Darkest Hour: Film Review

‘Darkest Hour’ offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains. In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision – his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb.

The year is 1940 and Britain is in dire straits. Abroad, the German army is sweeping across western Europe, a defeatist mentality paralyses the French top ranks, and the British army faces imminent annihilation at Dunkirk, probably to be followed by the invasion of Britain itself. At home, Churchill must negotiate a fragile coalition government, a divided Conservative Party, and rebellious and ambitious cabinet colleagues.

Darkest Hour, the 2017 film starring Gary Oldman that deals with Churchill’s first few weeks as prime minister in May 1940, inevitably resonates in this time of Brexit-related angst: the UK’s relationship with the European continent is currently under the microscope as never before in peacetime, with not a little hyperbolic talk about existential threats to our freedom and independence.

An example of a meme circulated on social media during the Brexit debate.

These tumultuous events of 1940 and Britain’s survival were, of course, exhaustively mined by Britain’s wartime propaganda machine, turning calamitous defeat and near-disaster into a form of national triumph. Ministry of Information shorts, such as Channel Incident (starring a young Peggy Ashcroft) and Neighbours Under Fire, trumpeted the indomitable will of the British people – the ‘Very Well, Alone’ mood of popular defiance also captured in David Low’s cartoons of the time and the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ in the face of the Luftwaffe’s aerial onslaught.

Widely circulated on social media in October 2018

I have discussed elsewhere the issue of ‘fake history’ and film – questions of historical accuracy and fidelity to the facts, the portrayal of people and events from the past, and the inevitable trade-off between historical ‘truth’ and entertainment. What makes Darkest Hour compelling viewing – beyond undeniable echoes in our current political travails – is the knowledge that those wartime propaganda lines about defiance and British exceptionalism have now been resurrected and shamelessly peddled by cheerleaders in the diehard Brexit camp to support their views about the Brexit negotiations, the opportunities and threats posed by a no-deal outcome, and our current crop of political leaders.

Darkest Hour includes virtually no scenes of actual fighting, though the reality of Britain’s perilous strategic position casts its shadow across virtually every scene. The focus of the film is essentially Winston Churchill, hailed by many – especially on the right – as our national saviour. In 2002 (Golden Jubilee year, of course), he was proclaimed the greatest Briton in a BBC poll, and ‘he’ featured prominently in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. To be fair, and perhaps in an indication of our changing national temper (or maybe just a reflection of the BBC2 audience), he lost out to Alan Turing and others in a 2019 BBC poll of the twentieth century’s greatest icon.

Churchill is arguably the most instantly recognisable figure from our past: the huge cigar, the V-for-Victory salute and the wobbly jowls delivering soaring oratory are etched into the popular consciousness. One effect of biographies and biopics (the good ones, anyway) is to flesh out and ‘humanize’ distant figures – to uncover something of the real person behind the myth. In Darkest Hour, we see glimpses of the husband and family man, the man of privilege baffled by the Tube map, the playful man giggling with the secretarial staff and (crucially) the man of doubt. His eccentricities and larger-than-life character are fully on display – dictating memos from his bed (and from the bathroom), consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol, berating his personal staff for the slightest of errors.

One cannot help but feel that aspects of Churchill’s personal conduct, long dismissed – perhaps even applauded – as quirky, eccentric and idiosyncratic, would in today’s #MeToo climate be condemned as unacceptable bullying and sexist behaviour. Films about personalities and events from the past nevertheless reflect the mood, norms and expectations of the times in which they were made. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges for director and scriptwriter.

The secretary Elizabeth Layton is assigned a key role in the script.

In the film, a key role is therefore assigned to a woman, Elizabeth Layton. Though a lowly secretary, the script manoeuvres her close to the action and the locus of power, often involving her in intimate, one-to-one situations with Churchill (intimate in the sense that both can reveal hidden worries and doubts). Her role is as a proxy, a personification of the British public at large, their hopes and fears, their questions and concerns. She is fearful but resilient, curious to know more, and able to handle the unpleasant, unvarnished truth. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, is the steadying influence behind the scenes. More than just the dutiful wife, she gently admonishes the great man when he behaves like an ass.

Darkest Hour offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains (with, in this case, Neville Chamberlain perhaps somewhere in the middle). In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision – his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb. He becomes forgetful and – the ultimate catastrophe for a politician feted for his ability to communicate – struggles to find the words, before rediscovering his mojo with the help of the great British public in the controversial ‘Underground’ scene – controversial in the sense that it is purely fictional.

The George VI portrayed here is very different from the vulnerable king in The King’s Speech

The George VI presented to us is also of interest. Though the icy relationship between Churchill and the king thaws somewhat as the film progresses, the viewer will struggle to reconcile this monarch with Colin Firth’s portrayal in The King’s Speech. In the latter, he is warm, vulnerable and all-too-human. Here, he is remote, cold, bigoted and snobbish. The scene where he surreptitiously wipes his hand behind his back after it has been kissed by Churchill is particularly telling. Later, in an ironic turn, it is the king who urges the prime minister to listen to the voice of the people, precipitating Churchill’s journey of rediscovery on the Underground.

The role of arch-baddie is, however, reserved for Lord Halifax, the king’s confidant and political puppet-master, pulling Chamberlain’s strings in a bid to engineer a compromise peace with Hitler, thus preventing a German invasion and safeguarding the British Empire. He is calculating and scheming, refusing to take on the role of prime minister after Chamberlain’s resignation as the time is ‘not yet right’. The England (sic) he cherishes and seeks to preserve is that of the upper-class gentleman and country estate, a land of strict social division, of privilege and entitlement. Compare this with the portrayal of the ordinary Englishman and Englishwoman: patriotic, decent and resolute.

Films recreating events from the past must find imaginative ways to contextualise events, plugging gaps in the viewer’s historical knowledge and ensuring that the storyline makes sense. Here, for example, Churchill explains to someone who would have known the situation perfectly well that the king disliked him because he (Churchill) supported his (George’s) brother’s desire to marry Wallis Simpson. To establish the reasons for Churchill’s unpopularity with many Tories, we are offered a montage of politicians in whispered discussion, each with a gripe against Churchill: it is a ‘greatest hits’ of his errors and failings – serial infidelity to the Conservative Party, Gallipoli, India and the Gold Standard.

The House of Commons as theatre

The scenes in the Chamber of the House of Commons are pure theatre – the bear-pit atmosphere and the dramatic lighting, as if a solitary spotlight were picking out the speaker at the despatch box, the surrounding benches (front and back) almost in darkness – the more so to accentuate order papers furiously batting the air.

The debates themselves do not (inevitably) ring particularly true. For example, the two-day debate that led to Chamberlain’s resignation is here shortened to about five minutes. Labour’s Clement Attlee is forensic and withering – far too much so, if the recent biography by John Below is to be trusted. Crucially, the damning verdict of backbench Conservative MP Leo Amery, invoking Cromwell to the Rump Parliament – “In the name of God, go!” – is expunged from the record, as it wouldn’t serve the narrative, namely that Churchill did not have the Tory backbenches behind him and that his support came from the Labour benches. To the end, Chamberlain appears to command the loyalty of the Conservative MPs – a surreptitious wave of the handkerchief his signal to the backbench troops whether or not to show their support for the new prime minister.

Some of the points made in this article were also made in the article ‘Fake History’ and Film.

‘Fake History’ and Film

Elizabeth I meets Mary, Queen of Scots! Churchill rediscovers his mojo on the Underground! Homosexual genius Alan Turing is blackmailed by Soviet spy John Cairncross at Bletchley Park! Hmmm. Memo to self: ‘Films based on historical events are not documentaries. Stop judging them as if they are.’

The above are not happenings in an alternate reality but scenes from films about real people, their lives mediated through ‘Hollywood’ – just three examples of what we might call ‘fake history’ offered up for our viewing pleasure in well-known films released over the last few years about famous people and/or events. The buzz surrounding two recent films that focus on the lives of female monarchs from Britain’s past – Mary Queen Of Scots (about the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I) and The Favourite (about Queen Anne) – has poured lighter-fuel on a debate that seems to smoulder away all but unnoticed before re-igniting whenever a blockbuster film portraying iconic figures and events from the past is released.

Fake history Saving Private Ryan
Though lauded for its realistic depiction of war, Saving Private Ryan has also been much criticised for ignoring the role of the British armed forces and those of other countries in the D-Day landings.

The usual suspects – lower case, not the Kevin Spacey film – have again been hauled in to take up their place in the line-up of cinematic shame: films such as The Patriot, Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, all charged with the heinous crime of playing fast and loose with ‘the truth’. The only surprise is that nobody appears to have brought up Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise comes within minutes of bringing down the Third Reich.

The debate about ‘fake history’ operates at a number of levels, with questions of historical accuracy morphing into arguments about how much fidelity to the facts actually matters and broader discussions about representations of the past.

At its simplest is a binary question, the answer to which is either ‘yes, this did happen, that’s accurate’ or ‘no, that didn’t happen, that’s not how it really was’. We’re not just talking feature films and television dramas, of course. Any self-respecting pub quizzer will doubtless remind us that, when Cassius declares in Julius Caesar that “The clock has stricken three”, Shakespeare had (deliberately or otherwise) penned an anachronism – mechanical clocks of that type were not around in the first century BC.

Playing ‘fake history’ is fun for all the family. BBC Bitesize (targeted at a young audience) recently ran an online article highlighting inaccuracies in eight popular films – the Alpine escape of the von Trapp family from the clutches of the evil Nazis in The Sound Of Music, the death of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in Gladiator, the clothing worn by thirteenth-century Scots in Braveheart. And so on.

There are deeper issues involved, however – not least the rather important question of what we mean by ‘the truth’ – and unsurprisingly these trickier matters attract the interest of heavyweight journalists and academic historians alike. In this latest round, for example, Oxford historian and BBC4 regular Dr Janina Ramirez was commissioned to write a piece on The Favourite for The Sunday Times. The Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins set out his views in a typically forthright piece – ‘The new threat to truth: fake history films’. He accused film-makers of claiming “the right to mis-sell films as history”, sexing them up with invention, out of fear that “accuracy will not put bums on seats”.

This terrain encompasses all ‘texts’, not just headline-grabbing films about famous people and events found on the school history curriculum. Take two other recent films, both of which might well have come with some variation or other of the words ‘based on real events’ attached. And what is ‘based on real events’ exactly – a neutral statement, a caveat, a disclaimer, a cop-out?

Fake history Stan and Ollie
Stan And Ollie depicts Stan arguing about money with Hal Roach on the set of Way Out West, with Ollie caught in the middle.

The first, Stan And Ollie, uses a Laurel and Hardy music hall tour of Britain in the twilight of their careers as a vehicle for exploring the duo’s relationship. As a narrative frame, it works brilliantly well, though I don’t know enough about their actual story to make confident assertions about how accurate it all is. My gut instinct is to doubt the literal ‘truth’ of certain events depicted, such as the on-set arguments between Stan and Hal Roach and Ollie’s collapse in Worthing, and the accuracy of the portrayal of characters such as the scheming, oleaginous impresario, Delfont.

The second, meanwhile, I have discussed in detail elsewhere: the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, a film that wields a knife with wilful abandon as it cuts the Queen story to shreds. Guitarist Brian May has spoken of his journey of understanding as an executive producer, ending (he says) with the realisation that a film is a very different beast from a documentary – but that both are valid artistic means of telling a story. He is, in effect, criticising those Queen fans unable to move beyond the film’s cavalier approach to the facts. That formula – ‘based on real events’ – is, if nothing else, an elastic one. Maybe that’s part of the problem: how exactly are viewers expected to know how literally to believe what is being portrayed?

Fake history The Exception Himmler Kaiser Wilhelm II
The Exception suggests that Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler met with Wilhelm II in 1940 and offered him the chance to return to Germany as Head of State in a ruse to flush out anti-Nazi monarchists.

Of course, should we so choose, we have the option of consulting Professor Wikipedia for (usually) in-depth analysis of the accuracy of this or that scene, portrayal or storyline. My immediate reaction after watching the excellent film The Exception, about Kaiser Wilhelm II in exile in Holland in 1940, was to reach for a biography of the ex-German emperor to clarify how much of it was true (answer: not much). But how many of us ever bother? It’s a fair bet that many film-goers and TV-watchers don’t give the matter a second thought and/or don’t particularly care whether a film is accurate or not – as long as they are entertained.

The business of films, in more than one sense, is first and foremost to entertain – fair enough. Self-styled “public historian, broadcaster, author, and historical consultant to Film & TV” Greg Jenner disagrees with the Simon Jenkins line quoted above, tweeting recently about the importance of historians engaging with pop culture:

Historical films are not “fake history”; they’re stories. They aren’t documentaries and nor do they try to be. So long as historians are able to publicly respond (which we do in droves) these films are helpful, not a hindrance, in stimulating public fascination with the past.

Greg Jenner

In other words, if films are stimulating public interest in the past, that’s surely a good thing, right? Jenner says that historians are taking part “in droves”. I accept that it would be churlish to ignore or downplay the tireless efforts of a wide range of academics and others (a big shout-out here to classroom teachers) to engage with the public via an ever-widening variety of platforms – from websites and podcasts to public lectures and TV programmes.

But a nagging question remains: beyond a stratum of enthusiastic, educated amateur history buffs – to borrow Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, “that theoretical construct, the intelligent and educated citizen” – how much actual purchase is there at grassroots level among non-history buffs? I refer, perhaps, to those who drink at that bustling yet ever so elusive pub, the Dog and Duck, spoken of in hallowed terms by politicians and social commentators alike, where issues of the day are discussed by ‘ordinary’ folk over a warm pint of beer or glass of wine.

I also accept that, although accuracy obviously matters a great deal in historical re-creations, it isn’t the be-all and end-all – and perhaps not even the most important element of a film. A film may include plenty of inaccuracies, even wholly fictionalised situations, and yet still be bloody good, as Stan And Ollie certainly showed (assuming the narrative isn’t all literally true). After all, most if not all the dialogue in every historical film is made up: who knows who said what to whom in reality? A great artist – actor, writer or director – uses their raw material – part-fact, part-fiction – to capture and convey the essence of a person or situation, hopefully revealing deeper or more complete truths. In that sense, even if some of it didn’t really happen, Stan And Ollie still stands up as an utterly delightful window into the world of Laurel and Hardy, funny, moving and sad – a warm-hearted, bittersweet film about friendship, fame and the inexorable passing of time.

I further agree that it is naive and simplistic to expect ‘the truth’ (singular). A ‘text’ – a book, a play, a film, a painting – is a representation (literally, a re-presenting) of the past, an authorial construct based at least in part on the selection and presentation of information. As the historian Anthony Beevor has argued persuasively, the price of supping with the Hollywood devil is stomaching a degree of creative licence for film-makers with regards to ‘what really happened’.

At its worst, however, this Faustian pact leads to oversimplification (not to mention ‘dumbing down’), serious distortion and the flattening of individuals and historical situations into one-dimensional caricatures. It filters out complexity, balance, nuance, ambiguity and paradox. It does not permit doubt, ambivalence and confusion. In other words, it comes at the expense of the stuff of reality and cheapens the study of the past. Ask John McDonnell, who foolishly accepted the request to reduce the life and career of Winston Churchill to a single word.

Films are also products of their time, reflecting the mood, norms and expectations of the day. However, unless handled skilfully by writer and director, they can end up seeming uncomfortably forced and contrived. Darkest Hour, the 2017 film dealing with Churchill’s first few weeks as prime minister in May 1940, is an intriguing case in this respect. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges.

Fake history Darkest Hour Underground Winston Churchill
Darkest Hour includes an entirely fictional scene set on the London Underground.

In the film, a key supporting player is therefore a woman, Elizabeth Layton. Though a lowly secretary in the typing pool, she is manoeuvred close to the action and the locus of power, often involved in one-to-one situations with Churchill. Her role is as a proxy, a personification of the British public at large, their hopes and fears, their questions and concerns. She is fearful but resilient, curious to know more, and able to handle the unpleasant, unvarnished truth. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, is the steadying influence behind the scenes. More than just the dutiful wife, she gently admonishes the great man when he behaves like an ass.

A David Low cartoon from 1940. The caption read:”Very Well, Alone”. This mood of popular defiance was a feature of the fictional ‘Churchill on the Underground’ scene in the film Darkest Hour.

In the film’s ‘Underground’ scene – wholly fictional, of course – the passengers (a handy cross-section of the British people – men, women and children) are united, defiant and resolute. It is like a David Low cartoon brought to life, a re-creation of the mood portrayed in the official propaganda films of the time and later mythologised as ‘the spirit of the Blitz’. It is a version of history for the Brexiteers.

One of the passengers is a young black man, who appears to be in the company of a white woman – whether friend, lover or spouse is left unclear. While not wholly implausible in 1940, this depiction of relaxed attitudes to inter-racial relationships (and even friendships when involving people of the opposite sex) nevertheless feels anachronistic, and it is certainly very different from attitudes portrayed in the recent Rosamund Pike/David Oyelowo film set partly in late-’40s Britain, A United Kingdom.

And of course, as consumers of history – watchers of films, readers of books etc. – we sprinkle our diet with liberal (small ‘l’) helpings of our own beliefs, values and biases. With our relationship with the European continent currently under the microscope as never before in peacetime, and with much hyperbolic talk about threats to our freedom, Darkest Hour resonates in this time of Brexit-related angst. Would the ‘ordinary’, non-political, non-Eurosceptic viewer have felt this way about the film ten years ago, say?

Or take the films of Mel Gibson as both actor and director. Now something of a bête noire of the film industry and the wider public1, how much are people’s opinions of his work influenced by opinions of the man (drunk, misogynist, Christian extremist, anti-Semite are some of the labels attached to him)? Or, mutatis mutandis, re-read this paragraph, replacing the name in the first sentence with ‘Woody Allen’ or ‘Kevin Spacey’.

As a keen student of history, I feel protective of the people, events and circumstances of the past, and instinctively recoil at falsification, at bias and at individuals and their reputations being brazenly glorified or traduced. When I open a history book – especially on the many topics about which I know little or nothing – I bring to it certain expectations and assumptions. First and foremost, I want accuracy and fidelity to the facts. Secondly, I trust that the representations shown to me – and judgements offered – by the writer are judiciously reached, based on the best available evidence. I want to learn about three-dimensional characters, not black-and-white ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Where doubt about the evidence exists, I want it to be made clear that doubt exists.

Fake history Adolf Hitler Downfall
Bruno Ganz’s brilliant performance in Downfall was both celebrated and criticised for ‘humanizing’ Adolf Hitler.

Is it too much to expect all this of a film – and to be entertained as well? In the week of Bruno Ganz’s death, it is worth remembering what can be achieved. Though no Hollywood blockbuster, and perhaps known to many people only via much-circulated social media memes with joke subtitles, Downfall – and particularly Ganz’s electrifying portrayal of Adolf Hitler – demonstrates that films can indeed combine serious, well-researched history and gripping entertainment. More, please.

Ralph Miliband Biography Review

A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles – not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

‘Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left’ by Michael Newman

Twenty years on, I can still vividly recall scanning the shelves of the university library – me, an eager second-year history/politics undergraduate – in search of a Marxist critique of fascism and happening across a book by Nicos Poulantzas. Three hours, one much-thumbed dictionary, two headache tablets and five pages later, I gave up. My next encounter with the World of Marx was Professor David McLellan’s 1973 biography of Marx himself: well researched and worthy, to be sure, but dense and daunting for the uninitiated. Finding Ralph Miliband was something of a revelation, therefore, for here was a academic – what’s more, an avowedly Marxist academic – with both the ability and the willingness to elucidate Marxist ideas in an accessible way.

Miliband’s most influential book – The State In Capitalist Society – transformed the political sciences in the 1970s and provoked a famous debate with the aforementioned Poulantzas, in part concerning the role and importance of abstract theorising. Poulantzas championed an ultra-theoretical school of Marxism that shunned empiricism and seemed to glory in abstruse theorisation. For these ‘Althusserians’, Marxism had its own discourse, purposely distinct from much of the terminology and assumptions of ‘bourgeois’ debate and thus intelligible only to those who could decode its arcane meanings. Miliband, on the other hand, always sought to test even the most basic of assumptions within the Marxist tradition with reference to the ‘real world’. Moreover, Marxism was much more than a theory for Miliband: it was a guide to action.

As Michael Newman’s book shows, Miliband was an academic, a teacher but, above all, a committed socialist – happiest when he felt he was contributing to the advancement of the left. Thus, in Parliamentary Socialism – the book that secured his international reputation in 1962 – by analysing the reasons for the Labour Party’s failure to implement ‘socialism’, he was implicitly offering a guide to future action. Apart from a brief flirtation with the Bevanites in the 1950s and the Bennite left in the 1980s, Miliband kept his distance from the Labour Party, highly sceptical as he was of its efficacy as an agent of socialist change. He spent his adult life in the ultimately fruitless search for a suitable vehicle to secure a political breakthrough, wedded to the belief that only a class-based political party could do so.

Born in 1924 into a Jewish home, Miliband’s political consciousness was awakened by the Nazi menace in the late-1930s. Though the death camps cast a dark shadow over his childhood and youth, Miliband was one of a number of European refugees who escaped the clutches of the Nazis, finding sanctuary in Britain and going on to form the nucleus of a radical intelligentsia that helped shape the cultural, academic and – to an extent – political landscape of the 1960s and early-70s. Indeed, Miliband lived through a remarkable, if turbulent and ultimately unsuccessful, period for the left. This book is in part, therefore, also a history of the British left from the twin crises caused by de-Stalinisation and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 through the upheavals of 1968 to the challenge of Thatcherism and the collapse of Soviet-type communism.

In writing the book, Newman had access to family, friends and Miliband’s own letters and papers, including a diary and notes made in 1983 for a planned but never completed autobiography. Newman uses this impressive selection of primary source material to paint a convincing portrait of the ‘private’ man as well as the more familiar public figure. His style is – like Miliband’s own – both accessible and, on the whole, eminently readable. A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles – not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

On the other hand, given the breadth of Miliband’s interests and concerns, judicious editing might have resulted in a more balanced book. Several extracts from Miliband’s work are quoted verbatim and at excessive length. Elsewhere, 13 pages are devoted to ‘the troubles’ at the LSE in 1968 and an entire chapter to his involvement in a campaign for academic freedom. This particular reader frankly hoped for less description and rather more in the way of reflection on matters such as Miliband’s position on academic freedom (which was somewhat inconsistent), his widening disagreements with others on the New Left vis-à-vis the nature and role of the working class by the 1980s and the wisdom of his wish to see a Marxist party of a non-dogmatic nature filling the void between the Labour Party and the Leninist CPGB (which he held in little short of contempt). Tightly written summaries of Miliband’s ideas and actions and relevant narrative would have given Newman more space for his own analysis, commentary and judgements.

This review relates to the edition published in 2002 by Merlin Press. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.

The Bibliophile’s Curse

I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes…I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.

First things first: I don’t read enough fiction. It’s not that I don’t try. I do, I really do. Disregarding Christopher Hitchens’ witty riposte to the old adage that everyone has a book inside them (actually said by Hitchens in relation to autobiographies and memoirs, it seems), I am not immune to the urge to write fiction: it is the middle-of-the-back itch that remains unscratched. So I know that I really ought to be immersing myself in the form. After all, isn’t the experts’ advice always the same: read, read and read some more?

Besides, who needs a reason to pick up a novel? I love words. I am in awe of skilful writing, regardless of genre. I enjoy a good story well told, and I delight in piecing together well-crafted, meandering, multi-layered plots. And yet, for all my good intentions, a familiar pattern invariably repeats, like a Newtonian law of reading: barely have I negotiated the opening chapters of a novel before the gravitational pull of non-fiction, usually something historical, political and/or biographical, becomes irresistible.

I hold learned and literary types in ridiculously high esteem, if for no other reason than their assumed ability to handle the question: what should I read next? An adjustment to my work-life balance two years ago created significant additional reading time: a wonderful opportunity but also a source of frustration, as bookish retirees the world over have doubtless discovered. So many intriguing literary avenues along which to wander for the first time; so many interesting new titles to explore, even down the relatively well-trodden paths of modern and contemporary history.

It started here: probably the first history book I ever bought.

At the same time, there are books upon books shouting out to be re-read. Perhaps I didn’t really appreciate or grasp them first time around. Maybe they are just so bloody good. They are here now, sitting impatiently on the shelves around me, vying for my attention. I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader, so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes: to pick a random selection, Volume III of Bullock’s biography of Ernie Bevin (900 pages), Bullock’s earlier biography of Hitler (800 pages), Michael Foot’s two-volume biography of Aneurin Bevan (1100 pages) and Kenneth O Morgan’s history of the Attlee government (a mere 500 pages). I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.

A word about my reading habits. I read every day and usually have three texts (one of which is the daily newspaper) on the go. The ‘classic’ slot kick-starts a typical day, the theory being that my mind is at its freshest first thing in the morning. Hatched as a way of negotiating War And Peace, the plan was then to tackle Dickens in chronological order, having been drawn in by David Copperfield. However, after The Pickwick Papers I was immediately sidetracked by Tess Of The D’Urbervilles (terrific) and The Rainbow (a real struggle). Now this pre-breakfast window is used for anything I consider too intense or ‘high-brow’ to be my main read of the day. For the last three months, I have been working through Leszek Kolakowski’s three-volume Main Currents Of Marxism. My ‘main’ read – picked up at various points of the day – alternates between non-fiction and fiction, probably on something like a – crikey – 5:1 ratio.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading fiction, popular as well as so-called ‘middle-brow’. Opening Stephen King’s 11. 22. 63 was like being transported back (sorry) to my teenage years, lapping up King classics such as Carrie, The Shining and Salem’s Lot for the first time. Gripping, all of them – or so it felt to my fourteen-year-old self. To experience the frisson that comes with not wanting to put a book down – rushing home from wherever, desperate to discover what happens next, recklessly staying up late to devour another chapter. To suffer the exquisite torture of reading a book that is almost literally unputdownable – at once exciting and excruciating. It’s the best kind of legal high, recommended for young and old alike.

It was the horror genre that weaned me away from football and music magazines and hooked me instead on reading books for pleasure. Back in the late ‘70s, virtually all horror films were certified ‘X’ (re-labelled as ‘18’ in 1982). This was before home video so, as a teenager, they were off-limits at the cinema. But no such restriction existed on books; the horror section of Wigan’s main bookshop quickly became a regular stop-off during Saturday-afternoon trawls of the town’s record shops. Stephen King was an early favourite, though I eventually tired of his formulaic writing style, as were James Herbert and even Dennis Wheatley from a different era. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist scared the shit out of me. Impossible to see at the cinema, of course, but nobody even lifted a disapproving eyebrow at the bookshop. Speaking of Wheatley, black magic films, as opposed to gory horror, were more likely to be shown on television. I consider The Devil Rides Out as the acme, Christopher Lee as the noble white knight playing wonderfully against type.

And so to The Rule Of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Why this particular book – and why now?

Cover quotes from The Independent and The Observer, plus the accompanying back-page blurb, did their job in piquing my interest, though references to The Da Vinci Code were mildly off-putting and any combination of words – usually involving ‘effortlessly’ or ‘seamlessly’ – about weaving together past and present must qualify as a cliché by now. Anyway, Kate Mosse has since set the back-and-forth-in-time bar dizzyingly high with Labyrinth. The Rule Of Four has a modern-day Princeton University setting but links back to Renaissance Italy.

Although modern history has always been my passion, I have strayed with increasing confidence over recent years from the familiar world of twentieth-century politics. Well-researched historical fiction is an accessible and enticing way into other historical worlds and, if the writing itch is ever scratched, my novel will likely be – at least in part – historical. As an aside, Jim Naughtie’s recent Meet The Author interview with Alison Weir was illuminating. An acclaimed (Tudor) historian who inhabits both writing worlds – fiction and non-fiction – it was fascinating to hear her discuss the different disciplines and methodologies involved.

Magical, in more ways than one. But, at 1000 pages, have I time to read it again?

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies hold my attention far better than a David Starkey tome, though this may merely reflect my low opinion of acerbic, odious, right-wing historians. The depictions of nineteenth-century England in Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell and The Essex Serpent are enchanting. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night In Winter (set in the Soviet Union) stands out, as does more or less everything – past or present – by Robert Harris. There’s Sebastian Faulks, of course. Human Traces may well be my favourite novel: dense, complex and challenging, it perfectly captures the intellectual temper of the times. I also have a particular penchant for time-travel stories, whatever the medium: Stephen Fry’s Making History and Ben Elton’s Time And Time Again are bona fide page-turners.

Having first engaged with John Le Carré aged seventeen via Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I am drawn to the puzzles, politics and moral ambiguities of the espionage world. The plot of The Rule Of Four revolves around a historical mystery – more precisely, a secret hidden within an arcane Renaissance text. Mainstream television usually leaves me cold but I make time for well-written mysteries and detective dramas – the likes of Inspector Morse (plus sequel and prequel), Poirot and Jonathan Creek. The recent Maigret reboot on ITV, with Rowan Atkinson as the title character, is terrific. Lucy Mangan in The Guardian dismissed the pilot as plodding and wooden (‘leaden’, to be precise), but I found it to be deliciously dark and broody.

A prized possession: this cost me £2.95 in 1981.

I am also a Holmesian of sorts. Watching re-runs of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes a couple of years ago found me reaching again for my dog-eared collection of the original Conan Doyle stories. The Name Of The Rose is another satisfyingly dense and intricate novel (complete with a sprinkling of Sherlock Holmes references) that thoroughly merits a re-read. Umberto Eco was, of course, a polymath – an expert in semiotics and aesthetics as well as medieval history and much else besides. In other words, a learned and literary type. My kind of writer.

And so, back to Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset. I am currently on page 204. What’s next on the ‘to do’ list, I wonder…

Aneurin Bevan Biography Review

Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator – a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers.

‘Nye Bevan’ by John Campbell

Arguably, Aneurin Bevan, the miner-turned-politician who became in roughly equal measure the darling of the British labour movement and the bête noire of the right-wing establishment, is better remembered than any other member of the historic 1945-51 Labour government – better than his colleagues Ernie Bevin (part-architect of NATO), Stafford ‘Austerity’ Cripps and even the Prime Minister himself, Clem Attlee. This is because Bevan’s name will be forever linked in the public consciousness with the NHS, which, as Minister of Health, he brought into being in 1948.

Unlike every other political issue of that era (it pre-dates serious squabbles over Europe by more than a decade and outlasted the Cold War), the health service continues to excite debate and controversy today. In this splendid biography, John Campbell examines the pertinent issues: the extent to which the NHS was Bevan’s own creation; his dealings with interested parties such as the BMA; the administrative and financial structures put in place to support this audacious social experiment; and the post-1948 political fallout.

Tellingly, however, Campbell devotes a mere 30 or so pages directly to the NHS – though indirectly it casts a lengthy shadow across the latter half of the book and the final decade of his life – because there was, in fact, so much more to this remarkable figure, a combustible mix of self-taught intellectual, instinctive rebel, eager, ambitious minister and charismatic leader. Campbell provides us with a fully rounded portrait of the man as well as analysing his impact on the Labour Party. He tackles with impeccable balance the highs and lows of Bevan’s life: the (relatively few) periods of triumph as well as the more frequent times of struggle, failure and schism – not to mention odd moments of bathos, most notably the publication of an eagerly anticipated book In Place Of Fear in 1952.

Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator – a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers. Moreover, it becomes apparent that his judgements about politics, about future developments, about the nature of mankind no less, were often seriously flawed – a consequence of a deterministic Marxism that he learnt in his youth and carried almost to the grave.

The controversies surrounding Bevan did not end with his untimely death in 1960. The party wounds of the 1950s, patched up for the 1959 hustings, were reopened well before the election of Wilson’s unhappy government in 1964. Thus, the first volume of Michael Foot’s biography, published in 1962, brilliantly written to be sure, is hagiographic and tendentious and reads best, as Campbell himself says, as “an episode in the long-running civil war” within the party.

Foot, himself a born rebel and Bevan’s Acolyte-in-Chief, refused to serve in Wilson’s first government and then renewed the fight with a second volume in 1973. In an excellent Introduction, Campbell deals with Bevan’s political legacy, particularly the claim made for Bevan’s imprimatur by a host of Labour politicians (the latest, to update Campbell, being John Reid, Blair’s Health Secretary since 2003) as they re-brand and re-invent policies – or (increasingly) consign them to the dustbin – and seek to sell a new manifesto to a deeply sceptical and conservative movement.

John Campbell is a fine, experienced biographer, scrupulously fair in the judgements that he reaches. The book is authoritatively written and meticulously researched, marred only by a handful of proofing errors. I confess to finding one ‘Wildean’ slip (a reference to Alan Bullock’s book Earnest (sic) Bevin in the bibliography) highly amusing but, as a reader with no knowledge of the publishing world, I am puzzled as to why such errors should remain to blight later editions of published works. This book was originally published under the title Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism in 1987 and re-issued with an abridged title ten years later, presumably to mark the coincidence of the centenary of Bevan’s birth and Blair’s first landslide.

Reading Campbell opens a window on the politics of a bygone era, allowing us to draw comparisons with modern times. Take age, for example. With Tony Blair having been Prime Minister for seven years by the time he reached 50, it is fascinating to learn that Bevan himself was the most junior member of the 1945 Cabinet aged 47. Or, take the press. Setting the headlines Bevan received c1951 alongside the obituary notices of a decade later, reminds one of the kicking meted out to Tony Benn, Bevan’s successor as Labour’s bogey man in the 1970s and 1980s, now rather fondly admired as a harmless, slightly eccentric, elder statesman.

The writer uses a 1997 Introduction to update us on important political developments in the decade since the first edition; the main text, however, seems to be untouched and, as Campbell went to some trouble to relate the political controversies in Bevan’s life to the issues of the 1980s (particularly Neil Kinnock’s battles to modernise party policy vis-à-vis nationalisation and unilateralism), the reader is left with an unmistakeable sense of the ephemerality and sheer unpredictability of modern politics. For example, writing in 1987, Campbell was obviously taking seriously predictions of the Labour Party’s terminal electoral decline (p253 – “Some would say [the 1951 election defeat] was the beginning of the end of the Labour Party”); a mere 14 years later in 2001 it was the Conservatives about whom such prognostications were being uttered.

I thoroughly recommended this marvellous book to political animals and the intelligent general reader alike.

This review relates to the edition published in 1997. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.

Bill Clinton Autobiography Review

A thematic approach might have allowed a more coherent analysis of Clinton’s overall record in office. On the other hand, the book at least has the advantage of raising issues as Clinton experienced them at the time (with occasional – and brief – pauses for reflection); day-to-day events are not neatly compartmentalised. One is frequently astonished by the bewildering pace of modern public life as Clinton lurches from one critical issue to the next.

‘My Life’ by Bill Clinton

Jed Bartlet, the fictional US President in TV’s The West Wing, is a political hero of mine, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I find myself instinctively warming to Bill Clinton. The Bartlet character is, in part, a reflection of Clinton – a deeply religious, hard working, liberal internationalist, driven by the desire to serve community and country.

A self-styled ‘New Democrat’, Clinton first came to national prominence as Governor of Arkansas in the 1980s. Architect of the once-fashionable ‘Third Way’, Clinton modernised the progressive message by co-opting core ideas from the conservative agenda (fiscal hawkishness, family values, work not welfare) and infusing them with a strong belief in social justice and opportunity for all. Along the way, he revitalised a factious Democratic Party, forced the Republicans to the wilderness of the radical right and blazed a trail for his soulmate Tony Blair to follow in Britain after 1994.

I approached this autobiography with some trepidation – as well as a dictionary of American idioms and an atlas. Though a keen student of politics, I am a novice with regard to American government; its systems, structures and procedures seem arcane and baffling. Another potential obstacle for the British reader is the vernacular of American politics, a problem compounded by the folksy, conversational style of Clinton’s writing. Hence, I’m still not au fait with the politics of campaign finance reform, ‘soft money’ and the rest and Clinton’s confession that, during preparations for the 1996 Presidential TV debates, George Mitchell “cleaned my clock” just mystified me!

Aside from the Bartlet parallels, it is evident that the Clinton presidency has proved a rich seam of storylines and subplots for The West Wing – as well as helping this reader negotiate his way through the White House labyrinth. Thus, I was suitably prepared for the bizarre tradition of pardoning a turkey each Thanksgiving; meanwhile, issues as diverse as brinkmanship in the Taiwan Straits, America’s refusal to sign an anti-landmines treaty and backstairs haggling with Congressional movers and shakers all have a familiar feel.

‘My Life’ is really two books spliced together – the one more enjoyable than the other. The weaker ‘Book 2’ covers the years of Clinton’s presidency. Written as a breathless narrative, this diary of events is a whistle-stop tour of domestic and (especially) international politics – a handy primer, perhaps, for first-year politics undergraduates – with everything from trade relations with South America to climate change negotiations meriting a paragraph or so.

A thematic approach might have allowed a more coherent analysis of Clinton’s overall record in office. On the other hand, the book at least has the advantage of raising issues as Clinton experienced them at the time (with occasional – and brief – pauses for reflection); day-to-day events are not neatly compartmentalised. One is frequently astonished by the bewildering pace of modern public life as Clinton lurches from one critical issue to the next. Even opportunities for mourning – whether for family (his mother), close friends and colleagues (Vince Foster) or political leaders (Yitzhak Rabin) – are sharply curtailed in the maelstrom of activity, and Clinton himself questions the extent to which he was truly master of ceremonies.

Less welcome is the overwhelming sense that everyone – but everyone – merits a line; My Life reads in places like a roll-call of thanks, of debts acknowledged and repaid. Yet, we are told that the final draft omitted “countless” numbers of people along the way! Central to Clinton’s survival and success in the cut-throat world of American politics was his remarkable ability, from a young age, to stockpile friendships (the so-called FOB – ‘Friends Of Bill’) and build up networks of powerful acquaintances across the social spectrum who could be mobilised when required to campaign tirelessly on his behalf.

This is a major thread running through ‘Book 1’ – the years before 1993. At times, the young Clinton comes across as almost too earnest: the reader comes to expect each paragraph to end with a lesson gleaned from each experience or happenstance of life. Nevertheless, it’s an appealing story of an intelligent and thoughtful young man raised in a poverty-stricken southern state struggling to come to terms with trends in postwar society, through university (including two years at Oxford) under the shadow of Vietnam and ultimately to a career in politics.

Some readers will buy this book to read about the scandals that bedevilled his time in office. It is, of course, Clinton’s opportunity to present his own version of events but there is enough soul-searching and self-criticism throughout the book to convince me of his basic integrity, humanity and overwhelming commitment to public service. If his version of the ‘Whitewater’ story is one-sided then it is arguably a welcome corrective after incessant mudslinging by a largely hostile and partisan media, happy to accept financial backing from implacable opponents of Clinton and to weigh in with presumptions of guilt. Revealingly, Clinton refers to ‘Whitewater World’. He is implying, in effect, that the obsessives who lived the story year-on-year were ‘on another planet’ but it also suggests a psychological need to ‘box off’ Whitewater in his own mind in order to get on with the day-to-day job of governing.

The absence of prurient detail is welcome but his sexual shenanigans did have a major impact on his life story: they put his marriage under intense strain, almost cost him the Democratic nomination in 1992 and led to an impeachment trial. Yet, the first reference to his adultery only comes during his account of the Gennifer Flowers furore at the time of the New Hampshire primary in early-1992. Politicians are, of course, entitled to a private life that is private but this politician has written his autobiography – ‘My life’ not ‘My Political Life’ – and one is left in this case with a nagging sense of a lack of full disclosure.

This review relates to the hardback edition, published in 2004. It was uploaded to Amazon in August 2004. The only alteration to the text is the addition of several paragraph breaks and of the word ‘nagging’ in the final sentence. 

‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ Review

One is left with a nagging sense of disappointment that the Grand Old Man of the British centre didn’t bequeath to us the definitive story of this liberal internationalist and champion of progressive politics – a man very much like Jenkins himself, in fact.

‘Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ by Roy Jenkins

A ‘Note on the Text’ declares that Roy Jenkins died “[s]hortly before completing the final text of this book”. We are further told that the text was completed by Professor Richard Neustadt to whom Jenkins was intending to show his manuscript. Perhaps Jenkins then planned to flesh out the book; for, in truth, this slight work has much more the feel of a draft rather than the finished product.

Its focus continued Jenkins’ penchant for tackling the ‘greats’ of modern political history; FDR is certainly in the top rank of American presidents. This book probably arose out of the writing of his magnificent ‘Churchill’, as the stories of these “two great superstars” so obviously converged in the years 1940 to 1945; there are also many parallels as well as points of contact in their lives – as Jenkins is quick to draw out.

However, the myriad references to Churchill (and to a lesser extent Gladstone) eventually become irksome and increasingly feel like fillers – evidence, in fact, of an unpolished, unfinished work. Frankly, after ‘Gladstone’ and ‘Churchill’, 720 pages and 1024 pages respectively, this book seems altogether too slight for a political giant such as FDR. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically inferior about the slim biographical volume (see Norman Stone’s ‘Hitler’, for example) but, if this really was Jenkins’ intention, then the reader is left questioning the overall shape and balance of the book. To cite one example from page 99, Jenkins devotes a lengthy paragraph to details of the international context of the later-1930s. And yet, major events in FDR’s career worthy of in-depth exploration – his time in the federal government before and during the First World War and his governorship of New York between 1928 and 1932, to cite two glaring examples – are all but passed over or sketched out in cursory detail. Elsewhere, storylines are left dangling in the air; his wife Eleanor, for example, a key figure in the early part of the book, virtually disappears from the story after 1933.

For the intelligent general reader, important factual information is often lacking (what, for example, was the “very messy naval drugs and homosexual scandal” of 1919-1920?); meanwhile, the student of American history is left bemoaning the absence of definitive, closely argued Jenkinsonian judgements on the New Deal and Allied Grand Strategy during the Second World War. A further tell-tale sign of a ‘work in progress’ is Jenkins’ observation on page 21 that “the politics of party loyalty from time to time makes monkeys of all who accept it”. Quite possibly true – and Jenkins would know as well as most – but this reader was rather disappointed when Jenkins reuses exactly the same idiom on page 113. Further, for a biographer with such an ability to select the telling phrase or the revealing anecdote, it seems curious that that he should feel the need (p123) to spell out the punchline to the “savage joke” of Britain’s military superiority in 1940-41. This reader also found the Americanised text – “behavior”, “harbor” and so on – an annoyance.

And yet, as always, there is much to admire in Jenkins’ style – the felicitous phrase, vivid imagery (“mahogany-voiced”) and idiosyncratic choice of vocabulary (“eleemosynary” – meaning charitable) – though, at times, even Jenkins perhaps overreaches slightly (the medal table image on page 4 and the extended dancing metaphor on page 126-7 spring to mind). The confidence with which he draws comparisons between historical personalities is a joy; we can revel in his assessment of the best US presidents, the most effective vice-presidents and the British prime ministers who outstayed their welcome. His pen-portraits of people (one senses that Jenkins actually knew them – which, on occasion, he did) and places are deliciously well drawn; he effortlessly sketches the privileged milieu of America’s New York-based patrician class into which FDR was born. In so doing, he demonstrates that the skilled biographer is at least as well placed to portray an historical time and place as the writer of a general history. The trademark wit and an eye for quirky detail are still evident; his observation that, when staying at FDR’s family home, King George VI would probably have had to traverse the bedroom of the Canadian PM (also a guest) for a midnight pee is quintessential Jenkins.

This book can be recommended in the general sense that anything written by Roy Jenkins is worth reading. But in truth it is something of an anticlimax, an unsatisfactory swansong after two magna opera. It is questionable whether Jenkins has even nailed the case for FDR’s greatness. One is left with a nagging sense of disappointment that the Grand Old Man of the British centre didn’t bequeath to us the definitive story of this liberal internationalist and champion of progressive politics – a man very much like Jenkins himself, in fact.

This review relates to the hardback edition, published by Macmillan in 2004. It was uploaded to Amazon in June 2017.

Who was Diogenes?

The flimsier the historical evidence, the more entertaining the characters and stories.

Maybe not a ‘law’ of history, but a useful rule of thumb nevertheless. Diogenes has bequeathed us nothing in writing. Instead, into the historical vacuum of evidential mystery and uncertainty rushes a combination of myths, tall tales and caricature. Not so much EP Thompson’s enormous condescension of posterity as its insatiable desire for a good story. Hence the modern-day popularity of tabloid newspapers, celebrity gossip and online ‘clickbait’ stories. Who cares if the reality is altogether more down to earth and prosaic?

There is certainly no shortage of good stories relating to Diogenes: the man who lived in a tub; the man who walked round in daylight with a lamp ‘looking for a man’; the man who was lippy to Alexander the Great and lived to tell the tale; the man who masturbated, urinated and defecated in public.

In fact, other than a few scraps, little is known for certain about Diogenes. He was born in the late fifth century BC in Sinope, a bustling seaport on the Black Sea. As a young man, he was caught up in some sort of scandal, possibly involving his father and the local currency, forcing him to leave his home and possessions behind. One story has him consulting the oracle at Delphi and receiving advice to ‘deface the currency’. At face value, a typically enigmatic oracular pronouncement – given that currency defacement may have been at the heart of the earlier scandal. But, if we interpret ‘currency’ to refer to conventional standards and codes of behaviour, then the instruction becomes one of cocking a snook at polite society, of deliberately upsetting the applecart. If so, this puts him somewhere near the head of a long line of contrarians and non-conformists through history – the sort of people AJP Taylor, in a different context, referred to affectionately as ‘troublemakers’.

The story of Diogenes reminds us of the old truism about taking time to dig deeper rather than rushing to judgement. Diogenes and his master Antisthenes are regarded as the original Cynics, founders of the Cynic school of philosophy. Cynicism, an unappealing and unpleasant attribute, well described by HG Wells as “humour in ill health” is defined by the OED as “[b]elieving that people are motivated purely by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity” and “[c]oncerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted standards in order to achieve them.” But the name ‘cynic’ actually derives from the Greek for ‘dog-like’ and was a reference to the extreme squalor in which Diogenes and others chose to live.

His inspiration was Socrates, who rejected the link between material comforts and happiness, as well as fiercely championing open-mindedness and the right to question authority. It became the basis of his method of teaching (‘Socratic dialogue’) and a supreme virtue in itself. Stories of the lifestyle Diogenes chose – dressing in rags, begging, eschewing the comforts of conventional life – sound remarkably similar to the extreme asceticism practised by religious adherents down the ages. Rejection of crude materialism and of conventional standards and norms of living was their route to freedom – freedom, that is, from human failings such as pride, desire and jealousy. Diogenes’ follower, Crates, supposedly abandoned a rich inheritance to embrace the life of the Cynic. Only with the actions of later followers of Diogenes and the first Cynics – shamelessly living off the largesse of others, relentlessly satirical and sarcastic – did ‘cynicism’ acquire the characteristics we now associate with the word.

As for his more extreme utterances, given that none of his writings survive (if indeed he even wrote anything) who can possibly say whether words and views attributed to him – in favour of cannibalism and incest, for example – were actually said and, even if they were, whether they were meant literally or just for shock value, another way of upsetting conventional tastes? In reality, the antecedents of many of the values and principles that liberal democracy rightly cherishes – freedom of conscience, universal brotherhood, respect for all life, including that of animals – can be found in the teachings of Socrates and the Cynics who followed. Far from being cynical in its modern usage, they were passionately interested in moral virtue: the representation of Diogenes as the ‘man with a lamp’ actually links to his supposed search for a truly ‘just’ man.

And so we have the fictional Diogenes Club, first mentioned in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Containing “the most unsociable and unclubable [sic] men in town”, its members were expected to ignore each other and talking was not permitted under any circumstances. Eccentric, peculiar, unconventional – the name ‘Diogenes’ seems fitting. Yet the word ‘cosmopolitan’ – citizen of the world – possibly originated with Diogenes. In these days of growing intolerance, rampant bigotry and narrow-minded xenophobia, at levels not witnessed since the 1930s, this minor fact, apart from anything else, seems to me to recommend him as a figure of interest.