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Toujours les histoires (part 1) - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Toujours les histoires (part 1)
… as Cathcart’s former mistress complained to Lord Peter Wimsey.
Clever buggers, the Frogs. They recognise that all stories and tales are histories (fiction being what Tollers called ‘feigned history’).*
Let’s talk about that, shall we?
One of the recent Thirty Days’ Questions I believe asked, as I have long since posed and with others answered, What drew you into fanfiction? And for me as for a few others the answer was obvious: the historian’s impulse. It is the impulse that caused Martin Gardner to annotate the Alice books and GKC, that caused Fitzalan Pursuivant (CW Scott-Giles) to write the history and heraldry of the Winseys, that caused C Northcote Parkinson to write biographies of Jeeves and of Admiral Lord Hornblower, and that has animated Sherlockian Irregulars for generations (where precisely did the jezail bullet hit Watson?).
Indeed, it is the impulse that resulted in Bapton Books’ publication of The Annotated Wind in the Willows.
This sort of thing having been a means of amusement and relaxation to me all my life, I found myself inevitably drawn in when I discovered that – as I then thought – the same impulse had extended itself to the Harry Potter books. A little reading sufficed to show that it hadn’t, actually, in large measure; wherefore my involvement, which has been justly characterised as One Long Britpick.
It has always been my contention, also, that La Rowling meant to hold up a funfair distorting-glass (oh, all right, mirror if you like) to British life and institutions, and that some knowledge of these was essential to getting all the jokes, let alone writing fanfic.
But leave all that to one side, and consider simply this: that the use of the historian’s tricks of the trade can deepen your fiction, fannish or otherwise.
Perhaps the best and most subtle of writers of ghost stories was Monty: MR James, provost of King’s Cantab and of a small school near Slough I’m rather fond of (yes, yes, Eton. Do keep up). A noted mediæval scholar, Monty James used the paraphernalia of scholarship to make his ghost stories more realistic and thus more terrifying: you must read them. By daylight. And of course a properly done bit of history in Heyer or in Conan Doyle – ‘The Musgrave Ritual’, say – immeasurably increases the effect of the work. (Buggering it up, on the other hand … well, there’s a reason most readers skip the Mormon sections A Study in Scarlet.)
Now, what do I mean when I refer to ‘the historian’s tricks of the trade’ and ‘the paraphernalia of scholarship’? The fact is that the writing of history and of biography – ‘true or feigned’, as Tollers put it – is a literary art. The great American historian and biographer, David McCullough, commonly says, ‘In E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel he talks about the difference between a sequence of events and a story. He says, If I tell you that the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I tell you that the king died and then the queen died of grief, that’s a story’: and he’s quite right. History is a narrative form, and its techniques of narrative are not ultimately distinguishable from those of the novelist.
Bapton Books recently had the privilege of publishing my co-partner Mr Pyle’s history of one day in America: 12 August 1941, the day on which the Congress by one vote kept Selective Service in place (and thus the Army in being) four unsuspecting months before the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbour. On that day, President Franklin Roosevelt was meeting with Winston aboard warships in the waters off Newfoundland, the meeting that led to the Atlantic Charter; in the book, he is therefore ‘offstage’ and is seen reflected only in the eyes of his enemies and his supporters. That is one trick of the trade: to build up a character ‘offstage’ by the reactions of others to him.
Or again, in the same work, look at how the context of the vote is set out throughout:
August 12, 1941, was a hot, torpid sort of day in Columbus, Mississippi. Columbus was the birthplace of Henry Jackson, Jr., a sharecropper’s son. There wasn’t just a whole hell of a lot of scope for sharecroppers, their sons, or anyone who happened to be Black, there in Columbus. The family had moved to St. Louis when young Henry was quite small. He was twenty-eight now, and not at all small, and went by the name of Henry Armstrong. He was generally referred to by sportswriters as “Hammering Hank,” “Hurricane Henry,” sometimes as “Homicide Hank,” even now, seven months after Fritzie Zivic had knocked him out in the twelfth round of a fifteen-round bout at Madison Square Garden. Henry Armstrong had been the World Welterweight Champion since 1938 – a year in which he, incredibly, had also been the World Featherweight Champion and World Lightweight Champion as well. Thomas Lanier Williams III was a year and a half older than Henry Armstrong: white, well-connected on his neurotic mother’s side, talented with words rather than fists, the grandson of the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church there in Columbus. The family had moved to Clarksdale when Tom was young, when the rector took a new parish; they moved, later on, to St. Louis, where Tom began his long reinvention as Tennessee Williams, another outsider for whom there also wasn’t just a whole hell of a lot of scope in Columbus, Mississippi, on the Alabama line, with its surviving antebellum mansions and antebellum attitudes that had been preserved from Yankee destruction by the troopers of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

A distant cousin of Tennessee Williams had been born in Columbus three years before the playwright (now a WPA writer in New Orleans, and itching to get back to New York) had come along, and his family had stayed in Columbus until he was ten. Walter Lanier Barber had grown up thereafter amidst the orange groves of Sanford, Florida. But there wasn’t quite sufficient scope in Sanford, any more than there had been in Columbus or, in his college days, in Gainesville, Florida, for the redheaded Mr. Barber. The Cincinnati Reds were a better fit, but even broadcasting from Crosley Field wasn’t quite wide enough a stage; and since the 1939 season and his move to New York, Red Barber had had plenty of time to make himself the nationally-known Voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Columbus had been a place to get away from, for a lot of people, for various reasons.


On August 12, 1941, Mississippi’s First Congressional District, which included Columbus, was represented, as it had been for twenty years, by the race-baiting, Jew-hating John E. Rankin, coauthor of the bill that created the Tennessee Valley Authority, champion of rural electrification, and Chairman of the Veterans Committee. He was a demagogue who hated “kikes, niggers, and Communists” – and used those terms freely on the floor of the House. He tended to think that Jews, Blacks, and Communists were pretty nearly the same thing, or at least partners with one another: a view that suited most of his fellow members of the House Un-American Affairs Committee right down to the ground.

Congressman Rankin, like Congressman Gregory of Kentucky, was a member of the majority party in Congress. He was a Democrat.


Mr. John Rankin, Democrat, First District of Mississippi, “aye.”

Mr. Reece, Republican, First District of Tennessee, a “nay” from the Unionist Republican stronghold that had voted against anything with a Democratic label since before the War.


House Joint Resolution 222, Amendment to the Selective Service and Training Act, extending the term of service in the National Guard, Reserve Forces, and Regular Army, for such time as may be needed, had passed the House by one vote, 203 – 202. There had been one “not voting” and twelve “present” votes. One hundred eight Democrats and twenty-one Republicans had voted to keep the US Armed Forces in being; sixty-five Democrats had joined one hundred thirty-three Republicans in opposing the Joint Resolution.


Old hatreds, personal and political, had collided with principles, and mostly prevailed. Unionist Republican districts in the South and the Border States had kept up their old quarrel with Southern Democrats, fighting a war eighty years gone. Outside the Solid, Yellow-Dog South, FDR-haters, Left and Right, had taken a slap at the man they hated and feared.

And so the result was this: that a handful of far-seeing Republicans of a mostly metropolitan and sophisticated stripe, with a few liberals from outside the South, Democratic big-city machine politicians of the ward-heeler type, and the serried ranks of Southern, Bourbon, segregationist Southern Democrats, had prevailed in saving the country by one vote over small-town Republicans, the Midwest, and the Progressives and Left-Labor. The grubby compromises and strange bedfellows of American democracy had kept the Armed Forces from dissolving in the face of a coming war, by one, bullied, log-rolled vote and some fast parliamentary footwork. Progressives had been willing to see the US military shrink once more to a mere cadre in a dangerous hour; Kluxers had helped save it for use against the Axis.

Only in America.
This is a tool used throughout the work, taking representative districts with US Representatives important to the vote and putting them in context; using them also to point the morals of the contending philosophies in a nation then divided between isolationism and interventionism:
The pacifists and isolationists and distrusters of international (i.e., “Jewish”) finance who were high behind the Nye Committee from the get-go were pretty largely the same people who would go on to be True Believers in America First: progressives, modernists, isolationists, beer-hall Bundists, Socialists (Norman Thomas was to be a prominent America-Firster), the bien-pensant and the elevated. (America First was to have as members Potter Stewart, Gerald Ford, Gore Vidal, e. e. cummings, Sinclair Lewis, JFK, and Sargent Shriver.) Support for the Nye Committee, like later support for America First and for isolationism (and pacifism) in general, combined the worst elements of the Children’s Crusade, the Hitler Youth, and the Komsomol.

The Nye Committee ran from 1934 to 1936. It might have run longer than that, if Senator Nye hadn’t made the cardinal error of attacking the late Woodrow Wilson. He claimed, as others before him had claimed, and as others of his sort, America Firsters mostly, were to claim about FDR and Pearl Harbor, that President Wilson had lied Congress into war over the Zimmerman Telegram.

Well, that went south right quickly. Literally. Democrats in the Senate – and by 1936, Democrats, as Senator Norris well knew, controlled the Senate – erupted, and Southern Democrats in particular. Bantam, combative Virginia Senator Carter Glass – Wilson’s personal friend, Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury, and, most importantly, Appropriations Chairman – was cheered to the rafters as he declared that the Nye Committee’s funding would be cut off for “dirt-daubing the sepulcher of Woodrow Wilson,” in an oration punctuated by his slamming his fist repeatedly on his desk until his knuckles ran with blood.

But the damage was done. The Nye Committee hadn’t managed to gladden the hearts of socialists by nationalizing the arms trade. But they’d certainly managed to pin war guilt on international, shadowy, probably Jewish “merchants of death,” Shylocks who’d gotten American boys killed for their own profits, and both the neutrality acts and the immigration restrictions of the latter 1930s owed far too much to the vicious influence of the Nye Committee. And the America Firsters and isolationists of 1941 were molded by it.

And so, on August 12, 1941, Congressman Sol Bloom, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who had at the beginning of the year moved heaven and earth to help Mr. Sam get the Lend-Lease Act through the House, found once again that liberal and progressive opinion, hand in glove with isolationism and not without a tincture of Jew-hatred, was his enemy and the enemy of any preparedness, let alone intervention; while his allies in the fight were New Yorkers and New Englanders who would not dine with him or allow him into their clubs (Gentile clientele; we cannot cater to persons with dietary restrictions), and Southerners who might, depending on social status, look down upon the Klan, but who shared many of its views.

Joe Louis was to speak for Black America when he conceded that there was much wrong with the country, but that what was wrong was nothing that Hitler would want to fix. That irony was not lost upon the delicate sense of irony possessed, on August 12, 1941, by Congressman Bloom, and by American Jewry generally.

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