Review of Reto Suter's Political Utopias at the Time of the Revolution Debate in England, 1789-1796
Political Utopias at the Time of the Revolution Debate in England, 1789-1796 Reto Suter (Peter Lang, 2012)
The English response to the French Revolution was always characterised by controversy. On the one hand, especially before 1793, liberal and reformist opinion welcomed the fall of the Bastille and the moves towards a constitutional monarchy. Many saw the events unfolding in France as an historical parallel to England's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-1689. Others viewed the developments across the Channel with great apprehension and feared a Gallican descent into anarchy or despotism.
Reto Suter, who wrote his graduate thesis at Zurich, sets out to examine the English debate on the French Revolution through political utopias published in London between 1789 and 1796. His great concern is to place these works in the wider context of English political discourse of that era. He devotes considerable attention to the writings of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke who respectively represent the best-known proponents of the radical, pro-French Revolution perspective and the hostile, conservative viewpoint. Suter goes further and provides a good analysis of the ideas of other, contemporary thinkers now largely forgotten except by specialist historians of this period: Richard Price, James Mackintosh, Arthur Young, Joseph Priestley and even the self-proclaimed religious prophet of the new age, Richard Brothers.
These authors addressed important issues facing their contemporaries: the right of a people to choose their rulers, the idea of popular resistance to authority, corruption in politics, social equality, hereditary government, the political impact of private property, and the relative places of commerce and agriculture in an economy. They believed variously that they were living at the dawn of a new age of prosperity and enlightenment or, alternatively, a new dark age of poverty and despotism.
This era, unfortunately, was not productive of large numbers of utopian works. As Suter points out, the motivation to express a political agenda through utopian literature may be weak in an age of revolution (pages 20 and 165). The outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793 brought censorship to political publishing, and this may have been a further constraint. In the period under consideration, the author finds only seven political utopias that meet his criteria. Three of them are anonymous, and this limits contextual analysis.
The unknown author of A Trip to the Island of Equality…. (1792) warns readers of the disastrous consequences of putting the new egalitarian doctrines into practice. All the other utopias examined by Suter present attacks on the contemporary state of affairs in England and mostly, but not entirely, endorse French political innovations.
Those of William Godwin (Political Justice ) and Thomas Spence (The Marine Republic and A Further Account of Spensonia [both 1794]) identify private property as a major source of society's problems and are better known to scholars of political ideas. Suter rightly identifies Godwin's work as the most influential in the broader history of ideas, as it is sometimes seen as a basic anarchistic statement. Less well-known is the blueprint for an egalitarian society written by the London physician William Hodgson, The Commonwealth of Reason (1795). Thomas Northmore' s Memoirs of Planetes, or a Sketch of the Laws and Manners of Makar (1795) is a literary utopia which, although influenced by Godwin's ideas, is quite moderate in its reform proposals. Two other anonymous works, Voyage to the Moon Strongly Recommended to All Lovers of Real Freedom (1793) and Modern Gulliver's Travels (1796), are heavy-handed satires on political corruption in 1790s England, lacking the sophisticated rationalist proposals to be found in Godwin, Spence and Hodgson.
Suter has certainly met his objective of bringing attention to these often neglected works and placing them in the context of the English revolution debate of the 1790s (pages 315-317). The problem with this book lies in its basic structure. In a 317-page text, it takes the author the first 178 pages to set out the background, both historical and theoretical, to his study. When he presents his utopian texts for analysis there are only seven, accounting for less than half the book.
Somehow the book needed to be radically restructured before its publication: the long introductory contextualization section could have been cut down by avoiding repetition, and the criteria for selecting utopian texts could have been broadened both qualitatively and chronologically. The author excludes, for example, James Parkinson's An Account of some Peculiar Manners and Customs of the People of Bull-Land, or The Island of Contradictions (1795). Widening the study's time-frame would have taken in more utopias of the era. Suter does this to a limited extent by studying a few utopias written a few years before 1789 and soon after 1796. Why not simply open up the subject to the whole era from, say, 1780 to 1800?
This book contains much interesting material and sound analysis of a neglected topic. Readers may find, however, that the preamble leading up to the author's main focus is long and somewhat daunting.--Fred Donnelly
Review of The Letters of John Lennon, ed. Hunter Davies
The Letters of John Lennon Ed. Hunter Davies (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012)
This October Mark Lewisohn's new biography of The Beatles will finally make its appearance. Having already achieved legendary status amongst aficionados due to the number of years that Mr Lewisohn has been working on the project and its alleged 'definitive' scope (not to mention the number of times that the author has delayed publication in his quest to 'do the job properly'), The Beatles -All These Years: Volume One: Tune In will be the first of three weighty tomes. Collectively they will trace the complete history of 'four lads who shook the world' and may well become sacred text for Beatlemaniacs across the globe. The first volume alone weighs in at eight hundred pages (or eighteen hundred pages for the extended special edition) and covers the origins of the group and their apprentice years in Liverpool and Hamburg. Happy days for all lovers of the mop tops, then. To which those annoying heretics at the back of the room, might respond - yes, but why? Why do we need yet another account of the Fabs' rise? Hasn't every last millisecond of their time together been documented and dissected already? What else is there left to say? Surely we all know the basic story, while, for those who seek full-on immersion in Beatles lore, there are enough books, films, plays and websites out there already to last the most obsessive fan a lifetime.
Perhaps so--and yet The Beatles continue to fascinate and, more importantly for Mr Lewisohn's publishers, Little Brown, they continue to sell. That's why, when it finally appears, the book will be a sure-fire best seller and more than recompense Little Brown for all the patience that they have shown the author over the years. In the meantime, ahead of this much-anticipated epic's arrival, what else is there kicking around which might temporarily satisfy the perennial craving for 'new Beatles product'? Well, why not try The John Lennon Letters, edited by Hunter Davies? Containing some two hundred and eighty five entries, this is not only a swathe of letters written by Lennon from the age of eleven onwards, but also a varied selection of other assorted notes, scraps and associated ephemera which cumulatively amount to some sort of modern-day reliquary. "Reliquary? Surely not! After all, it's only a book." Yes, but it really does feel at times as if Thompson has approached the project under the impression that anything bearing Lennon's handwriting is worthy of veneration, particularly when, for instance, the reader is presented with his scribbled note, aged fourteen, to a relative informing her that he has borrowed his cousin's bike. Want to see John's letter to George Harrison's mother, written in best Goon-speak, his response to a fan's questionnaire from 1963 (favourite food - cornflakes and jelly), or even his brief apology to a waitress whom he had drunkenly abused in an L.A. nightclub during his mid-seventies 'Lost Weekend' period? They're all here, as are a mixture of Lennon's political musings, bad-tempered letters to the press, and hazy postcards to an assortment of friends and family.
As hagiographic as all this might seem, the book also demonstrates how fascinatingly protean Lennon could be in his dealings with people. Unlike McCartney who has, in the main, preserved a good-natured, guarded composure over the years, a good deal of Lennon's charm derived from the fact that he quite openly dealt with his fame as the mood took him. Like the rest of us, sometimes he was on good form and sometimes he wasn't: one day the witty scourge of stifling convention, the next a vainglorious loud-mouth, and in between (as quite a few of these letters show) a reasonably pleasant, ordinary bloke caught up in extraordinary circumstances. We go through the normal chronology - early days, Beatlemania, psychedelia, Apple, the band's messy break-up, the years of political activism, house-husband 'retirement,' and the abrupt full stop that was Double Fantasy. Along the way, some of the more interesting items are those which sit either side of the full-on Beatles maelstrom. So, for instance, from the early sixties, besides the ever-present schoolboy doodles of which Lennon seems never to have tired, there are a selection of letters written to friends and fans from Hamburg that give a visceral sense of the chaotic stamina and resilient buffoonery which fuelled the band's early ambition. In amongst all this breathlessly scribbled half-nonsense, however, is the odd remark providing a glimpse of that underlying melancholy which was so an integral an aspect of Lennon's creative talent. Even if the saga of his childhood traumas has become somewhat wearily familiar, a line from a letter that Lennon wrote to Stuart Sutcliffe in 1961 in which he states that 'I can't remember anything without a sadness so deep that it hardly becomes known to me' does, in its heartfelt immediacy, bring the reader up short with the realisation that, despite his subsequent fame and fortune, this was an individual beset by a profound unhappiness.
Skip forward through the world-conquering years of the mid-sixties, which Davies mostly charts with examples of Christmas cards and the odd jokey communiqué, and we find a Lennon who seemed, by his late twenties, to have drifted into something of an aimless existence, rattling around his Surrey mansion with more money and drugs than he knew what to do with. As far as his letter-writing habits went, with The Beatles’ touring days over, Lennon was free to compose longer, more thoughtful replies to various correspondents than hitherto. Not only that but, in what seems to have been an occasional habit that he maintained for the rest of his life, Lennon would occasionally pluck a letter from the piles of correspondence that he regularly received and astound an unsuspecting fan with a direct response to their enquiry. In one example from 1967, a schoolboy attending Quarry Bank High School, Lennon’s old alma mater, wrote to ask him about the background to some of The Beatles’ songs. Lennon’s response is chatty and informative without a trace of condescension, as if he is writing to a younger brother with whom he wants to share reminiscences. Of course, the flip side to this kind of openness was that Lennon was just as likely to send a stinging rebuke, couched in the same candid style, to anyone who had gone to the trouble of sending him a nasty or critical letter. How unconstrained such behaviour now seems, compared to the brand-optimised media hoops that today would separate a star of Lennon’s magnitude from his public. On the other hand, the need felt by our current celebrity elite to protect themselves with a smokescreen of PR obfuscation and heightened security vetting is perhaps, to some extent, a legacy of Lennon’s tragically mistaken belief that, despite his massive fame, he was safe to walk the streets like the rest of us.
Be that as it may, our modern world now seems a far cry from the tale of Mr Bagguley from Derbyshire who, in 1971, wrote a letter to the Sunday Times, deploring the effect that too much TV was having on children's reading skills. Over in New York, Lennon, who was not mentioned in the letter at all but who was a voracious newspaper reader, was soon at his typewriter composing an unsolicited riposte to Mr Bagguley extolling the educational benefits of Sesame Street. It must have been quite a strange moment when that letter came through the door in Derbyshire one morning ('Anything the matter, dear?' 'I think I've just been ticked off by John Lennon'). The letter was subsequently framed and given pride of place on Mr Bagguley's wall.
When he wasn't waylaying fans and innocent newspaper correspondents with his observations, Lennon was often busy firing off a selection of musings to various journalists, musicians and others within his extended circle of show-biz associates. In many of these examples one senses a more egotistically self-indulgent Lennon stretching his wings, asserting his status as an ex-Beatle who was still, not least in his own estimation, leader of the pack. Life for him and Yoko in the early seventies seems to have been a whirl of plane journeys, studio sessions and get-togethers with the hip and famous, evidence of which is seen in the trail of frequently pontifical and occasionally caustic correspondence that Lennon left in his wake. Some of the more vituperative sentiments that Lennon expressed in this period are aimed at his old mate Macca, notably the missive which has since become known as 'the John rant,' written in response to one that Lennon had received from Linda McCartney reproaching him for his statements to the press about the Beatles split. The letter contains a good deal of jealous resentment of Linda for daring, as a late-comer to the scene, to put herself between him and Paul. In contrast to such invective, in the same year that 'the John Rant' was composed we find Lennon writing excitedly to McCartney about unearthing a copy of the unsuccessful audition tape that The Beatles made for Decca in 1962.(1) With misty-eyed delight Lennon writes "…they were a good group. Fancy turning THIS down!" and for a brief moment the tribulations and animosities that success brought them fade away. Compare this with Lennon's strident rejection of the Beatles myth just after they broke up ("People keep talking about it like it's the end of the earth. It's only a rock group that split up, it's nothing important"), and it is possible to sense the extent to which his public indifference towards the old gang's achievements was a façade hiding more affectionate memories.
From the mid-seventies onwards, as Lennon’s US immigration woes were successfully resolved and Yoko gave birth to their son Sean, a less vociferous, more domesticated figure emerged. Happily ensconced in family life, Lennon got back in touch with various relatives in the UK. He was usually keen for them to send photographs and let him know what they had been up to in their lives. Significantly, though, any talk of them coming to visit him in New York seems to have sparked a flurry of excuses (better to write, better to ring and, besides, there’s no room over here, what with the new baby and everything). Whilst he relishes nostalgic story-swapping and some mild score-settling, Lennon seems to want to forestall his aunties, uncles and cousins from turning up on his doorstep. Perhaps his transatlantic exile served to cushion him from a too-immediate encounter with his past.
Gradually, though, his interest in any other family beyond Yoko and Sean seems to have, if not entirely ceased, then noticeably tailed off. In the latter sections of the book, beyond a quite bizarre and menacingly humorous series of letters sent to Derek Taylor, The Beatles' former press officer, we are given some insight into Lennon's life during the final few years. Up first is "A Love Letter From John And Yoko To People Who Ask Us What, When And Why" which appeared in the New York Times in 1979. Although more of a proclamation-cum-lifestyle manifesto than a letter, it seems legitimate for Davies to include it since it was written in response to widespread speculation about Lennon's four-year hiatus from public activities, and it thereby renewed his (and Yoko's) dialogue with the outside world. Not that what they have to say to the world is particularly enlightening, unless a somewhat cloying, new-age flakiness is your thing. Davies reckons that the main author of this piece is Yoko because, as he puts it, it is quite solemn and spiritual without any of Lennon's characteristic wisecracks. There are a few passages here which sound like the kind of conceptual art instructions and observations to be found in her 1964 book Grapefruit but with the disorienting Fluxus-style sting removed. We are left with a portrait of Lennon and Ono as two very rich and privileged old hippies, mellowing in the knowledge that, for them at least, everything they wished for came true. Not that such singular fortune just fell into their laps: first of all they had to undertake a 'spring cleaning of our minds' after which, amongst other things, they started to 'love the plants' and the 'drum beat of the city,' as well as one day receiving 'a sudden rain of chocolates from people around the world,' whatever that means. They also give some behavioural hints and tips on how people can emulate their hard-won composure. These include drawing a halo round the head of a person who's angry with you ('Does the person stop being angry then? Well, we don't know!') and to always remember that 'you are walking in the sky, which extends to the ground.' Of course, it's easy to ridicule the pronouncements of people so rich and famous that they assume it behoves them to give a spiritual leg-up to the rest of us, and the letter does not come across as unremittingly patronising. The Lennons no doubt meant well in their efforts to reassure their fans that there was no need to worry about them. Besides, it appears that their message came with a celestial endorsement, from the P.S.: "We noticed three angels were looking over our shoulders when we wrote this." This sounds crowded, and could explain why there was no room for Lennon's relatives to visit him.
As we reach the end of the book, Davies takes us deeper into Lennon's inner sanctum existence during the last eighteen months of his life. The main exhibits from this period are a series of lists that Lennon wrote to his various assistants, itemising shopping requests and household tasks that he wanted doing. Many of these scraps, according to Davies, were pocketed by staff members as cherished evidence of their time working for Lennon, and later came to light at auction. If you believe Albert Goldman's notoriously scabrous 1988 biography, just prior to the Double Fantasy period Lennon had become a brooding, isolated figure who spent his time ordering minions to bring a steady supply of food, drugs and gadgets to the darkened confines of his bedroom. Going through these shopping lists, though, it seems that if this was a man who had long since changed his stance on imagining no possessions, it was not because he had turned into some sort of avaricious wraith. Instead, it seems that Lennon liked his home comforts - with a few rock star quirks thrown in for good measure. Taking at random a few of the items from each list, he wants:
smoked salmon, a TV table, One Sail Boat, nail polish remover and cabbagae (sic), the new David Bowie LP, herbs and hamburger meat (for the cats), an electric clock for the kitchen, flowers for Yoko (‘tell her I sent them’), Persian carpets and a ‘nightdress’ being made for him by ‘some woman.’
On top of this there are some jobs to be done around the place: 'lights in kitchen (bulbs), bring me my clothes from upstairs, ask me about extension cord (I want something else), black eraser pens (see Friday’s note), remind Y.O. [Yoko Ono] her teeth will be needed in later life (i.e. Dentist must be visited), trade in the downstairs TV for a Sony – If in doubt check with me (when I’m available – don’t come knocking).'
No doubt the people to whom these notes were directed did their best for their employer, which is more than can be said for the launderers, who apparently destroyed one of Yoko's shirts whilst also turning a white one of Lennon's 'grubby.' It seems that the company offered some feeble excuse for the damage by making reference to the state of the garments when they received them, to which Lennon countered: "Mrs Yoko Ono Lennon does not, will not, has not dyed her hair....What is your excuse for turning my brand new white shirt yellow?" Ah, life with the Lennons.
It is, perhaps, a little unfair to portray John Lennon in his final phase as a bad-tempered wealthy materialist flinging out commands and reprimands at will. Anyone rich enough to afford a team of people to take care of life’s day-to-day trials for them would occasionally display similarly unfettered behaviour. Besides, Lennon never comes across as a complete despot, and as we only have these random lists as evidence, it is perhaps best to treat such artefacts as nothing more than fascinating glimpses into the daily life of a cultural icon.
For the remainder of Davies' book, we are left with a few more examples of Lennon's autograph on postcards to friends and fans, including probably the last one he ever signed, given during a break between working on some new tracks at the Record Plant studio in New York on December 8th 1980. At 10:30 that night he left the studio with Yoko, and twenty minutes later it was all over. No more schoolboy doodles, no more jokey postcards, no more furious missives to ex-band mates and no more reprimands to unsuspecting Sunday Times readers from Derbyshire.
Whilst The Letters of John Lennon is not a key text in the vast canon of Beatles literature, it is an intriguing and, occasionally, enlightening collection. In nearly every case, the reader is presented with a full-colour reproduction of the item in question along with Davies' transcription of Lennon's words. Now and again, Davies gets it obviously wrong in terms of what he thinks Lennon has written and what the reproduction quite clearly shows, but as other reviews have drawn attention to that issue, no doubt the paperback version will be more rigorously edited. All in all, it is well-produced and packaged, so that, for those who never tire of immersing themselves in Beatles-land, this will do to be going on with --until, that is, Mark Lewisohn comes along in October with a better offer.--Mark Jones
Review of Simon Jenkins' A Short History of England
A Short History of England Simon Jenkins (Profile Books, 2012)
With the departure of the Romans from Britain as his starting point for this chronological narrative of England, Simon Jenkins covers a 1600-year span in a little over 350 pages. It is an achievement that certainly warrants its title, representing the extreme opposite of the gargantuan History of England series currently being undertaken by Peter Ackroyd (the first volume of which was reviewed in a previous edition of Albion).
Given the challenge to document, explain and contextualise so much in so few words, the issue of what to include--and exclude--was always going to be the greatest hurdle for Jenkins to overcome. To address this, Jenkins states that he is setting out to document a specifically English history, considering that the Scots, Irish and Welsh have their own distinct national histories that tend to be subsumed in conventional histories of Britain. However, his primary solution to the dilemma is apparent from his stated intention: to write a largely political history. This leads him to concentrate almost exclusively on the leading players in the court intrigues of the Royal households and battles for succession in the earlier chapters. Increasingly, though, the focus turns from the Monarchy to the characters of the leading political names in Parliament, as democracy develops, matures and evolves.
What we are left with is very much a "history from above," so that, while providing us with a brief history, Jenkins also takes an extremely traditional, top-down view of English history. He adopts a strictly chronological approach, taking us through the narrative procession of Royal households, court intrigues, events, and characters that can almost be ticked off as we progress from chapter to chapter--1066 (and all that), The Wars of the Roses, Henry VIII and his Six Wives, Good Queen Bess, the Civil War and the Restoration-- a recitation of a well-known litany that could almost serve as a checklist of dates, names and battles that every schoolchild or pub quiz team should be expected to know.
This approach may be understandable in the early stages of the narrative, when historical sources are more limited and focussed largely on just such elites, but the approach becomes less sustainable (or even justifiable) as we enter the modern era, with its much wider and richer range of source materials which Jenkins could have exploited to provide a more rounded interpretation of events. As it is, the great and increasing impact of religious, scientific, cultural and societal change over the years is presented as a series of hazy backdrops for an ever-changing cast of characters to dominate, as we learn more about the peccadillos of the leaders, and so much less about the lives of the led.
Hence the development of English culture and identity as the nation was formed goes largely unremarked. For instance, what about the impact of Empire, as a distinct English nation and identity were increasingly and ironically subsumed by the development of an English and then British Empire, resulting in a confusion and merging of English and British identity that remains problematic today?
This confusion is evident in the book, as Jenkins seamlessly moves from detailing the story of a primarily English state and monarchy to a British one, without really acknowledging that he is doing so. In the process, he blurs the edges between English and British history--the very thing that he had claimed to avoid. This later leads Jenkins into a relatively extended passage on the establishment of an independent Ireland in the early twentieth century, which rather betrays his initial statements that this was to be a specifically English history.
Perhaps it is an impossible remit to attempt a more thematic approach within the confines of a 'brief history' and give due consideration to England's experience of the Enlightenment, industrialisation, democratisation, and the massive social changes that were unleashed--or at the very least, speeded up--by two world wars. It would certainly be churlish not to admit that Jenkins has done an admirable job of synthesising the story of England's political elite over the centuries into such a slim volume, creating a lively and very entertaining read that certainly does help the general reader to gain an understanding of the sequence of events in the national story that England has traditionally told itself. Ultimately, however, in determining the structure of the book from the perspective of the political elite, Jenkins placed an even greater constraint on himself than the need for brevity had already imposed.--Steve Cox
Review of Dominic Sandbrook's Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-1979
Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-1979 Dominic Sandbrook (Penguin, 2012)
Picking up where State of Emergency left off--with the surprise result of the 1974 General Election, which saw Harold Wilson return as Prime Minister of Great Britain--the fourth volume of Dominic Sandbrook's excellent series of books on contemporary British social and political history covers topics as diverse as the rise of Welsh and Scottish nationalism, Northern Ireland, the paralysing strikes of the Winter of Discontent, punk, and the break with the post-war Keynesian consensus that led to the inexorable rise of Margaret Thatcher.
However, there's always more to the story than meets the eye, and this is where Sandbrook excels. Mixing contemporary news reports, direct quotes and opinions from people involved and members of the public, he tells the story of our parents' generation. Sandbrook shows how the struggle for Britain came down to 'Sunny' Jim Callaghan (possibly the second greatest post-war Labour Prime Minister since Clement Atlee), a competent and intelligent leader who tried far harder than his predecessor to fix the country's problems, and the surprise choice for Conservative party leader, the untried Margaret Thatcher. In fact, the story of Britain's decline in the late seventies almost mirrors that of Harold Wilson, who, like his political career, takes up a large part of the book and then disappears without trace--unlike Ted Heath, who remained Thatcher's own Banquo's ghost throughout her career.
The politics are fascinating, the writing is sharp, and the research is as detailed as you would expect from Sandbrook. This is another superb volume in the series, and it will be fascinating to see how Sandbrook tackles the 1980s.--James R. Turner