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Toujours les histories, part 2 of 2 - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Toujours les histories, part 2 of 2
Hon. and Rt Hon. Members of the House of Commons are by contrast less linked to their constituencies; therefore it was necessary in The Confidence of the House: May 1940 that I look to their personal backgrounds in explaining how they came to vote for or against the Chamberlain government:
The son of a London solicitor, himself a barrister, Major Attlee had been at school at Haileybury, that school dedicated to training the future sweet, just, boyish masters of the sirkar, the Raj. What Haileybury gave to Clement Attlee instead was a sudden, blinding vision upon the road to Damascus. In 1906, the young barrister and Oxford MA took on the management of Haileybury House, his old school’s charitable club for the ragged children of the East End, and was shocked from conservatism to socialism: an initially Christian Socialist view that, as he despaired of Christian charity, became simply Socialist, red in tooth and claw. He plunged into Labour activism and lecturing, working at Toynbee Hall and taking up a post at the LSE, at the behest of the Webbs, in 1912.
Then had come the War, the war to end all war, the war that should be – ‘like all the others,’ said a despairing Lloyd George – the last war forever; and the Old Haileyburian, Old Boy of that forcing ground of the proconsuls of empire, had done the only thing an Old Haileyburyian could conceivably do. As an officer of The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers (the South Lancashire Regiment), Captain Attlee fought; as an officer of The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers (the South Lancashire Regiment), Major Attlee was the last man but one – and that one, the divisional commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Maude KCB CMG DSO – to be evacuated from Suvla Bay. Having fought the Gallipoli Campaign, not in the warren of Whitehall offices and Horse Guards Parade, but rather upon the ground in the Dardanelles, Major Attlee, like many of the dead who rose with him as he rose to speak, had concluded that the failure of that effort was in the House and upon the Staff and the Ministries, not at the door of the then and now First Lord; and that whatever else one might say of that Labour foe, Churchill, there was no fault in him as a war leader.
Major Attlee rose and faced the House, and the Treasury bench, and with him stood the dead, innumerable: the dead, starved or weakened by illness, of Limehouse, of Stepney, of the East End with its docks and Chinatowns, the poor who had been used and discarded like the rags they picked and the rags they wore; the dead of Gallipoli, of South Lancashire and the Regiment, of Warrington and the country ’round.
The hon. Member for the borough constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme, Colonel Wedgwood, rose, slim and excitable, a man with too many ideas for his words to convey. Rum creature, thought Captain Margesson: some sort of queer untutored Wrangler by all accounts, a gentleman mathematician and engineer, who ran the Potteries as his personal political Dukeries. A Wedgwood, after all: rich, too clever by half, with no religion left to anchor the Nonconformist conscience; related, naturally, to all those bluestocking, over-clever Huxleys and Darwins and that young blighter with the rather Welsh name who wrote the music. One wondered what Darwin had made of all this inbreeding – and of the way in which the Nazis had seized on warped parodies of his ideas. It might be that we were all descended of apes; the Jerries rather seemed to be yet at the ape stage. Savage buggers.
He’d had a good war – ghastly phrase – had had Wedgwood; several, in fact. He’d been a naval contractor before the South African war; commanded a battery of the Royal Field Artillery against the Boers and then stayed on for two years as a Resident Magistrate in the Transvaal; volunteered in the RNVR in 1914 as a Lieutenant-Commander; won the DSO in the Dardanelles commanded the RNAS machine gun battery aboard the SS River Clyde at Cape Helles – another Gallipoli man – and then went to South Africa as an Army captain to serve on Smuts’ staff; served on the Mesopotamia Special Commission (damn Croft for mentioning Kut just now); was promoted colonel by 1917 to direct trench warfare; and then went off to Siberia in hopes – no harm in hoping – of getting Russia back into the war.
TIME HAD RUN on; perhaps had run out for the Government. It was 7.9 of the clock. Croft and Wedgwood and Sir Archie had all called up, conjured, invoked certain ghosts, and raised the Navy. Sir Archibald had even solicited the views of the hon. and gallant Member for North Portsmouth: and here he was. Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger John Brownlow Keyes Bt GCB KCVO CMG DSO (and MID, Croix de Guerre, and all the rest of it, foreign and British orders and decorations covering half his breast), Portsmouth North, strode in, small and seeming-frail with the face of a bank manager – until one looked a second time: in full uniform with all his gongs up.
A quiver ran through the House, and Captain Margesson began to resign himself to the inevitable. Admiral Keyes … well, that tore it for Neville. A bantam who did not know how not to fight, overcoming his smallness and childhood delicacy of health by force of will. He had begun in the Navy under sail, suppressing slavers off the African coast; seized the Taku forts and the Chinese flotilla during the Boxer Rebellion; was the first man over the walls of Peking, where he raised the Union Flag before racing forward to become the first of the allied forces to reach the Legations; made his name in training, in naval intelligence, and as a pre-1914 naval attaché; commanded the submarines at Heligoland Bight, 1914; tried and failed to press his superiors in the Dardanelles to force the channel and ensure success at Gallipoli; took command of the Dover Patrol, and raided the U-boat pens at Ostend and Zeebrugge; commanded in the Med and at Portsmouth; and then entered Parliament when he had hauled down his flag, to support his friend Winston in urging rearmament.
The Admiral had almost singlehandedly wrested the Fleet Air Arm back into Royal Navy control, from the RAF, although it had come all too late, as events in Norway had just now shown. He had been perhaps the closest friend of Albert, king of the Belgians, and was a surrogate father to the new king, Leopold. With Sir Austen Chamberlain, Winston, Amery, and Lord Salisbury, he had clashed swords with SB and Neville in ’36, and had been one of the rebels at Munich time, alongside Winston, Eden, Spears, and Duff Cooper. He had not had the whip withdrawn: Captain Margesson was not suicidal. Portsmouth North would return the former C-in-C Portsmouth there to any parliament sitting, and one could no more take on Admiral Keyes than one might have opposed Nelson.
He – and Winston – had urged from the start that Trondheim Fiord be forced and Trondheim secured; Sir Roger had volunteered to lead the expedition. The Sea Lords, having first tried to keep Sir Roger from getting through to the First Lord, then dithered, and were lost. It was from that, the Chief Whip knew, that all else had followed: the loss of Norway, and now the gravest of threats to the Government. Admiral Sir Roger Keyes was the most dangerous man in the House, from the Government’s point of view, more even than the First Lord, who had made many enemies over the years: for no one dared disregard the living embodiment of the Senior Service, who had been commissioned by the Queen-Empress almost sixty years before.
The Chief Whip closed his eyes, briefly. The Admiral was here, pointedly in full uniform, more dangerous than ever, and murderously angry.
‘After a brief respite from the irresponsible musings of my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, I came back to the House and heard him saying that the British Navy ran to the Eastern Mediterranean and had gone to Alexandria because they were frightened of bombs. That is a damned insult!
Mr Speaker did not bother to reprove.
‘I am quite prepared to meet the gallant Admiral with anything,’ said Wedgwood, stoutly.
The Admiral had his range. ‘I have much more respect for my right hon. and gallant Friend as a machine gunner in the River Clyde than as a strategist and a speaker in the House of Commons. However, I came to the House of Commons today in uniform for the first time because I wish to speak for some officers and men of the fighting, sea-going Navy who are very unhappy.’
Well, thought the Chief Whip, that’s most assuredly torn it. I speak for the fighting Navy. Only Winston can save Neville now. And shall no doubt try: say what you will of Winston, he fights his corner, even if he has no recompense for his loyalty.

Right. I was in large part motivated to write The Confidence of the House: May 1940 precisely because I felt that too little attention had been paid to just how it was that Great War experiences: Gallipoli; the Western Front (the Liberal leader had been Winston’s second in command at Plug Street Wood): had informed the votes in that vote of confidence. But I pray you consider this: the Potter books concern, at bottom, war and crime. They concern politics: Ministry politics. Particularly if you are writing post-War fic in that ’verse, you really do want to employ the techniques and tricks of the social or criminological or military or political historian in your writing.
Put your characters in context, in the mental and physical landscape they would inhabit. What do they eat, read, believe? Where do they live? And – the historian’s question – how does this influence them? What past experiences shape them? I have been known to stress that Harry after the War educated himself to make up the deficiencies of his schooldays. I may tell you now that I do so because that is what Wellington did in India to make up for slacking through Eton and Angers, and what Winston did in India to make up for slacking through Harrow and Sandhurst. (I may say that when I am confronted with a text that contains fanboy Creeveys; a Ministerially-connected Cro(a)ker; a rather slack schoolboy (from a family that is no longer as celebrated as it had been) who goes on to defeat a famous tyrant who is supported by some of the upper classes in that youth’s own nation; and a man named Arthur W––sley, I should be a poor Briton indeed did I not think of Wellington.)
Context. For various reasons, including the statutory, every council in the kingdom publishes one or another sort of planning document or Landscape Character Assessment. Look if you like at Suffolk or the South Hams by way of example; or the village design statements for Great Bedwyn and for Swallowcliffe. If you wish to put your characters upon a canal, there are resources for that. Steam trains? Lor’, yes.
No historian worth his salt should imagine not knowing what his subjects read and eat and used for transport and grew for veg. and saw around them. Nor ought we: if all you know of treacle tart is the name, you don’t know Harry. (Note the ginger. Then consider Amortentia.) Yes, all right: it wants research. But not so very much; and it cuts down on agonising over plot, for when you know these things about your subjects or characters, you know already how they shall react and what they shall do in any situation. And then of course the devices used by historians in narrative, exampled above, clamour to be used and lead you to use them quite naturally. It’s all technique, and it’s a doddle.
Here endeth the Lesson.
* ‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse “applicability” with “allegory”; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.’

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3 comments or Leave a comment
sgt_majorette From: sgt_majorette Date: September 7th, 2011 09:10 pm (UTC) (Link)

Spotted Dick

"...if all you know of treacle tart is the name, you don't know Harry."

This would be why I don't write more Potterfic. Changing ass to arse with your word-processing software doesn't quite cut it, does it?
wemyss From: wemyss Date: September 7th, 2011 10:08 pm (UTC) (Link)

Eton Mess.

Try the recipe and let me know.

And if anyone does indeed cut it effortlessly, it's you.
sgt_majorette From: sgt_majorette Date: September 7th, 2011 11:43 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Eton Mess.

Massive doses of Georgette Heyer in my formative years, plus BBC America more recently.

One of the more obnoxious things American tourists in London cannot resist doing, and none has ever managed to do it with a straight face, is order spotted dick in restaurants. You can get it canned in the international section of a gourmet grocery, it's disappointingly not as gross as it sounds.

However, having gone diabetic in my old age, I probably shouldn't mess with sweets of any kind. Looks good, though...

Edited at 2011-09-07 11:48 pm (UTC)
3 comments or Leave a comment