’ details with February, explaining that the old woman he’s about to see only has a fever because she “gets herself so excited with all the things she thinks are wrong with her” so he’s going to give her “the nastiest tasting medicine I can think of, which is asafoetida and bromide”. Which is probably an accurate description of the behaviour of doctors, in the days before anyone paid much attention to ideas like “patient confidentiality” and “evidence-based medicine”.

But the funniest part was when the War Office bigwig gave a solemn lecture on physics, explaining that uranium is “the heaviest” element1 and that Britain’s “top nuclear physicist has had a nervous breakdown” because the mysterious mineral caprium has “upset his confidence in himself” and he’s been forced to accept that “all his knowledge is no less ludicrous than was the flat earth theory in its day”. I’m pretty sure “top nuclear physicists” don’t usually go “round the bend” when they come across a new, interesting element (isn’t that what they hope for?) and in any case, the reported properties of caprium don’t actually seem to prove that the atomic theory is wrong. (Also, despite no one understanding what caprium does, the War Office bigwig straps a bag of (possibly radioactive) caprium to his abdomen to cure his duodenal ulcer, which, of course, has been caused by the stress of dealing with the caprium crisis.)

Overall, though, I enjoyed February’s story very much. Her voice is lively and often very funny, her eccentric family and friends are entertaining, and the dated bits are quite amusing. Recommended for fans of Tintin or for those who wish the Famous Five books had had more plausible characters and more complex plots.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

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  1. I was pretty sure that heavier elements had been synthesised during or just after the war, so I looked up the history of the periodic table, and yes, by 1959, there were at least five discovered elements heavier than uranium, with even heavier elements that had been theorised and were later observed. But then again, the author couldn’t Google this information in thirty seconds, as I just did.

Book Recommendations, Please

I know the people who regularly visit this blog are widely read, highly intelligent and have excellent taste, so could you please recommend me some books? But not just any books. I am looking for some very specific books – namely, books set in England, preferably London, in the 1950s or early 1960s, about middle-class or upper-class schoolgirls. The books can be novels, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies (or chapters of biographies or autobiographies) – I don’t mind, as long as they centre on the lives of schoolgirls and the author really knows what he (or preferably, she) is writing about. To be even more demanding, I’d prefer to read about girls at day schools, rather than boarding schools. A 1950s or 1960s version of A Long Way From Verona or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, set in London, would be perfect.

Here are some of the books I’ve recently read, or re-read, that didn’t quite meet my requirements:

An Education, a memoir by Lynn Barber, included some chapters describing how Lynn, a bright but naïve schoolgirl, was courted by a much older con man who convinced her (and her parents) that she should leave school and marry him. It was also made into an excellent film, written by Nick Hornby and starring Carey Mulligan.

Girlitude: A Portrait of the 50s and 60s, a memoir by Emma Tennant, looked promising, but wasn’t really about her life as a child. It’s about how the author, a spoilt, rich member of the aristocracy, drifted through the fifties and sixties, picking up and discarding husbands, lovers, friends and houses, dumping her child on her long-suffering parents, and occasionally deigning to work for a few months at a time at some fashion magazine or other (the jobs arranged for her by her family, as she’d left school at fifteen and had no qualifications or apparent skills).

I also read, or re-read, a few Noel Streatfeild children’s books, including the ‘Shoes’ novels (Apple Bough/Traveling Shoes remains my favourite), Caldicott Place (which was okay) and Gemma (which was dreadful). Then I read some grown-up novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, All Change and Love All, as well as The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which included schoolgirls as minor characters.

Any other suggestions, readers? Has anyone read the World’s End series by Monica Dickens or any of Mary Treadgold‘s children’s books, and would you recommend them? My only other proviso is that I’d prefer the books to be readily available. (For example, I’ve been intrigued by reviews of Antonia Forest‘s Marlow books for a while, but they’re in copyright yet out-of-print, and the last time I went online looking for a second-hand paperback copy of End of Term, it was listed for SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS, which is beyond my book-buying budget.) Thanks, everyone!

Adventures in Research: Secrets and Spies During the Cold War

As part of my research into 1960s England, I decided I needed to learn more about British intelligence agencies, and in particular, MI5. Firstly, though, I had to figure out the difference between MI5 and MI6. Right, that’s simple enough! MI5 (now known as the ‘Security Service’) deals with threats to domestic security, while MI6 (the ‘Secret Service’, also known as ‘the one that James Bond works for’) deals with international issues. No, wait – it’s not quite that simple. ‘Domestic’ was historically defined as not just England, Scotland and Wales (and Northern Ireland, after 1920) but the whole of the British Empire (which was a considerable chunk of the world until the 1960s). This meant that MI5, supposedly a domestic intelligence agency, had agents stationed all over the planet, from Aden (now in Yemen), the Sudan and Cyprus, to India and Malaya, as well as throughout the Dominions (Australia, New Zealand and Canada). Plus, MI5 needed to know a lot about their Soviet enemies behind the Iron Curtain, in case a KGB spy popped up in London (which seems to have happened roughly every five minutes during the 1960s). But hang on, weren’t Soviet Union spies the responsibility of MI6? And what about the role of the British army, navy and air force, especially the military’s code-breaking and technological development teams? And what about the police – Scotland Yard, for instance, and local branches in places where spies were hiding? Well, I guess they must all have worked together harmoniously for the good of the nation, sharing all their information and technology.

Ha, ha. No, actually, they spent a great deal of their time squabbling over resources, jealously guarding their information and pointing accusing fingers at one another whenever a spy within the ranks was unmasked or news of a particularly inept piece of bungling reached the public. I learned about this, and more, from several books about MI5. The first was The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, which intrigued me because why on Earth would a secret service publish a thousand-page volume explaining their inner workings, including a map containing photos and locations of all their offices?1 But actually, this book turned out to be less comprehensive than I’d hoped. 'The Defence of the Realm' by Christopher AndrewThe author, a British historian, was given limited access to MI5’s archives and then the final manuscript was vetted by MI5 to remove anything that “would damage national security” or be “inappropriate for wider public interest reasons” (that is, anything that might make MI5 look bad). The book does provide a good overview of the early years of MI5 (which was founded in 1909 to deal with the threat of German imperialism) and of MI5’s work during the two world wars. However, the closer it gets to the current day, the more guarded the author becomes. He’s reluctant to criticise any of MI5’s actions during the 1950s and 1960s, which included helping the CIA overthrow the democratically elected government of British Guiana (on the grounds the Prime Minister had Communist sympathies, although ironically, the man they put in his place actually strengthened the country’s links with the Soviets), plotting to assassinate inconvenient people (Colonel Nasser in Egypt, for instance) and spying on ‘friends’ (bugging the French Embassy during European Economic Community negotiations and eavesdropping on African leaders during independence talks). At most, Andrew is mildly disapproving when Guy Liddell, an MI5 Director, vehemently opposes independence for the colonies because the “niggers” (Liddell’s term, used in official correspondence) aren’t capable of governing their own countries – but then Andrew excuses this on the grounds that everyone thought that way in the mid-twentieth century. The author also apparently has no problem with MI5 targeting British citizens regarded by the (Conservative) government as ‘subversives’, including such dangerous people as trade unionists, members of the Labour Party and suburban grandmothers campaigning for nuclear disarmament. (Communists, the lot of them! They deserve to be spied on!) He also goes to great lengths to accuse Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister who believed MI5 was bugging his office, of paranoia and outright insanity. But MI5 did keep a file on Wilson! MI5 had previously disseminated false information to discredit Labour politicians during an election! And for much of its history, MI5 was exclusively staffed by members of a tiny section of right-wing British society – men who’d attended the same exclusive schools and universities, who’d usually worked in the colonies, and who were, even by the standards of their day, incredibly sexist, racist and anti-Semitic (even active members of Fascist organisations, in at least one case). Although this book was often very interesting and occasionally quite entertaining, I became so frustrated at the author’s bias, the gaps in the record and the lack of verifiable sources that I ended up skimming the final two hundred pages. There’s a good review by Bernard Porter, who has read the entire book, here at the London Review of Books.

'Spycatcher' by Peter WrightNext I turned to a more controversial book, Spycatcher by Peter Wright, a former MI5 officer. Australians may remember that the British government tried to ban its publication in Australia, with the book successfully defended in court by none other than Malcolm Turnbull2. Turnbull managed to make the British government look completely ridiculous during the Spycatcher trial and the book received lots of free publicity and went on to sell millions of copies around the world. It’s at its most interesting (and plausible) when Wright discusses how he and his colleagues “bugged and burgled our way across London at the State’s behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way”. He describes the technology they invented to eavesdrop, and detect eavesdropping, and how they managed to keep track of the Soviet spies who were based in the UK during the Cold War. The book becomes less convincing when Wright describes his “freelance” campaign to uncover the ‘moles’ within MI5. His suspicions were mostly based on accounts provided by a (very unreliable) Soviet defector, but also on Wright’s own “intuition”. He attempted to prove the mole was Roger Hollis, then MI5 Director-General, which turned out to be quite difficult for Wright because there was no real evidence (possibly because Hollis wasn’t actually a Soviet spy). Then Wright went on a witchhunt within MI5, scrutinising dozens of staff, causing breakdowns, resignations and suicides and destroying office morale, before he finally gave up, resigned and moved to Australia to write this book. It seems partly motivated by revenge – he was peeved that his MI5 pension wasn’t much larger – but he also seems to relish revealing lots of important secrets, including code names and agent identities, secrets that he’d been trusted to keep. So I think it’s a bit much for him to treat Soviet spies like Anthony Blunt with such contempt in the book – how is Wright’s own behaviour much different? Surely he signed some kind of secrecy agreement when he joined MI5? And after all, for most of the time that Blunt was working as a Soviet spy, the Soviet Union was Britain’s ally – they were both fighting the Nazis (in fact, the Soviets were doing far more of the fighting than the British), so wasn’t Blunt just handing over information that Britain should have been sharing anyway? And how is what Blunt did much worse than Winston Churchill covering up Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre, in which more than 20,000 Polish prisoners, mostly civilians, were murdered and dumped in mass graves?

Stella Rimington, the first female Director-General of MI5, knew Peter Wright when he worked there, and her autobiography, Open Secret, describes him as obsessive, paranoid and self-important, with an “over-developed imagination” – in fact, she and her colleagues used to wonder if he was a KGB spy, placed within MI5 to cause maximum disruption to the service. Furthermore, she says MI5 did not cheat him out of any of his pension (although she wishes MI5 management had given him more money to ‘buy him off’, given how much damage his book ended up doing to MI5’s reputation). She does, however, thank him for drawing attention to one of MI5’s problems – that, until the 1980s, MI5 staff had no legal protection for their work. (Eventually, legislation was passed to allow MI5 to intercept telephone conversations and postal correspondence and eavesdrop on private conversations, with oversight by a parliamentary committee.) 'Open Secret' by Stella RimingtonHer book also provides an interesting account of how MI5 was forced to change in modern times – to become more professional and accountable to the public, and to recruit more diverse staff. She’s particularly good at describing the challenges faced by women working within MI5. When she joined in the 1960s, women were not thought capable of doing anything other than administrative tasks, and her managers were bemused and sometimes hostile as she battled to become an officer and progress up the ranks to become a director (although she insists she wasn’t one of those “aggressive feminists”). Her work was made even more difficult because she was a single parent. At one stage, when child care arrangements fell through, she ended up taking her young daughter with her to a ‘safe house’ where she’d arranged to meet a contact. On another occasion, she was about to leave to meet a possible Soviet defector when her nanny called to say Rimington’s daughter was being rushed to hospital, suffering convulsions. (Rimington ended up going to the hospital after the defector meeting, but having to borrow money from the potential defector for taxi fares to the hospital. Perhaps that’s why he decided against defecting.) Family life was further disrupted when Rimington became the first Director-General to be publicly named, which caused a media sensation and meant that she and her daughter (and dog) had to leave their home and hide in an MI5 ‘safe house’ while her daughter was trying to do her A-levels (their dog, however, quite enjoyed this because he got to go on patrols with the security guards and was made an honorary member of the security team, with an official pass attached to his collar).

While Rimington has some issues with the way MI5 used to work, she says these problems have now been overcome and she seems very loyal to the organisation, vigorously defending its more dubious behaviour. For instance, she denies that MI5 behaved badly when it targeted the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protest movement – after all, CND was clearly part of a Soviet plot to weaken the West because it wanted Britain to ban the bomb! Similarly, she denies that MI5 worked as “tools of Mrs Thatcher” to break the miners’ strike in 1984 – after all, the unions were full of Communists who hated Thatcher, so by definition, they were “subversive” because they were opposed to the government (and it’s pure coincidence that Rimington’s husband John, a senior Whitehall official, was, at the time, locked in bitter negotiations with the miners’ unions about cost-cutting measures and job cuts). She acknowledges that a lot of MI5’s “fevered activity” during the Cold War was “unsuccessful because the other side very frequently saw us coming” but that “it is a mistake to ridicule all this activity [because] the Soviet bloc presented a serious threat to our national security” and she’s proud that MI5 was “helping to preserve democracy against the forces of totalitarianism”.

For my part, I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if both sides, Soviet and Western, had directed all the time, money and effort they poured into spying on each other towards humanitarian causes. They could have ensured every child in the world received basic literacy and numeracy education. They could have provided clean water and sanitation to every community that needed it. They could have wiped polio off the face of the Earth. Instead, they chose to devote a huge amount of national resources to activities that achieved almost nothing, except loss of life, for either side. But no doubt Rimington and her colleagues at MI5 would regard such ideas as the ravings of a loony idealist, of someone quite possibly a Communist – maybe even one of those dreaded “aggressive feminists”.

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  1. There seems to be a trend for this sort of thing. The Australian version of MI5, ASIO, has just authorised its own history – The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO, 1949-1963, Volume 1, by David Horner, which Robert Manne described in his Sydney Morning Herald review as “clearly organised, comprehensive, fair-minded and slightly dull”. Also Frank Moorhouse, author of the Edith Campbell Berry trilogy, has recently published Australia Under Surveillance, a more personal look at the subject of domestic surveillance.
  2. For the benefit of non-Australians, Malcolm Turnbull is famous for a lot of reasons, including: being extremely rich; marrying Lucy Hughes, from the famous and powerful Hughes family; being a cabinet minister in the Liberal (that is, conservative) Australian government; and, at the moment, being touted as the person who should replace Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, on the grounds that Turnbull is more intelligent, articulate and in touch with the values of twenty-first-century Australians than Abbott is. (Although I would just like to remind Turnbull fans about the Godwin Grech debacle and that Turnbull, MP for one of the gayest electorates in Australia, who got elected by promising his support for same-sex marriage, voted against same-sex marriage in 2012. And don’t forget his claim that he understands ordinary Australians because he himself grew up in conditions of terrible, grinding poverty – reduced, at one stage of his childhood, to living in a rented flat in Double Bay! Okay, that last one is probably only funny to Sydneysiders. For non-Sydneysiders, Double Bay is the equivalent of Belgravia in London or Park Lane in New York.)

Adventures in Research: Some Books about the 1950s and 1960s

I’ve been plodding on through the 1950s and 1960s, which has included reading books written about the period in more recent times. (This, by the way, did not involve much adventure. I just borrowed all these books from my local library.) First was Family Britain: 1951-1957 by David Kynaston, which was a thoroughly researched sociological history, examining issues such as housing, entertainment and food, as well as taking a close look at a few significant political events, including the Suez crisis. There’s lots of detail about the experiences of working class and lower middle class people, told in their own words (often thanks to the interviewers from Mass Observation) so the book was often very interesting – but it was slightly disorganised and repetitious, so this is possibly not a book for the general reader.

'Never Had It So Good' by Dominic SandbrookThose looking for a more entertaining read about the period may prefer Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles, 1956-63, by Dominic Sandbrook. This is also very detailed and carefully researched, and it was particularly good at summarising important political events (for example, the resignations of Prime Ministers Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan and subsequent political manoeuvrings). There are also interesting discussions of popular culture (film, television, music and books), although the author’s personal biases become apparent here. For example, he devotes more than an entire chapter to Kingsley Amis, who Sandbrook believes is “brilliantly funny”, with Lucky Jim considered to be “a work of tremendous influence”, “emblematic of a post-war literary trend”, with an immense number of imitators (Really? Did Amis have more imitators than, say, J. R. R. Tolkien?). Meanwhile, William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, John Fowles, Anthony Burgess, Mervyn Peake, C. S. Lewis and Tolkien are collectively dealt with in three sentences. Similarly, women are nearly absent from this book. There are a couple of pages about Christine Keeler (the young woman at the centre of the Profumo scandal), a few references to a young Tory politician named Margaret Thatcher, some anonymous housewives buying washing machines and a horde of anonymous teenage girls screaming at the Beatles, but that’s it (and don’t expect much about topics such as fashion, either). Otherwise, this is an entertaining, informative read about the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Eager to find out more about women’s experiences, I turned to Sheila Rowbotham‘s Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties. Goodness, it was dull. There are a few interesting anecdotes about her personal experiences as a young academic and political activist, but mostly it was pages and pages of tedious squabbling between various Left factions – trade unionists versus Marxist academics, Leninists versus Trotskyists versus Maoists, and so on – with every single participant named and none of them actually seeming to achieve anything useful. Most of the men are appallingly sexist and the book becomes more interesting when the women start to object to this behaviour and begin ‘consciousness-raising’ groups to share their experiences. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen until the final chapter, and the book ends with the author and others planning the first Women’s Liberation conference in Britain, which was held in 1970. The author does make an interesting point, linking the 1960s hippies to Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies:

“The ‘do your own thing’ sense of individual liberation was turned into a justification of living completely for yourself. Elements of this self-absorption were also to persist, transmuting into the ruthless selfishness which would come into ascendancy in the late eighties.”

Jenny Diski, author of The Sixties, agrees and takes this idea further:

“There are two accusations: that we caused the greed and self-interest of the Eighties by invoking the self, the individual, as the unit of society and setting up individualism for the Right to pick up and run with; or that we caused it by being so permissive, so soppy about matters that needed hard, firm handling, that a reaction was inevitable if the West wasn’t to sink into a morass of self-indulgent chaos.”

'The Sixties' by Jenny DiskiOtherwise, this is a very different sort of book, a collection of entertaining personal essays on the topics of consumerism, drug-taking, sex, revolutionary politics, education and mental health in ‘the Sixties’ (which is defined as circa 1965-1974). It wasn’t particularly useful for my research purposes, as Jenny Diski’s experiences were so outside the ‘norm’ (for example, she was expelled from school at fifteen for sniffing ether, was incarcerated in various mental institutions, then lived in a commune with drug addicts and then, while still a young trainee teacher, set up her own school for disadvantaged children, run on ‘alternative education’ principles). However, I found it fascinating and often very funny. (Jenny Diski is a novelist, and Sheila Rowbotham an academic and historian, and it shows.) (Oh, I just found Jenny Diski’s review of Sheila Rowbotham’s Promise of a Dream in London Review of Books. Ha!)

To give myself a break from politics and drugs and mental asylums and so on, I then read 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, a charming and very funny collection of correspondence between Miss Hanff, an irreverent New York writer, and Mr Doel, a stuffy London bookseller. The letters began in 1949 when she wrote to order a book from the antiquarian shop where he worked, but soon the correspondents included the bookseller’s colleagues, wife and neighbour, as well as the writer’s friends, with books, recipes and gifts being exchanged across the Atlantic for the next twenty years. If you love books, you will adore this.

Adventures in Research: Americans in Post-War England

'Rhubarb' (1951 film poster)
The cover of my edition of ‘Smith’s London Journal’ is very boring, so here is the poster from the 1951 film of ‘Rhubarb’
My apologies for the lack of blog posts recently, but I’ve been reading ALL THE BOOKS and haven’t had time to write about them till now. Next in my Adventures in Research comes Smith’s London Journal by H. Allen Smith, an American journalist who seems to have been the Bill Bryson of the 1940s and 1950s, selling “millions of copies” of his humorous books. Among Smith’s best-selling books were (I am not making these titles up) Lo, the Former Egyptian!, Larks in the Popcorn and Life in a Putty Knife Factory, with his novel Rhubarb being turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Ray Milland and Orangey the cat.

Smith’s London Journal describes his visit to England in the autumn of 1951. His trip was partly for the purpose of attending the British premiere of Rhubarb, but also to study the “English character”, which he’d heard was the most admirable in the world. He sails over on the Queen Elizabeth, taking careful notes on the manners and accents of his fellow passengers, including the (mostly unintelligible) Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden (clearly, this was pre-Suez crisis, because Eden is described as “one of the world’s most skilful diplomatists”). On arrival in London, life becomes even more confusing for Mr Smith, but he does his best to cope with English money (“thrupnys and sixpuntses and arf crowns and bobs and double bobs”), English vocabulary (“A saloon is a sedan. Thus it is possible to be arrested in England for driving while drunk in a saloon.”) and English club etiquette (strictly no women allowed, not even Queen Mary). He happily follows in the footsteps of Boswell and Johnson and Pepys; pores over English newspapers; watches a cricket match, a snooker tournament and the dog races; attends a session at the Bow Street Courts and an election candidate’s campaign meeting; buys a “weatherproof” from Burberry’s and tries to purchase the tie of the National Playing Fields Association because it’s the favourite of the Duke of Edinburgh; attempts to master the art of talking Cockney and asks how to address Lords and Ladies (as the only other titled people he’d previously met were “Grand Dragon Wimble of the Klan and Miss America of 1937”). Meanwhile, his wife Nelle visits historical sites, tries to start up a conversation with a King’s Guardsman (“CAN YOU TALK TO PEOPLE?”) and gets into arguments with monarchists (“I still say that the kind of adulation and worship you give to those people over in Buckingham Palace ought to be given to someone who has accomplished something”).

Mr Smith, unlike Nelle, is full of admiration for nearly all aspects of English life, although he does struggle with the meals, which tend to consist of either Dover sole or “flat chicken” (“apparently the poultry chef takes the meat and gristle from a chicken and flogs it with a mallet before cooking; either that or the British chicken is unlike any fowl in my country – a sort of feathered saucer walking around on chicken feet”). He fails in his quest to convince his new English friends that the works of Shakespeare were actually written by the seventeenth Earl of Oxford (this theory is based on “an accumulation of knowledge in recent decades”, although it’s “most unfortunate that the man who did this enormous job of research and then wrote the book has the surname of Looney, so I didn’t mention that fact and was happy no one asked about it”). However, he does achieve his long-held ambition to visit Jeremy Bentham at University College1. Smith’s London Journal not only provided me with a lot of (possibly useful) facts about London, it made me laugh and laugh. Highly recommended, if you happen to share my sense of humour.

'Here's England' by Ruth McKenney and Richard BranstenLess ridiculous, but still entertaining, is Here’s England by Ruth McKenney and Richard Bransten. This is another American-tourists-in-1950s-England guidebook, but this one ranges a bit further than London, travelling as far south as Cornwall and north to Yorkshire. The authors believe England is “the most beautiful, wonderful, exciting country in Europe”, but they caution their fellow Americans:

“There is a mistaken notion . . . that just because we speak the language (or some approximation of same) and are brought up on Dickens, Keats and Shakespeare, England is therefore easy. On the contrary, England is complicated, more obscure and difficult than Brazil or Abyssinia . . . Alas, a standard sight in the English summer-time is the harried American tourist, dismally trotting about the Tower of London or old St Bartholomew’s, afraid to ask what is Perpendicular, when was the Dissolution, and what happened for the eight hundred odd years after 1066?”

Accordingly, for each historical site, the authors not only tell readers how to get there and what to look for when they arrive, but also provide excellent potted histories of the events and people associated with the site, as well as clear explanations of architectural styles. There are also descriptions of various aspects of English life (an entire chapter on cricket, for example), all written in an engaging, informative manner. In addition, there are maps, a family tree for “The Kings of England”2, a chart of notable dates in English history, a glossary of architectural terms and a lot of charming illustrations by Osbert Lancaster (see below). I haven’t finished reading this one yet (I’ve been distracted by my piles of library books), but so far, Here’s England gets two thumbs up. (If my opinion has changed by the end of it, I’ll come back and edit this post.)

'A Corner in Soho' by Osbert Lancaster

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  1. Mr Bentham, author of Auto-Icon, or the Uses of the Dead to the Living, died in 1832, but provided very specific instructions in his will regarding how his body was to be preserved.
  2. Although they do include The Queens of England. I noticed they fail to acknowledge Lady Jane Grey as a Tudor Queen, presumably because she didn’t last long in the job and didn’t have a coronation, but then, neither did Edward VIII, and he’s in there. I am willing to overlook this because lots of other writers follow their reasoning about poor Jane and the rest of the book is so carefully researched.

Adventures in Research: Class in Post-War England

Having ‘finished’ a new book1, I’m now thinking about writing a series set in 1960s England, so I’ve started doing some research. At this stage, my reading is fairly broad-ranging, but I do have a few specific questions in mind. One of them is whether England’s class system changed much after the Second World War. Did conscription, rationing and the Blitz break down social barriers and make England more egalitarian? Did ordinary working people become less deferential and aristocrats less arrogant as a result of their shared experiences during the war? And what about the middle classes – did they end up with more money and power, or less? I am currently reading a serious, statistic-laden sociological history about the period2, but I started off with something that looked a bit more entertaining – Class by Jilly Cooper.

Published in 1979, this is an “unashamedly middle class” description of the differences between aristocrats (“about 0.2% of the population”), the middle classes (divided into upper, middle and lower) and working class people (including the nouveau riche). Jilly Cooper acknowledges that the subject is extremely complex, so that even trying to determine which class an individual belongs to can be very difficult. The Census, for example, used a person’s occupation (or their husband’s occupation, in the case of women) to determine social class, but this put Princess Anne (“athletes including horseback riders”) in the same class as bus-drivers and butchers and ranked the aristocratic Guinness family (“brewers”) even lower, alongside bus conductors and milkmen. Income could also be an unreliable indicator of class, with a lot of aristocrats “desperately broke” due to death duties and capital transfer tax, and some working-class men earning more than self-employed middle-class men. A more useful classification system, this author argues, involves examining a person’s education, house, clothes, language and food, as well as the person’s beliefs about the arts, sport, religion, marriage, child-rearing and death. Accordingly, she devotes a chapter to each of these topics. For example, death rituals of the various classes are described in detail, with the author noting that,

“Although it is more upper-class to be buried than cremated, it is frightfully smart to have to be cremated because your family tomb is so full of your ancestors going back to the year dot that there is no room for you.”

The author has made some attempt to consult a range of written sources, but mostly seems to rely on personal anecdotes of dubious reliability. For example,

“My favourite mini-cab driver has a theory that tall people are good in bed because only they can reach the sex books that librarians insist on putting on the top shelves. But this doesn’t explain why aristocrats, who are generally tall, tend to be so hopeless – maybe they never go into public libraries, or don’t read anything except ‘The Sporting Life’ and Dick Francis.”

'Class' by Jilly CooperSome of the descriptions, particularly of clothes and food, have dated badly (I doubt that respectable lower-middle-class women wear “a navy crimplene two-piece trimmed with lemon” to weddings nowadays or that they decorate their food with radish flowerets) but I suspect quite a lot of the observations still hold true, especially regarding attitudes to schools and universities. There are sweeping generalisations, especially about the working classes, and a lot of terrible, terrible puns, but I found this to be a very entertaining (and occasionally informative) read. I should also note that the edition I read had a very strange cover photograph (see above), depicting what appeared to be a palette knife with some green lumps (olives? uncut emeralds?) balanced on the end of it, but this was explained in an early chapter:

“Not answerable to other people, the aristocrat is often unimaginative, spoilt, easily irritated and doesn’t flinch from showing it. If he wants to eat his peas with his knife, he does so.”3

A more serious and thoroughly researched perspective of 1960s England was provided by Richard Davenport in his book, An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo. This described the various people involved in the Profumo scandal of 1963, including the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, certain English aristocrats, slum landlords and property developers, ‘good-time girls’, spies, journalists and corrupt policemen. Old Etonians still ran the country, but there were indications that a new class of rich, ruthless businessmen from impoverished backgrounds (many of them refugees who’d fled Hitler or Stalin) were beginning their rise to power. It was really depressing to read about the status of women, who seemingly had the choice of being a Christine Keeler (forced by lack of other options into working as a stripper and prostitute) or a Valerie Profumo (forced by her husband to end her successful acting career once they married, then required to play the role of adoring wife while he had numerous extra-marital affairs). It was also depressing to see how corrupt and racist the police were and how hypocritical politicians and journalists were about Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler (who, according to this book, was not the mistress of a Russian spy and in any case, would never have known any important state secrets). Mostly, though, I wondered how England had ever managed to establish an empire when everyone in power was obsessed with such trivia as which old school tie their colleague was wearing and the correct method for eating peas. To this colonial, the English class system appears utterly bonkers – but also full of potential for novel-writing, which is the important thing.

Next in Adventures in Research: An American in 1950s England.

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  1. that is, having sent a manuscript to my agent and asked him to see if anyone might possibly be interested in publishing it
  2. Family Britain, 1951-1957 by David Kynaston
  3. The FitzOsbornes don’t. They use a fork or, in the case of certain junior FitzOsbornes, their fingers. But then, they’re not English.