This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Simon Heffer’s great virtue as an historian is that he attends to the voices we should not necessarily expect. A good example is found in his coverage of the Munich crisis, when the British were contemplating what Neville Chamberlain and the diplomats were doing: on the one hand, buying peace; on the other, caving in to Hitler’s bullying and betraying the people of Czechoslovakia.
Naturally, Heffer tells us about the conversations in high places and the (sometimes shockingly complacent) views of Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister: “These dictators are men of moods. Catch them in the right mood and they will give you anything you ask for.”
Heffer also turns to the diaries of the eccentric novelist John Cowper Powys. Few today have heard of, let alone read, Powys, whose great novels set in the West Country are rightly saluted in this book. Heffer does not just whet our appetites for Powys’s superb novel Wolf Solent (1929). He also quotes the turmoil in Powys’ mind, revealed in his diary, since returning to live in his native land after 30 years in American exile.
On 17 September 1938, he wrote: “I thought of the dangers of war all the time and of the partisan ideology which is the Curse of our age. I thought how human beings are roused so much easier to Hate and Destruction than to friendliness and construction.”
His own views were not straightforward. “When I think of the war as just solely a means of crushing humbling and humiliating Hitler and Mussolini I feel a secret longing that it should break out! That is the feeling of most liberals, radicals, socialists and communists! We feel much hatred and fear of Hitler and dread of having to say Heil Hitler! or be tortured to death with every shameful insult by these waspish and cruel young illiterates who are the heart of Fascism that secretly Long for War.”
This outburst brought him to a more rational conclusion. “It is only with our reason that we … admire our splendid old Chamberlain who has enough sense and reason, and also I suspect a certain kind of vivid imagination, beyond ours, to realise what a War would really be and to want to postpone or stop it at all costs.”
A day or two later, however, Powys met a neighbour in Wales, a dairy farmer, who believed “we ought to follow Winston Churchill, for it takes a bully to stand up to a bully”.
For years, Heffer has been chronicling our island story since the accession of Queen Victoria. He has also been patiently editing the millions of words of Chips Channon’s diaries. It is hard to imagine anyone better qualified to tell the story of the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of his book is that he largely endorses Powys’ high view of Chamberlain — “a really great man”. He points out that, as Chancellor in Baldwin’s governments, Chamberlain increased taxes to pay for an increase in armaments.
In 1933, Churchill said that Britain should seek “to live our life in our island without being drawn into the perils of the continent of Europe”. It was Chamberlain, a year later, who said, “I hate Nazi-ism and all its works with a greater loathing than ever.” Whilst Clement Attlee opposed any spending on armaments until war was actually declared, Chamberlain was building up an arsenal of funds and weapons to resist Hitler if the worst came to the worst.
Mind you, Chamberlain was not always consistent. He dismissed some of the stories coming out of Germany as “Jewish communist propaganda”. Heffer says that “there is no evidence Chamberlain was anti-semitic”, but the reader wants to add — “apart from this remark you have just quoted”.
Given his pro-Chamberlain stance, and the fact that he wants to include so much else, it is not surprising that Churchill plays a smaller part in his story than in other books about this period. Letters for the Ages, a brief selection of the great man’s letters, does reveal the contrast between the two figures.
Whereas one contemporary called Chamberlain “cold and clammy as a wet trout”, Churchill emerges from his letters, as from all personal accounts of the man, as a warm, passionate individual. “The War is a terrible search of character,” he wrote to his wife Clemmie in 1916. “One must try to plod and persevere and absolutely stamp self out.”
He gloriously failed in this endeavour, but — what a self! The good thing about the selection is that it records Churchill’s flaws, as a father, as a war leader, as a political colleague, as a husband, as well as his virtues.
“Man is spirit,” he was said to have declared at a Cabinet meeting towards his close of office in the 1950s, when he retired to spend more time with his animals — his budgerigar Toby, his poodles Rufus I and Rufus II, as well as the fish in his pond at Chartwell, his black swans and his pigs.
What stands out from his letters is his candour. He knew as a nine-year-old boy that he was a tiresome child. To his American mother he could write, “You must be happy without me. It must be heaven upon earth.” At 23, he wrote to her, “There is no doubt that we are both, you and I, equally thoughtless — spendthrift and extravagant.”
In 1935, he could describe the situation in Europe with painful accuracy and honesty: “Germany is now the greatest armed power in Europe.” Unlike his friend Lord Rothermere, however, he was confident that Britain could build up enough spirit to resist Hitler.
Although he does not play as large a role in Heffer’s book as he might have hoped, I can imagine Churchill admiring Heffer’s genial approach. Unlike so many of his British contemporaries, Heffer likes his fellow countrymen and countrywomen and sees them as humorous, tolerant and sensible.
It is difficult for a reviewer to do the book justice since it fills over 800 pages and covers everything from the origins of the BBC (he is superb in his assessment of John Reith), to the part played by women in sport, especially tennis; from the great days of English music — Vaughan Williams and Elgar, who are (just) alive and composing during these decades, to the postcards of Donald McGill and the end-of-pier humour of Max Miller.
We are reminded of the films — Leslie Howard as the Scarlet Pimpernel, Robert Donat in Hitchcock’s superb The 39 Steps — and of the changing face of Britain: the millions of houses, the miles of tarmacadamed roads that wove old England’s winding sheet. The grisly story of Ireland is told with the Unionist bias you would expect from the biographer of J. Enoch Powell.
He is surprisingly appreciative of John Maynard Keynes, and he is generous to the memory of Ramsay Macdonald. We watch the department stores Derry & Toms and Barkers erect their superb premises, and stroll down Fleet Street to admire the Daily Express building, or Charles Elcock’s great Telegraph building where the young Heffer cut his teeth as a journalist.
Heffer’s eccentricities of manner will delight those, such as myself, who have read his previous books. In the middle of a passage of Professor Heffer’s prose, though, we occasionally find a sentence penned by the butler in Downton Abbey: “The great modernist writers were also making their name; but whether the reader sought the conscious intellectualism of Mrs Woolf … ”
Whenever she is mentioned, Virginia is called “Mrs Woolf”, though E.M. Forster is not “Mr Forster”, nor is Aldous Huxley “Mr Huxley”. It is difficult to know whether Heffer is serious in his championing of the work of the deplorable poet Humbert Wolfe. Likewise, it is difficult to know what to make of his praising Walter Greenwood’s pedestrian Love on the Dole (1933) at the expense of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).
There are some good jokes, though. When he summarises R.H. Tawney’s money-hating worldview and its influence on the Labour movement, he quotes Tawney’s description of those who accumulated wealth for its own sake. “Like the poets in the Inferno they are punished by the attainment of their desires.” Heffer adds, “It was a punishment many were ready to accept.”
In these dark days, it is cheering to read an historian with so sunny a view of our country, its past and its essential nature. After the General Strike of 1926, Heffer concludes, “Thus, the British way of life continued after all, unBolshevised and in its own sweet fashion.” When Mosleyite fascists arose, “the consensus was that Britain should use moderate methods to get out of trouble”.
He depicts an England (Scotland and Wales scarcely get mentioned) strangely at ease with itself, even given the disruption of the General Strike, the Slump, the Abdication, the collapse of some of its major industries, and its involvement in two devastating world wars. Churchill’s saying — “Keep Buggering On” — seems to be the motto, though the title chosen is more euphonious. This is a superb book, and it will surely be seen as the definitive history of the pre-war years.
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