Sunday, 15 May 2016

D Day AD 43, Portrait Of An Age and the death of General Gordan

Pan Edition 1961
I have begun re-reading The Great Invasion by Leonard Cottrell.

It was first published in 1958 and describes the Roman invasion and conquest of Britain.*

Now Mr Cottrell had himself been a war correspondent and this book was written only 13 years after the end of the last world war and must have had a real resonance.

“Among the readers of this book may be some who have known what it is like to wade on to an enemy beach under heavy fire. 

Others may have commanded troops in such actions, and experienced that nerve racking moment when all hangs in the balance, when the defenders have the advantage of protected positions, and the attackers have not had time to establish their fighting formations.” 

And in quoting Julius Caesar’s account of the military expedition to Britain in 55 BC Mr Cottrell observed that it “could almost describe an attack on the Normandy beaches or a Japanese island in the Pacific.”

So  there is a directness and a sense of authenticity about the account which other much later books on the subject do not give me.

Michael and Susan Henchard artist Robert Barnes, 1886
Now we all have our favourite books, the ones we return to time and time again to the point that we can  quote back at the author the opening lines or know just what awaits the leading characters just around the next page.

I never tire of those first few lines from A Tale of Two Cities and the sinister and chilling warning at the start of The War of The Worlds

In the same way I am still moved to indignation when the drunken  Michael Henchard sells his wife and daughter at the beginning of Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge.

But history books are different, and mainly because the scholarship moves on and what was fresh and new is at best old and tired and all too often has been proved wrong by new discoveries.

Some of course survive because of the style, wit and elegance of the writing.
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s social history and Young’s Portrait of An Age are still a joy to read.

I do not think you can better the opening of Young’s Portrait of An Age, **

O.U.P., edition, 1960
“A BOY born in 1810, in time to have seen the rejoicings after Waterloo and the canal boats carrying the wounded to hospital, to remember the crowds cheering for Queen Caroline, and to have felt that the light had gone out of the world when Byron died, entered manhood with the ground rocking under his feet as it had done in 1789.  

Paris had risen against the Bourbons; Bologna against the Pope, Poland against Russia, the Belgians against the Dutch.  

Even in well drilled Germany little dynasts were shaking on their thrones and Niebuhr,*** who had seen one world revolution, sickened and died from fear of another.  

At home, forty years of Tory domination were ending in panic and dismay; Ireland, unappeased by Catholic Emancipation was smouldering with rebellion; from Kent to Dorset the skies were a light with burning ricks.”

And I still enjoy  the closing lines of the essay on the Death of General Gordan by
Lytton Strachey in his Eminent Victorians which having surveyed Gordan’s life and the campaign to avenge his death concludes that “General Gordan had always been a contradictious person – even a little off his head, perhaps, though a hero; and besides he was no longer there to contradict .... At any rate it all ended very happily – in a slaughter of twenty thousand Arabs, a vast addition to  the British Empire, and a step in the Peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring.”****

Penguin Classics, 1989
Set against the measured, and dry writings of so many here is a sweeping comment on British imperialism and a cynical examination of the later Victorian period.

All of which is a long way I know from D-Day AD 43 and the great Roman Invasion.

On the other hand these are the sorts of history books which capture the imagination and want you to read more leading you on to even greater study, if only to know whether Lytton Strachey was fair or Mr Cotteril accurate.

And of course are as entertaining as the those first few lines from A tale of Two Cities and the sinister and chilling warning at the start of The War of The Worlds*****

Pictures covers from Pan Books, The Mayor of Casterbridge, the O.U.P. and Penguin Classics

*The Great Invasion, Leonard Cottrell, 1958

**Portrait of an Age, G.M. Young, 1936

***Barthold George Niebuhr, August 27 1776 – January 2  1831, was a Danish-German statesman and historian who became Germany's leading historian of Ancient Rome and a founding father of modern scholarly historiography.

****Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey, 1918

*****“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

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