Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

11:34 am

Troublesome Young Men

Another book that I just finished is Troublesome Young Men. The subtitle sums up the entire story: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England.

I had never given much thought to how Churchill came to power in World War II. I knew about Neville Chamberlain (he of appeasement, Munich and "peace in our time" fame), but it had never really occurred to me to wonder how England got from Chamberlain to Churchill. If you had asked me, I probably would have speculated that there had been an election, without ever realizing that I was thinking in American terms.

As I said, the subtitle gives the whole story: Chamberlain and Churchill were both members of the same party, and Chamberlain was ousted by rebels within that party who were dissatisfied with his appeasement policy and later lackadaisical approach to prosecuting the war. For all that the outcome is known, the author manages a real nailbiter here.

The author doesn’t have much fondness for Churchill, whom she depicts as being ungrateful and even hostile to the Conservatives who broke party ranks to bring him to power and stubbornly loyal to Chamberlain even after becoming Prime Minister. She brings into the light names I had previously not known, or known only in different contexts: Harold Macmillan (who would be Prime Minister in the 60s), Leo Amery, Alfred Duff Cooper, Robert Boothby, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, Harold Nicholson, and the author’s particular hero, Ronald Cartland.

And while the author doesn’t particular like Churchill, she reserves her greatest scorn for Chamberlain. He rejected any opposition to his policies as "disloyalty" (gee, where have we heard that one recently), punished party members who disagreed with him, and criminally failed to defend Britain’s interests.

Olson brilliantly violates Philip Roth’s dictum that "History is where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable" and makes it clear just how far from inevitable were Churchill’s rise to power and Hitler’s subsequent defeat.

11:03 am

Brideshead Revisited

I made the mistake a couple of months ago of watching the new film version of Brideshead Revisited. It was perfectly dreadful. Now I have to admit that it was very lush and beautifully (and expensively) filmed, and the performances weren’t bad.

But the story! It was as though they were filming not the book, but a Cliff’s Notes version of the book written by someone who hadn’t actually read the book and didn’t understand what it was about. If it hadn’t pretended to be Brideshead Revisited, I probably wouldn’t have hated it as much as I did. I still wouldn’t have liked it: the story didn’t hang together well.

The only good thing to come out of watching that dreadful movie was that it prompted me to go back and read the book, since the movie had left me all confused about what was and wasn’t in the book.

The book was, I found, even better than I had remembered. When I read it the first time, I was in my early 20s, like the protaganists at the start of the book; now I’m older than they are at the end. The first time, I was mainly entranced by the romance and luxury; this time, I noticed more the melancholy and even pain. I hadn’t been sensitive to how very Catholic it was that first time either; I think perhaps I just took Catholicism for granted. (I frequently have trouble even now discerning what others describe as "Catholic" themes, since they just seem so very ordinary to me.)

It’s an amazingly graceful book (and I use "graceful" in both senses of the word).

1:16 pm

The Tyrannicide Brief

I’ve recently finished reading this account of John Cooke, the lawyer who prosecuted the case against Charles I, leading to the King’s execution.

All I really knew about the English Civil War was the description from 1066 and All That of it as an "utterly memorable Struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right and Repulsive)". I had a vague notion that Charles I had been executed for denying Parliament its perogatives, but nothing more specific than that, and I was always a little unclear on how Charles II had managed to restore the monarchy. And while I knew that anti-Catholic sentiment had been strong in England in this era, I never really appreciated just how deep the religious divide had gone between Protestants.

The author, Geoffrey Robertson, tries to make the case that the execution of Charles I was entirely justified, while the execution of John Cooke, his prosecuting attorney, was procedurely flawed and therefore unjustified. However, the flaws he admits to in the case against the King are, to my mind at any rate, at least as serious as the problems in Cooke’s case. I came away from the book holding the opinion that the two executions were equally unjustified.

Nonetheless Robertson does succeed in painting a portrait of an intelligent, courageous and God-fearing man who made admirable efforts to improve the practice of law in Great Britain, and I do recommend it.

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