Christopher Tugendhat’s ‘A History of Britain Through Books: 1900 – 1964’

There’s a recently published book that I’ve been enjoying greatly, so I thought I’d spread the word about it here.

It’s A History of Britain Through Books: 1900 – 1964, by Christopher Tugendhat. The author is a collector of modern first editions and, inspired by Neil MacGregor’s excellent History of the World in 100 Objects, has combed his shelves for books (fiction or non-fiction) that offer an insight into the times in which they were written. He mostly takes the books in pairs or threes to explore what they say about Britain at various times. For example there’s a good essay which pairs Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood with Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, showing what had happened to the English working class in the thirty-year gap between the publication of the two books.

Mr Tugenhat often combines talk about the books with personal reminiscence – most notably in the chapter on post-WWII National Service, which interestingly combines discussion of a novel I had never previously heard of with memories of his own experiences. Some of his comments about relations between ranks suggest that things had not changed very much since the First World War. Indeed he suggest that class segregation was more complete during the time of National Service:

During the two world wars the gates had had to be widened to enable men with the right qualities but the wrong backgrounds to pass through, but during the period of National Service traditional criteria were again much in evidence.

This meant that

In practice only those who had been to public schools and to some extent grammar schools could go on to become officers.

Something else from this post-WWII section reminded me of my Great War reading:

A man with whom I many years later served on a corporate board told me of his experiences when fighting as a second lieutenant in the French army during the Algerian war of independence. His platoon had taken a rebel prisoner and he had agreed when his experienced sergeant said, ‘Leave him to me, I’ll find out what he knows.’ The prisoner had died. This had weighed on my friend’s conscience ever since with the weight growing heavier as he grew older.

This is precisely the sort of situation that is explored in Great War novels like Wilfrid Ewart’s Way of Resolution (1921). War is war, whatever the period, and very nasty it is, too.

As for the period of the Great War itself, Mr Tugenhat uses future war novels like The Riddle of the Sands and Wells’s The War in the Air to illuminate the run-up to the conflict. For the actual war years,he uses diaries rather than letters, reflecting his wish to show the thoughts and feelings of those actually involved in historical processes, not sentiments influenced by hindsight. The diaries he chooses are revealing ones, and I was especially interested to learn about the diaries of Private Lord Crawford.

David Alexander Edward Lindsay, 27th Earl of Crawford and 10th Earl of Balcarres, whose family’s title dated back to 1398, was a Conservative politician and former Chief Whip. In early 1915, at 43 years of age, and having recently refused an offer of the Viceroyalty of India, (and despite having previously been a Captain in the militia) he enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and served as a medical orderly at the casualty clearing station at Hazebrouck. In 1916 he returned to political life, and became president of the Board of Agriculture in Asquith’s government. Under Lloyd George, he became Lord Privy Seal, becoming the first Cabinet Minister to have had military experience as a private soldier.

(As an advocate for Great War fiction, I ought to just put in a note here to say that actually it is not only diaries that convey the experience of the Great War in Britain as it was lived. I’d nominate Arnold Bennett’s The Pretty Lady for its depiction of the sometimes surrreal effect of war on London, and Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Little England for the way it shows the demoralising effect of war in a rural area during those years. And then there’s E.M. Delafield’s The War Workers… Never mind. Mr Tugendhat’s choices raise good questions and let him explore interesting themes.)

The book’s literary judgements are not always the conventional ones. He puts in a good word for his friend C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series as social history, despite the flatness of its writing. On the other hand, he is deeply unimpressed by the direction in which Doris Lessing’s much-lauded The Golden Notebook took feminism:

Apart from the involvement of its female characters in political arguments and activities, The Golden Notebook defines women’s freedom almost entirely in sexual terms. It asserts their right to the same sexual licence as men had traditionally enjoyed and to be untrammelled by their consciences when they sleep with whoever they want, whether in response to purely physical or emotional needs. In this respect it captured and put into words what many women felt should be the case and were beginning to say. Its timing coincided with the change in sexual mores that marked the beginning of the 1960s and the birth of what came to be called the ‘permissive society’. But there is not a word in The Golden Notebook about how essential it is for women to acquire the economic independence without which other forms of independence cannot be sustained. Without work and the income it yields, or at the very least the skills that enable her to work and to earn a living, a woman without money of her own must inevitably be dependent on a man, a theme that runs through Victorian literature. Nor is there anything about a woman’s right, not just to work, but to equal recognition, opportunities and rewards. It is as if Virginia Woolf ’s A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas had never been written and as if women were not already debating these issues among themselves.

I think most people interested in social history and/or twentieth century writing will find this a book which tells them things they didn’t know before, and inspires them to read further in unexpected directions. And it’s very accessibly written. If I knew a sixth-former curious about twentieth century British history, this is the book I’d give him or her for Christmas.

P.S. I’ve been calling the author Mr Tugendhat throughout, but I’ve now looked him up on Wikipedia. He is in fact Baron Tugendhat of Widdington, and any stickler for feudal propriety would have referred to him as ‘The Rt Hon. The Lord Tugendhat’ throughout the post. Apologies for not doing so. He was a Conservative M.P. in the seventies, and then went on to high-ranking posts in the EU. (When he was European Commissioner in 1980, the IRA had a shot at assassinating him.) Then he went on to big jobs in business. This book is presumably a retirement project. And very good it is too.

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