The Perilous Descent – Bruce Carter

20200526 Perilous Descent 1

I probably first read this book about forty years ago when I was the age it is most likely aimed at, what would now be classed as Young Adult by the publishing world, and I doubt I have read it since although the copy I have is still the one I had back then. I had no real interest in books as objects back then so never noticed that it is the first edition printed by The Bodley Head in 1952. The dust wrapper is missing, assuming I ever had one, which I doubt as I would have been careful with it even then and I would have bought the book from a second hand bookseller sometime in the mid to late 1970’s. I do know however that the picture on the wrapper was the same as the frontispiece reproduced above, with the title on the larger parachute and Bruce Carter on the smaller one.

Bruce Carter is the pseudonym of Richard Hough, which he used for the half dozen children’s books he wrote, with more than a hundred more titles in his own name which were mainly regarding ships or wartime escapades although he also wrote a few biographies. In 1952 he was working for The Bodley Head, hence his choice of publisher, and in the 1960’s he moved to Hamish Hamilton where he ultimately rose to the position of Managing Director of the children’s book division, Hamish Hamilton also published this book amongst others by him whilst he worked for them.

The Perilous Descent is a rollicking Boy’s Own adventure story apparently written in alternate chapters by the two Typhoon pilots Danny Black and Johnny Wild who were shot down at the start of the book on their way back to England ultimately ending up on a sand bar about a mile off the Dutch coast sometime in 1944. Hough was himself a Typhoon pilot in the war and had to make a forced landing after being hit during which he badly broke his leg which never properly healed although he lived until 1999. This first hand knowledge as to what the two protagonists would have with them regarding survival aids and how they could use the equipment they had certainly adds to the tale as they try to eke out their meagre rations after falling down a hole on the sand bar and into some mysterious tunnels. Ultimately the only way forward is down a huge cavern but fortunately they still have their parachutes so that is what is depicted in the frontispiece as they drop over 25,000 feet to the unknown world below.

20200526 Perilous Descent 2

The land and people they encounter far below the Earth are a strange mix of sixteenth century language, clothes and armaments along with futuristic cities and transport as can be seen in the image above, it is also not a friendly welcome. It turns out that a rebellion had recently occurred and they had been mistaken for some of the rebels, they soon manage to convince the Governor that they are nothing to do with the insurrection and are enlisted to take part in a surprise attack on the rebel stronghold. The story races along and I found myself reading longer sections in one go than I intended to and the denouement, which is foreshadowed in the introduction, has a nice twist right at the end.

The book appears to be no longer in print and I suspect that the Puffin Books edition that came out initially in 1958 and was still being reprinted up until at least 1977 was the last available publication. Children’s books related to the war fell out of fashion around then and although I have greatly enjoyed this nostalgic read I doubt the book would be a commercially viable publication nowadays.

The Age of Scandal – T H White

20200519 The Age of Scandal

First published in 1950, this is my Folio Society edition from 1993, The Age of Scandal is one of White’s lesser known works as nowadays he is most famous for ‘The Once and Future King’ his series based on the tales of King Arthur by Mallory which in turn were adapted by Disney as ‘The Sword in the Stone’ and by Lerner and Loewe as their musical ‘Camelot’. This however is White as a historian although as Raey Tannahill says in her introduction.

It seems wise, therefore, to warn the reader that T.H. White is not – was not, even in his own day – an orthodox historian.

an excursion into eighteenth century history which is outrageously partisan, appallingly opinionated, one hundred percent Politically Incorrect and highly entertaining from first to last.

This is certainly the case, if you like your history of the latter half of the eighteenth century to be apparently written by the gossip pages of the tabloids then this is the book for you and whilst it isn’t a option I had previously considered there is no denying that if any part of, mainly British, history is ripe for such an approach then this is the period. White does stray abroad a little but mainly whilst describing events that include somebody from these isles, the main exception to this is the final chapter but I will come to that in due course. Scandal, gossip and tittle-tattle were the driving force amongst the upper and middle classes for this was the age of the opinionated talkers and the  great letter writers and they had much to talk and write about. The main source for White’s book is Horace Walpole, the youngest son of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (or probably not as one of the scandals covered by White goes on to explain in considerable detail). To describe him as a prolific gossip would be an understatement, his collection of letters was eventually published by Yale University Press in forty-eight volumes and is available to browse online and White quotes him extensively.

The main talker of the time, I hesitate to call him a conversationalist because he preferred to dominate all conversations, was Dr Johnson and he duly gets a chapter all of his own. I hadn’t realised before reading this how sickly a child he was and how much he was still disabled into adulthood. This makes his rise in society at the time all the more remarkable. Another chapter is entitled ‘Men, Women and Herveys’ and this definitely falls in the one hundred percent Politically Incorrect category as it deals with the Hervey family whose males were all famously effeminate and/or eccentric during the time the book covers, Lord Hervey being ridiculed by Alexander Pope as his character Sporus in his poem Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot. The title of the chapter is however a contemporary quote from Lady Mary Wortley Montague who regarded mankind as split into those three categories as surely the Hervey family were not as everyone else, and it is one of these Herveys who is almost certainly the true father of Horace Walpole.

Other chapters are less specific such as ‘Royal Gossip’ which deals with the convoluted lives of George I, George II, George III and William IV, their actions, their courts, various wives and mistresses and anything else juicy that White feels like including. The following chapter though is probably the most enlightening regarding the reasons why the various characters exposed in this book behaved as they did and that is simply entitled ‘Bottom’.  It is probably best to quote White directly in his explanation of this term.

In the eighteenth century, but particularly under the Regency, a Gentleman was expected to have ‘Bottom’. It was a word of composite meaning, which implied stability, but also what the twentieth century calls ‘guts’. It meant being able to keep one’s head in emergencies, and, in a financial sense, that one was backed by capital, instead of being an adventurer. Bottom, in fact, was synonymous with courage, coolness and solidity.

This was an age of potentially sudden death either from accident or design, armed robbery was common and even Royalty were not immune from being held up by highwaymen but equally criminals were very much subject to capital punishment for crimes as little as burglary and these were quite a spectator entertainment. There were no anaesthetics, you would bear an operation with fortitude to be truly seen as one of the members of society and being to take your drink even in what now would be regarded as unbelievable excess was also to be expected. Dr Johnson is quoted as saying that he ‘had drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it’ and two gentlemen are described in the book as having drunk ten bottles of champagne and burgundy between them at one sitting without it being regarded as exceptional. Needless to say a lot of people died young, if the alcohol didn’t get them than any of the various diseases prevalent at the time almost certainly would and the upper classes were trained to maintain the ‘stiff upper lip’ from childhood where violent and often sadistic masters would whip their pupils mercilessly.

I said earlier that I would get to the last chapter and this is one that sort of fits the rest of the book whilst feeling somewhat disjointed from it for it deals with the Marquis de Sade. I suspect that White felt that he couldn’t really write a book about his self described Age of Scandal without including such a notorious character but the way he does is surprisingly sympathetic which is out of sorts with everything that has gone before. However as Raey Tannahill puts it at the end of her introduction.

Whatever he may have lacked in scholarly discipline, Terence Hanbury White still deserves to be enjoyed as one of the last, unrepentant upholders of the rumbustious old tradition of Gibbon and Macaulay.

Thrown to the Woolfs – John Lehmann

20200512 Thrown to the Woolfs

This book arrived in a box of mixed titles bought on Ebay for about £10 a couple of years ago, all of which were something to do with books or publishing. I must admit that I barely looked at it at the time as I had purchased the collection of fifteen or so books for a couple of autobiographies that I thought sounded interesting so this just sat on the shelf until last week.  I wish now I had picked it up earlier as, for the most part, it was a thoroughly entertaining read. The book concerns Lehmann’s time either working for or later being a partner in The Hogarth Press, a small publishing house set up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf primarily to publish her books exactly as her and her husband wanted them. Now of course even an author of Woolf’s stature couldn’t keep a press going by her own work alone so they also published books by other writers as well and the company was quite successful from its foundation onwards.

John Lehmann knew Virginia’s nephew Julian Bell from their time at university and when he was deciding about working at the press as the manager Julian warned him that managers didn’t last long as Leonard was far too controlling over the tiniest detail, especially money, and he would have a difficult time. The first part of the book, it’s split into four sections, concerns this fairly disastrous first attempt at working at the press in 1931 and 1932.  The descriptions not only of the cramped offices and working conditions in this section but also of Leonard and Virginia set up the tone of the whole book. Lehmann is clearly a great admirer of Virginia, not only of her work but as a person and when he isn’t actually arguing with Leonard he also gets on well with him but Julian was right, Leonard was impossible as a boss and ultimately the only way forward was for him to leave the business immediately at the end of his initial contract. This caused further ructions between him and Leonard and they barely contacted one another for several years.

The second section has Lehmann in Europe in the lead up to WWII, which is where he made a lot of contacts with up and coming writers across the continent which would serve him well in the coming years. He also started, in 1935, a bi-annual book called New Writing, initially published by The Bodley Head this was looking for a new publisher in 1938 and as things had calmed down by then he approached the Woolfs and this time would end up paying £3,000 (£205,000 in today’s money) for Virginia’s share of the business making him joint partner with Leonard in the Hogarth Press.

The third and fourth parts deal with the eight years from 1938 to 1946 whilst this partnership lasted and make up the significant part of the book not only in pages but also in detail regarding the running of the press and the interactions of the three of them. The sections are split at the suicide of Virginia in March 1941 with by far the happier times being whilst she was alive. Not only does Lehmann tell more about the Press but was also get details of Virginia’s working method and home life. Once Virginia was no longer there to provide arbitration between the two men however things started to go downhill and the one part of the book I found more difficult was a long section where Lehmann quotes verbatim letters between them arguing about which books should be printed or not. Apart from that the book was a very quick read I really wanted to know more so just kept going although you know that the final cataclysm cannot be far off.

In the end Lehmann felt he couldn’t continue as the animosity between the two men over the direction the press should take was just too much and he instigated a clause in the original agreement that either partner could ask the other to buy them out at three weeks notice. This was duly done far faster than Lehmann expected and yet another long period of bad blood between them opened up until oddly in the 1960’s they had yet another rapprochement and as this time they didn’t end up working together this seemed to go well until Leonard’s death at the end of that decade.

The book was published by Widenfield and Nicolson in 1978 in the UK and Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in 1979 in America. Neither edition appears to have been reprinted but both are easily available via abebooks and is definitely worth adding to the shelves of anyone interested in books.

On Britain and Germany – Tacitus

20200505 On Britain and Germany

Back in January 1946 Penguin Books started a new series which is still going way beyond the dreams of the originators, that was Penguin Classics featuring all new translations of classic literature from around the world especially created for the series. They started in Greece with Homer’s Odyssey and the first Latin title was this one featuring two of the books by Tacitus, which was the fifth book in the series coming out in September 1948. On Britain and Germany is actually his two works Agricola and Germania and they were translated by Harold Mattingly who also wrote an extensive introduction along with the notes and glossary. His additional information in fact takes up almost half of the book at seventy six pages with Agricola being forty eight pages and Germania just forty.

Agricola

Representing Britain in this volume is Tacitus’s biography of his father in law Gnaeus Julius Agricola and whilst it does indeed include commentary on his seven years in charge of the conquest of most of Britain it does spends a significant amount of time back in Rome. Tacitus starts this work by stating that biographies are disapproved of in the current Roman society but that he will write this one anyway but unfortunately whatever his abilities as a historian way be revealed in his other works this is not a good example. He rarely states where any of the military actions he describes take place and his grasp of dates is also somewhat tenuous which makes working out what is going on quite tricky. He also has a rather odd idea as to the geography of Britain, stating that it is diamond shaped and not far from Spain with the island of Ireland being between the two countries.

This is where the text by Mattingly really comes into its own not only in the introduction, which prepares you for the lack of details but the notes which accompany almost every chapter clarify quite a lot of the text. One thing I really liked about this edition is that the notes are at the back of the book rather than at the bottom of the relevant pages, this allows the reader to more comfortably concentrate on the text and then pick up on the notes either as they go on or, as I did, complete Agricola and then read the notes. As stated above it is a fairly short biography so this is entirely practical.

Germania

Tacitus has barely started his description of Germania when he comes up with a sentence that I can safely assume is not one quoted by the German tourism authorities.

who would leave Asia, Africa or Italy to visit Germany, with its unlovely scenery, its bitter climate, its general dreariness to sense and eye, unless it were his home.

and a little later

The country in general, while varying somewhat in character, either bristles with woods or festers with swamps. It is wetter where it faces Gaul, windier where it faces Noricum and Pannonia.

He was remarkably polite about Britain in comparison, Noricum is modern Austria whilst Pannonia roughly equates to Hungary. After spending time being rude about the land he turns his attentions to the peoples and tribes of Germania, this is a place that includes not only present Germany but parts of France, Switzerland, the northern Netherlands and Poland. Beyond them is believed to be a great ocean rather than the Baltic Sea and the Romans seem to have almost no knowledge of Scandinavia. Rome appears to have only recently become aware of most of these peoples at the time of Tacitus and then only from contact through war so his descriptions of their lives are short of details and sometimes confused but he does discern a significant number of different tribes and kingdoms but does not ascribe what he would regard as civilisation to any of them other than the ones that have regular dealings with the Romans. His most damning assessment is applied right at the end of the short book with the little he has gathered regarding the Suiones (southern Swedes) and a neighbouring tribe that is only mentioned in Germania so is probably a misunderstanding by Tacitus of the same people or another part of Sweden.

Continuous with the Suiones are the nations of the Sitones. they resemble them in all respects but one – woman is the ruling sex. That is the measure of their decline, I will not say below freedom, but even below decent slavery.

Revisions

The book appears to have gained its original title in Penguin simply because it was translated soon after WWII finished and certainly in the notes Mattingly can be quite jingoistic at times for example in his opening line regarding Germania.

a detailed account of a great people that had already begun to be a European problem in the first century of our era, should still have a message for us in the twentieth.

It is clear that the choice of title was made to entice potential readers after the war whilst maybe calling it Agricola and Germania might not have done as much. Amazingly seventy four years after its first publication Mattingsly’s translation is still the one in the Penguin Classics catalogue, which now runs to well over a thousand titles, and most of the early titles have been completely replaced with updated translations. However it has been revised twice, initially presumably to replace the dated style of the introduction and notes but also to rename the book to the more useful ‘Agricola and Germania’ so that it is clearer what is actually included. The first revision was done by S.A. Handford and was published in October 1970, this book was renumbered from L5 to become L241 and the original version dropped. In 2009 it was revised again, this time by J.B. Rives and now has the ISBN 9780140455403 which makes it the equivalent of L540 when you breakdown the code and the Handford version is no longer available.

Conclusion

The book was very enjoyable and a good introduction to the works of Tacitus via two of his minor writings, what I now need to do is tackle his major works ‘The Annals’ and ‘The Histories’. Tacitus was a Roman senator so well placed to view the intrigues of the emperors and their rivals and this he covers in those more important works. Having the viewpoint from an insider of how the Roman empire was actually governed should be really interesting, I knew nothing about Tacitus before I read this book so I definitely need to find out more.