In Memoriam: Bruce Vandervort
The death of a good friend is always a shock. One’s thoughts focus on his family. I would also like to add a few words of personal recollection, and an evaluation of Bruce’s importance in the field. This is not an obituary, but an evaluation.
The life of scholarship depends heavily on the work of others, the enablers, the publishers, editors and reviewers, most of whom (undeservedly) remain somewhat obscure, while the focus of attention, instead, is on the author. Bruce Vandervort, who died on 5 March, aged 78, was both, a distinguished author and a key enabler.
Appointed a member of the faculty of the Virginia Military Institute in 1999, Bruce was a popular teacher, an author of several books, and, from 1999, until his death the editor of the Journal of Military History, the journal, established in 1937, of the Society for Military History which, earlier this year, renamed its annual award for best-published articles the Vandervort Prize.
The JMH was transformed by Bruce into the leading journal in the field. Prior to his editorship, it had been a very hit-and-miss affair, but Bruce greatly raised its standards, made it more global in its coverage, and increased the size and frequency of the issues. He was intellectually ambitious for the JMH and proud that publication in the journal became more competitive as the number of submissions rose greatly. Bruce took a very close interest in submissions, oversaw the evaluation process scrupulously, and did his utmost to have all relevant books reviewed, and appropriately so. He made the journal crucial in the field and it was associated with him to a degree that is highly unusual for journals. I can only think of Roger Kimball and the New Criterion as a parallel in a very different field and manner. For years, the degree to which Bruce would be a very hard act to follow had been a habitual topic among scholars, and the fear that the journal might revert to being insular was often mentioned. His death following soon after that of Dennis Showalter, reminds us how lucky the SMH has been in its leadership, but also how important it is to sustain this high quality. That both men were major scholars unaffected by the whims and fantasies of political correctness was important to the direction and calibre of their leadership. Americans will note that neither were at major schools, let alone the Ivys. Dennis was at Colorado College.
I met Bruce in the early 90s and we got on at once. He was of course an anglophile; indeed both Jane and Wendy, his successive wives, were English. Bruce had a wonderful timbre to his voice and a face of quiet expressiveness: the raised eyebrow was used repeatedly. Quiet, I was about to say for an American, which is a ridiculous way to characterise so many people, but non-Americans will know what I mean, Bruce was witty and sardonic, brilliant on the foibles of the self-styled great of the profession and the dangers of political correctness, and a very firm defender of standards. Having myself edited (a much less important) journal, Archives, the journal of the British Records Association, from 1990 to 2005, I know how editors are pressurised strongly over articles and reviews, and I understood Bruce’s well-purposed resilience.
We all stayed with Bruce and Wendy in Lexington in 1997 and, to use a very apt American term, they were very gracious hosts (I also like situate, though restroom I continue to find ridiculous). He also ‘visited with me’ and was a great guest. We worked together a lot. Bruce did two excellent books for the military history series I edited for Routledge, showing his commendable range, and he called forth from me some very good articles for JMH: for the author it is vitally important, if writing intellectually ambitious pieces, to work for a good editor, and I like to write what I call ‘thought pieces’. Bruce came over to London when I organised a military history paper at the Anglo-American conference, I saw a lot of Bruce when I gave opening or closing plenaries at two SMH conferences, and, like Dennis, he was a regular at Rick Schneid’s High Point conferences. To me, it was the ‘dream team’ as far as military history was concerned. Gone now, and two good friends and true fellows, and so quickly.
Having written this, I now hear that Colin Gray, another major scholar who, like Bruce, was a dedicatee of one of my books has died.
Missing from the previous Miscellany
You speak and write, and you immediately know you could do it better or differently. Fried artichokes you might say and you would be correct: I had them stuffed at Ragusa (you could rearrange that phrase but you would be wrong). Herb Kaplan pointed out that I had said nothing about the drink in Sicily. Well Herb, it was about food and I do not go in for liquid lunches. Wherever I was, I had the very local dry white. I tried a local artichoke liqueur which I strongly do not recommend and, surprisingly, a blood orange one that I did not take to.
Re Rufus, the ever-observant Mark Stocker, a man with a brilliant memory, remembered that Rufus was not a great eater, and that in an effort to get him [grammatical imprecision?] to eat his supper, I would pretend to eat from the bowl. Sometimes, Rufus was thus persuaded to emulate me, but often he was no fool.
Free Speech in Universities, again
5 March brought two items into my gaze, one possibly an instructive comment on the other, however totally different they might appear. The former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, a former Minister for Women and Equalities, due to speak on encouraging young women into politics to the UN Women Oxford UK Society, had her invitation withdrawn half an hour before she was due to appear due to her role in the Windrush controversy.
Separately, a student of the University of Exeter has received disgusting, anonymous emails from a racist idiot somewhere in the world. This has led to a ‘statement in response’ drafted by the English department and signed by many academics. It uses the incident to substantiate what it claims, based on no evidence, are ‘wider structural issues’ and “how appeals to freedom of speech” are abused in order to justify racist and misogynistic violence’, and calls accordingly for ‘taking a stand’ against what is presented as a community with ‘a deeply ingrained problem with racism’, a culture of racism’, and a ‘culture of permission, without fear of recrimination’. Apparently, the university is guilty of appeasement because it pursues matters ‘on legal grounds.’
The analysis and prospectus are clear:
‘Our community needs to get better at understanding whiteness as a position of structural advantage, liable to reinforce all sorts of unconscious and damaging assumptions when it comes to the most basic social and pedagogical interactions … all of us need to take a public, systematically reformist, and unambiguous stand against gathering forces of reaction, hatred, racism, and fascism.’
This analysis represents a serious misrepresentation of university life, but captures very well the transference of paranoia into an hysterical call for action. Thus, the racist and disgusting anonymous emails become ammunition for an established platform of bashing ‘whiteness,’ the university, and Western culture as a whole. Moreover, there are supporting emails that make it apparent that a witch-hunt is in prospect. One lecturer felt able to opine on 6 March: ‘there are individuals among us (by us I mean lecturers/staff at Exeter) whose written opinions enable such occurrences. Racism and sexism very much exist in UK HE and they inherently shape each other.’
This is all also part of the call for decolonising the curriculum which means, in practice, the imposition of a crude, unscholarly, but career and ego-enhancing version, of grievance studies with reputational blackmail used to weaponise the campaign. This is not laughable, but rather dangerous and contemptible: dangerous in that it is inherently totalitarian in intention and vicious in its arguments; and contemptible in that it is scholars, or at least academics, who are involved. While self-serving, the scholarship in the matter is poor, and, ironically, matches in its shallowness some of what rightly calls up criticism. The criticism of ‘whiteness’ is inherently racist, and can moreover be readily considered so if we substitute other terms or groups such as ‘Jewishness’ for ‘whiteness’. Crude generalisations, the argument of collective guilt, and ethic disparagement have been used about Jews, Blacks, Roma, and other groups, and it is ironic to find such tripe coming now from academics; but then the intellectual standard of the work of some of the latter can be readily questioned.
To add to the mélange, on the 6th, Eva Poen, an Exeter economics lecturer, was accused of transphobia by feminist and LGBT students over a tweet in which she observed ‘Only female people menstruate. Only female people go through menopause.’ This led to Dr Poen being accused of ‘openly singling out trans people.’ Adam Deloit, the university’s LGBTQ+ society’s transgender representative, added: ‘The fact the university tolerates her is really frustrating.’
So there we are. Another day in Hollywood, or at least universities, where the zeal to suppress opinion, freedom of expression, academic debate, democratic rights, and the rule of law, gathers more energy and makes steadily more demands. The irrelevance of these people in the face of a range of pressing immediate issues, whether Coronavirus, environmental change, the need to create jobs in a transforming economy, and the problems of advancing the national interest, or many others, may well be apparent; but they are all too potent in destroying the basis for a free and liberal society. Ironically, the disgusting emails of the bigot that has spurred the immediate issue in Exeter are matched, albeit thankfully in a very different language, by the attitudes of the would-be thought police. It will be instructive to find if the treatment of ‘whiteness’ as toxic makes the university attractive to students; students of all backgrounds, many be unimpressed by such flawed and racist arguments. As an instructive guide to the parody morality of the signatories of the merry-go-round of mindless petitions, it is worth asking how they square their views on the supposed structural privilege of ‘whiteness’ with that of widening participation to poor and underprivileged white boys/young men; the lowest demographic of British campuses. These students presumably are their targets for indoctrination as well as trashing. That Exeter has an ethos of inclusivity and a commitment to anti-racism makes one wonder why these staff members are not sacked. Given that many signatories to the attack on ‘whiteness’ were also on strike, one wonders the point of being taught in such a context. The English department at Exeter appears particularly unbalanced in its views, but History is not too far behind.
The facts spell out a different story to the arguments of the activists, in some lights a pampered mob clamouring to police every aspect of life. The saga of course is endless. Thus, the draft email to University management circulated by the BME network both admits that the police have ‘declared the case closed for difficulty in procuring evidence’ and that there is only a ‘possibility that the writers of these emails are our own students,’ but feels able to refer to ‘racist and misogynist crimes on campus’ and proposes to make institutional changes that would prevent the occurrence of such crimes … decolonise the curriculum … resource allocation.’
The paucity of evidence, poverty of thought, and self-serving character of the prospectus, are all too wearyingly predictable.
The Dining Scholar: Sunday in Baton Rouge
Sweet Caroline does not deserve your sympathy in this case. It is true that I ate ‘Sweet Caroline’s Rabbit Liver’ accompanied by Sweet Potato Puree, Apple-Fennel Slaw, and Smoked Honey, but Sweet Caroline is the name of the rabbit suppliers.
Sunday in Baton Rouge is a challenge. I have been there twice before to stay, and it is a city that, despite the benefits of political corruption and a big university, had a hollowed-out look. The centre today is scarcely that of Manchester, but it is more lively than on past visits. I dined twice. Saturday night, at Stroubes, was alright, the grilled redfish fillet with crawfish risotto and sherry cream sauce being too peppery even for a spice-addict like me, but the Stroubes salad was lifted by its blue cheese, while the dessert was not too heavy: the age of miracles has not passed.
Sunday lunch found me sitting outside (I had to leave a deposit in the event of my bolting without paying), the sole customer willing to dare the breeze as well as enjoy the sun, outside the Jolie Pearl Oyster Bar, a reasonably-priced emporium of joy with its Sunday afternoon musicians and pleasant staff who advised on which oysters to have/with what sauce/ and how presented. I had six fried in a barbecue sauce, and a bowl of very good sweet corn bisque. A pint of the local ale helped make me mellow.
Dinner took me to Cocha, with Bill Robison, a contradiction in terms in that he is a jolly historian in the modern university world. He lives in BR, but had never been to Cocha despite it opening three years ago. It is mixed American Southern and Venezuelan, with an imaginative menu. Staff pleasant, portions are not big, and there is a good drinks list: I had a different Louisiana ale. I had Asian Tea-Smoked Wings followed by Fried Rabbit Liver, while Bill had soup of the day (a vegetable one he liked), followed by Seared Duck Breast which was on lentils and came with a blueberry-anise sauce. We swopped a bit, and the duck was certainly succulent and not over-cooked. There was a surround of fat but it was slight, and there was none of the cloying sweetness that so often accompanies the experience of duck. My wings were taste itself, again not as sweet as most Southern food, and pleasantly tender. As I now have fewer teeth, indeed am three molars down, that is of consequence. Rabbit liver was new to me. This was very lightly fried in very thin batter, and the cut-through was to plump liver with a taste that is stronger than chicken but not as pronounced as pork. Recommended restaurant.
Going on to Natchitoches, I am afraid the food declined. At least I avoided the fate of a trip to Shreveport in November 2019: great hospitality but the loss of one of my only grinders left. Anyway, Maglieux for dinner is worth missing. The catfish is good and fresh, but the cornmeal batter did not lift it, the crawfish cornbread starter had cornbread that was too thick, so that the etoufee only moistened the top, and the white chocolate bread pudding did nothing for me but offer calories.
Dinner the following night at Mergeaux was terrible. Batter too heavy on alligator and frogs’ legs, and neither of those really worth eating. One of my companions described the meal as inedible. They were foolish enough to order wine, which was undrinkable: too thick and jammy. In rural America, I go for local ale or unsweetened tea.
Lunch was better. Natchitoches is locally noted for its meat pies. I established that Lasyone’s did the best but was regarded as very rough and ready. That meant I went, but nobody else in the group did. Offered a fried meat pie or fried crawfish pie platter, I amazed the waitress by going for only one meat pie and some unsweetened tea (I left a large tip at end, but noticed that in this very poor locale some of the customers clearly could not afford to do so). Well, the pie was excellent (and inexpensive: $5.75). Light, filling – 80% beef and 20% pork, and the frying was also light and really only of the crimped end of the pasty: no batter at all. I left well-satisfied and without the shotput in the stomach that so often follows a Cornish pasty.
Café Vermilionville in Lafayette on way back to New Orleans. My neighbours hated their pork chops which were battered and fried; but I had the pan-seared rainbow trout which was plain, tasty, and a welcomingly modest portion.
Dinner, for the second time, at the Palm Court Jazz Café in New Orleans. You go for the jazz which was indeed excellent (different ensembles), and the menu is restricted. The crawfish in a light curried sauce with rice was pleasantly spiced and light, but my shrimps in a sesame and ginger sauce starter did not live up to its potential. Excellent draught ABITA ale.
The trip had also taken me to the Chimes in Covington for dinner. Sam(antha) Cavall and José Canseco had chargrilled oysters while I had fried catfish on shrimp. I thought that enough, but José insisted that the hush puppies were the best in Louisiana, so we added a couple of portions, and they were amazing. I gilded the lily by cutting mine in half and adding a little butter.
New Orleans saw dinner at the Monteleone where the gumbo is good, and not too salty, while I had red snapper one night and baked redfish with crabmeat the other. Both good, but shrimp and grits for breakfast was better, as was the very juicy steak. Arnaud’s for dinner I found overrated. The bananas foster flambé was excellent, with the ice cream cutting the sweetness, but the veal was too thick and I thought the sauce added little bar a sense of being cloyed. Similarly, Galatoire’s, a well-known New Orleans restaurant, was very poor. Salad Maison undistinguished, my fish was battered despite my asking and being told it would not be, and both my neighbours sent their steaks back as overcooked. When new ones came back, one was deemed inedible. The Mocha Panna Cotta was too sweet and, even allowing for that, mediocre. A meal to miss.
I preferred the light dinner I had while listening at the Palm Court Jazz Café. Similarly, I got a light lunch at Horn’s, a wonderful café with great cocktails and service, where, having seen what others were eating, I asked the waitress to suggest something light. My reward was a modest and perfect portion of rice and beans, topped with cut pepper and accompanied by some cooked plantain. From my visit to New Orleans last November, I can also recommend strongly, dinner at Cane and Table, and the street food at the St Roch Market.
British Library Crime Classics (continued):
Reading for the pandemic
Moving on in this excellent series from John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull to Settling Scores. Sporting Mysteries, a collection of short stories edited by Martin Edwards, is to move from the over-written to the more securely grounded. I like Carr’s locked room mysteries, and his early Paris-set stories, such as It Walks by Night (also in this series), but Castle Skull, with its setting of a castle in the Rhine gorge, the magician owner of which has apparently been murdered, and where a fresh murder in the grand-operatic styles occurs, is overblown and not very well written. Settling Scores is more fun, as Edwards has included a range of sports and a selection of writers, some well-known, such as Doyle, Farjeon, Mitchell, Bruce and Symons, and others who were, and are, less prominent, such as Frederick Webster (who offers a ludicrous opening sentence) and David Winser, or who had become less prominent, such as Ernest Dudley and Gerald Verner.
It is not my part to give plots away, but the impact of sport on health plays a role, as does gambling. Indeed, the deadly nature of the latter takes a central role in Henry Wade’s ‘Four to One – Bar One.’ Sport also becomes a setting for deadly romantic and sexual tensions, as in Bernard Newman’s ‘Death at the Wicket’ and Celia Fremlin’s excellent ‘Dangerous Sport.’ Julian Symons’ ‘The Wimbledon Mystery’ is uncharacteristically poor, but very interesting in its Cold War setting. Inheritance is an issue, as in Michael Gilbert’s ‘The Drop Shot’ and Leon Bruce’s ‘I, Said the Sparrow.’ There is discussion of the changing nature of sport, as with Webster’s ‘The Double Problem.’
Thus, the reader, yet again with a Martin Edwards collection, is offered enough variety, across a rich and a generally sparkling palette, to please themselves whatever their preferences. The short story read in a sequence of different authors provides a range of characterisation, settings, motives and plots, and that proves particularly welcome. Yet again, all power to the excellent British Library Crime Classics.
PS Now starting the latest in the series, Carol Carnac’s Crossed Skis. An Alpine Mystery (1952). Most of the 71 detective novels of Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958), who also wrote as E.C.R. Lorac, have been unfairly neglected. She published from 1931 when The Murder in the Burrows appeared. The British Library series already has her Bats in the Belfry, Murder by Matchlight, Murder in the Mill-Race, Fire in the Thatch and, most recently, Fell Murder, and they each ably capture a sense of place, variously for London, Devon and rural Yorkshire. Death on the Oxford Road was republished by Swallowtail in 2000. Rivett is an author I thoroughly recommend.]
The ‘Head of the Family’
Most people growing up think their family normal and everyone else’s a bit of a mystery, and I was no different. Being asked by Pippa to reflect on family history has made me think a bit about it, and the past concept of the head of the family is my topic today. It was not to the fore with my father’s line which was not at all clannish. His mother had died at 46, his father had remarried, and I sense that there were stepmother issues. I remember the old man, a WWI veteran who did not talk about the war (the family story – I have no idea if true – was that he had lied about his age to sign up young). He was the old fashioned Labour patriot now almost totally gone (my father was lumbered with the middle name Alfred as a result), and, besides his job and having eight children, was a small-time Labour politician. He died when I was young, but I remember him being nice to me and taking me to see Arsenal, of which he was a great fan, play Nottingham Forest. I was instructed to cheer when an Arsenal player fouled a Nott Forest one, and boo when vice versa.
My father had three sisters all of whom married Americans and went to the USA and I did not see them until my first visit there. Of the five boys, the eldest was killed in WWII, another died youngish, Frank went to Australia and I only met him once, and Len went to Southend, a more crowded and cooler version of Australia. I remember going to Southend quite a lot – aside from Len’s family, there were two maiden aunts who treated me, Vivienne, and Stephen, very fondly. Len and Cyril had mixed relations, which got better as they got older. Len was much more exuberant and lively than Cyril, and better with people (a bit like Stephen and me); and I think Cyril at times found that disconcerting, but they saw more of each other with age. The Blacks I now realise just took it as an absolute given that they had talents. In Len’s case, aside from his work, he was a painter producing popular work which he used to sell to finance school fees, as well as smaller paintings that were more individual and searching: three of the latter he gave me hang in the hall at home. I liked him, his wife and his daughters, and enjoyed going to Southend, although not Southend itself.
On my maternal grandfather’s side, there was a ‘Head,’ my ‘Uncle Jayo.’ Like Indians, we, as children, were presented with all adults, relatives or otherwise, as uncle or auntie. In fact ‘Jayo’ was uncle to my grandfather who was in awe of him. I remember a man of 94 who was small, wizened, but able to walk quite a lot. When we spoke, he was not harsh, and indeed soft of voice, but I cannot remember any particular twinkle. He said little, but his remarks were regarded as of note as when he chided my father for giving Stephen a Havana at a family occasion on the grounds that if you started on a Havana you would have nothing subsequently to which to look forward.
On my maternal grandmother’s side, the pity was that she received love and affection rather than power. Rose was a lovely woman, as I mentioned in the preface to one of my books. As a child, I would look forward to the holiday fortnight I would stay with her and her husband, Phil, in their flat next to the park in Hendon. Rufus went with me – he was fine on the bus: we sat on the top at the front and looked at the view, though getting up and down the stairs was an issue. In contrast, Rufus hated going anywhere by tube and would stand with his legs locked to give him stability from the vibrations. Rose, who had grown up without any dog, was particularly kind to Rufus, and they got on well. Going meant taking him for long walks in the park, lots of time to read, and play my Avalon Hill game 1914, and lots and lots of well-cooked food: unlike 38 Parkside Drive, my parents’ home, where cooking was not really much on the menu. It was indeed typical there that, when my mother decided to give up sugar that meant we all had to, including Stephen who had a fine collection of sugar wrappers in large part assembled by writing to refineries around the world. What to do with the sugar that continued to arrive inside the wrappers became an issue. It would be poured into Nescafe jars, which were presented to friends. I took several jars with multi-coloured sugar when I went to Cambridge. Rose, who was to be lovely to Sarah, Tim and Pippa, was a thoroughly nice woman who had had a pretty tough life.
Two brothers lived nearby: ‘The Wing Commander’ and ‘The Head.’ ‘The Wing Commander’ was a name used by Rose with some humour because, like the late general in The Importance of Being…, he was not martial; although, unlike the general, that extended to his marital life which was harmonious. A very mild man indeed, he was a dentist, his military ranking arising from war service as a RAF dentist. Quiet man, mild, very nice family, a pleasure to visit.
Alas, that left his ghastly brother, Uncle B, to claim headship. A bright man, he had trained as a doctor and a dentist, then gone into business and made money, deliberately (in the view of relatives around at the time) married money (auntie Mary who I liked but scarcely knew), made more money himself, and, on that basis, thought he had the right to tell others what to do. He was vain, and, when his daughter encountered marital problems, seemed mostly worried that this might endanger his relations with his son-in-law, a well-connected peer. Both of his children were in his shadow.
Cyril disliked him, but the real opposition was Uncle Bernard who despised his unctuous self-righteousness. Highly successful himself as a dealer in scrap-metal (all human life is here; well not all, but certainly a range), Bernard would not defer. Come a (rare) family gathering soonish after my father had died. Now here I should offer a trigger warning, but you know me well enough… I am sitting chatting quietly to my mother (Doreen: I have never called her that, but that is her name). Uncle B’s son Alan sits down next to me and says to my left ear, presumably he thinks as I am now some sort of head of line which a) is not my view or wish and b) is an insult to my mother, ‘My Father wants you to know that he will never forgive Bernard.’ I turn my head, say quietly ‘You can tell your father from me to fuck off,’ and turn back to my mother. That was the last I ever heard from either of them, and, as far as I was concerned and aware, the end of the concept of the head. Good riddance.
My grandparents;’ generation is now all dead, so the following should not cause offence. I stayed some years ago with Charles Doran and his wife Elaine in Greenwich, Connecticut. Charles, the ‘Wing Commander’s’ son, moved to America soon after marrying Elaine, also English, and they have lived there ever since. We had met before in New York, and got on well together. Throwing light on the ‘Head of the Family’ and his Victorian-style hypocrisy, Charles told me that, on the day of his wedding, his father, the ‘Wing Commander,’ had had to make sure that the ‘Head’ left his lover in time to go to his wedding.
My Sister and Tony Blair: The Hidden History
[I asked Vivienne if she would mind this piece, her reply, having read it, ‘Brilliant. Publish,’ and the usual sign-off ‘Fat-fingerly and in haste.’]
It never struck me until recently but I have lived my life with strong women: Doreen (mother), Vivienne (sister), Sarah (wife), Pippa (daughter). Thinking as I take up my biro at an outdoor table in a New Orleans café away from the tourist area (humidity eased by light breeze, high 60s on way to low 80s), the thought lights through my mind as to how far this affected my attitude to women: maybe always expecting to find them articulate, bright and combative, and me responding accordingly.
Anyway, although I used to describe the somewhat reclusive and reserved Vivienne, who does not suffer fools, let alone gladly, as making Greta Garbo look like a positive socialite, some of you will have met her at parties or meals at Baring Crescent (she and her husband Kim have a house at Babbacombe/St Mary Church about 20 miles away), or at parties or dinners after my lectures at the Guildhall.
I am very fond of Vivienne and admire her drive, intelligence and personality. She tells me that as children I splashed her when we were in a paddling pool in the garden, but I cannot recall ever rowing, but then I do not recall rowing with Stephen (our brother) either: birth years are, me 55, Vivienne 57, Stephen 59.
Vivienne is extremely bright. She got five very good A-levels and then took three of the foreign languages and did a trilingual typing and shorthand course, and (typically English) got a job with Penguin in which she needed none of those skills. Like Stephen and our parents, she did not go to university, and indeed is disinclined to hire graduates as employees in her company as she thinks they lack the work-ethic. Married young, she divorced early, and moved into the company, to the top of which she was to rise, an agency handling actors. I am told by actors I have met (it amuses me that they only become interested in the conversation when they discover who my sister is) that she is famous in the field, and with a reputation for fiercely defending the interests of her clients: she has only 100 and apparently many ask her to act for them, only to be turned down. I find it interesting to read or note independent evaluations of people I know (Steve Smith’s ‘triangulation’) and once read a profile of her in a Sunday colour supplement.
We saw relatively little of each other when I lived in the North-East and Tim and Pippa were young, but I used to stay sometimes with her in London and was the sole family member invited to her wedding with Kim: the post-wedding reception was characteristically distinctive. There were eleven of us. We went to a delicatessen on Chiswick High Street, sat at tables outside on the pavement/sidewalk, had an open tab, and sat and all chatted in a very relaxed fashion. A lovely afternoon recalled with the photo of Vivienne and Kim on the drawing-room mantelpiece. I did as instructed and said nothing about the wedding to Doreen: she and Vivienne have poisonous relations, largely because Doreen is would-be very controlling unless kept within limits; indeed they have not spoken I think for nearly a quarter-century.
Moving to Devon in 1996, I came to see much more of Vivienne. By happenstance (to be next to the sea), Vivienne and Kim moved to Torbay, bought a ‘butterfly house’ (an architect of the mid-1960s built several in this style), and Kim, who sold up his graphic design business, lives there all the time, pursuing his hobbies, notably gardening and photography, and looking after the dogs (their ‘children’), while Vivienne spends several days in London working, and comes back for a long weekend. It has been great to have her nearby, I enjoy her astringent, but kind, company: if you are in Vivienne’s circle she is caring without cant; if not, she does not devote over-much time to you, although I notice she has become very popular with those who share the train she regularly takes from Newton Abbot and seems known, with affection, by all the ticket-collectors.
I also take criticism from Vivienne because I know it is based on an understanding of my personality, and on intelligence; characteristics the less blunt Sarah, from a different background, shares in full. Indeed, after a very pleasant lunch with me and Vivienne at the University in 1977 in which she had traced my personality to factors in infancy and childhood, Todd Gray told me that he understood why I am as I am. At the stage when Sarah and I moved to Baring Crescent in 1996 and had a lot of unexpected trouble with the house, I was on the phone with Vivienne and moaned a bit. She crisply asked: ‘What do you want, some money?’ Shocked, I said ‘No, some sympathy.’ Knowing that I have a tendency occasionally to self-pity, she treated this with the contempt I deserved, and indeed I bit on the bullet and got on with life.
So, we are close, and I can be readily assumed to do whatever asked. Very few others would get away with her answer to my request for a lift from Reading to London: context, her production company was shooting a pilot there with Alexi Sayle (it does not translate well), she had got me to take part, and at the end, I ascertained she had a car to take her back to London (like me, Vivienne does not drive, although I did for several years). I had a train ticket, but thought it would be nice to have a chat. A tired Vivienne quite late in the evening said I could have a lift as long as I promised to say absolutely nothing: we had a companionable silence back to London.
Occasion: my office in the Department. Phone: Vivienne who always rightly assumes you know who it is, and who does not go in for small talk, introductions or sign-offs to conversations. Like Cyril, who was very fond of her, and had many similarities, not least a quiet purpose, she is precise, concise and to-the-point, characteristics I greatly admire.
V: ‘I need you to do something for me.’
J: ‘Of course.’
V: ‘Tony Blair [then Prime Minister] has bought a house in Connaught Square. It is out to rent. I need you to rent it for me.’
J: ‘Where would I find the money for that?’
V: ‘[impatience] I would provide it.’
J: ‘Can I ask why?’
V: ‘I intend to film two episodes there’ [my sister owned half the production company that made ‘Bremner, Bird and Fortune’ and Rory Bremner (for Americans: a brilliant comic who did a superb impersonation of Blair) – was one of ‘her’s’ as she refers to those she represents.
J; [For I think the only time in my life] ‘Have you any idea of how much trouble I could get into?’
V: [Realising this means no] Hangs up.
Wonderfully Vivienne: brilliant imagination, enormous fun, and to the point.
Sir Roger Scruton and Conservative Views
The death of Roger Scruton, following swiftly on that of Norman Stone, provides an opportunity to reflect on the state of British Conservatism. Scruton did not greatly contribute to political philosophy in a conventional sense, but he did offer a powerful engagement with aesthetics as a means of assessing and advancing values. He was by no means the only conservative to do so and, in particular, David Watkin (1941-2018), a Cambridge architectural historian, offers a powerful critique of modernism, not least in Morality and Architecture Revisited (2001) and Radical Classicism: The Architecture of Quinlan Terry (2006). In practice, indeed, Scruton was significant in part because he tapped into, indeed helped articulate, a broader current of concern. So also with his interest in past lifestyles, notably hunting. If Scruton took this far further than most who held a commitment to continuity, nevertheless he was able to be more than merely an eccentric precisely because there was a wider concern.
Linking the two, and providing an ideological ballast, was the search for a vision of conservatism that was not simply that of the free market. Indeed, Scruton, like others, felt that the latter represented a form of Liberalism that he distinguished from a Conservatism of cultural weight which, he argued, derived from value and continuity, and not from advantage in the economic (or other) contingencies of the moment.
This approach appears stronger as a result of the growing salience of ‘culture wars’ in the 2010s, notably the late 2010s, and, indeed, Scruton can be seen as an early protagonist in defining an English conservative aspect in this struggle. In that respect, Scruton was different to Stone as the latter was more cosmopolitan in his conservatism, both in terms of his early engagement with Eastern Europe and later with his interest also in Turkey. Scruton also had a strong interest in Eastern Europe, but he was less grounded in its culture than Stone. Both, however, understood that the culture wars in England/Britain took on meaning not only with reference to the trans-Atlantic perspective and context that was so important during the 1980s, not least because of the Thatcher/Reagan relationship, but also against the background of a European culture that had been sundered by totalitarianism and compromised by Modernism and Socialism. Scruton, however, showed almost no interest in history, which was somewhat of a limitation for someone whose mindset was rooted in tradition and continuity.
It is reasonable to ask how far this is helpful at present. To return to the insular, does the future of the British Conservatives depend on their success in handling Brexit (with similar economic issues for Continental states), or will elections at least in part register new political alignments arising from cultural concerns and issues? The Labour Party’s focus in its leadership election of 2020 on the transgender issue suggests the latter, which raises the possibility that Muslim voters, hitherto reluctant to vote Conservative, might do so for cultural reasons in 2024 when the next general election is due.
Certainly, the cultural agenda has an institutional ambit, notably in terms of the BBC and the universities. Although both can be seen as middle-class producer lobbies financed from regressive taxation (licence fee and general taxation respectively) as opposed to user fees, there are clearly politicised dimensions, as discussed, for example, in Robin Aitken’s The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda (2018). The BBC’s favourite minority is certainly the London progressive middle class and it is easily manipulated accordingly by vested interests that play well with it. In contrast, the majority who fund it are poorly represented, a point made abundantly clear in the treatment of Conservatives. Over 40% of the voters who voted in the last two general elections did so for them but you would find that hard to appreciate if following the BBC or university curricula. There is a loop back to Scruton with the limited commitment of the BBC to programming higher culture in primetime. The BBC has always had a liberal bias, but we are now in a ‘culture war’ and it quite visibly favours one side over the other, both in storylines and in tone.
Ironically, however, there is an approach that Scruton, with his concern about market mechanisms and ‘majoritarian’ views would have been cautious about adopting: the insulation from market discipline registered via consumer preferences that other media organisations must live or die by means that, as viewing habits have changed, the BBC looks outdated in terms of its output, claims, financing and delivery mechanism. A similar debate could be held about universities. If Johnson is unwilling to wage the culture war with vigour, especially within key institutions, and in pushing bac against those who wish to hunt for heretics, it may be too late ten years hence.
Clearly conservatism relates to more than consideration of rivals, but the nature and character the public debate is significant. On the personal level, I feel that there is a contrast between an English/British conservatism able and willing to engage with a changing society, and a more ‘ultra approach.’ The former ranges (and this is a far from complete list) from support for Catholic Emancipation in the early nineteenth, via ‘Villa Toryism’ later that century, to the ‘Bolt from Empire’ and the Thatcherite engagement with the ‘C2s’ in the twentieth, and the more recent determination in the 2010s variously to offer a Broad Church social vision, a Conservatism that can breach the ‘Red Wall,’ and an engagement with Patriotic continuities. These are not merely political expedients or rhetorical devices, but, instead, representations of the complex varieties of Conservative thought and politics. As a result, it is not particularly helpful to seek an ‘ur’ or fundamental conservatism, and that is even less pertinent if the diverse national and chronological context is to be considered. This makes it difficult to move beyond a national context.
In the case of Britain, the role of contingency is particularly apparent in the case of the changes arising from the Blair government. The ‘New Labour, New Britain’ theme was linked to an active hostility toward history. Kenneth Baker’s plan for a Museum for National History for which he had raised seed-corn money and for which I was a trustee, was killed stone-dead, as was Baker’s plan for a history section in the Millennium Dome. More serious was the constitutional revisionism pushed through with little thought of possible consequences and with scant attempt to ground it in any historical awareness. There was also an eagerness to apologise about the past.
Many of the consequences were to be seen in the 2010s, not least a curious ignorance about constitutionalism, and a lack on the part of many of any real interest in a concept of national interest, let alone a capacity to ground it in an historical perspective. In what passes for the educational work this had been related to a ‘decolonisation’ of the syllabus which in practice represents a faddish and rootless presentism that has made more History courses follow those of English Literature in being undeserving of serious attention. That, at the same time, there has been an interest in fluidity in all forms of categorisation, most controversially that of gender, is not axiomatically part of this politicised postmodernism but, in practice, overlaps with it. Again, conservatism in part is active in this context in advancing concepts of humane scepticism against the determination of assert and enforce that in effect are new regulations on behaviour, speech, deportment, and, in addressing ‘bias,’ thought. This scepticism offers a way to advance a conservatism based, instead, on freedom, debate, pluralism, and an acceptance that the very concept of value should be ground in a relativist willingness to accept contrary views, interests and preferences. Both democracy and capitalism rest on those assumptions. So does a classic English/British conservatism. That this is different to other conservative traditions does not make it better or worse, but the difference underlines the problem with having any unitary concept of conservatism, its past or its future. Indeed, this pluralism is part of the very strength of conservatism, as it can more readily adapt to local circumstances.
Politics of the Modern World (forthcoming in The Critic online.