Britain, from Armistice to Hungry Thirties

Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars

Simon Heffer, London: Hutchinson Heinemann, 2023, 960pps., £35

KEN BELL finds much of interest in an account of the interwar years, but wishes it was less Tory

Simon Heffer’s Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars is the final part of a three-volume work which takes the country from the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Heffer belongs to the Tory school of historiography, so the reader who expects a social historian’s account of poverty in south Wales is going to be disappointed. History for those of that school is made by statesmen who sit in magnificent drawing rooms where they decide the fate of nations over maps. Sing As We Go is a quintessential account written in that style.  

A sizeable chunk of Sing As We Go is taken up with a reappraisal of Neville Chamberlain, a man condemned in the popular mind as Hitler’s dupe. As Heffer makes clear, appeasement was a policy that began before Hitler even came to power, with the word itself being first honoured with a place in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1933. The British, ever the fans of balancing the great powers off against each other, had been siding quietly with Germany against France since the 1920s. So, appeasement until the Munich Agreement was the policy of a confident British state that did not want France to become too dominant in the years after the Great War. As Heffer writes it was not about “surrender, capitulation or humiliation by or of the appeaser.”

Leaving foreign policy aside, and to be fair to the statesmen of the era, for the first time in British history they had to engage in the “economic management” of the country. It is no wonder that they did not know how to manage a modern state and economy, as nobody had ever had to do that before. So as Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain was not ashamed to admit privately that he was “very frightened at the financial part,” which is pretty much the central aspect of any chancellor’s role. He certainly seemed to make a better fist of the office than Winston Churchill, who admitted that whilst he understood the words of the generals, the economists “all talk Persian.”

Neville Chamberlain (second from left) visiting Newcastle slums in 1925. Image: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

As Chancellor, Chamberlain helped grow the economy during the Great Depression by spending large sums on rearmament, a fact that was much criticised at the time and is often forgotten today. As Prime Minister the output increased, leading Stafford Cripps, that most cadaverous of vegetarians, to comment that “every possible effort” had to be made to stop military recruitment. He even went on to tell a group of future aircraft builders that they should “refuse to make armaments.” It is hard to believe that Cripps would later be appointed as Minister of Aircraft Production in the Churchill government. Such things can only happen in Britain. Nevertheless, Britain was better prepared for war in 1939 than she would otherwise have been had Chamberlain not spent so many millions on the armed forces throughout his time as Chancellor and then Prime Minister.

The economy by 1937 was booming, but not in the heavy industrial areas of south Wales, northern England and the Scottish central belt. Heffer refers in passing to the distress in such areas, but it is not really the concern of his school of historiography to consider people who live below the elite level, so Heffer asks us to concentrate on the economy as a whole where output and prosperity increased.

Heffer deals with the Irish War of Independence very well indeed, with an even-handedness that surprised me. He is no fan of Eamon de Valera, but few of today’s Irish historians are; the reappraisal of de Valera has been very harsh on the man and his record. That said, he is clearly impressed with Michael Collins, a man who was probably one of the finest guerrilla commanders of the twentieth century. It was Collins who ordered the killing of the ‘Cairo Gang’, a high-level squad of British counter intelligence officers, an action that was carried out with brutal efficiency one Sunday morning. Many were still in bed when the IRA squads burst in and killed them, some in front of their wives or mistresses.

Heffer makes much of the shock and outrage that this action had in the USA and does rather play down the fact that the killings destroyed the British counter-intelligence operation in Dublin. The countryside was largely controlled by the IRA, and the Sunday morning operation in Dublin meant the capital city was also largely controlled by Collins’ men. I suspect that General Collins was happy to take that outcome, and could live with a few outraged headlines from across the Atlantic.

Simon Heffer is on firmer ground when he considers the London negotiations between the British government and the Irish plenipotentiaries to end the war. We are back to the world that Heffer loves the most, that of statesmen in drawing rooms, passing the port and taking momentous decisions. We are given some interesting vignettes of the negotiations, with Collins, the guerrilla leader, complaining to the arch-imperialist Winston Churchill that the British had put a £5,000 reward on his head. Churchill showed Collins a £25 reward poster that the Boers had put on his head two decades earlier. “Collins laughed and the air cleared,” when Churchill pointed out the disparity between the rewards offered that was clearly in Collins’ favour.

The negotiations were conducted on both sides by men who acted in good faith and who wanted a settlement, so compromises were possible. The Irish agreed to take over the Royal Irish Constabulary, change the name and keep the officers. The British accepted that their paramilitary unit of former British officers known as the ‘Auxiliaries’ or ‘Black and Tans’, who mainly guarded fixed locations such as police stations, were a British problem and cost that was not to be charged to Ireland. The British quickly withdrew both units from Ireland, paid them their outstanding wages and discharged them from service.

This level of reasonableness leads us to the final third of the book which is concerned with Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler. Heffer makes clear that it is a failure of Chamberlain that he did not cotton onto Hitler’s nature sooner than he did. As Heffer points out, Chamberlain’s supreme self-confidence led him to believe “that he was right” in just about everything, and it took him until early 1939 before he was forced to conclude that Hitler was “half mad”. However, Chamberlain’s reputation will need more than this volume to repair it from the charge that he was Hitler’s stooge, but it is a fair start to the process. Few people realised just what a chancer Hitler was, but at least when that realisation finally dawned, Neville Chamberlain, more than any other, was the man who ensured that Britain had modernised armed forces that could enter the lists against the rearmed Germany.

Viewed overall, Sing As We Go is a solid account of how Neville Chamberlain and others struggled to come to terms with the Britain that emerged from the Great War as the country groped, almost blindly at times, towards the next one. The Britain of Victoria’s era would have dealt with Ireland as she dealt with the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to argue that historically the British treated the Indians and Catholic Irish as if both were dodgy natives who needed a firm hand. By 1921, the British seem to have been pleasantly surprised that Michael Collins and his men were not the dubious natives of the popular imagination, but actually reasonable chaps with reasonable demands. That changed attitude would stand the British in good stead a generation later when it came time to negotiate the end of the Raj.

The Prince’s side

Spare

Prince Harry, Bantam, 2023, 416pps., £20
KEN BELL finds the Prince’s blockbuster book unexpectedly engaging

There can be few people in the English-speaking world who have not read a review of Spare, the memoir written by Prince Harry, and it is a pity that so many of those reviews seem to have been written by people who have not actually read the Prince’s book. A cynic might argue that the press is seeking revenge for what Prince Harry wrote about them in his book, or even that a section of the Royal Family really is out to get him. The press, certainly, come in for Harry’s ire, and if one of the motives for writing Spare was a desire to pay the press back with interest for their attacks on him, he has succeeded.

The most egregious example of dubious reviewing concerns Harry’s service in the most recent of Britain’s Afghan wars. Reviewers have told us that the Prince boasted about killing 25 enemy troops, when a simple reading of the text shows that he did no such thing. He was a helicopter weapons officer, charged with firing the missiles and guns at specific targets. Each operation had to be confirmed by men sitting in comfort far behind the lines, and afterwards the video of the action was played and replayed to make sure that the terms of engagement had been met. That was a judgement passed by men who also fought the war in comfort, far removed from what passed for the front lines in that country. What the Prince wrote in this section of his book reads like a fighting officer’s report of his engagements, rather than a former staff officer’s saloon bar boasting.

The first of the three parts which make up this volume is concerned with Harry’s childhood, the loss of his mother and his relationship with what is probably the most dysfunctional family in the world – all coupled with the most loathsome press who did seem to have it in for him. This section contains the supposed gloating at an alfresco sex bout in a field, which tuned out upon reading the book to be nothing of the sort. The whole matter is dealt with by the author in about 60 words, and is only referred to owing to an amusing mix-up between the Prince who thought that he was due to be hauled over the coals because of his sex romp, and a Buckingham Palace official who had been sent to confirm an unfounded tale that the Sun newspaper planned to run about drug taking.

Prince Harry did not manage to get the story killed, and his family declined even to try to defend him, so the evidence if fairly strong that memoir is in no small measure an act of revenge against the likes of the then editor of the Sun, who was, the Prince assures us, “an infected pustule on the arse of humanity, plus a shit excuse for a journalist.”

To be fair to the Prince, he does have good reason for his outrage. He went to a nightclub and chatted briefly to a pretty girl who turned out to be a topless model. The press got wind of this and began to run stories about how Harry was letting his family down by going out with such a girl, even though he wasn’t. His military service in Iraq was cut short because an Australian paper got hold of the details of his military deployment and he had to be quickly spirited out of the country before the enemy could mount an assault to capture or kill such a royal prize.

That said, the first section is in many ways the most moving part of the memoir and yet also the most unsatisfying. We are told so much about his childhood and how he came to terms with the death of his mother, and I defy anyone not to be moved by Prince Harry’s account of how he pretended that his mother had hidden herself away somewhere to avoid the attentions of the media and would return to him when the time was right.

Clearly, this was a boy who loved his mother, and was loved deeply by her. However, the area that may have been excised or at least toned down, concerns the author’s relationship with his father. For instance, we are told that Charles went to visit Diana soon after she had given birth to Harry and exclaimed: “Wonderful! Now you have given me and heir and a spare – my work is done.” He then strolled off “to meet his girlfriend”, which rather says it all about the man.

It is one thing for a Prince of Wales to have a harem of his own, as Prince Bertie, the heir to Queen Victoria had. When he was eventually crowned as King, a whole section of the Abbey had to be set aside for his mistresses. The man had three favourites and any number of others who came and went: he was truly a worshipper at the altar of Priapus. However, what he never did was personally humiliate his wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, in the way that Charles did Diana.

Both Bertie and Charlie made dynastic marriages with the aim of producing heirs and spares, but Bertie did seem to genuinely care for his wife and children. That did not stop him from bedding dozens of other women, but it did mean that the royal family was kept secure, and Queen Alexandra was contented enough with the situation to become friends with some of the senior mistresses.

Prince Charles seemed to have adopted a Mills & Boon attitude to life, with his wife cast as the villainess in the piece. This memoir could have provided Harry with a perfect opportunity to analyse his father’s incomprehensible behaviour and put it into some kind of context, but he missed that opportunity. So the mystery of why Charles could not maintain a decent front with Diana remains unresolved in this memoir. Instead, Harry contented himself by giving examples of Charles’ distant behaviour towards his sons which he unsatisfactorily summarises by saying that Charles had “always given an air of being not quite ready for parenthood… But single parenthood? Pa was never made for that.” This is thin analytical gruel, but it is the best that we get.

The third and final section of the memoir is mainly concerned with Meghan and his life with her. It is the gentlest and most hopeful section of the book, and it left this reader wishing the author well in his new life, as far away from the surrealism of his upbringing as it is possible to get.

Coster living

Beer-makers, Clapham Common, 1877. Wikimedia Commons

Street Food: Hawkers and the History of London

Charlie Taverner, Oxford University Press, 2023, 256pps, £30
KEN BELL remembers the street-traders who fed a burgeoning city

The image of London street food is a trendy one, with well-paid hipsters eating what they sweetly tell each other is authentic, usually ethnic, food that is purchased at a high price from a sleek metal catering caravan that has an expensive license to trade. However, for generations until the middle of the last century, as Charlie Taverner shows, street food was how the bulk of Londoners got their daily sustenance.

Many of them had no choice, because as London expanded, the established markets ever became further away from the new centres of population. A large number of people lived in rookeries, such as the monstrous one that existed quite near to today’s Regent Street, where they lived several to a room with little or no cooking facilities apart from, perhaps, a fireplace in the kitchen if they were lucky. So street hawkers enabled the urban poor to keep body and soul together.

Mrs. Hunt, selling at Covent Garden, 1923

The capital outlay needed to become a street hawker was very low, as a large wicker basket could be obtained for a small sum and the apples or other fruits needed to fill it being readily available at the Covent Garden market. Consider Mrs Hunt who was photographed in the 1920s with her wicker basket of apples (see above). One foreign visitor in the 1600s noted that Londoners did not eat much fruit at home, but were “always munching through the streets, like so many goats”, so we can imagine that women like Mrs Hunt were selling soft fruit to theatre audiences in Shakespeare’s day. Fast forward a few decades to the Restoration, and the legend of Nell Gwyn and her oranges is well-known even today.

Pretty much anything edible was sold on the street, with herring, shellfish and eels becoming as ubiquitous as the fruits. Milk was sold by milkmaids who purchased their supplies from the owners of herds of cows that were kept in London. In the days before milk was pasteurised or sterilised, an army of maids selling the fresh variety ensured that the supplies reached the consumers in a reasonable condition.

A step up in terms of capital outlay from the baskets was the wheelbarrow, which meant that more produce could be carried and sold, including hot food, and by the Victorian age, hawkers were selling hot pies and potatoes from an oven atop a wheelbarrow. Hawkers of hot coffee also used them with a brazier of hot coals, although quite why coffee was preferred by the street sellers and their customers to tea is anyone’s guess.

Finally, we have the hawkers who either owned or rented a cart which they pushed by hand or had pulled by a donkey. These were the famous London costermongers and although Taverner accepts them as a caste apart, he really does not give them credit for just how far apart they were even from the bulk of the street hawkers. A costermonger was noted for his dress, which was invariably topped off with a large handkerchief worn around his neck called a Kingsman. A costergirl would take one of her man’s handkerchiefs and wear it draped across her shoulders for probably the same reason that a girl today enjoys helping herself to one of her boyfriend’s shirts. Costers spoke a cant tongue to each other and were largely illiterate, mathematical geniuses. They could work out how much profit was to be made for a given wholesale price in their heads and then set to work in family groups to earn it.

They had to operate in a family unit as the work was labour-intensive. Children would be put to work intermixing live eels with dead ones in the hope that the customers did not notice and others would boil fading oranges to give them the illusion of vitality. When times were bad, costergirls were not adverse to a spot of whoring, usually with their boyfriends doubling as pimps and protectors. Much of this street colour is missing from Taverner’s work, which I think is a pity, but it probably owes a lot to the fact that it was first written as a university thesis.

That said, Street Food is an excellent overview of the earnings of street hawkers and a discussion of the casual nature of the work, with some hawkers shifting from street hustling on their own accounts to working for employers when such work became available. One such man who sold whelks is quoted as bemoaning that “seafood don’t pay more than a poor living,” so when times were really bad, “he left his wife with the barrow and took odd jobs such as beating carpets and cleaning windows”.

This casual economy reminds today’s reader of London’s latest innovation – the gig economy, with the delivery riders taking the place of the street hawkers of old. If we add to them the army of men who push the unlicensed hot dog carts around the West End of London, chased by the council jobsworths in much the same way as the costermongers were harried by officialdom in their day, a good case can be made for saying that everything has changed and much has remained the same.

The passing of traditions

Photo: Ben Kirby. Courtesy of Pexels

Whatever Happened To Tradition?

History, Belonging and the Future of the West

Tim Stanley, Bloomsbury Continuum, October 2021, 272 pages, £20

KEN BELL finds that banished traditions can come back in new ways

The central theme of Tim Stanley’s Whatever Happened to Tradition is that tradition in the West has been demolished by its great enemies of liberalism and enlightenment. That is not to say that enlightened men cannot also be conservative and traditionalist – and Stanley doesn’t claim that – rather that liberal, enlightened values are so dominant that they have taken over for the present their conservative opponents. Thus, writes Stanley, “Conservatives, most already economically liberal, have become more socially liberal; the left, most already socially liberal have become more economically liberal.”

So what we have in the West is not a debate between liberals and conservatives, but rather a managerial dispute as to which faction can increase the size of the state to better meet the demands of the populace. This is made worse by the fact that the elites “keep cocking things up,” which they do time and time again as we may be reminded in the winter of 2023 when we undergo power cuts.

Time was when the growing and increasingly authoritarian state would have been opposed by Tories who drew their inspiration from the ideals of the ‘freeborn Englishman’, with his pot of beer and his plate of roast beef. However, today’s Tories are just as much opposed to those notions of responsible individualism in an ordered society as any liberal New-Labourite. One can make a good, Tory position out of support for the miners during the Great Strike of 1984/85. Stanley reminds us that the miners were men who were not fighting to overthrow the established order. Instead what they wanted was to defend their position within that order; a position that involved decent pay and conditions backed up by a strong union. An old-style Conservative could hardly argue against the mines on the basis of economics, especially when the foundations of his beliefs are the monarchy, the Anglican Church, and the legitimacy of the established order. Few of those will bear close scrutiny from an accountant with a balance sheet.

Yet, the Tories are a pragmatic bunch as evidenced by their wholehearted acceptance of what used to be called the Gay Liberation Movement. When I was a young man, the homosexualists allied themselves with the broader Labour movement. We tolerated their predilections, and they took on board our view of how the economy should be run. It was the perfect alliance, with both sides getting something out of the deal. But by the end of the last century, the radical gay pride events had run their course and were attracting fewer and fewer supporters each year. This was especially true in London where the Pride Festival organisers found themselves at the door to the poorhouse. Corporate capitalism came to the rescue and transformed “a protest into a party endorsed by Tesco and Lloyds Bank… nowadays there are probably more middle-class heterosexuals at Pride than gays or lesbians.” Given that the Tories were only recently the party that introduced legislation that banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools, their transformation is a sight to behold.

It is also a very traditional Tory path to take. The party’s aim is the maintenance of the socio-economic status quo: everything else is just tactics. So, the Tories can ditch the anti-homosexualism and a few voters amongst the lower-middle-class in places like Nuneaton, and become pro-homosexual and get votes in Putney. Furthermore, a liberal line on gays does not cost money, unlike, say, levelling-up.

Tim Stanley does give traditionalists some glimmers of hope for a radical future, one coming from a very unexpected quarter. Fox hunting was a pastime of the old established order and was on its deathbed until New Labour gave it a boost by banning it. Hunts began to set their hounds to chase scents laid on the ground, which sounds rather desperate at first glance. However, the hunts became a focus of rural opposition to everything that rural people felt was wrong with the society at large. So thousands began to turn out to support their local hunt, with numbers increasing as urban people decided to go and support this traditional event.

The end result was the metamorphosis of the hunt from a minority interest to a mass event with an overtly political character. Hunt masters became the staunchest of Brexiteers and often provided the leadership for the Brexit campaign in their areas. Tim Stanley is surely correct when he speculates that all traditional values need is a little bit of state repression to give them a new lease on life.

A journey into Britain’s recent past

Image: Clem Onojeghuo. Courtesy of Pexels

About Britain: A Journey of Seventy Years and 1,345 Miles

Tim Cole, Bloomsbury Continuum, June 2021, 384 pages, £18.99

KEN BELL drives down a northwestern Memory Lane

The Festival of Britain in 1951 was intended to show that the war was over and Great Britain was back on her feet. As an ancillary to the Festival, a series of motorists’ guidebooks were written which covered all the regions of Britain. Each one of the thirteen guides contained several motoring tours that allowed the visitor to explore the country’s highways, gave advice on where to stop for food and drink, and contained plenty of photographs to keep the non-motoring public happy. Tim Cole, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, collected these guides and decided to follow a dozen of the routes. The book he wrote is a lyrical, yet sadly depressing, account of British decline since 1951.

It is interesting that none of the journeys include much information about the great cities that often start and end a journey. Newcastle is dealt with in a sentence or two about the football ground and the barracks, with the road out of the city being one of ‘unimaginative industrialism’, according to the 1950 author. It is unlikely that any modern guides would so dismiss the cities, but in 1951 the bourgeois motorist probably only saw them as starting points on his journey into the real land that was rural to his mind.

The chapter dealing with the Northwest interested me the most, mainly because as a Mancunian I am from that region. The original guide took the visitor through Preston and the mill towns, and was obviously intended to show Britain’s industrial might as well as offering nice views and decent eating houses. Some of those roadside hostelries are still in operation, by the way, but now they offer Indian and Italian foods rather than the meat and two veg of 1950. Preston in 1951 was a major port for the export of cotton and the mill towns of Accrington, Blackburn, Burnley and Nelson form a string of towns on the guide that the visitor would have driven though on his way to the Pennines and the wool towns beyond.

This is where the depression sinks in, as the Preston docks closed not long after the guide was written, just as Accrington and Blackburn lost their role of makers of cheap, thin cloth for the peasants of India and Africa to wear. Burnley no longer made ‘narrow cloths for printing’ and Nelson ceased to make patterned fabrics.

As Tim Cole points out, the 1950 author really did believe that the wartime boom would remain, and he then goes on to trace the sad decline from that optimistic year. He looks at the increasingly desperate attempts to introduce manmade fibres into the Lancashire spinning process, often using fibres that had been invented in Britain. Those new processes did not need an army of skilled or even semi-skilled workers: what they needed were a few unskilled machine minders, but even so, tariffs and competition from abroad quickly rendered the mill towns uneconomic. Each mill town brought over cheap labour from Pakistan to reduce the wage bill as a final throw of the dice, and when that failed, one by one the companies that had brought them to Lancashire shut up shop and left the towns to sink.

Tim Cole takes the reader out of Burnley, along the road to Colne, via Nelson and then up to the Pennine Hills and on into Yorkshire and the relics of its woollen past. I have made that journey myself many times and Cole’s sympathetic portrayal of the region shines through. Sadly, it is a journey from prosperity to aching poverty in a few short miles that took seven decades to complete.

Another American empire

Corpse of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico

The Last Emperor of Mexico: A Disaster in the New World

Edward Shawcross, Faber & Faber, January 2022, 336 pages, £20

KEN BELL reflects on a Mexico that might have been

Mexico has only ever had one ruler who cared about the Indians and he was shot by order of an Indian. Mexican humour always has a deadpan kick. How that ruler, an Austrian, ended up in Mexico only to die there is the subject of Edward Shawcross’ book, and a very good account it is of the whole ludicrously tragic event.

This disaster came in three acts, with the first being set in Mexico and created by the local politicians. The country became independent of Spain in 1821 and within 20 years had gone through 11 presidents, only one of whom had completed his term in office. Mexico had also managed to have an emperor who didn’t last long, either, before being shot [EDITOR’S NOTE: Agustín of Mexico, reigned 1822-3]. In the 1840s a lost war with the United States had stripped the country of its northern territories, and a decade later a civil war had added to the nation’s woes.

The author overstates his case by putting most of the blame on the United States, and ignoring the role of Mexicans as the authors of their own misfortunes. For instance, Mexico could probably have fended off America’s ambitions in the 1840s by recognising the independence of Texas, which they had lost in 1836. Britain quite liked having a free trade republic that bought British goods and sold cotton to Lancashire, and with a bit of prodding from Mexico would probably have guaranteed the independence of the Republic of Texas, thus giving Mexico a buffer state. Mexico was not prepared to do that as politicians outdid each other in their bombastic determination to promise that Texas would be restored to la patria. It is perhaps not surprising Texan politicians preferred the embrace of the United States, but with a bit more Mexican astuteness it might have been averted.

At root, Mexico’s problems came about because of the internal divisions in the country, divisions intensified by the fact that political factions organised themselves within the secrecy of Masonic lodges. Thus politics became a kind of conspiracy, fought out by factions behind closed doors. Politicians outdid themselves in promising to rain hellfire down on the United States and those who would betray the nation by compromising with Washington, before trotting off to the American embassy to try and negotiate some backroom deal. Shawcross shows that out of this chaos, two political factions emerged. The first was the conservative-monarchists who had managed to lose the War of Reform in the 1850s and were gagging for revenge. The others were the liberal-republicans who wanted a federal republic in Mexico based upon the example of the United States.

For the second act, Shawcross looks at events in Europe, a factor often overlooked, especially by Mexican historians who often seem to treat the French intervention as just another act of colonialism when actually it was far more. Catholic Europe by the 1850s had become afraid of the rising power of the Protestant United States. Napoleon III was an autocrat, but of a very modern kind, who believed in constitutions and science. He was a great fan of the newly developed science of statistics and his statisticians told him that the two million people in the USA in 1763 had become ‘32 million in 1863 and calculated that in 1963 it would be 512 million.’

It was fear of the growing USA that led the French to conjure up the notion of Latin America, with themselves as the head of a Pan-Latin movement to connect Catholic Europe to Catholic America and fend off the rising USA. Thus, Mexican conservatives who wanted an empire in Mexico found a very sympathetic listener in Napoleon III and the French intelligentsia and military. Having settled on the Austrian Archduke Maximilian, it only needed a small French army to land at Veracruz, move inland to Mexico City and hang around until the new Emperor arrived to take charge in the interest of France. What could possibly go wrong?

The final act showed just how badly things could. The Mexican republicans managed to defeat the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Actually, the French were only a part of the army as much of it was made up of Mexican conservatives, a fact which Mexican historians tend to overlook. Another factor in the defeat was that the bulk of the French officers and men were suffering from the affliction known as the ‘MexicanRevenge. It is very difficult to load and fire a musket when squatting down because your bowels have turned to jelly.

Eventually, the French did manage to install Maximilian in Mexico City, which was when the Mexican conservatives discovered that they had been lumbered with a liberal who was not willing to turn the full, reactionary forces of Catholicism against Protestant heresy. Maximilian often wore traditional Mexican dress, learned some of the native languages and was quite happy to promote American-Indians to high office, with General Tomas Mejia commanding his light cavalry. Mejia was actually a brilliant cavalryman who saved Maximilian’s fortunes on several occasions before dying next to him in front of the same firing squad in 1867, but for those ultra-conservatives who wanted a reactionary empire he was an example that Maximilian was rather too modern for their tastes.

Having alienated the conservatives, Maximilian was unable to reach an understanding with his liberal enemies, headed by Benito Juarez, who was also an American-Indian, because they did not need to compromise. Divisions grew in the conservatives’ ranks and having an Austrian on the throne meant the liberals could crank up Mexican xenophobia to its fullest extent. Juarez orated about freeing the country from all foreigners while at the same time negotiating with the United States for arms and supplies. As soon as the American Civil War ended, Washington was only too happy to keep its side of the bargain, leaving unspoken the fact that Mexicans were dying to get the French out of their country only for American business to move in.

The French abandoned Maximilian for the same reasons that the American would abandon South Vietnam: it was costing them far too many men and far too much money to continue the contest. Maximilian hung on for longer than anyone expected, until eventually one of his most trusted generals crossed the lines and betrayed him for $30,000, which admittedly was rather a lot of money in those days.

Edouard Manet: Execution of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico

During his time on the throne, a tomb began to be constructed for Maximilian, but after his death, the body was returned to Austria and the tomb was then completed and used for the body of Benito Juarez in 1872. About 25 yards away from Juarez’s tomb, is the grave of General Tomas Mejia, who died with his Emperor in 1867. After all the slaughter that had taken place, it is perhaps fitting that those two mortal enemies became neighbours in death: they were both Mexicans when all is said and done. It fell to Porferio Diaz, a liberal general, to seize Mexico by the throat following the death of Juarez and install the ‘liberal dictatorship’ that Maximilian should have created. His 35-year rule lasted until 1910, when everything fell apart again.

Shawcross has given us a solid account of this turbulent part of Mexico’s past, that surely merits a place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in the history of the Americas.

Cuba six decades later

Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962

Max Hastings, William Collins, September 2022, 576 pages, £30

KEN BELL recalls the Cold War’s most dangerous moment

2022 has been the sixtieth anniversary year of the Cuban Missile Crisis so a lot has been written about the event, with Max Hastings’ Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 being the year’s final offering. It is also one of the better works, especially since it is aimed, as Hastings notes, for ‘the general reader’. Thus the work assumes no prior knowledge of the events, so the first three chapters consist of an explanation of the interaction between Havana, Moscow and Washington in the decades leading to the Missile Crisis. I confess I found that a little tedious, but I suspect that I am not one of the target readers. That said, the work is footnoted throughout and comes with a very decent bibliography, so it will feature on a lot of student reading lists.

As the KGB archives were opened fairly recently in Ukraine and Serhii Plokhy mined them assiduously in 2021 to produce Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis there may not be much new material that is awaiting discovery. Given that, Hastings has produced a synthesis of the existing knowledge in a wonderfully readable form. Good historian that he is, he also manages to put new interpretations on much of this material.

For instance, Cuba managed to liberate herself from the American informal empire in 1959, and then went on without any outside help to destroy the American-sponsored attempt to bring the country back into Washington’s orbit at the Bay of Pigs. The USSR sent a delegation, headed by Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan to investigate what was going on, and Fidel Castro whispered to him that he ‘had been a closet Marxist since his student days’. As Hastings points out, ‘this fragment of autobiography’ was really nothing more than a ploy for Soviet support against the USA, but Mikoyan took the bait and returned to Moscow in a state of euphoria. The USSR had waited for a country to free itself from capitalism without the Soviet army forcing it on them, and here was Cuba doing just that. As Mikoyan later exulted to Dean Rusk, Cuba made the Soviet leadership ‘feel like boys again’ with the glory days of 1917 returning in a hot climate.

In other words, Havana made the running in the relationship with Moscow and Castro had the Soviet government exactly where he wanted it, doing his bidding. That, more than anything kept Cuban independence alive down the following decades as together the USA and USSR gave Cuba ‘the right friends and the best enemies’ that she could ever hope for.

The Soviet Union could probably have signed an agreement with Cuba that would have led to the former openly placing her missiles in Cuba, just as the USA had done with Turkey. The American reaction would have been the same, but it is possible that western Europe would have shrugged and a serious division might have been created between the United States and its European clients. That did not happen because of the mercurial personality of Nikita Khrushchev, who was a born gambler, not to say outright chancer.

Khrushchev was probably the worst man to put in charge of any foreign policy, because he invariably neglected to plan for contingencies. He thought that if the missiles could be installed in Cuba then the Americans would accept the situation just as they had accepted the Berlin Wall. When Washington refused to play along, Khrushchev was caught in a bind and had to find a way to get out of the situation that his failed gamble had created.

John F. Kennedy was willing to negotiate, but he was faced with a military that seemed to be basically insane as it egged him on to war. As one such lunatic said, if there were two Americans left standing at the end and only one Russian, then America had won. It is a tribute to his patrician sense of self-belief that he was able to ignore such madness and keep the negotiations with Moscow going until the other side finally blinked.

One wonders what would have happened had America been led by a Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush during that time, instead of a man who could take time out from looming Armageddon to order an underling to smuggle a young typist who couldn’t actually type into the White House to provide him with an evening’s entertainment. Say what you like about JFK; this was the era of the Imperial Presidency, he reigned at the height of the Pax Americana and he knew how to prioritise and ensure the obedience of those around him as well as any emperor during the Pax Romana.

The world came through the crisis in 1962, which is why I am able to write this in 2022. For the reader who wants to understand the sequence of events that led to that near catastrophe I cannot praise Max Hastings’ work too highly.

One last portion of ‘Chips’

Chips Channon. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons licence
The Diaries 1943-1957
Henry ‘Chips’ Channon and Simon Heffer, Hutchinson, 896pp, £35
KEN BELL closes the book on the celebrated diarist

This third volume of the Channon diaries concludes the publication of all the surviving diaries that have come down to us, and as with the previous two volumes it is a hernia-inducing doorstopper of a book. Chips really saw fit to include just about everything that he did in his diary and by 1943, with his ministerial career over, an awful lot of what went on involved Channon lounging in bed, making long telephone calls to snipe about others and planning his social engagements.

Although the war still had two years to run, it hardly impinged on Channon or his set, so there are few references to world events in this volume. Instead, we are treated to a series of engaging vignettes involving Channon and any number of other men getting it on, as the young people say. In previous volumes, Channon often seemed to want to do little more than allow women to see him naked and dream about young men, but by 1943 he is giving us chapter and verse on his sexual life.

Peter Coates (“Petticoats”), to whom we were introduced to in the second volume of the diaries, was still Channon’s great love, but as he was in India with the army that left Chips with plenty of free time. The House of Commons, according to Chips, was a sort of glorified molly house and Channon was quite happy to bed members from both sides, in a spirit of bipartisanship. Thus he had a fling with Labour’s Raymond Blackburn, an alcoholic who would later be imprisoned for fraud, and ended his days as an assistant to Lord Longford in the latter’s entertaining anti-porn campaign. Nigel Davies was a Tory MP who was also being bedded by Selwyn Lloyd, a future foreign secretary who ended up as Speaker of the Commons. That did not stop him from finding the time to have a foursome with Chips, the playwright Terence Rattigan and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.

As if there was not enough excitement in Parliament, Chips had the energy to enjoy a four-year fling with a corporal in the Life Guards, until 1955, when the soldier married a woman named Brenda. One likes to think that the money that Chips paid him gave the happy couple a good start to their new life. Channon was generous to all his bed mates, especially Rattigan who took over while Petticoats was away on military service. When Channon’s mother (whom he loathed) died and her final legacy of just over £1,000 arrived in Chips’ account, he spent most of the money on a gift for the playwright.

Channon’s often obtuse comments about the people around him are much in evidence in this volume. Upon seeing the images of starved corpses of concentration camp victims, he wrote: “The rows of dead emaciated bodies all looked like Margot Asquith naked!” At the end of his life, he was still as incapable of predicting the future as he had always been. Thus, in 1952, he predicted that “The new Queen is determined, humourless, serious and will be a success but not loved – after her youth and novelty wear off.”

He wasn’t too keen on the rest of the Royal Family, either. Chips avoided the Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend affair, “as I don’t like either of them”. He blamed it on the “fat Queen Mother” for being too lazy to stop the affair becoming a public scandal, and fulminated that Margaret was “a silly, selfish, ill mannered sensationalist”. Townsend he dismissed with his greatest insult of being “middle-class”. Chips, of course, loathed the middle-class with a passion: “How I detest the middle classes! Two from Southend proposed themselves to tea at the House and stayed two hours, never knowing when to leave!!”

We read Channon for his waspish descriptions of events. Thus, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, we learn that the four Garter knights carrying the Queen’s canopy managed to bungle the operation, and that Lady Carnock “was so drunk that she had to be removed forcibly from the abbey.” For his part, Channon nipped outside several times during the service onto the parapet for a cigarette and a chat with others having their own smoke breaks.

It is a pity Channon only commented on events in which he was directly involved, so there is no analysis of the Suez Crisis of 1956. Simon Heffer thinks charitably that this may be because Channon was in the last year of his life, but it seems more likely that Chips just didn’t care, because he wasn’t at the centre.

Channon in later life. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons licence

Nevertheless, he is a great chronicler of events during the first half of the last century. Even his failure to understand them gives us an insight into how men of his time and class thought; thus he gives us a window into the world of the upper-class Tory grandee, still at the height of his power. As an individual, I suspect that an evening with Channon would be an engaging night to remember.

It is to be hoped that a single volume of the diaries will be produced. This smaller portion of Chips is needed for the general reader who may not wish to plod through endless accounts of conversations with titled people and minor royalty. However, for the serious student of Britain in the inter-war and post-war period, these three volumes taken together are an essential primary source.

Abducted in Argentina

Memorial to the “Disappeared” at the Naval Mechanics Institute, Buenos Aires. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kidnapped by the Junta: Inside Argentina’s Wars with Britain and Itself

Julian Manyon, Icon Books, 336 pages, 2022, £20

KEN BELL is gripped by a ripping yarn of kidnap and high politics

Julian Manyon’s book is not a history of the Falklands War, but a gut-wrenching, highly personal account of one journalist who found himself being kidnapped by an Argentinean death squad against that background. Years later, the Americans released their CIA and diplomatic reports from the Argentina of the time, and Manyon synthesises these with his own experiences to analyse the Argentinean mindset that led to the war and their subsequent defeat.

Mexicans tell jokes about the Argies, with one of them going that the quickest way to get rich in Mexico is to buy an Argentinean at his true value and then sell him for the price he thinks that he is worth. When Mexicans regard a country as an international joke there is something clearly wrong with that country, but the Argentineans never seem to learn.

The kidnapping of Manyon shows just how surreal Argentina is, with an added dose of incompetence that makes the rest of Latin America look like a model of efficiency. Manyon and his friends were seized by a state kidnapping, torture and murder gang head by a certain Aníbal Gordon, an Argentine of Scottish descent who when he wasn’t pulling people’s fingernails out with pliers was a collector of fine art. The kidnapping began in the usual way when the boys in the Ford Falcons drew up and threw the group into the nice, four-door saloons with the ample boots that were ideal for driving the dead away to be dumped out of sight and out of mind.

An Argentine-built Ford Falcon, popular with death squads. Wikimedia Commons

Manyon offered a $800 bribe to Gordon, which should have been more than enough to ensure a speedy release, but Gordon just stole the money and continued with the kidnapping. Towards the end of his book, Manyon described his attempt to buy of Gordon as ‘pathetic’, but it was nothing of the sort: it was the normal way to sort out any problem with anyone wearing a uniform in Latin America. I was shocked when I read that Gordon had stolen the money, because how can you trust anyone you have bribed not to stay bought off? Unless everyone keeps to their side of the bargain, then the whole system would collapse. I was once pulled over in Mexico City on some spurious charge or other and as soon as the cops heard my accent they became rather uncertain as to how to deal with me. I had visions of being taken to the town hall under arrest and spending hours there sorting out the situation, so I hastened to assure them that I lived in the country and understood the rules very well. Their relief was palpable, because, as one of them explained it, you can never be too careful with dammed foreigners who don’t understand things, can you? Anyway, I paid my bribe and was given la clave del dia, or day’s code, which is a few numbers on a piece of paper. Thus if another patrol had pulled me over I could show them the code and they would not try to shake me down for more money.

Manyon’s group was taken to Gordon’s torture centre, and then thrown into yet another set of Ford Falcons and driven out into the countryside. There they were dumped almost naked at the side of the road as the cars roared off. They made their way to a small town police station where nobody was particularly interested in them, until one senior policeman was prevailed up to call Buenos Aires for information. According to Manyon, when the policeman heard the voice of the very senior figure on the other end of the line he jumped to attention and saluted the telephone. The group was then hastily returned to Buenos Aires and ended up having drinks with the Argentinean Foreign Minister. Luis Buñuel, who was still alive at this time, really should have made a film about that day in Manyon’s life.

Argentina’s President, General Leopold Galtieri (left), in 1982. Wikimedia Commons

The Americans had a good understanding of what was going on in Argentina during this period, and were fully aware of the death squads, but ignored them so long as the ruling junta remained onside in Reagan’s Cold War adventures. But puppets occasionally cut their strings, as the Argentinean ones did in 1982. Reagan tried to call Leopold Galtieri, Argentina’s president, but could not get him on the telephone. The Americans assumed that Galtieri was probably too drunk to pick up the handset, but when he finally did so it was on an old Bakelite phone both he and his interpreter had to use at the same time. Someone had connected the telephone to a tape recorder, and when Galtieri heard Reagan’s translated words he insisted that the recording be played back to him after the call had ended. Unfortunately, the tape recorder had not been properly connected to the telephone and all they heard was static.

Luckily for the Falkland Islanders, Argentina is as madly incompetent today as it was then, so they can live their lives in peace. Mexico and the rest of Latin America have a country they can crack jokes about, and Julian Manyon has a story that he can dine out on for the rest of his life. We are lucky he has chosen to share it with us.

The life (and luck) of Nigel

Photo: Gage Skidmore. Wikimedia Commons

One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage

Michael Crick, Simon & Schuster, 2022, 606 pages, £25

KEN BELL reflects on the career of Brexit’s cheeky chappie

Many of the people involved in the Brexit debate will merit footnotes in the histories of the period that have yet to be written. Nigel Farage, on the other hand, will have whole volumes dedicated to him, and Michael Crick’s biographymarks a worthy first contribution to the many that will arrive down the decades to come.

Farage is without doubt the most successful politician of our times. He did more than virtually anyone else to get the United Kingdom out of the European Union, and so has succeeded in all his political aims. He is also the luckiest. How much his success owes to pure chance is something for future historians to debate, but reading Crick’s work it is hard to argue with the notion that Farage was incredibly lucky with the opponents that he was given.

UKIP, the party he came to dominate, was founded in 1993 and would have probably remained a fringe outfit that would have been lucky if it had ever won a clutch of council seats. But then Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown came together, to provide the party, and Farage, with their first big break.

Prior to the 1997 general election, both Blair and Ashdown had discussed ‘The Project’, a plan to combine Blair’s Labour with Ashdown’s Liberal Democrats. But once Blair won his massive majority in 1997, he reneged on most of that, which left his erstwhile partner desperate to avoid being left completely out in the cold. Crick notes, ‘Ashdown fought to ensure that as a kind of consolation prize he at least got Blair to stick to his public pledge of PR [proportional representation] for the European elections of 1999.’ Blair tossed him that particular bone, but this also meant that minor parties now had a chance to gain seats.

UKIP took three seats in 1999, and came close in a clutch of others. It must be chastening for a Liberal Democrat to realise that had that election not been fought with PR, then the party would not have won any seats, and would probably have contented itself with another one of its internal rows that activists loved and real people hated. UKIP could quite possibly have split into its various factions, and the whole EU debate would have been held back for another generation.

One of the newly minted MEPs was Nigel Farage and given that UKIP had now gone from being a fringe outfit to a serious political party, invitations to appear on television came thick and fast. Farage could be relied upon to get his party’s supporters cheering at the TV, and at the same time enrage his party’s opponents. It made for perfect television, so Farage became almost overnight the household name he remains today. Again, luck played its part as the ‘Cavalier’ Farage was surrounded in UKIP by some pretty gruesome ‘Roundheads’ whom nobody sane would want anywhere near a television studio, representing the party or anything else.

Farage’s womanising activities are awarded a chapter all to themselves, which they deserve as Farage is an enthusiastic swordsman. However, I was struck with just how disapproving his ‘Kipper’ colleagues were with his women, and his carousing in general. Farage clearly enjoyed himself hugely in Brussels and that left his opponents looking even more gammon-like than usual. As he left to take up his seat in Brussels, a journalist asked if he was worried that he might become corrupted by the ‘lunches, dinners, champagne receptions’ and the like, to which Farage replied: ‘No, I’ve always lived like that.’

Anyone who has met Farage will recognise at once that he is very introverted. I met him once in 2013 after he had raised the roof at a rally. I asked him to agree to have his photo taken with me and he quite grumpily replied, ‘Yes, alright,’ before taking my hand and going into full grin-mode for the camera. As soon as it was over he scampered off before anyone else he didn’t know could talk to him. As an introvert myself, I knew immediately how difficult it must be for Farage to interact with strangers in any un-staged environment.

The author and Nigel Farage in 2013

Fast forward to 2019. In the run-up to the European elections, Farage came to address a monster rally in Edinburgh. I was one of the activists who were told to hang around after the event to go backstage and meet Farage. The idea was a bit of ego-stroking for us from the leader, with a few photos to show to our friends and handshakes all round. Instead, Farage left as soon as he walked off stage, which left a group of about a dozen people feeling very miffed indeed. Politicians know that a short pep talk to their senior activists is a big ingredient of any campaign dish. The politician tells the activists how important they are, mentions a few by name, before having the photos taken and then scampering off to the next campaign stop.

Farage broke that rule as he broke so many other rules of the political game. He got away with it partly because of his incredible luck, but also because for us it was always about campaigning to get Britain out of the EU, and nothing more. Nigel Farage, with his beer, his cigarettes, his women and cheeky grin, was the symbol of that but never its organiser.