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‘A Betjemanism in Paint’: The ‘Seeing Eye’ of John Piper

April 9, 2014

Stranded at Whittington Station, in provincial Shropshire, in 1939 the artist John Piper and his friend, the poet John Betjeman, pondered their Victorian surroundings. This apparently habitual and quaint example of nineteenth-century railway architecture still held, for Piper and Betjeman at least, more than a hint of the past glories of Victoriana. Set amongst the modern detritus of the twentieth-century, ‘only the little railway station remains to tell us of the age’, wrote Betjeman in an article for the Architectural Review. This piece, ‘The Seeing Eye, or How to Like Everything’, a collaboration in which Piper supplied the illustrations, was above all a didactic lesson in the connoisseurship of what was ostensibly the inexcusably ordinary. This was not just limited to the railway station at Whittington, which Piper sketched (See below), but so too ‘the doctor’s Italianate house in the suburb, the Gothic gate-lodge, the Baptist Chapel, the decaying Victorian terrace in the Spa… the architecture which we have all seen, but not bothered about’. ‘Mr. Piper has resurrected it’, wrote Betjeman:

Mr. Piper has turned neglected styles into something beautiful and peculiar to himself. Instead of despairing of what we have always been told is ugly and meretricious, he has accepted it at its façade value and brought it to life. This has made us look a second time without any sense of satire, moral indignation or aesthetic horror. He has done the job of the artist.

Whittington Station, by John Piper

Whittington Station (1939)

Indeed, these two men, the poet and the painter, exemplified and articulated the virtue of the second-look – teaching their fellow countrymen to rediscover, reappraise and appreciate the fabric of their architectural inheritance. This was Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’. But it was also, as the writer Geoffrey Grigson suspected, observing Piper’s newfound preference for the bourgeois vulgarities of the Anglican middle-class, ‘a reaction, a return, a rejection, an unwelcome kind of exclusion and coming clean, a Betjemanism in paint’. The critic Robin Ironside was more precise, identifying Piper as, ‘by temperament, [the] most in tune with the national heritage’, but also accusing him of ‘a too persistent cultivation of the by-paths of our art history’. Antony West writes that, ‘The importance of the thing seen in the poet’s work strengthened Piper’s developing sense of the legitimacy, and the propriety, of maintaining a relationship between the visible stuff “out there” that held so much meaning for him and the created images of his work.’ To what extent were Grigson’s and Ironside’s identifications of Piper’s worship of the past correct and in tune with Betjeman’s account of the ‘Seeing Eye’? Was Piper truly a Betjemanism in paint?

It was Candida Lycett Green, the daughter of Betjeman, who once recalled how the two Johns were believed to have ‘betrayed the modern movement with their liking of the provinces, of old churches and tea-shops’. Indeed, Charles Harrison considers Betjeman and Piper as joint purveyors of the ‘neo-picturesque’, to be set apart from that of the ‘neo-romantic’. While ‘“neo-romanticism” was compatible with an attenuated Surrealism’, the ‘“neo-picturesque” involved a nostalgic reinstatement of just that Victorian bourgeois manner which the Surrealists had so often parodied’. Indeed, ‘Betjemanism’ as a simple reinstatement of ‘neo-picturesque’ values would not be an entirely inaccurate conclusion. It was after perusing Betjeman’s compilation, English, Scottish and Welsh Landscapes, that Piper took it upon himself to steal the commission for the illustration of the work from a notable Neo-Romantic artist. ‘It came over me after you had gone’, Piper wrote to Betjeman, ‘that the anthology was the best of its kind ever made and that Graham Sutherland would miss the point’. Certainly, founded upon their first collaboration on the Shell Guides, Piper and Betjeman have been viewed as congruent forces, sharing a corresponding orbit of interests and associations. Richard Ingrams noted that it was ‘impossible to distinguish Betjeman from Piper on the Shell Shropshire. They observe and write as one person.’ A.N. Wilson, Betjeman’s biographer, concludes of their relationship that, ‘There is no doubt that they were catalysts to another and that their best work was stimulated by their friendship.’ And above all, this mutual responsiveness, what we may arguably term Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’, was kindled by Betjemanism: an acute, and shared, vision of a past, irretrievable England.

A.N. Wilson writes that Betjeman’s name is ‘synonymous with many people’s idea of England itself’. Betjeman ‘spoke for England’. And, most of all, it was a collective sense of the overbearing weight of history that most stirred the two Johns. It was, wrote J.B. Priestley in 1934, in an English Journey, their nation’s most sticky idiosyncrasy: ‘We stagger beneath our inheritance.’ The England of Piper and Betjeman was undoubtedly Priestley’s ‘Old England’, a ‘country of cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire; guide-book and quaint highways and byways England’. It was an England that, if it ever existed at all, had not survived the barbarities of 1914-1918. But, as Priestley hinted, with the use of a map, a guide-book and a motor car, it might still be found. Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’ would be, in this manner, an act of reclamation. However, as Frances Spalding has noted, particularly of Piper, within this nostalgia was an ‘unlocated melancholy’. This very much chimes with Wilson’s account of Betjeman, too, of a man riddled by ‘morbid guilt’ and ‘self-doubt’ all his life, and ‘like many melancholics… of a very religious temperament’. Indeed, ‘Summoned by Bells’ to modest churches, though never secure in his own faith, it was rather the ‘sea of pews’, the ‘carven wood’ and ‘these grey memorial’d walls’ that spoke most of all to Betjeman:

‘Twas not, I think, a conscious search for God
That brought me to these dim forgotten fanes.
Largely it was a longing for the past,
With a sense of something unfulfilled.

Born into an Edwardian idyll, ‘safe, in a world of trains and buttered toast’, as Betjeman recalled in his autobiographical Summoned by Bells, it was his and Piper’s good fortune to be born just too late to be killed in the Great War. However, unable to participate, this was also their singular misfortune. Their trauma was to see the results coming in:

Before the hymn the Skipper would announce
The latest names of those who’d lost their lives
For King and Country and the Dragon School.
Sometimes his gruff old voice was full of tears
When a particular favourite had been killed.

Spalding’s ‘unlocated melancholy’ might in fact be very locatable, and, indeed, offers an explanation for the psychology of Piper’s and Betjeman’s friendship. Antony West writes that Piper ‘gained a great deal from this intimate working association with a poet who, whatever his carefully maintained public persona and his lighter verse may suggest to the contrary, combines a profound seriousness with a refined sensibility’. Their mutual ‘aesthetic maturation’ went hand in hand with a ‘stabilisation of their hierarchies of values’. When Piper sketched the station at Whittington in 1939, upon the eve of yet another war, he was recording for posterity a relic of an age which Betjeman sincerely believed to be one of greater security: ‘Safe were those evenings of the pre-war world.’ All Piper’s sketch lacked was some ‘buttered toast’. Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’ complimented Betjeman’s Edwardian world’s view. And as Betjeman later remarked: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt so confident as I did with Mr Piper.’

Betjeman was a ‘preservationist by instinct’, writes A.N. Wilson, and as early as the 1930s he was seen to be the ‘natural saviour of threatened architecture’. And a major component part of Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’ was its complimentary attitude to Betjeman’s reverence of historical edifices – particularly those of a clerical nature. In 1981 Betjeman’s Church Poems was published, an anthology of the poet’s most accomplished ecclesiastical-related verse. With accompanying sketches by Piper, many of the poems and images were penned on his and Piper’s expeditions to parish churches for the Shell Guides over the previous decades. For both men, provincial churches were the chief architectural expressions of their nation’s past. ‘Without a church’, wrote Betjeman in the preface to Church Poems, ‘I think a place lacks its heart and identity’. With the aid of Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’, and in a time of declining faith, prompted by industrialisation, Betjeman reintroduced the nation to its great neglected inheritance. And as Richard Ingrams, a friend of Betjeman and Piper, later remarked, the two Johns ‘did more to teach Englishmen to love their churches and their Church than anything or anyone in modern times’. Piper’s art, his ‘Seeing Eye’, did much to facilitate this achievement. Both profoundly dedicated to Anglicanism, Betjeman urged his fellow countrymen to share in his and Piper’s communion with the past. A church was a reliquary of objects – church building, furnishings, liturgy, and even tombstones – all tangible links to what had passed before, of English craftsmanship, as Betjeman made clear in his poem ‘Churchyards’:

But this I know, you’re sure to find
Some headstones of the Georgian kind
In each old churchyard near and far,
Just go and see how fine they are.
Our churches are our history shown
In wood and glass and iron and stone.

For ‘Churchyards’ Piper supplied two simple sketches of tombstones in churchyards, one of which was of his own local parish church at Fawley, Buckinghamshire. The elegiac tombstone, weather-beaten yet still exquisite, was for Piper, too, a neglected record of the antecedent. The ‘Seeing Eye’ focused in upon disregarded treasures, attracted not solely by aesthetic adornment or any proposed exploration of faith, but by a perceived congenital pedigree. In Tombstones at Holy Trinity Churchyard, Hinton-in-the-Hedges, Northants, September 1939 (See below) the ‘Seeing Eye’ can be seen to be in full effect, but in more emotive detail than in the ‘Churchyard’ poem illustrations. One of Piper’s finest watercolours, produced for Kenneth Clark’s Recording Britain scheme, Tombstones at Holy Trinity Churchyard, displaying sullen skulls and strategically-placed cherubs, demanded a second-look. The ‘Seeing Eye’ was indeed an act of veneration, one which bestrode both the secular and the numinous; perhaps an attempted assuagement of Betjeman’s sense of ‘something unfulfilled’. Yet vitally, Piper’s and Betjeman’s self-appointed charge of recording Britain was a product, too, of a consciousness that such objects of devotion were now under mortal threat – from the Luftwaffe in 1939, but also an iconoclastic modernity.

Tombstones at Holy Trinity Churchyard, Hinton-in-the-Hedges, Northants (1939)

Tombstones at Holy Trinity Churchyard, Hinton-in-the-Hedges, Northants (1939)

In 1938, in a contribution to Art in England, John Summerson submitted ‘The Premises Coming Down’, bemoaning ‘the wholesale demolition of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century London’ by building developers. Highlighting the example of All Hallows, Lombard Street – a church attributed to Sir Christopher Wren – soon to be demolished in 1939, by verdict of the Privy Council, Summerson fought to defend England’s most precious architectural heirlooms. All Hallows, wrote Summerson, was ‘what was left of the parish church tradition after merciless revision by puritan intellectualism’. Modernity represented, to Summerson, a criminally reckless repudiation of the past, ‘a process so rapid and arbitrary that many a fine building disappears before there has been time even to secure measured and photographic records’. Betjeman’s poems, and Piper’s images, relating particularly to ecclesiastical and Georgian landscapes, were very much in league with Summerson, and attempted to catalogue, if not successfully save, what was thought to be worthy of reverence – ‘not out of dull sentiment’, wrote Summerson, ‘but because a civilisation which is scientifically, and therefore historically, minded rightly sets a value on the cultural expression of its antecedents’.

Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’ was very much a physical manifestation of this articulation. Indeed, Brian Foss, in War Paint, a study of British war art, 1939-45, cites Piper in particular as the chief representative of the ‘qualities of pre-modernist buildings – their evocation of history, their status as sources of inspiration and meaning, the contrast they suggested between civilisation and barbarism’. And as Betjeman noted of Piper, never was his work more sublime and poignant than during the Blitz, ‘When the bombs fell, when the City churches crashed, when the classic and Perpendicular glory of England was burnt and stark.’ The nation’s past, its most idiosyncratic architectural legacy – Wren’s London – was now on the frontline. And though Piper’s Blitz landscapes are notable for their lack of human victims, he does illustrate the casualties. In much the same way as Betjeman was read the roll call of the Dragon School dead of 1914-1918, Piper listed the deaths of those that most mattered to him, perhaps shedding a tear himself at the death of a favourite: Christ Church, Newgate Street, a Wren church destroyed by Luftwaffe incendiary bombs; Coventry Cathedral, 15 November, 1940; Redland Park Congregational Church, Bristol; St Mary le Port, Bristol (See below). But crucially, as Betjeman noted, when Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’ came into its own, prompted by events, it was nonetheless the result of the artist’s pre-war experience as an artist of ‘pleasing decay’, but one which did not necessarily negate that of the modern – employing, crucially, a ‘theory of colour to keep the drama of a newly fallen bomb alive’. Grigson’s assertion that Piper’s Betjemanism was a ‘rejection’ of modernism requires re-examination.

 St Mary le Port, Bristol (1940)

St Mary le Port, Bristol (1940)

‘The lesson of the old-fashioned market square’, Piper wrote in the Architectural Review, ‘is the lesson of beauty in irregularity and non-conformity… the effect of many different tastes rubbing along together for better or worse’. Including an ink and gouache image of the square in the market town of Devizes, in Wiltshire, with a medieval market cross in centre, against a contrasting background of historically jumbled building fronts, Piper illustrated his point. So, too, with the market place in Salisbury (See below). But in this latter example Piper added colour to certain façades – red and yellow – to accentuate ‘the simple and fortuitous colours of the buildings’. ‘It is surprising how little guide-book writers tell us about the colour of towns and villages’, Piper complained. Indeed, the colour of architecture, for Piper, was one of its great neglected joys. The most seemingly ordinary market square could still be aesthetically appreciated: ‘the scene still had good pictorial qualities.’ And it was the ‘accidents’ that mattered most of all to Piper, ‘the jumble of little expressions of personality’. Indeed, it was an effortless task to recognise the qualities of a ‘fine gothic church or a distinguished eighteenth-century façade’, but the Georgian or Victorian street frontage required a more tenacious eye. But the detail, so argued Piper, was there to be discovered with the use of an abstract principle.

Salisbury (1946)

Salisbury (1946)

If this was indeed an element of Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’ – to accentuate the ordinary to the point of making it extraordinary – it was one which owed something to his previous modern abstractions of the mid-1930s, which, as Betjeman noted, had taught the artist the discipline and the consequence of ‘the use of juxtaposed colour and textures’. This Betjemanism of picturesque regression ironically had a root in the British modernist aesthetic of the decade previous. An echo of Piper’s abstract credentials was most apparent in an article for the Architectural Review in 1945, titled ‘Colour in the Picturesque Village’. In an illustration of a street in rural Newton St. Cyres Piper replaced quaint cottage walls with flat planes of red, yellow and white. For Piper there were three distinct types of picturesque colour in groups of building: ‘unvaried’; ‘sentimental painters’ colours’; and ‘colours that are highly contrasted in themselves, or one colour (or white) that is in violent contrast with the surroundings’. Newton St. Cyres was the very latter of these three. Swaffham Prior, on the other hand, was a ‘simpler combination of “painter’s” colour’; Piper employing only red and yellow, not the violent contrast of a white form. But a white plane, a contrast which fashioned a sense of melodrama, was a tool much employed by Piper in his oils; A Ruined House, Hampton Gay, Oxfordshire (See below) is a case in point. ‘Colour can make or spoil the prettiness of a village.’ The success of a composition, natural or otherwise – much like that of an abstract performance – was as much about colour, as one of form. Indeed, the shaped dramas of Piper’s images of Blitz churches are reliant upon trademark flaunts of white. But as Piper’s articles for the Architectural Review illustrate, even the picturesque could be explained and reduced to a treatise of abstract principles. This led Betjeman to note that Piper’s ‘landscapes in oil are essays in the careful use of colour which, though it may not be “like”, is like what the place painted is like to a poet’.

A Ruined House, Hampton Gay, Oxfordshire, 1941

A Ruined House, Hampton Gay, Oxfordshire, 1941

Piper’s contributions to the Architectural Review, as well as his artistic output of the late-1930s and early-1940s, espoused his belief that the tenets of modernism could still be applied to the connoisseurship of the past. This chimes with Sam Smiles’s assertion, in The Geographies of Englishness, that ‘significant elements within British modernism’, 1920-1950, had ‘negotiated an accommodation with the relics of the past’. Piper’s ‘rejection’ of abstraction, as noted by Grigson, is misleading. A continuance of abstract principles may be observed, for example, when we compare Piper’s purely abstract 1937 Composition with his 1939 figurative work Dead Resort Kemptown, Brighton, East Sussex (See below). In the latter piece we discern Piper negotiating a covenant between his previous abstraction and his passion for historical architecture; in this example, Brighton’s Regency legacy. Piper’s buildings remain windowless or shuttered blocks of colour, with the various shapes displaying a variety of colours – which was so important to Piper in his articles for the Architectural Review, in the making, or indeed the ruining, of a picturesque composition. But as Malcolm Yorke notes, too, ‘Piper always needed to be reminded of the straight line if he was not to dissolve his pictures into flurries of brush strokes, abstract textural effects and rainbow patches.’ Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’ was not an absolute divorce from abstraction, but employed it as a modus operandi to accentuate the qualities of a figurative landscape. It was not a rejection of modernism, but rather an escape from the ‘matter of dogma’. It is in this manner that Grigson’s avowal of a ‘rejection’, and inherent ‘Betjemanism’, may be held to ring true. Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’ was not a betrayal of the modern movement, as Betjeman’s daughter related to, but a repudiation of the dogmatic laws of the non-figurative. This liberated Piper, as he himself asserted, allowing him to ‘express a personal love of country and architecture, and the humanity that inhabits them… past and present’. Yet it was the manner of this Betjemanism, as a form of private joke, which, as the poet’s daughter hinted, engendered the notion of a betrayal; one which was essentially prefaced in Betjeman’s 1933 publication Ghastly Good Taste. This was Betjeman’s very own ‘coming clean’: ‘wanting to be up to date’, he wrote, ‘but really preferring all centuries to my own’.

Composition (1937)

Composition (1937)

Dead Resort Kemptown, Brighton, East Sussex (1939)

Dead Resort Kemptown, Brighton, East Sussex (1939)

Although Betjeman was the first to admit that ‘showy’ architecture, ‘something to stick on to a building afterwards’, was a mistake, they were at least ‘good, vulgar mistakes’. ‘I would any day prefer an ornate sham-marble Victorian mantel to a “refeened” pseudo-Queen Anne effort designed by some pupil of an architectural school today’, Betjeman rather cheekily riled in Ghastly Good Taste. ‘Ruined by self-consciousness… horrified lest they should betray some false scholarship’, ‘refeenment’ and ‘good taste’ had killed English architecture. More importantly, still, for Betjeman, it was Victorian architecture that had most democratically ‘reflected the middle class, the backbone of England’: ‘In its utilitarian buildings it was honest and often imaginative, in its domestic buildings naively snobbish, as unpleasant but as well intended, as grocer’s port.’ Betjemanism, and later Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’, had the audacity to advocate what was supposed to be denigrated by the intellectual elite – and, as Harrison notes, what was also so mocked by the Surrealists: bourgeois pretension. Hélène Lipstadt writes that Betjeman’s ‘appreciation of Victoriana’, though he was by no means anti-modern, was a form of ‘private joke’ that ‘went public in Ghastly Good Taste’. It was both ‘polemic and parody’.   If the notion of ‘Ghastly Good Taste’ was indeed a private joke between schoolboys, it was certainly one shared with Piper. In an article for the Architectural Review in 1940, simply named ‘Shops’, Piper expressed an identical view to Betjeman’s notion of ‘Ghastly Good Taste’, one aggravated by the homogeny of the high street. His antidote, to be taken up by the bourgeois shopkeeper:

Let him look to the Victorians… an example that in matters of colour it is better to be too vulgar than too nice; too fussy than too simple… that to express your own taste in your shop front, whether it is good or indifferent taste, is more laudable.

A row of ‘doll’s-house-like buildings’ on Doll Street (See below), in Machynlleth, was for Piper the antithesis of good taste, thus a frontage saved ‘by the varied colours of quoins, windows, doors and shop-fronts’. Piper observed, illustrated and noted down for the viewer the various colours forming Doll Street: Bluish French grey walls; cream and green fronts; pale black-grey, light umber and cream umber stone dressings. It was, Piper remarked, and perhaps revealing a key and somewhat anarchistic principle of Betjemanism and the ‘Seeing Eye’, the typical Victorian expression of ‘Every man for himself, and my taste is not your taste, thank goodness’. In this manner, too, Piper and Betjeman were the greatest champions of the unashamedly bourgeois, Pooter-aesthetic: the Architecture of a Nobody.

Doll Street (1945)

Doll Street (1945)

Certainly, Betjeman can be seen to be the greatest advocate of the ‘Pooter-land’ ideal. Indeed, Betjeman’s poem ‘Thoughts on The Dairy of a Nobody’ recalls an afternoon walk made by the Charles Pooter – George Grossmith’s comical creation of bourgeois pretensions – to Watney Lodge, for Sunday lunch with an assortment of Muswell Hill suburbanites. Far from a subject of mockery, Watney Lodge epitomized for Betjeman a legitimate, pre-1914, Victorian aspiration, which for the poet still held something of the sublime:

The Watney Lodge I seem to see
Is gabled gothic hard and red,
With here a monkey puzzle tree
And there a round geranium bed.
Each mansion, each new-planted pine,
Each short and ostentatious drive
Meant Morning Prayer and beef and wine
And Queen Victoria alive.

Indeed, Betjeman’s imagined Watney Lodge parallels a Villa near Wantage (See Below), a residence illustrated by Piper for the 1939 Architectural Review article ‘The Seeing Eye, or How to Like Everything’. In the same piece featuring Whittington Station, Betjeman mocked up a conversation between Piper and some men of the architectural profession – each criticising some piece of Pooterish architecture which Piper, to the contrary, admired. On a Villa near Wantage Mr. Quantity, a modern architect, complains that it is ‘hideous’. Wishing to cure the villa of its muddled nonconformity, Mr. Quantity suggests that the ridge tiles should be removed, so too the ‘needless’ barge-boarding, as well as squaring off the pointed windows, and, finally, whitewashing the entire construction in the ‘colour of the local stone’. Mr. Camshaft, however, a young architectural journalist, has no suggestions, finding the villa ‘immoral and beneath contempt. It stands for all the pretentiousness of the bourgeoisie.’ But it was, as J.M. Richards commented in the Architectural Review in 1946, in an extract from his collaboration with Piper on Castles on the Ground: The Anatomy of Suburbia, the ‘background against which the lives of the majority of English people are now lived… the ideals engendered there are, for better or worse, the ideals of the ordinary Englishman to-day’. Richards declared: ‘We are concerned with what the suburban resident really likes, as distinct from what sophisticated people think he ought to like.’ The joke, for Piper and Betjeman, was that they now mocked the sophistication of the Quantity and Camshaft-types who discounted the England that Betjemanism spoke for. In this manner, Piper was indispensable in visualising and demonstrating the poet’s literary articulations. ‘Pooter-land’, jesting in its sense of taste, free from dogmatic assertions and ‘refeenment’, was of course an affection, but one which offered some security – ‘safe, in a world of trains and buttered toast’ – in a time when, as was becoming apparent, the bomber would always get through.

Villa near Wantage (1939)

Villa near Wantage (1939)

Piper’s ‘Seeing Eye’ was an eloquent defence of Betjeman’s arcadia, an attempt to fashion some form of redress for the ‘unlocated melancholy’ indentified by Spalding. For the very same reason that Betjeman quietly slid into empty churches to locate the past, Piper retreated into his painting. Ironside was correct to single Piper out for his devotion to the past. Its relics were to be protected. And though Piper remained a modernist – to term his ‘rejection’ of abstraction as an entire break would be wrong – Grigson’s assertion of a ‘coming clean’ rings true. Piper’s Betjemanism meant a positive liberation from the modernist trends of schools, dogmas, isms and manifestoes; an escape from the ‘convent’, Piper affirmed, and ‘strict formulas… I was disgusted with that limitation’. ‘Nowadays we tend to invent the school before we produce the painting’, Piper complained. And though, as he recounted to Paul Nash, abstraction had taught him the value of the ‘disciplinarian’ skills of strictly applied line and colour – ‘which open a road to one’s own heart’ – it was ‘not the heart itself’. Yet in attempting, however successfully, to paint subjects he ‘seemed born to love’ Piper indefinitely excluded himself, as Grigson noted, from the vanguard of British modernism. However, Piper’s achievement, and the legitimacy of his ‘Seeing Eye’, as J.M. Richards neatly reflected, was rather as a purveyor of an ‘under-appreciated’ England, bringing to attention the ‘enduring qualities’ of the ‘anonymous’. This was Piper’s Betjemanism: a custodian and champion of his nation’s singular inheritance. And it was for this that Betjeman thanked his friend:

You have saved much of England by your pictures of architecture and landscape. What is more you have increased our vision. Things look like pictures by Mr Piper and look better for having been seen by him.


The Myth that War is Entirely Bad

July 30, 2013

Could it be that old soldiers refrain from talking about their war experiences because they’re ashamed to admit that they actually enjoyed it? Certainly, Western society places much stock in listening to the stories of our veterans – but only when what they have to say conforms to our already pre-defined image of what the war poet Wilfred Owen coined as the ‘pity of war’. The presentation of the soldier of 1914-1918, in particular, as the victim distinguished by his subjection to precepts of modern warfare is a broadly accepted axiom. Virginia Woolf’s shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith, in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), provides the reader with one legacy of the effect of the modern use of artillery. Dulce et Decorum est, too, penned by the poet Owen in 1917, famously recreated the catastrophic effect of poison gas on the infantry soldier – the one poem that every British schoolchild has had thrust in front of them. But the tyranny of the war poets of the First World War is that today they forward the myopic rhetoric that war was, then as it is now, a sordid, degrading and generally horrific experience for those that took part in it.

Yet the truth, for a long time whitewashed by liberals wishing to render it a taboo subject, is that many soldiers enjoyed and indeed thrived on the battlefield. Although it might have destroyed the man, it might also very well have been the making of him. Certainly, Wilfred Owen, the chief exponent, so we are told, of anti-war sentiment, left enough behind in his letters to contravene common assumptions about himself and his poetry; a man who, before he was ultimately killed in battle, was the embodiment of the perfect soldier, at one point remarking that in battle he blossomed and ‘fought like an angel’. Far from finding the sensation of ‘Going Over the Top’ a demoralising stroll into the abyss, Owen, surprisingly, found it ‘exhilarating… there was an extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly’. Yet ever since, these remarks made by Owen have been largely censored by a selected history, and indeed a folklore, of the First World War, one that for decades has presented a homogenised Tommy who naively joined up, like so many did in 1914, only to be killed ingloriously in such infamous, foolish and terrifying battles as the Somme 1916 and Passchendaele 1917. Such a view has only been compounded by widely-viewed, but also greatly biased and inaccurate, productions such as the musical Oh! What a Lovely War and the TV comedy Blackadder. Undoubtedly, the tradition of the British soldiers’ harrowing experience on the Western Front has a propensity towards mirroring the standardized headstones of those buried in the war cemeteries that dot Northern France. Yet the uncomfortable truth for some who might read this is that there were those who actually enjoyed the killing, soldiers such as the poet Captain Julian Grenfell.

Julian Grenfell

‘I adore war’, proclaimed Grenfell in 1914, ‘it is like a big picnic but without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I have never been more well or more happy’. The archetype of the officer-class, throughout the summer and autumn of 1914 Grenfell made solitary hunting expeditions out towards the enemy to track and kill German soldiers on the frontline. War, for this poet – ironically immortalised in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner – was something more akin to that of a stag hunt; and that was what made Grenfell the exemplary soldier that he was, on one occasion discovering the preliminaries of a German raid, with the result of being able to give warning to his own side and save the lives of many of his comrades. Despite Grenfell’s bravery, he has since been labelled an insalubrious lunatic by those, usually ignorant academics or intellectuals, who find his war-loving remarks and exploits wholly unpalatable; neglecting the consideration that these might very well have been Grenfell’s virtues as a soldier. And Grenfell was by no means alone in his sentiments. Many shared his love of war. Career army officer Adrian Carton de Wiart, despite having received several wounds during the conflict, admitted after 1918 that, ‘Frankly I had enjoyed the war’; while the soldier Graham H. Greenwell, in Infant in Arms: War Letters of a Company Officer, 1914-18 (1972), recalled that the war constituted the happiest years of his life. The artist Percy Wyndham Lewis, positively too, approached his war service in a somewhat different manner, as in some way subjecting himself to the Sublime: ‘You must not miss a war, if one is going! You cannot afford to miss that experience.’ ‘You have not lived if you have not been present at a battle, of that I can assure you’, Lewis later wrote, the famed Vorticist, viewing war through the lens of an aesthete and intellectual, rather than a soldier. But why has this aspect of the soldier’s experience on the Western Front, one that rebukes Owen’s ‘Pity of War’, been neglected and even consciously censored?

After the First World War it became a common pastime for the English intelligentsia to disparage and even mock the virtue of bravery on the battlefield. As George Orwell noted, Britain’s intellectuals ‘regarded physical courage as barbarous’:

“For years after the war, to have any knowledge of or interest in military matters, even to know which end of a gun the bullet comes out of, was suspect in ‘enlightened’ circles. 1914-18 was written off as a meaningless slaughter, and even the men who had been slaughtered were held to be in some way to blame.”

This was largely a result of influential intellectuals with a pacifistic agenda – one that would so disastrously misjudge Hitler in the 1930s. Indeed, in wilfully attempting to prevaricate upon conflict, pacifism all but made it certain. Although at the time the Great War was never intended to be the war to end all wars, as we have been told, latterly it was taken up by the literary canon of WWI, one that did indeed seek to teach a moral lesson. The problem was that it preached the wrong principle. In attempting to manufacture a prolonged, post-1918 peace, authors such as Woolf, H.G. Wells, and almost every writer since who has penned a novel of the Great War, set out to portray their nation’s soldiers, whether they had survived or not, as victims – thus doing them perhaps the greatest disservice ever dished out to a generation of tough fighting men. As opposed to men who had joined up to do their duty they were depicted as ultimately naïve individuals far too susceptible to the whims of empty-headed generals. None of this was true.  However, the idea of the Great War generation’s victimhood is an image that persists to this day. And it is one that we have allowed far to often to be the excuse for not fighting hard and persistently in subsequent warzones – all for fear of engendering the victim. And though, of course, war has it victims, or rather its casualties – there is a great difference between these two words – the term ‘Tommy’ has since been appropriated as nothing but a term that attracts ‘pity’.

The case of Harry Patch, ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’, was notable for the manner in which this veteran of Passchendaele, by living as long as he did, was conscripted into the role of the Tommy’s final representative on earth. Despite the undoubted sincerity of Patch, and the authenticity of his own experience, this ‘Last Tommy’ was erroneously considered to speak for all Tommies, as the Sunday Express expressed: ‘Patch was not unique among millions of his comrades who endured that prolonged and supreme test of nerve and courage. But, uniquely, as the last survivor, he embodies them all.’ Patch, certainly, very much conformed to the traditional lore of the Great War: Owen’s Pity of War. In this sense, Patch very much became the talisman for those who expected nothing other than the image of the homogenised, usually over-sentimentalised, soldier. In this manner, the unquestioning reverence, coupled with a certain degree of pity, directed towards Patch also represented the singular problem of assessing the experience of the Tommy – the complication of veneration. ‘The noblest of all the generations has left us’, Gordon Brown remarked upon the death of Harry Patch in 2009. Of course, this could only have been said of Patch exactly because did express anti-war sentiment. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, when denouncing war became the foremost fashion for the trendy, uninformed orator of the glib remark, to have a Adrian Carton de Wiart type make a comment to the extent of admitting that ‘frankly I enjoyed the war’ would have thrown up an all too inconvenient contradiction to the current zeitgeist overtaking the Western World. Harry Patch therefore was not just the last, but quite criminally the only Tommy permitted to exist. That Britain allowed this, allowed itself to be persuaded into believing that war is entirely bad, has had far-reaching consequences – primarily that we are no longer so willing to fight for causes that rightfully demand the same courage, grit and determination that was displayed by the Tommies such as Patch during the First World War. The syrupy notion that we might turn our soldiers into victims has greatly hampered us in this task, however.

Today, the Western World has transmuted itself into a malaise of liberal impotence – where fighting a war is perfectly permissible on the condition that no one is killed. The British Left’s disgraceful stance over the Falkland Islands in 1882, that a democratic nation should not confront a fascist junta and retake the islands – negating one of the Left’s finest traditions of resistance against totalitarianism – was a clear sign of how far the rot had set in since 1918. This decay has only increased, the post-9/11 struggle against Islamic terrorism being naively portrayed in some quarters as, obtusely, Western imperialism. The liberal position on the current situation in Syria is, correspondingly, to observe the savage rape of a neighbour, night after night, but not to intervene because smashing down the door would itself be criminal – this is nothing other than moral cowardice. Thankfully, examples of our armed forces fighting hard and ruthlessly in foreign lands are not entirely exhausted, with British and American troops, with our Afghan and NATO allies, confronting and exacting a high toll on Islamic fascists in the mountains and opium fields of Afghanistan. Similarly, the recent French intervention in Mali is, too, a highly commendable example of moral and physical courage. Rubbishing concepts of duty, allegiance and, most of all, physical courage on the battlefield,  is the cheapest and most cowardly of all rebukes, as it delays the day, or even absolves the moment entirely, when we might ourselves have to stand up to the very same test that our ancestors passed so audaciously. And although there is no such thing as glory in the moment of battle itself, it is not true that war isn’t glorious. The concept of ‘glory’ is, rather, attributed by civilians to soldiers as a matter of justice for those who did indeed exhibit the great virtues of courage and self-sacrifice in the defence of the principles we hold dear. That the soldier, always the most modest of men, doesn’t think himself a glorious hero, but readily applies the title to his comrades, is perhaps as it should be; and indeed the most telling truth. If we could just allow ourselves the uncomfortable truth that many of our professional fighting men enjoy and relish the fight we would, in doing so, allow them to conduct their office without hindrance as the noblest of our country’s servants – the British Soldier.

Book Reviews: Philip Larkin and Edmund Blunden

January 19, 2013

Philip Larkin:  Collected Poems, Edited by Anthony Thwaite, Faber and Faber, 2003, 218 pages

Those who are unfamiliar with the poetical exertions of Philip Larkin, or have read only a small number of his poems, will be surprised, most of all in this fine compilation of his most essential output, by the tenderness and frugality of his verse. For Larkin’s famous frankness, misanthropy and comedic turn of phrase has often obscured his softer side. Yet this inconspicuousness constitutes much of Larkin’s most superlative, though often unknown, work. For example, the very best Larkin’s utilitarianism – impassioned to a point of paradox –  could wish on a newborn baby girl, admirably and tenderly so in Born Yesterday, was that she’d simply be ‘ordinary’, have ‘an average of talents / Not ugly, not good-looking… In fact, may you be dull / If that is what a skilled / Vigilant, flexible / Unemphasised, enthralled / Catching of happiness is called.’ Larkin also had the honesty to be the typical man, admitting to, and almost making a virtue of, his mammalian male urges. This finds form in Latest Face: ‘Your great arrival in my eyes / No one standing near could guess / Your beauty had no home till then / Precious vagrant, recognise / My look, and do not turn again.’

Above all, Collected Poems accentuates what was Larkin’s most overarching fixation: the prospect of his own death. Mortality permeates his work. Yet where the Victorian poet Robert Browning threw up a bulwark of bravado, such as in Prospice – ‘I was ever a fighter, so – one fight more / The best and the last!’ – Larkin confronted his own personal transience with nothing other than a reticent resignation, one which could not preclude nor circumvent, ‘The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.’ Such was Larkin’s conclusion in Aubade. Indeed, his verse does not console, far from it: ‘Being brave / Lets no one off the grave.’ However, Larkin’s valour, though he would not have termed it as such, materializes for us out of his own audacity in staring his inevitable annihilation in the eyeball. And it was a front fought at close-quarters.

For it was also the merciless manner in which this obliteration would take place, the notion of growing old – a ‘hideous inverted childhood’ – that possessed much of Larkin’s most sober and austere verse. The Old Fools is a particularly terrifying piece, ruminating upon old dears nearing their terminus, yet the process of decomposition already begun: ‘What do they think has happened, the old fools / To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose / It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools / And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember / Who called this morning?’ ‘Why aren’t they screaming?’, Larkin shrieks to the old fools, knowing that this may indeed be himself one day. Heads in the Women’s Ward is just as moving in its foreboding brevity: ‘On pillow after pillow lies / The wild white hair and staring eyes […] Sixty years ago they smiled / At lover, husband, first-born child / Smiles are for youth / For old age come / Death’s terror and delirium.’

The significance of Larkin is that he openly confessed to his own impotence in life, to his evident flaws and frailties, but refused to fool, or be fooled, by false solace or condolence. In this manner, Larkin’s courage was simply his own articulated contempt for the hopeless situation, the terrifying panorama; thus, a parsimonious voice for all humanity. Larkin’s Collected Poems resonate most movingly for those of us who believe that life can only ever be honestly experienced when lived in accompaniment with a sober lucidity – done so with an auxiliary retort of disdain and sardonic candidness, coupled with a humble intelligence and tenderness, with the requisite fucks, fancies and fights besprinkled in-between.

Undertones of War, by Edmund Blunden, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, 234 pages

1916: in the small French town of Mailly-Maillet a khaki-clad poet stumbled across the marble tomb of a long-deceased princess, mounted upon an exquisite mosaic floor, one bestrewn with the debris of a recent artillery barrage. Sunlight touched the effigy ‘with inviolable grace’, a refulgence illuminating ‘a great lady of a better century’. So wrote the educing poet Edmund Blunden, some years later in his war memoir: Undertones of War. Much of the most haunting work of the early twentieth-century emerged as a consequence of the desolation of the First World War: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; John Ireland’s hymnal Greater Love Hath No Man; the artist Paul Nash’s barren coastline depictions of 1920s Dymchurch. To understand these spectral remnants one has no choice but to trace them back to their violent root, the sanguinary combat in which they were furnished. A vast literature, written by participants of the conflict, exists in this regard, ranging from the visceral poetry of Wilfred Owen to Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal All Quiet on the Western Front. However, Edmund Blunden’s personal account of his time in Flanders, Undertones of War, is a far more obscure and much underrated narrative of what Wilfred Owen coined as ‘The Pity of War’.

A work in prose, Blunden’s description of his time serving as an officer in the Royal Sussex Regiment is, quite evidently, an account written by a poet. An intimate lover of the pastoral, and profoundly influenced by the rural poet John Clare, Blunden’s redolently elegiac Flanders landscape retains a rustic hue, yet one which is, ominously for the Royal Sussex, littered with the bones, ‘like broken bird-cages’, of the men who had fought over the same ground only a few months before – their skulls protruding ‘like mushrooms’ out of the sides of their own trenches. Tellingly, however, the bucolic is soon supplanted by a chthonic Golgotha, ‘a brown plain… without landmark or distinction’. Soon only some ‘scraps of a hawthorn hedge’ would remain to remind Blunden of what there had once been.

Blunden’s ordeal commenced in 1916, when his battalion was thrown into the fray of battle for the first time. The Southdowns Battalions – named after Sussex’s prominent brow of chalk hills, referred to affectionately by Rudyard Kipling as, ‘Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs… Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim’ – were ordered to attack a German protuberance on the frontline, nicknamed the ‘Boar’s Head’. ‘No doubt’, Blunden sardonically remarked, the attack was designed ‘to render the maps in the châteaux of the mighty more symmetrical’. The regiment was massacred, suffering over a thousand casualties, in what was later mournfully referred to as ‘The Day Sussex Died’. Yet, even after this slaughter, there was no reprieve, the Royal Sussex being redeployed and brutally thrown into the, now infamous, battle of the Somme. By the end of the year, Blunden makes sure to note, the Royal Sussex was ‘not the same “we” who in the golden dusty summer tramped down into the verdant valley… not that “we”’. Indeed, the unit was entirely transformed. After only a few months combat, Blunden’s battalion had suffered casualties amounting to three-quarters of its original strength. Additionally, the replacements brought in to rejuvenate its appalling losses were no longer sourced from Sussex men alone; in effect, it was no longer a ‘Southdowns’ battalion: ‘How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on singing towards the Somme!’

Undertones of War is a poignantly crafted lamentation for a world that, in 1916, is being irrevocably altered – and, from Blunden’s viewpoint, not for the better. Although the fighting men concerned are often too absorbed in the horror of the moment to be aware of the change, an undercurrent of ruination pervades the pages, as Blunden glides miraculously unharmed through the Dante-like scenery of an all-conquering modernity. Indeed, ‘the dethronement of the soft cap’ – replaced by the steel helmet, remarkably late in 1916 – ‘clearly symbolized the change that was coming over the war, the induration from a personal crusade into a vast machine of violence’. Blunden and his men are simply swallowed up. And though Blunden notes that the siege works of trench warfare appear to share a ‘past with the defences of Troy’, the ‘cubist camouflaging’ of German helmets singularly embed him in the twentieth-century. Efficaciously, Blunden’s only genuine sanctuary is to be found in Edward Young’s Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality, always in his pocket and ‘speaking out of a profound eighteenth-century calm’. Young’s writing ‘came home to one even in a pillbox’.

At its most gruesome, Blunden’s narrative recounts the literal ripping apart of a lance-corporal by an artillery shell; a man he had seen alive just three minutes previous, but now reduced to ‘pulpy bone… gobbets of blackening flesh… the eye under the duckboard’. After a swig of some steadying rum, the steaming meat of the eviscerated lance-corporal is shovelled by a cursing sergeant into an empty sandbag held by Blunden. One can’t help thinking that such horrors find a deceptive and unsatisfactory emblem in the morally compulsory red poppy worn every November – to the extent that many have no idea what it is they are actually commemorating. But if one seeks to understand, however modestly, the enormity of the invidious inferno which consumed millions, almost a century ago, Blunden’s memoir will imbue the reader with at least an ‘undertone’ of the barbarity of that most tragic of conflicts, 1914-1918:

Why, even the wood as well as field
This thoughtful farmer knew
Could be reduced to plough and tilled,
And if he planned, he’d do;
The field and wood, all bone-fed loam,
Shot up a roaring harvest home.

Water-Wallèd Provincialism in Art: A Defence of the Indefensible

November 25, 2012

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears: I come to exhume provincialism and to praise it. The evil that men do lives after them: the good is oft interred with their bones. And grievously hath the parochial answer’d it. But here I am to speak what I do know. You all did love the indigenous once, not without cause: what cause withholds you then, to mourn for it? A proviso, then: this may indeed appear to be a furciferous defence of the indefensible. Certainly, the redoubts are few and the garrisons undermanned. In 1847 the Duke of Wellington was moved to write an open letter, one fretting over the defenceless state of Britain’s coastline and its vulnerability to foreign invasion. But if we were to similarly assess the state of  Magna Britannia’s Martellos today, as an allegory for her national art, we would not only find them nigh-derelict curiosities; far worse, in fact, we would see that the beaches have already been stormed, the land occupied. Britain has been conquered by the forces of internationalism, Albion reduced to a demure, acquiescent Vichy – its most compliant collaborator: indifference. But where is the temperamental insurgency? Ford Madox Ford wrote in Some Do Not that, ‘In such a world as this… a sentimentalist must be stoned to death. He makes the others so uncomfortable.’ If this is indeed the case, the insurrectionist would be failing in his dutiful obligation if he didn’t throw a few rocks back before buried under the rubble himself. For sentimentalism – perhaps the greatest sin held by the contemporary canon – need not necessarily be so syrupy, but something very sanguinary, indeed.

On the face of it, multi-national art, contained within modernist and internationalist contemporary art movements, appears to be the superlative and desirable preference; the gold standard championing the eclectic and the inclusive. Furthermore, it is the ecumenical lingua franca that all self-respecting liberals must subscribe to in order to avoid the urticate accusation of ‘cultural bigot’. Yet don’t be fooled by this particularly blackmailing mendacity. Internationalism is not pluralism; unless you consider the assimilation of multifarious cultures into one homogenous dominion to be one of those rarest fruitions: a heterogeneous and tolerant caliphate of all the jargons. But what, if any, autonomous vernacular lingo can weather this apparent Commonwealth of the Cosmopolitan? As the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams once defiantly remarked: ‘Better to be vitally parochial than to be an emasculate cosmopolitan.’ Yet some readers may no doubt think the eradication of borders, countries and ethnicities to be a desirable form of cultural genocide and patricide; a very noble suicide. But in a time of rapid and uncontainable globalisation – an increasingly elongated epoch of eroded ethnicities and massacred dialects – if art has just one duty to which it must morally adhere then surely it is to enact a resistance against the corrosion affected by the contemporary, and then to defend it to the very last. But unforgivably, not only has Western art failed to man the redoubts, it has actually been complicit in pulling them down. Termed ‘nonconformist’ by its allies, it has gradually, sometimes brutally, acquired the orthodoxy of internationalism, which has itself become the contemporary position, legitimated by many with an iconoclastic agenda. The only worthwhile bulwark against this is to build up a domestic and patriotic art, kept exclusively within the confines of the parish.

But don’t be so unimaginative as to believe that this conservatism is born of some nefarious nationalism. But it is unashamedly patriotic. Those who respect the language must make sure to mark the delineation. The essayist George Orwell defines the division best; that patriotism is a ‘devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people[s]’. Pompous and bloated, maybe, but intrinsically defensive, and that is its exoneration. Nationalism, on the other hand, as Orwell avows, is stridently belligerent and ‘inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.’ But if we were now to apply this précis to internationalist art movements and any idiosyncratic native nationhood: which of the two appears the more imperial; the other the native with his back to the wall? Which of the two is the colonial power which plunders the other culture in order to sustain its own cultural economy?  Yet patriotism is, still – and quite naturally in the internationalist’s viewpoint – the Devil incarnate. However, the playwright Robert Bolt, in A Man for All Seasons, offers us an effective advocatus diaboli in the form of Sir Thomas More. When the utilitarian William Roper promotes to More the benefit of cutting down of every law in England in order to corner and convict the Devil, More replies: ‘Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws… And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!’ Internationalists take note; the ‘atavistic emotion of patriotism’, as even Orwell noted, had its uses; such as in 1940, in uniting the nation, pro bono, ‘like a herd of cattle facing a wolf’. Yet perhaps this is exactly why the autocratic internationalist seeks its demolition.

That internationalism is a benign and innocuous entity, an innovative and progressive force for good, must be repudiated, and I do so. Rather, it is colonial. Picasso’s anthropological pillage of African and Oceanic cultures, outside that of the European tradition, for example, cannot be denied. The appropriation of other national identities – even if the motive is prompted by an authentic appreciation – is nonetheless embezzlement. This may seem harmless enough, but remember that this, with every acquisition and subsequent assimilation into one’s own vocabulary one makes, eradicates the singular entity that the aboriginal ethnicity once retained – ripping it out of its natural environment. Yet this is, for example, the so-called archaeologically sound excuse made by the British Museum to hold the Parthenon Marbles in carcer; andyet any self-respecting aesthete should, surely, seek to see this piece of Greek heritage reunited with its true architecturally indigenous environment. Yet how many looting Lord Elgins has internationalism created? Internationalism is the new colonialism. A thief with a cultural face, its corollary, and our great injury, is homogeny. And uniformity’s intrinsic rapport with the totalitarian instinct is incontrovertible. And yet, still, its fervent exponents have the gall to claim the nonconformist-liberal high ground as their own. Worse still, they have been allowed to do so. Yet surely it is no coincidence that Britain’s most prolific and defiant, though terse, period of idiosyncratic outburst, an episode lasting just five years, in the twentieth-century, materialized as a consequence of the Second World War, when, fighting for its life, the country was cut-off from the influence of the European Continent. Under the direction of Kenneth Clark and the War Artists Advisory Committee, Britain’s most endowed painters blossomed, exuding an identifiably British art – artists such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Paul Nash, John Minton and Eric Ravilious, all in the hue, though to varying extents, of Alexander Cozens, Francis Towne, William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Frederick Landseer Griggs.

However, this is not, conversely, an isolationist’s advocacy in the sense of plotting to tow the United Kingdom a hundred or so miles westwards into the secluded bosom of the Atlantic Ocean. Duty to one’s own country need not, for example, negate the Francophile inclination. Indeed, no English artist can be entirely immune to outside influence; and it has had its uses. Much like our own beloved English Language, inflected with the explosively potent synthesis of Latin, Germanic and Norman-French derivations – a combination without which England would not have sired Shakespeare – our art, too, can claim descent from various overseas lineages. Yet, nonetheless, it is a separate language. And as the writer Osbert Sitwell wrote eloquently in 1944: ‘A county is worth dying for, as it is worth living for, because of the flowers its soil produces. Shakespeare out-distances Waterloo as an English triumph.’ However, as Tate Britain’s recent Picasso & Modern British Art exhibition proved, recent stimulus, with a few minor exceptions, has for a long time overwhelmed the, admittedly less-sophisticated, native school of British art to the extent that it has practically no idiosyncrasies of its own remaining. Ergo: Duncan Grant. Yet Bloomsbury was just the first incursion.

The tyranny of modernism and the contemporary – homogenous, colonial or iconoclastic – has all too many paradigms: Piet Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, Ben Nicholson’s period of Abstract-Puritanism, the sterile styling’s of Le Corbusier, Malevich’s Suprematism, Picasso’s and Henry Moore’s sporadic alignment with Primitivism, Marinetti’s and Futurism’s oppressive assault on the past, the Abstract-Expressionist ejaculatory jizz (best spat out than swallowed) of the grandmaster-quack Jackson Pollock, and – I really can’t resist directing one disgracefully predictable kick to the crotch – the pseudo-intellectual constructions of Simon Starling’s conceptual sheds. Undoubtedly art, they would not be so dangerous but for the internationalist strain they each covertly conceal. Here the inveterate native is nothing but an antediluvian relic, the last standing Megatherium. Indeed, in 1932 the artist Paul Nash noted that the conflict was one of the ‘industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile’. Today, in 2012, the industrial has largely won out, the surviving remnant of the pastoral Old Guard scattered to the corners of the kingdom, exiled and obliged to eke out a living outside the broad boundary wall of the M25; artists such as Harold Mockford taking refuge in the provinces, stubbornly carrying on in the Neo-Romantic manner once employed by Graham Sutherland and John Piper. The school isn’t quite dead yet, but evidently exhibits a longstanding tubercular cough. Indeed, many would be hard-pressed to identify even just a few of the defining characteristics of Albion’s autochthonous idiom in paint.

The ‘mood made familiar by English Art’, as described by Kenneth Clark in 1938, was ‘a shy grace, a restraint, and we must admit a certain immatureness’. Another critic believed it to be ‘the opposite of fanatic… the opposite of intellectualised: it means kindly and affectionate: it means technically competent: it usually means romantic.’ English art’s enemies saw this as clear as its defensive cohorts. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the fascistic leader and sebaceous douchebag of the Futurist set, was at least honest in vocalising his iconoclastic intent; condemning England as a nation ‘enslaved by old worm-eaten traditions, social conventions and romanticism’, its art ‘nostalgic… longing for a past that is beyond recall’. And of course, he was perfectly correct in this terse but astute abstract. But Marinetti sought to abolish Britain and its intrinsic sense of itself. Clearly, he had no sympathy for Cicero’s great retort, that the negation of the past and its inheritance was the equivalent of wishing to confine oneself to the mental condition of an adolescent. Inevitably, perhaps, native British art was always going to appear timid, conservative, and even embarrassing, when compared to the audacious experiments carried out under the grand auspices of modernism on the Continent. Unfortunately, in this myopic view – that the worth of a nation’s art, and its right to existence, could only ever be relative to that of the always superior ‘isms’, and thus substandard – tradition and modesty became nothing but synonyms for ‘inferior’. At least the New York-born poet Alice Duer Miller, composing at the time of the Second World War, recognised a good thing when she saw it, when now many Britons would not, writing:

I am American bred,
I have seen much to hate here – much to forgive,
But in a world where England is finished and dead,
I do not wish to live.

Yet there were Britons who stood for national dialect. When asked what the Royal Academy stood for in the 1930s, W.R.M. Lamb, its Secretary since 1913, replied in earnest that it was ‘the custodian of precious elements which might be overlooked or mislaid in the general hurry’. However, in this new century there is the common dictum – held most of all by my fellow comrades on the Left – which believes that there is no place for tradition and provincial-patriotism today. Indeed, many consider it the greatest disgrace. Yet years ago, when a love of country and an observance of duty actually saved Britain from Napoleonic tyranny (as it also did in the summer of 1940 against Nazi domination), and when the Royal Academy actually adhered to its own job description, this was not the case. Indeed, when the painter Charles Eastlake was made a Royal Academician his great friend, the sentimental and wildly partisan J.M.W. Turner was moved to comment, in a manner not at all meant to be flippant or mocking: ‘My dear Charles you are now a complete brother labourer in the same Vineyard and England expects every Man to do his duty.’ We abolish these congenital sentiments at our peril. For the contemporary and the international mean the dissolution of duty, and of England – a Ben Nicholson whitewash in the veritable Cromwellian manner. It is, in potentia, and by its very nature, totalitarian. The connection may, and must, be permitted and confessed to. English art requires a Trafalgar of its own. But as the poet Edwin James Milliken once penned – and was reiterated by Winston Churchill in his memoir The Gathering Storm:

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain,
And the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear;
And the signals flash through the night in vain,
For Death is in charge of the clattering train.

Coda: The whitewashing of history, of its innate lore, is one of the major stipulations of the Orwellian state. Indeed, as Winston Smith observes to Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘Do you realise that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished… history has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.’ But, ‘Talking to her, he realised how easy it was to present an appearance of orthodoxy while having no grasp whatever of what orthodoxy meant. In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it.’ Indeed, Julia, ‘only a rebel from the waist downwards’, had succumbed to the tyrannical rhetoric of the contemporary. Internationalism is very much in same stratum of Orwell’s INGSOC, ‘doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’ its purposely-bland vernacular; ‘an unending series of victories over your own memory’. Modernism is the architecture of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Indeed, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe might very easily have put forward a design for the Ministry of Truth himself. Conversely, history is a rude poetry that reverberates down to us from the past; its purpose to shock us out of our own indifference and, in doing so, to cure us of our docile obedience to the contemporary. Not our lifeblood, but rather the pause of reprieve between every heartbeat – yet the past is also uncouth and combative, made to be felt keenly. A bastion of liberty, it is also the last and greatest defender of nations, and of what Shakespeare evoked as ‘that white-faced shore… that water-wallèd bulwark, still secure and confident from foreign purposes’. Yet even history is now threatened. But if the indigenous artist or historian, the defender of the provincial, should like to know how to go about their duty, and in doing so defend their native culture, and others too, it can be simply summed up by the simplest order that Admiral Lord Nelson ever, perhaps, gave himself, one made upon the eve of Trafalgar, that ‘no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of the Enemy’.


October 1, 2012

It was 1938, the night after the ignoble Munich Agreement, the artist Rex Whistler dined with his friend, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Duff Cooper. The First Lord had, however, just that day, resigned his post, disgusted by the cowardly deal made with Hitler; a pact pusillanimously ceding the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to Nazi Germany in an, albeit futile, attempt to prevaricate upon a likely European war. ‘War with honour or peace with dishonour’ was Cooper’s resigning flourish to this reprehensible surrender to fascism. Also in attendance at this somewhat forlorn dinner was the brooding Member of Parliament for Epping, Winston Churchill. The late-night conversation was, and could only ever be, about Munich. When some person doubted whether Britain was actually capable of fighting a European war, Rex Whistler forcibly interjected: ‘Surely that’s nothing to do with it! We should go to war if we think it the right thing to do so – not because we’re sure we’re going to win.’ His views were very much the same as his anti-appeasement friend Duff Cooper and, indeed, Churchill. However, at one moment, daring to play, almost quite literally, devil’s advocate, Rex put forward Hitler’s, and indeed many of the British public’s view, that the Sudeten-Deutsch, of German heritage and culture after all, might actually want, and perhaps were always going to be granted, self-determination. For this, Churchill heavily reprimanded the egregious Rex: ‘It is youyou who are to blame! – you who have brought us to this pass!’ Rex sank low into his seat.

But there were many in Britain who naïvelyrejoiced at the news from Munich. The pacifist and modernist artist Kenneth Rowntree, a Quaker, upon hearing the joyous tidings, created a collage to celebrate the guaranteed-peace – the so-called ‘peace in our time’ – depicting a white dove distributing olive branches to the various tabloids of multiple European nations, including Germany, Italy and France. Czechoslovakia was, however, conspicuously absent in this particularly pacifistic, wet and generally gutless work. Certainly, despite Churchill’s rallying, but largely ignored, warning about the rise of Nazi Germany as a fascistic force in Europe, the appeasers – those who really were to blame – had, for almost the entire duration of the 1930s, won out – some even believing that Hitler was merely bargaining, and justifiably, for the rights of his own people. Another war had to be avoided at all costs. So, too, was it the case that the British electorate, still emerging from a time of economic austerity, had shown no desire for a combative stance towards the build-up of Germany’s air and land forces. And throughout the inter-war period, Rex Whistler had, like many, lived his life and pursued his career whilst remaining almost entirely oblivious to the emerging monster on his country’s doorstep. Born in 1905, Rex was of a generation that was born just late enough to avoid the mechanical-butcheries of the Western Front, 1914-1918. As his mother remarked at the time of the Great War, of Rex and his elder brother Denny, she ‘thanked God that they were both so young’. Rather, Rex was destined to grow up as one of the Bright Young Things of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, but only on the periphery of this, his generation. As his younger brother Laurence later commented, Rex was ‘too poor, too industrious, and perhaps too contemptuous to spend time in a paperchase across the counters of Selfridge’s’.

Rex Whistler

Trained at the Slade, under the sensible traditions and teachings of Professor Henry Tonks, upon graduating Rex burst upon the societal scene in the early-1920s; one of his first major commissions being to paint the whimsical mural that can still be seen in the café of Tate Britain – this was not one of the iconoclastic whitewashes made by the likes of Ben Nicholson, far from it, but rather part of a revival movement for murals and paintings of whimsy, one which would only be half successful in this time of emerging high-modernism. But Rex was indifferent to the forces of modernism. As Rex’s brother noted, he was ‘an impenitent romantic in a generation which had broadly rejected this attitude.’ He was not  ‘contemporary’. Rex’s current world, his only one, was set amid the seas of history and, more particularly, genuflecting to the old rhymes of antiquity, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the present; thus his refusal to be uxorious towards the religious tenets of modernism and its high-priest, Roger Fry. Even his brother later admitted that Rex was ‘no rebel…  he did not want one value (art) to be destructive of another (loyalty) – or vice versa, of course. He wished all things to work together for good, and this involved some measure of renunciation.’ In the world of today, when aesthetes and critics erroneously believe that radicalism is the only courageous path for the artist to take, Rex’s attitude might seem backward, outside the so-called narrative of the age. But there was a tenacious heart beating within in Rex’s soul, one which could bring itself to reject the current trend – therefore, in this sense, he was the rebel, rebelling against the original insurgents. Which was the more radical position? It was also, importantly, his sense of history and old-fashioned sense of aristocratic values which had led him to the conclusion, in 1938, that yet another concession to fascism was not only cowardice in the extreme, but also, as Churchill believed, a shocking betrayal of loyalty to other nations, but also to the past.

Yet, in 1939, Europe was once again upon the edge of the precipice – Hitler having made a grab for Poland, despite the agreement at Munich when he had promised he wished nothing else, and would take no more, for Germany – and perhaps Rex did hear Churchill’s cutting words from the year before: ‘It is youyou who are to blame!’ Churchill was, and Rex knew it all too well, largely correct in this seemingly wide-sweeping attack, even if it was unfairly and so acerbically channelled at himslef that night at dinner with Duff Cooper. Rex’s generation (he was now aged 34) had failed to act against Hitler; and Rex was soon very soon conceding that: ‘I have a strong feeling that if anyone has to go and fight it is precisely people of my age, and not the young boys.’ His generation really had failed to live up to the task, more so the country’s artists – what had they done to prevent this? But if there was now to be a stand, it was his duty to his country and to his conscience that he should throw down his paint brushes and pick up the common British soldier’s rifle. And it was looking ever more likely that he and many others would have to fight, as Hitler’s tanks swept through Poland, then some months later into Belgium and down through France. ‘The Blitziness of this Kreig really is pretty grim now, isn’t it?’ wrote Rex in mid-1940. Yet the gallant whimsy – that typical English talent for self-parody, particularly and also more importantly, when one’s back really was against the wall – shone through at the darkest hour: ‘Then comes that glorious thrilling realization that we shall go down fighting harder and longer than any race have ever before – that we should go out in such a blaze of glory that the Finnish resistance – perhaps even Leonidas and his boys at Thermopylae – will be but tiny candles in comparison for ever after.’ All this appealed profoundly to his sense of history. But in such sheer adversity it was also impossible for Rex to entirely define himself as the artist. As Churchill so vividly and successfully illustrated, and even if it might seem absurd for an artist, for Rex, to attempt the same for himself, what was now needed, really, was the traditional phlegm and pluck of the tenacious soldier – and not to sit about making pretty collages.

Self-portrait in Uniform (1940)

So Rex signed up, into the Welsh Guards in May 1940. The day he got his uniform he painted his self-portrait in his rooms overlooking Regent’s Park. The painting (seen above) marked Rex’s transformation into the British, albeit somewhat awkward, army officer – his hat, marked with its regimental badge of leaks, and army belt placed upon the chair, yet paint brushes, rather out of place, redolently remaining in the foreground of the picture. Indeed, it was also at this time that many artists were being subsumed into Kenneth Clark’s War Artists Scheme; designed to create a visual chronicle of the war, but also to protect Britain’s most talented artists from being killed on active service with the armed forces. But as Rex’s brother later remarked: ‘[Rex] could not make up his mind if Kenneth Clark was right or wrong that artists were there to make art so that civilization be worth fighting for, a notion at once rational, alluring and distasteful; a notion that preserved Monet and Cezanne in 1870 when they went into hiding.’ Of course, the artist Frédéric Bazille, Monet’s great friend, had been killed in 1870, a result of his own conscience and need to sign up and serve in the Franco-Prussian War. The dangers of signing up were clear and stark, but, in 1940, ‘any new work Rex could do seemed pathetically trivial’. However, as it later turned out, Rex only ever made it onto a reserve list of the War Artists Scheme, and was never employed, being ‘not of his age’. But it seems very unlikely that Rex would have accepted a job with Kenneth Clark’s brigade of artists. Though he admitted that he wasn’t soldierly material, he nonetheless refused ‘safe’ roles on the Staff; determined to serve as a frontline officer. Indeed, he turned down a position as an instructor at a camouflage school and at another time came close to mutiny when he was almost posted to Divisional Headquarters. Rex, as ever, was still the same stubborn man, refusing to be told what he should do.

Rex’s painting (Lady Imogen Gage) “H R H the Prince Regent Awakening the Spirit of Brighton”

Most of Rex’s time with the army in England was spent preparing for the expected invasion of Hitler’s Nazi Europe. Serving in a battalion of tanks, he was responsible for a troop of around fifteen men, including three tanks named Olympus, Orion and Orpheus, which must, no doubt, have appealed to his sense of antiquity. But Rex was eager for the off, as he complained to his friend, the poet Siegfried Sassoon: ‘There is no need to tell you how appalling the boredom is, and I am almost impatient for the horror and misery of battle to begin, though you better than most, will know the full idiocy of such a wish.’ But Rex still found time to paint, decorating his officer’s mess, designing tank emblems and even finding the time to make portraits of his fellow soldiers. When billeted in Brighton, awaiting the invasion, he made a mural of a nude nymph. Whilst in the area, too, on leave, Rex had spent some time with his friend Lady Imogen Gage at Firle Place (near Lewes). Later, when Imogen visited Brighton alone to view the mural for herself, she was shocked to find that the reclining nude displayed features strikingly similar to herself. Then D-Day came. However, the Welsh Guards had to wait and were only posted to Normandy a few weeks into the invasion. Their first action was to be Operation Goodwood, designed to break through German positions to the east of Caen. Rex, being a notable senior officer within his regiment (at least proving that he was himself carrying out his strong conviction that is was the old men who should be fighting in the war) was made burial officer; his tank, Olympus, carrying twenty wooden crosses on its side. As well as this, Rex had had a special metal box fixed to the back of his tank by a blacksmith, back in England, designed to carry paintbrushes, paint and small canvasses; his intent was clear. A few days before the battle, Rex made his final artwork. Coming across a bombed chapel, he walked inside and with some pieces of charcoal and red and blue pencils drew a brief impression of the Madonna and Child upon a white wall. Rex Whistler was killed a few days later east of Caen.   

Rex (standing directly beneath the tank’s gun) and his men


In late 1944, as the war in Europe was reaching its climax, but with Rex now buried deep in the earth of Normandy, a battling triumvirate of notable English critics – Sir Osbert Sitwell, the commentator James Agate and the essayist George Orwell – debated the supposed duty of the artist in wartime. The discussion, continued in column inches between Agate and Orwell, had originally been prompted by Sitwell’s pamphlet A Letter to my Son. Written in the fall of 1944, Sitwell had been Rex’s friend and earlier that year, in London, he had suggested to Whistler that he should think up some set designs for a future film adaption of his novel A Place of One’s Own.  Though not mentioning the death of his friend, not by name at least, the event of Rex’s death must have been in his mind, clearly, when Sitwell lamented that under total war, ‘“healthy citizenship,” as it is called’ – a term which would no doubt have appealed to Rex’s sense of duty – ‘under which every man is obliged to take a hand to repel attacks from land, sea and air brought upon him by his incompetence as a voter, sterilises all talent’. This was a précis that almost exactly summed up his friend’s demise a few weeks into Normandy. This healthy citizenship had, after all, resulted in Rex’s death at the age of thirty-nine, before he had truly reached his artistic potential. It had also killed other artists and writers; the promising talents of the artist Eric Ravilious and the young poet Keith Douglas (also killed in Normandy) had both been snuffed out by the war. How many more would it be? Sitwell argued that the nation’s intellect should be protected from the savages of the conflict, what he simply termed ‘the Great Interruption’. Asserting a premise that could not be proved nor disproved, he argued that England might lose a great genius of its future to the barbarity of the present. He contended that:

Had Mozart been a modern Englishman – or, for that, a modern Austrian – he would have [if not being killed outright] spent the last four years training to fight, fighting, or engaged in forced labour; and since he died at thirty-six, this would have constituted a large slice of his art-life. Conceive the loss to the world had conscription been in force!

Though Rex had volunteered at the earliest opportunity, rather than being conscripted later, Sitwell believed that the artist was a special case and that his career ‘must continue’, even in a time of war. Contributing to the war effort was not the aesthete’s duty. James Agate, quite rightly, found this to be a contemptible statement; rebuking in a reposting pamphlet, Noblesse Oblige: Another Letter to Another Son (1944), that, on the contrary, ‘in time of war a man’s duty to his country comes before his duty to himself or his art. I say that in total war the individual ceases to exist except in cases where his continuing in his individualism helps the war effort.’ The intellectual – the artist – was not to be exempted. Anyone not supporting the war, the fight against Nazi Germany, materially or intellectually, was simply rendering himself a burden. Agate, too, couldn’t resist a stinging re-write of a piece of Shakespearian rhetoric, spoken on another French battlefield, not too far from Normandy, by Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day:   

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers/ For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,/ This day shall gentle his condition:/ And highbrows still in England how a-bed/ Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,/ And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/ That fought with us upon Invasion Day.

George Orwell, reviewing Agate’s reply in the Manchester Evening News – and while suspecting an anti-intellectual tone in Noblesse Oblige – at least agreed with Agate’s central point that the artist, the ‘highbrow’, was not exceptional and, thus, should not be exempted from conscription. An artist was ‘not to be treated as a special kind of being’, wrote Orwell, but rather as a citizen with a stake in the defence of his or her own country: ‘It is quite true that the artist cannot exist in a vacuum and that he has an interest in defending our own relatively free society against conquest from without.’ Indeed, the artist was fighting for his own democratic right to autonomous self-expression – this also meant his own artistic endeavours too. To expect other men to fight on his behalf for this right to wield a paintbrush so he, the artist, could stay at home daubing a canvas, was the immoral position. Indeed, Rex would have almost certainly endorsed Agate’s and Orwell’s position on the duty of the artist at a time of war – more so a war such as this. Sitwell’s personal perception was also one touched with more than just a hint of the unrepentant pacifist. And as Orwell had quite correctly indentified earlier, such people who refuse to condone warfare ‘can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf’. Indeed, this had been one of the great misfortunes of the interwar years, when a pacifist opposition to a war with Germany had led to a policy of appeasement – thus ensuring a war, far worse in scale and devastation, later on. Orwell was, however, one of the rare men of the Left who had realised the profoundly immoral concept behind pacifism, that what it really meant was surrender to evil. Furthermore, pacifism was in fact the supreme ally of totalitarian despots, as it made a virtue out of non-resistance. Behind this realisation was Orwell’s admiration for the value and the valour of the soldier: why he himself travelled to Catalonia to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War; and his attraction to the poet Rudyard Kipling who had written that great word of caution – that one should not so easily fall to ‘making mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep’.

What is more, and importantly, Rex Whistler had chosen to fight. As an artist he firmly believed he had no right to exempt himself from what might be a premature oblivion. He had his part to play. Indeed, the poet Keith Douglas, killed on 9 June 1944, wrote:

Actors waiting in the wings of Europe/ We already watch the lights on the stage/ And listen to the colossal overture begin./ For us entering at the height of the din/ It will be hard to hear out our thoughts, hard to gauge/ How much our conduct owes to fear or fury.

This is the first stanza of Actors Waiting in the Wings of Europe, one of Keith Douglas’s greatest poems, written upon the eve of D-Day – left unfinished. He never had the opportunity to write the final stanza. Yet perhaps it was the most complete poem he ever wrote – a poignant piece of verse cut off before running its entire course, just as Douglas’s life – aged just 24 at its terminus – was, much like Rex, prematurely snuffed out by a German mortar shell, outside the Normandy town of Tilly-sur-Seulles. He may very well have gone on to become one of Britain’s greatest post-war poets – one of Sir Osbert Sitwell’s much lamented artists, cut down, lost and wasted to war. But in 1944 Douglas believed he was devoting himself, and possibly sacrificing his potential talent, to a far greater cause than his own conceited concept as an artist. Indeed, he believed himself to be one of many players, as did Rex; not exceptional and therefore exempted, but ordinary and one of many. And indeed, as Shakespeare and then Agate noted, they were brothers of a sort, transported across the channel to liberate Europe from the greatest tyranny the world had ever seen, free men in a great invasion armada of 5,000 ships – the conquest of 1066 in reverse. And as the Bayeux Memorial’s inscription, in a manner in which both Rex Whistler and Keith Douglas would not think incongruous, reads: ‘We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.’

J.B. Priestley and George Orwell: Two English Journeys in the 1930s

September 7, 2012

There were three Englands in the 1930s, so thought J.B. Priestley: Old England; Nineteenth-Century England; and the New. Priestley’s English Journey, ‘Southampton to Newcastle, Newcastle to Norwich’, had revealed to him ‘the country of cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire; guide-book and quaint highways and byways England’. This was quite apparent, not so much a myth, but ‘a country to lounge about in; for a tourist’.  That was the Old country. Then there was the New – post-war England – and more American than Shakespearian in its shade of social/cultural hue: ‘of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses.’ Primarily, but not exclusively, located in the south, particularly in London, it was democratic, cheap and accessible, with Woolworth’s being Priestley’s allegorical but also quite corporeal emblem of this ‘rather depressing monotony… a bit too cheap’. Then, looming large in-between, in limbus, with a foot in Hades, was the world of the Dickensian horror show, still very much incarnate in 1933, up north in the townscapes of Lancashire. This was industrial England, or what was left of it, made up of ‘coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways, of thousands of rows of little houses all alike… cindery waste ground, mill chimneys, slums, fried-fish shops… a cynically devastated countryside, sooty dismal little towns, and still sootier grim fortress-like towns’.

A premise put forward to Priestley by the left-wing writer and publisher Victor Gollancz, the book English Journey, as its socialist publisher expected, was intended to be something far-deeper and far-reaching than the mere tourist’s travelogue of pleasant sights. Indeed, following this order, Priestley certainly made incisive comment, many in fact, and not just upon the twelfth-century, medieval delights of Lincoln Cathedral. In consequence of this comprehensive foundation, and vitally, Priestley sought out the whole thing, every piece of England, and not just the pretty. Indeed, upon reaching Lancashire, he stumbled upon the unsightly and injurious corollary of the Industrial Revolution, the lasting effect being that ‘it had found a green and pleasant land and had left a wilderness of dirty bricks’. As Priestley, with all the angry gusto of William Blake, though perhaps less eloquently, riled: ‘you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs… but there are far too many eggshells and too few omelettes about this nineteenth-century England.’ Later, another great writer was to cross Priestley’s path, here in this dark realm, and indeed tread some of the same steps: George Orwell, as we shall later see. 

J.B. Priestley during the First World War (1914-1918)

Priestley, then, was the first to set out on his personal expedition; and what he perceived up north, and as it subtly appears in the text, in To Lancashire, was a great battle. ‘There’s a war on in Lancashire’, he proclaimed, almost as if those outsiders, even he, had failed to realise it. Indeed, this chapter, and also To The End are pot-marked by Priestley’s shrapnel-like prose, implying conflict, as are the people and places he encounters during this chapter. Having spent his twenty-first birthday in the trenches of World War One, Priestley had been inflicted not just by the mortar wound he had suffered in 1916, but also with the capacity for reflective contrast. Thus it was, with a painful clarity, that the faces of the unemployed in Lancashire appeared to be the very same visages of the ‘strained, greyish, faintly decomposed look’ he had remembered from a group of German prisoners of war. To be employed was to be incarcerated for an unspecified amount of time. It was wartime, a siege of attrition, then. On one occasion, inspecting a street infested with poverty, Priestley was left feeling like a ‘newspaper proprietor who has just inspected [a] front-line trench (in [the] safe sector) and is now leaving the brave boys to it, thank God!’ Indeed, the secret of Lancashire folk and their endurance, so he thought, was that they acted as if ‘on active service, and so, like the front-line troops, they make a lot of silly jokes and sing comic songs’. Again, in epilogue, the war came back to him, Priestley concluding that some towns up north ‘looked much worse to me than some of the French towns I saw at the end of the war, towns that had been occupied by the enemy for four years’.

Lancashire was a casualty, then, betrayed, as it appeared to Priestley, by the very mistress that had made its fortune in the first place: the simple but deadly edicts of world economy. Cotton, which had expanded briefly after 1918, during the post-war boom, had been caught out by a sudden and prolonged world fall in demand. Cotton representing 30 per cent of Britain’s exports in 1920, by 1929 it had fallen to 20 per cent. And as eminent historian Peter Clarke notes: ‘markets for coal in eastern Europe, for textiles in Asia, were inexorably slipping to competitors with lower costs than Britain in producing these fairly unsophisticated products.’  This was the economic context to Priestley’s, and later Orwell’s, narrative. Indeed, Priestley recognised this, realising how vulnerable any commercial enterprise could be in an ‘interdependent world’ from which ‘there is no escape’.  Lancashire, for more than one reason – competitive markets overseas, world economic slump – had suffered as a result.

Now many of the dark, satanic mills of Lancashire were vacant, the workers damned to fight it out as best they could. The signs of disaster were there, and in differing forms, often surprising in their mode of expression – such as the muck, the muck of industry…  it was disappearing, worryingly so; as one distraught woman, who had recently returned to her local Lancastrian district, related to Priestley: ‘it’s awful… it’s all becoming clean.’ She hardly recognised the place; ‘the brick and stone are beginning to show through,’ she riled, the result of too few mills operating in the district. Priestley thought some of the towns in Lancashire ‘ruined’. Upon reaching Blackburn he noted that ‘the whole district had been tied to prosperity, to its very existence, with threads of cotton; and you could hear them snapping all the time… whichever way you looked there was the same tragic situation’.  Worse, any attempt to rectify the crisis was either non-existent or wholly inadequate.   

When in Blackburn, Priestley was shown to a community house, it being a voluntary effort to put unemployed men to some use, woodwork being the staple activity among the men. Viewing the club room, Priestley reflected upon playing spectator to two men enjoying a game of table tennis, playing with homemade bats. In fact, that was all the men seemed to do, ever, a depressed Priestley wrote. It terms of rejuvenating economic reality, this effort hardly constituted a fight back, however well-intentioned, yet Priestley adding in derelict reprise: ‘Probably by the time the North of England is an industrial ruin, we shall be able to beat the world at table tennis.’  Yet it was the absence of any apparent broader effort that most irked Priestley: ‘Since when did Lancashire cease to be a part of England?’ It had been seemingly cut adrift, there being ‘a terrible lack of direction and leadership in our affairs’. Priestley, in the concluding chapter, To The End, marvelled at the tragedy of it all, of a broken, affluently disjointed Britannia of church minsters, cinemas and slums, seemingly unable to bind its own seeping wounds, to its shame:    

We were brilliant, I decided, only in patches. Our civilisation was rather like the stock comic figure of the professor who knows all about electrons but does not know how to boil an egg or tie his bootlaces.

It wasn’t too late for action, Priestley made sure to declare, but ‘somebody somewhere will have to do some hard thinking soon’.

A few years later, George Orwell came to a similarly uncomfortable conclusion, albeit via a more tortuous road, The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937: that, in the industrial areas, something akin to an open sore was festering. Unlike Priestley’s journey into his various indentified England’s – the Old, New, and the distinctly dirty – Orwell’s pilgrimage was, instead, a voyage solely towards the dirt, down into the workers grim underworld, which inevitably would lead to a study of the unemployed, the chief Golgotha being the industrial areas of the Midlands and the North.  ‘To study unemployment and its effects you have got to go to the industrial areas. In the South unemployment exists, but it is scattered and queerly unobtrusive.’ Commissioned by Gollancz too, Orwell’s book, as Richard Hoggart states, was intended to be a revelatory piece, in the tradition of ‘Cobbett and Carlyle,’ indeed as was Priestley’s account, purposely designed to reflect the ‘condition of England’. Yet, with only one England in mind, sighted in the crosshairs, Orwell set out in early 1936 to gather his research in Lancashire and Yorkshire; his findings reflected in Part I. In contrast to Priestley’s work, therefore, The Road to Wigan Pier was a geographically and socially pinpointed investigation.

A peripatetic Gyrovague, though only for the purpose of these particular explorations, as in his previous work Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell did his utmost to experience the pains of the worker and, in particular, the coal miner. Priestley, though not shying away from such experiences, hadn’t the same morbid commitment in his efforts and whereas his own investigations were carried out with relative ease, Orwell, in self-flagellating opposite, believed that he could only truly experience the labours of the workers if the effort half-killed him. And indeed, it almost did, when, in a scene from Dante, he descended into the hell of a coal mine; there Orwell finding many of its common, hellish attributes: ‘heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.’ Actually getting to the coal face was an epic journey in itself – for Orwell’s weedy, brittle physiology at least… bent double, almost broken in two, with a crick in the neck, his knees and thighs in constant pain: ‘after half a mile it becomes (I am not exaggerating) an unbearable agony. You begin to wonder whether you will ever get to the end – still more, how on earth you are going to get back. That a miner ‘may have to creep through passages as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus’ was a line that Orwell wielded with particularly morbid satisfaction, coupled with a knowing horror in the knowledge that a miner was not paid for the journey from the pit head to the seam, or the passage back.  After just one trip down a mine, Orwell concluded that, if he were a miner: ‘the work would kill me in a few weeks.’

‘No other trade approaches this in dangerousness,’ Orwell concluded. Such were the perilous realities of the task. Yet it was the vital lifeblood: ‘OUR CIVILISATION… is founded on coal… In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.’  Though they were not unemployed, they were worth the tangent. Orwell thought miners unrecognised and neglected heroes of Britannia, the men with ‘belly muscles of steel,’ to which the nation owed its ‘comparative decency’ of living. Indeed, as Orwell admitted, it was a humiliating experience to watch such epic efforts, enough to challenge the worth of his intellectual self, and of being ‘a superior person generally’. It was enough to make him feel ashamed of being middle-class, though perhaps also causing a slight sentimentality towards those workers; the miners, that he clearly thought his betters, not just in work ethic and physicality, but perhaps also on a human level of morality. 

Orwell, of course, denied having such saccharinely tailored notions: ‘I have seen just enough of the working class to avoid idealising them.’  In defence of this, Orwell, though not expelling such emotions completely, certainly sought to override them. Indeed, he believed that a great deal could be learnt by experiencing the working-class habitat, as if he were the anthropologist: ‘the essential point is that your middle-class ideals and prejudices are tested by contact with others. Priestley, in comparison, though not shying away from human contact, never lingered long among the labourers or unemployed; in one instance, taking time out to oversee his play in Manchester. Yet, despite being at heart a novelist and playwright, Priestley generally managed to avoid sentimental thoughts of caricature too, except in the case of ‘Lancastrian femininity’ and ‘the patter of Miss Gracie Fields’. ‘The men are tough, and the women are tougher still,’ he wrote, though lacking any evidence, and simply offloading the cliché; thinking that, without its women, Lancashire would be finished as a county.

Orwell’s observations, above all, exposed the ‘gauntness of poverty’. Whereas Priestley took the tour of the battlefield of penury, and travelled far and wide, Orwell conscripted himself and lived the life of dirty drudgery, in among the ‘labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like black beetles’. ‘In Sheffield you have the feeling of walking among a population of troglodytes,’ Orwell noted, thinking it a different world, an entirely separate universe to elsewhere. In this sense, in conjunction with Priestley, this really was a separate England, and an isolated one. Indeed, Orwell stated so: ‘when you go to the industrial North you are conscious, quite apart from the unfamiliar scenery, of entering a strange country.’

Like Priestley, Orwell was exasperated by the apparent inaction in dealing with the problem. Unemployment was the chief evil, both writers believed that. So too was the sense of hopelessness. ‘We may as well face the fact that several million men in England will – unless another war breaks out – never have a real job this side of the grave,’ a despondent Orwell bemoaned. Until something changed, the malevolent dole would, for the foreseeable future, have to be endured by many. Orwell worked out that the average unemployed family subsisted on an income of thirty shillings a week; difficult but not impossible. Priestley was generally of the same attitude, and, as Orwell too related, thought the long term effects of poor diet, a result of rationing, sometimes unwisely prioritised, was creating generations of malnourished citizens.  However, Orwell believed it was the Means Test that caused the real harm. ‘The most cruel and evil effect of the Mean Test is the way in which it breaks up families.’ A widower, for example, if living with one or more of his children, would cause the family dole to be ‘docked,’ being counted as a lodger, and would be obliged to leave. As well as this, there was also the sense that the dole was an admission of defeat, rather than an effective solution. Orwell noted that many young men were doomed to wander though townscapes, attempting to find suitably warm interiors in which to spend the day. In terms of the dole, Priestley thought it to have two meanings, the latter of which was quite devastating: ‘It means a charitable distribution, especially a rather niggardly one. It also means, or did mean in its archaic use, a man’s lot or destiny… it is a poor shuffling job, and one of our worst compromises.’ Indeed, it was ‘a mere declaration of intellectual bankruptcy’.

In his experience, Orwell found that the majority of the men on the dole were not ‘cynical parasites,’ as some thought, but ‘decent young miners and cotton-workers gazing at their destiny with the same sort of dumb amazement as an animal in a trap. They simply could not understand what was happening to them’. In a way, it was psychologically damaging. As a relief, many would turn to a stimulant, finding that ‘a cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread’. Only by his closeness to such people could Orwell make such observations. More so than Priestley, Orwell had an eye for the smaller details, these being his particular talent, in part a result of his being more embedded in the lives of his subjects, for a greater length of time.

George Orwell

A deep empathy for working class characters is prevalent in Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, as it is in many of his other works. Such an approach, compassionate, but also detached in terms of class and literary necessity, was, in this way, and also in subject, thoroughly Dickensian in manner. Orwell – an avid fan of Dickens, indeed one may argue they were kindred spirits in terms of tales of morality and railing against inept institutions – in an essay upon the Victorian author, made sure to clarify the definition of a moralist, something which he indentified deeply with Dickens, but also himself: ‘he has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong.’ Indeed, as Orwell wrote, and unashamedly, Dickens was a writer ‘well worth stealing’. Furthermore, Gordon B. Beadle, in his brilliant study George Orwell’s Literary Studies of Poverty in England, concludes that ‘Orwell’s criticism of society is moral criticism, an appeal to the conscience and better nature of the nation’.  And something was deeply wrong – Hard Times had replaced Hard Times. So Orwell sought to communicate with the same urgency which Dickens had moralised within his serials, reflecting the human face of destitution itself, the real thing, if not, admittedly, supplying the remedy. Ultimately, as Orwell half-prophesised, it would take war to rid England of the mass unemployed and, indeed, to reshape English society.    

Despite the difference in national topography covered, when both Orwell and Priestley entered the same environment of dirt-ridden slums, derelict mills, mountainous slag-heaps, and numerous unemployed, both recognised the hideousness of the landscape, the inaction of the higher authorities, the general hopelessness of the situation. Above all, it made them angry. Orwell’s book, notably Part I, was illustrative of the depressed areas in industrial England that were, undeniably, in existence at the time.  Priestley’s chapters To Lancashire and To The End confirms this view, but also provide the reader with a number of dissimilar vistas that were present in England at the time too, testifying to the dramatic regional differences in affluence, economy and social conditions in the 1930s. They are conflicting, but not a fallacy; simply matter-of-fact. Of course, some of these facts were, quite obviously, a poor reflection upon the conditions of the labourers, especially those unemployed.

Both writers discovered the same harrowing truth, then, though to what extent it had been anticipated is hard to fathom. In the case of Orwell, the direct focus of the book clearly suggests that a certain amount of disgust was intended, and indeed sought out, the précis being an angry exclamation mark at the conditions of the working class. It certainly possessed a bellowing voice of articulation. To be sure, though finding Part II far more controversial in its outlook, Victor Gollancz stated, of Part I and its worth to socialism, that ‘these chapters really are the kind of thing that makes converts’. In the case of Priestley, the original intention of discovering three Englands, and importantly, the rotten core, is less clear. Martin Pugh argues that books such as Priestley’s English Journey were a symptom of ‘political turmoil and prolonged economic uncertainty,’ and sought ‘to retreat to a timeless and more secure world.’ If this is indeed the case, then the discoveries in To Lancashire must have been a sobering reality check, not at all a comfort, and yet quite genuine. Pugh’s comment might also be applied to The Road to Wigan Pier, in terms of the prefix, except that Orwell never had any intention of seeking comfort. He confronted the awfulness. Yet it might also be said that Priestley was well aware of what he was letting himself in for, and that Pugh may be incorrect in his assertion of a literary ‘retreat’.

Of course, Gollancz and the authors, as evident in the commissioning and the writing of these socialist tracts, ostensibly had a hope for some enduring legacy: a reaction and suitable outcome for the problems that had been ruminated upon in their works. Yet they had no definitive answer themselves. Evidently, apart from implying the need for some form of Welfare state, the most certain bequest bestowed latterly is their respective positions within the historical bibliography of 1930s Britain, to the extent that to discount them in a narrative upon such times would appear to be the most perverse snub. Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, especially, has become the defining account of depression-era Britain – the danger being that, in some instances, it may be employed as the only evidence. As Priestley’s work shows, particularly in To The End, England was a country of varying degrees, and not every view was as disturbing as Orwell’s. In this respect, when analysing such prominent works, indeed any work, we should be mindful of the particular place, time and intention, and also be willing to seek out other examples to further expand our knowledge. Such is the worth of multiple and reasoned comparison.

The Miracle of Dunkirk: Edward Ardizzone and George Orwell – the Artist and the Diarist

June 3, 2012

Late May, 1940, Edward Ardizzone and his companions, members of the now bedraggled British Expeditionary Force to France (B.E.F.), settled down for the night in an old château on the outskirts of Boulogne. Seeking comfort in this abandoned residence, Ardizzone perused its forsaken library of Anglo-Saxon tomes left lonely in the gloom: Shakespeare and Dickens upon the shelves, but also Goethe and Heine. More poignantly perhaps a fellow cohort played Handel and Bach upon the dusty black and white keys of the residence’s piano, in melodic accompaniment to the rumbling crescendos of German bombs hitting Boulogne near-by.

All this Ardizzone later recounted in Baggage to the Enemy, an illustrated account of his own personal experience during the calamity that was the fall of France. Commissioned as a war artist in February 1940, having been a notable illustrator of children’s books before the war, Ardizzone joined the B.E.F. in March 1940, and for the time running up to the German invasion was billeted in the French town of Arras with other war artists and journalists. Here Ardizzone’s narrative commenced; it was to end with his inglorious evacuation from the port of Boulogne. The predominating aspect at first, before the German invasion, indeed Ardizzone’s problem, was that nothing happened, not ever; which, as it turned out, was a problem for the war artist, as Ardizzone noted:

“The trouble with us artists was that we did not know in advance just what we were going to find interesting and drawable… The Staff thought that naturally we were itching for material in the grand manner – Highlanders charging with fixed bayonets, or tanks blazing into action in the Caton Woodville manner.”

Unfortunately, as the Army explained, “there was at that time no fighting, so what were they to do about it?” Instead, Ardizzone was confined to traipsing over the preserved battlefields left over from the previous war – his conducting officer believing it would provide the “right background knowledge and that this would be useful to us when the real show started”. And as Ardizzone later quipped, and tellingly with the hindsight afforded by the later military disaster, the officer, “as nearly everyone else was”, was thinking “in terms of twenty years ago”. Of course, the fall of France, and the subsequent retreat to Dunkirk and the evacuation of the British Army to safety, has taken its place within the British imagination as a victory snatched from the claws of disaster, but even as the military manoeuvres commenced, in May 1940, such an outcome, at least of a looming catastrophe, was very soon apparent; Ardizzone writing that military brass “had a pretty shrewd idea of what was going to happen”. Indeed, General Mason Macfarlane, Director of Military Intelligence, informed Ardizzone and the Public Relations Unit, somewhat surprisingly, that: “He did not want to make us unduly despondent, but he had to emphasise that the Allied Armies were now facing a greater peril than at any time during the last war”. Above all, Baggage to the Enemy, as the title suggests, is a testament to the instant peril the B.E.F. faced, the German Army clipping at its heels back through Belgium into France. Indeed, it is indicative of military events, and the Allied lack of military success, that the majority of Ardizzone’s small volume comprises of “the Retreat”.

Included in Ardizzone’s account are 106 sketches, almost a picture a page, which, taken from his original studies made in France, compliment the prose as a visual chronicle of events. Their inclusion, a must – considering Ardizzone’s wartime role – provide a unique insight into what the artist thought appropriate as a portrayal of war; and indeed, very few of the images turn out to be depictions of battle. Instead, they portray a deeper human level of existence during conflict. Ardizzone was certainly no Caton Woodville. Of course, at first he had no choice; there were no battles, not before the invasion as the British and French elected to await the German onslaught (very much set in the”Verdun” mindset of defence rather than attack). Instead, Ardizzone focused upon army routine, of everyday life billeted in Arras, fraternising with the French locals, and almost every night having a “party evening”; on one occasion – in a hotel bar, having as a guest a member of the troupe Singing Baker’s Boy – bursting into a loud “performance” with some “very elated” Air Force Officers providing a rousing but somewhat drunken chorus. Ardizzone, at this stage at least, before the Panzers roled, could afford a sense of humour in his reflections – both written and sketched.

When war finally manifested itself, very rarely did Ardizzone reach the frontline. Ardizzone had to make do with the consequent wreckage of war, after the event – such as the bomb crater, the bombed railway line, though occasionally spying the odd enemy bomber far up in the sky. There is a great sense of movement – of mobilisation – in Baggage to the Enemy. In this manner, one of the most moving images contained  within Ardizzone’s account is Guards on the March (also Ardizzone’s first encounter with the refugees, on the road to Louvain; which also reveals his inner compassion): “The most dreadful sight of the war as I had seen so far.” “Nearly all of them push bicycles”, he wrote in conjunction with the image, “laden with bundles wrapped in red blankets… except for the very poor, they were all wearing their Sunday Best as if they were loath to leave their best clothes behind”. Yet above all it was the accompanying soundtrack that most moved him, something which the image could not relate; the silence of the refugees, the tread of their feet, the contrasting heavy marching boots of a splendid battalion of Guards marching on, “against the stream”, marching on to war, towards “the sound of gunfire and of bombs”.

The narrative often weaving in and out of the military context – the violent manifestations of war being sporadic and contrastingly conflicting – Ardizzone’s account has a semi-impassive, otherworldly quality, as he, the chronicler, drifts through events – the calm before the storm, the action, the confusion and the retreat – detached, yet involved necessarily, not as the soldier, but as the teller artist. Indeed, though still a civilian, the tolerated Ardizzone was clad in the military British uniform, but without insignia; unranked, he was somewhere and something in-between.

Ardizzone’s account is not a critical analysis of strategy, nor is it absurdly sentimental or myth making, it is simply matter-of-fact, the encounter, but not asking why. Ardizzone had a penchant for the unearthly or awkward moment within the sphere of war, if only brief, of curious occurrences, and not just the obvious and to be expected clichés of staged conflict. Indeed, in Boulogne at night, he having retreated back from the frontline, on the occasion of an air raid, and taking shelter just inside the doorway of a private house, Ardizzone and some companions glimpsed the sight of two spectre-like, elderly women, cowering under the bombardment, “carrying candlesticks and dressed in nightcaps and voluminous white night-dresses”, first staring “owlishly” at the men, then descending silently into the basement below.The accompanying sketch, Two Old Women, exceedingly simple in composition, is, nevertheless, a haunting image of this peculiar occurrence. Ardizzone’s wartime images are, indeed, a strange contrast to his previous pre-war art for children, but a successful transition. Writing in 1940, the esteemed but hard-hitting critic Douglas Cooper thought Ardizzone one of the few war artists of any worth:

“He really succeeds in conveying the present war from humour to tragedy: bombing, soldiers off duty, air raids, refugees, the English, the French… He is the only person who has caught the atmosphere of this war.”

Aside from Ardizzone’s subtle elusions to beauty contrasted against the vulgarities of war, in terms of message and propaganda there is no overwhelming manipulation of the viewer’s thoughts. Nor is he politically or militarily damning of the events and mistakes – it simply happened. Perhaps he thought it the wrong time in the war (it was first published in 1941), or did not think himself qualified, or indeed allowed to pass such a comment in a post-mortem-like, war artist’s exposé. Though quite likely that was never his intention – he simply being a war artist. There is no fundamental truism that Ardizzone seeks to pompously imbue, but nor is his piece prosaic in tone. It is left modestly to the reader to decipher his or her own axiom about war, and of that brief, but vital campaign.

At the time of Dunkirk, and the fall of France, George Orwell’s view from London, very much evident in his Wartime Diary of the campaign, was distinctly indistinct. A civilian, like most, he was largely ignorant as to what was actually happening in Belgium and France in May and June of 1940: “For days past there has been no real news and little possibility of inferring what is really happening.” But Orwell could guess, and there were a number of potential scenarios: that the B.E.F. and French Forces in the north were cunningly waiting for the German Army to be “spent” before counterattacking; or, what Orwell believed to be the more probable likelihood, “that the position in the north was in reality hopeless and the forces there could only fight their way south, capitulate, be destroyed entirely or escape by sea, probably losing very heavily in the process”. Orwell was not entirely fallacious in this latter summation. On 29 May, Orwell noted in his diary that he could only “gather any major news nowadays by means of hints and allusions”. This was in part a government policy. However, the night before, Orwell had listened to a rallying “cheer-up talk” on the radio by Winston Churchill’s Minster of Information, Duff Cooper: designed, so Orwell deducted, “to sugar the pill” before the broadcast of Churchill’s speech to Parliament, a speech hinting at “dark and heavy tidings” in the days ahead. Orwell wasn’t fooled, and had a shrewd grasp of what was about to be announced to the nation. Something had clearly gone awry. Orwell’s first mention of Dunkirk appears on 30 May, though the evacuation (Operation Dynamo) had commenced on 26 May, the government at first keeping the operation quiet. Apart from the news being largely ensored, this adding to the confusion, Orwell’s diary entries from around the time of Dunkirk hint at a surprising impassiveness amongst the population:

 “People talk a little more of the war, but very little. As always hitherto, it is impossible to overhear any comments on it in pubs, etc. Last night, E[ileen] and I went to the pub to hear the 9 o’c news. The barmaid was not going to have turned it on if we had not asked her, and to all appearances nobody listened.”

Again, writing on 30 May: “Still no evidences of any interest in the war… It is seemingly quite impossible for them to grasp that they are in danger, although there is good reason to think that the invasion of England may be attempted within a few days, and all the papers are saying this.” Orwell’s diary entry for 6 June – Operation Dynamo having ended on 3 June – draws a line under Dunkirk, though not before counting the cost. Of the figure of “6 destroyers and about 25 boats” destroyed, for the evacuation of “330,000 men”, Orwell thought that “even if one doubled the number of ships lost it would not be a great loss for such a large undertaking”. Of course, as he noted, this was assuming the final count was “presumably truthful”. Though the source is not stated – likely the radio or a newspaper – the tally was in fact an accurate statement of truth; both the loss of six destroyers, but also the number of men rescued: the Dunkirk historian Major-General Julian Thompson’s stated tally being 338,226 men, British and French, rescued from Dunkirk. However, Orwell makes no mention of the 68,111 British Army casualties, or indeed the huge loss of equipment and military hardware. Of course, the British government had no reason to cover-up the remarkable number of men rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, but perhaps would have shied away from stating the inglorious statistics relating to the fall of France generally. As well as this, and taking into account the “Battle of Britain”, which, as Churchill announced, was about to commence, there was no mention about the heavy losses the RAF had also sustained in France.

Yet, as it appears in Orwell’s diary, there was a form of reckoning, of taking account in the weeks following Dunkirk. For example, Rayner Heppenstall, a radio producer at the BBC, related to Orwell “that private soldiers back from Dunkirk whom he has spoken to all complain of the conduct of their officers, saying that the latter cleared off in cars and left them in the soup, etc., etc”. Orwell, reflecting upon this, thought that “this sort of thing is always said after a defeat and may or may not be true.” However, Orwell’s political leaning towards the Left managed to force a brief comment upon the current officer class, and, as he wrote hopefully, the middle class were eventually “bound to predominate as officers”, and would change the class basis of the army and, indeed, the country. Orwell musingly quipped: “How is it that England, with one of the smallest armies in the world, has so many retired colonels?” “Under the stress of emergency we shall unblimp”, Orwell hoped. In a study upon the reality of the “Colonel Blimp” type, the historian David French states that “it is difficult to reconcile this ‘reality’ of General Clive Wynne-Candy” being a prevalent predicament within the British Army at the time of Dunkirk. However, “in response to the charge of blimpishness, between the period of Dunkirk and Alamein, the average age [of officers commanding divisions] fell to 48’. The average at the time of Dunkirk was 53. How far this would have addressed Orwell’s expectation of an emergent middle class breed of officer is difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless, it is proof of a particular reaction, politically and socially motivated in the case of Orwell, to the British performance in France (Orwell was likely hopeful that the middle-class would once again infiltrate the officer class as they had done during the First World War, a result of the high mortality rate of officers in the field and the need to replace them). Ardizzone, in contrast, made no such reference to this – but this should not surprise us.

Also apparent in Orwell’s diary is a reflection upon the performance of the French. Orwell, in his dairy, relates a talk on the radio of a colonel just returned from Belgium, letting “the public know the army had been let down (a) by the French (not counterattacking), and (b) by the military authorities at home, by equipping them badly”. On blaming the French for the defeat, Orwell makes sure to add that he has experienced no other “recriminations against the French and Duff-Cooper’s broadcast of two nights ago especially warned against this”. However, several weeks later after Dunkirk, on 8 August, and in reference to the French Army’s performance in the field, Orwell records that, at a lecture given by an officer who had taken part in the campaign, the officer “spoke badly of the French… He had one photograph of a regiment of Zouaves in full flight after looting houses, one man being dead drunk on the pavement”. Though these are the only allegations that Orwell records, they do indicate a criticism directed at the French by their British officer counterparts. Of course, the French too were, quite unfairly, critical of the British for retreating to Dunkirk – a decision, however, and despite French consternation, which saved the British Army and allowed the Britain to continue fighting the war when the French capitulated. There is a strong case to be put forward that had the British Army been captured en-masse, in 1940, the fate of France, and indeed all Europe, would have been one of a lasting Nazi or Soviet tyranny. Yet has this ever been acknowledged?

Orwell’s Wartime Diary, then, offers the reader a limited but revealing personal account of Dunkirk and, in small part, its consequence. Although Orwell intended to publish the diary at some point, it was only after the war that his notes saw the light of day. In this sense, and in terms of diary alterations, Orwell’s account had nothing to censure, though indeed he may have censored himself at the time of writing and only reflected upon matters relating to his own agenda. This is certainly the case in his reflections upon the need to “unblimp” within the British Army. Some of the diary entries are also surprising – relative to popularly assumed knowledge of Dunkirk; the impassiveness of the population not necessarily running parallel to common assumptions made about the “myth of Dunkirk”, of a nation on the edge of its seat, rigorously awaiting the great salvation. Most of all, Orwell’s account relates the civilian experience, at home, of Dunkirk and the fall of France, but also the recriminations, later in thought, against the apparent failures of the campaign.