Magazine article The Spectator

Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us

Magazine article The Spectator

Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us

Article excerpt


edited by William Roger Lewis

LB. Tauris, L25, L12.95, pp. 388


by Luisa Passerini LB. Tauris, 25, pp. 368

Like the first series of lectures given at the University of Texas under the direction of William Roger Lewis and published as Adventures with Britannia in 1997, this new collection cuts a wide swathe in the political and cultural history of modern Britain. It ranges from the consequences for his subsequent poetic outburst of D. H. Lawrence's leap into adultery to Queen Victoria's concern for her Irish subjects, from Henry James's views on his great Victorian predecessors to Samuel E. Beer's remarkable essay on the rise and fall of party government in Britain and the United States.

Lectures are an art form that allows some indulgence in personal reflections. Thus Philip Ziegler considers the fate of his biography of Mountbatten. He sticks to his view that Mountbatten, in spite of his overweening vanity and ambition, was a great man, something that his numerous critics, who invent `spectacular red herrings' to discredit his achievements, refuse to acknowledge. In his lecture, Noel Annan takes the opportunity to rebuke those who consider him as a one-time liberal crusader who has become a paid-up member of the establishment, having suffered a Pauline conversion to Thatcherism.

To give a correct taste of this rich menu, I have arbitrarily selected two lectures that particularly interested me. John Grigg dissects the myth, propounded to millions in Richard Attenborough's film, that Gandhi single-handedly undermined British rule in India. The other players, Nehru and Jinnah, get walk-on parts. Gandhi's relationship with Irwin as Viceroy -- played by Gielgud who can play only himself - is a gross parody of the truth. For Grigg, Gandhi was a great man, although a mixed-up one, capable of serious political errors. Grigg gives us the best short account extant of how independence was forced on an exhausted post-war Britain, and how a united India, our greatest achievement, vanished in a bloodbath that was not, however, the consequence of Mountbatten's supposed haste to get the job done quickly.

My second choice is Bernard Crick's account of his difficulties in writing his life of George Orwell. Orwell was a secretive man and Crick does not construct a `character', based on the often misleading testimony of those who professed to know him, and then use his construction to fill the gaps in the evidence. Nor does he rely on the supposed autobiographic content of his novels. British upper-class youths seem to bear throughout life the scars of their public-school education -- Orwell was at Eton. This is a wound not inflicted on lesser mortals. In Orwell's account of his prepschool days fiction jostles with fact. Did he shoot an elephant? The use of the `fictive I' is no test for truth. `Of course he shot a fucking elephant,' his widow Sonia shouted at Crick, during a bibulous dinner, `he said so, didn't he, ha!'

Orwell's unvarnished prose, his greatest literary achievement, may seduce the incautious reader to assume that it presents objective truth, unsullied by any political or personal prejudice. Homage to Catalonia is not an 'objective' account of the May events of 1937 in Barcelona. …

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