Wednesday 13 October 2010
The boulders of Sisyphus
Do you ever feel a sense of sinking despair looking at the constant flow of newly published books? I certainly do. I keep saying to myself: resist the temptation, ignore the review pages in the newspapers and magazines, don’t open that copy of The Literary Review or The London Review of Books; you know exactly what’s going to happen! And it does, it invariably does. It’s then that the warning of Ecclesiastes whispers in my ear;
And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
In much study there is indeed weariness of the flesh. But I have to read the literature; I have to keep abreast of new developments in my area of research. The problem is I almost always get diverted by books that have nothing at all to do with the seventeenth century; books that simply touch on subjects that interest me, and recently they been rolling down the mountain like boulders in an avalanche, things I simply must read, but nothing lightweight, no, all heavy tomes.
So, darting back and forth to Amazon, I now have several new publications staring at me in silent reproach, waiting impatiently for their turn to be sifted through my mind. There is Crimea- the Last Crusade (608 pages) by Orlando Figes; Looking for Trouble (478 pages) by Virginia Cowles; Super Mac: the Life of Harold Macmillan (896 pages) by D. R. Thorpe; The Burma Campaign (544 pages) by Frank McLynn and State of Emergency – the Way we were: Britain 1970-1974 (768 pages) by Dominic Sandbrook. This is before I add the novels brought to my attention by other bloggers, which include Andersonville by Kantor McKinlay, a sylph-like seven hundred and sixty eight pages! How I envy Sisyphus; he had only one boulder to roll up his hill!
I try so hard to be disciplined, to be a stern mistress- “Wait. Don’t be impatient. I’ll get around to each of you – eventually.” But some of them plead so hard. For me it’s always a mistake to just taste, to get a flavour; for a taste almost invariably turns into a gorge. But Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the early 1970s looked at me with such forlorn appeal; I simply could not help myself.
I’ve advanced rapidly through a hundred pages of a book that attracted some really impressive reviews; I intend to add my own when I’ve finished. I can understand why it’s been so well-received: what I’ve read so far is quite excellent. As a social and political history it proceeds so well, written by a man who has complete command of such a wide range of sources and subjects. In a hundred pages he has given me greater insight to the premiership of Edward Heath than Phillip Ziegler, Heath’s official biographer, did in almost seven times as many.
I now begin to understand the full tragedy of Heath. I will say more about this soon, but to give you a flavour I think the years from 1970 to 1974 stand comparison in British history with the four-year period from 1910 to 1914, summed up so well by George Dangerfield in the classic The Strange Death of Liberal England. If I were to write a book about the Heath period I think I may very well call it The Strange Death of Consensus Britain.
Before I leave you I must mention one small item of information in Sandbrook’s book that made me laugh out loud; indeed, it did (I’ve written Ha! Ha! Ha! in the margin to mark the occasion). It concerns the proposed closure of loss-making shipyards on the River Clyde in 1971. Rather than accept this, the workers, led by one Jimmy Reid, organised an occupation of the shipyards which eventually forced the government to back down.
During the height of the dispute criticism was lodged against the government for its perceived callous indifference. At one point Heath, a keen sailor, took a break to participate in the Admiral’s Cup race. Harold Wilson, leading the Labour opposition, saw an opportunity, my, did he see an opportunity. He would sail a boat up the Clyde as a gesture of solidarity with the beleaguered workers to contrast with Heath’s jaunt. Not just that, but he intended to do so in style!
Wilson was enrolled as an Elder Brother of Trinity House, the national lighthouse authority, an honorary title accorded to all former prime ministers. This gave him the right to wear the uniform, which he intended to do on his banana-boat voyage. As Sandbrook says, the spectacle of the Leader of the Opposition sailing up the Clyde dressed as lighthouse keeper really would have been worth seeing. Sadly, he was dissuaded by Tony Benn, a leading left-winger in the Shadow Cabinet, who noted in his diary that “my contempt for Harold, which has been pretty high this week, reached a peak.” Oh, if only he had kept his mouth shut. But that was something Benn could never do.
I have to leave you now; the boulders are waiting. :-)