By Steve Donoghue
I presided over a sad private ceremony last weekend. Well, it wasn’t entirely private – my bossy little Schnauzer was technically present, but she was entirely indifferent. I myself was anything but indifferent, because the ceremony was the death of a book.
The book was George Dangerfield’s once-classic 1935 work of history, “The Strange Death of Liberal England,” in which he argues that the UK’s Liberal Party basically went to pieces in the years immediately preceding the First World War. He targets what he views as a fatal compromising of the House of Lords by conniving politicians bullying a new King; he rails against the growing movement for women’s suffrage (you get the impression he was really irritated by all the demonstrations, which was kind of the whole point); he glowers about the power of trade unions; of course he writes about the “Irish question” of his day.
A wide-ranging book, then, but in its blueprints it doesn’t sound all that different from lots of similar books from the time. What distinguishes Dangerfield’s book is the amazing reading experience it provides. On almost every social or political topic he addresses, he brings the same eloquent and toweringly cynical mordant humor. He’s humorously appalled by virtually every aspect of his own times – which is always something that makes a writer interesting.
He doesn’t have the hypocrisy to be a scold. Instead, his quiet disapproval seeps into every question he examines. And there’s almost nothing he disapproves of more strongly than the bland general populace, the great crowds he sees as simply ambling along from one catastrophe to the next without ever summoning the energy for outrage.
“The public was now so accustomed to thrills – from motorcars and aeroplanes to the cinematograph, ragtime, and the menace of Germany – that, so far from bothering its head about a national stoppage, it declined to take even the palpable prospects of an Irish Civil War with any degree of seriousness,” he writes in a typical passage. “Nobody seemed to care.”
Later critics and historians have largely dismissed Dangerfield’s book as wrong-headed and outdated. I’ve never had much patience with this kind of reductionism when it comes to works of history and biography, as though the entire worth of such works comes down to how up-to-date their bibliographies are. When a great novelist publishes a new book, nobody talks about it being “more relevant” than earlier novels. But when it comes to histories, critics are too quick to see “sell by” dates stamped like on milk cartons.
Dangerfield was writing in the long shadow of a great world war – and very knowingly on the brink of a second world war that might be even worse. The awareness that his country might be heading again into a dark tunnel made even crusty old Dangerfield wistful at times, even though he knew perfectly well how deceptive such melancholy could be.
“All the violence of the pre-war world has vanished, and in its place there glow, year into backward year, the diminishing vistas of that other England, the England where the Grantchester church clock stood at tend to three, where there was Beauty and Certainty and Quiet, and where nothing was real,” he writes, looking as much at the myth of inter-war England as at its realities. “Today we know it for what it was; but there are moments, very human moments, when we could almost find it in our hearts to envy those who saw it, and who never lived to see the new world.”
It’s a lovely book despite the critics, so it was a sad occasion to attend its funeral. But the old Paladin paperback edition I’d had for years finally reached the point of no reread. I recently opened it to the sound of an enormous CRACK, after which great tufts of pages started popping off the spine and fluttering to the floor. No amount of packing tape or glue or rubber bands can save a book when it collapses like that. So it was time to say good-bye.
I’ve presided over this kind of ceremony many times in my life as a reader. One time when I was hiking in Ghana, a big waddling porcupine nonchalantly entered my informal little camping area and proceeded to have a leisurely look-around. My beagles were astonished by this alien-looking creature and wisely kept their distance. We all just watched while the porcupine nosed around my bedroll and rattled my pan and spoon. Eventually the beast found my battered copy of Montaigne and proceeded to destroy it methodically. I could sympathize; I’d been frustrated by Montaigne plenty of times myself.
I was camping with my dogs on Vancouver Island in another instance, and I’d spent the whole of a gorgeous afternoon and spectacular sunset reading the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini in a handy little hardcover I’d found for cheap in a dusty old bookshop in Florence years before. I never believe a word Cellini writes (if he tells me he met the Pope, I’ll want to corroborate with God), but he’s wonderful company. And the following morning, he was gone – with only an alarming set of bear paw-prints left behind.
A copy of Pepys down onto the New York subway tracks; a copy of Herodotus overboard off Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean; a great Thomas Wolsey biography burnt in a house fire … as I said, I’ve lost books before. But it was sad to say good-bye to “The Strange Death of Liberal England” with all my loving annotations on every other page.
I heaved a sigh and downloaded the e-book.