Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)

‘Besides, you see, I’m a public school man. That means everything. There’s a blessed equity in the English social system,’ said Grimes, ‘that ensures the public school man against starvation. One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.’
(Captain Grimes in Decline and Fall)

This was Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel, after a little runup of student and young mannish articles. His preface to the 1961 edition of Vile Bodies tells us it was well reviewed but only sold a few thousand copies. It was Vile Bodies published 2 years later, in 1930, which made his name and shot him into the bestseller league.

Maybe it was because, despite its modish aspects, Decline and Fall is basically a very traditional narrative. It recounts the picaresque adventures of an innocent young man, Paul Pennyfeather, abroad in a naughty world.

Paul is a cipher, a narrative device whose purpose is to lead us through a succession of scenes and incidents conceived solely for their humorous effect, the humour ranging from broad farce, slapstick and caricature, to satire of contemporary mores and, from time to time, hints of something a bit darker. This kind of narrative goes back through his immediate predecessor Aldous Huxley, to Dickens in the 19th century, Tom Jones or Candide in the 18th, Don Quixote in the 17th, and back past them to classical forebears, while also looking forward to the hapless adventures of naive young men in the novels of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge and Howard Jacobson.

The whole of this book is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather… because, as the reader will probably have discerned already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness.

Part one – disgrace and public schoolteacher

Oxford

The narrative opens at the fictional Scone College Oxford where Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, witness innocent hapless Paul Pennyfeather being debagged (having his trousers pulled off) by the drunken members of Bollinger Club (obviously a reference to the real-life Bullingdon Club, of which David Cameron and Boris Johnson were members) led by the raffish Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington and featuring the loud Lumsden of Strathdrummond.

Pennyfeather is a mild and harmless student of Divinity and had just returned from a characteristically high-minded meeting of the League of Nations Union, Oxford branch. On the fateful night he is set upon, has his trousers pulled off and is chucked in the fountain. He is last seen running trouserless across the main quad. Next morning he is summoned by the Dean and flabbergasted to be told he is being sent down i.e. expelled. The comedy is in the way the drunken aristocrats who attacked him get off scot-free. No one thinks of blaming them, not even Paul himself. Thus the world as it is.

Paul returns to stay with his guardian (he is an orphan, symbol of his abandonment and forlorn status) in London, his hopes of a decent career in tatters. He traipses round employment agencies, including one (‘Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents’) which finds iffy graduates jobs at dodgy private schools. Despite a comic absence of any of the qualities required (fluent in German, excellent at music and good at games) the agency puts Paul forward for the job and the desperate school accepts.

Llanabba Castle

Thus he finds himself catching a train to remotest north Wales where he arrives at the grandly named Llanabba Castle, an impressive building stuffed with Victorian crenellations and battlements. (It may be worth noting that this, like so much in Waugh’s books, is closely based on his own experiences. Unemployed after leaving Oxford in 1923, the young, unknown and unpublished Waugh took a job at a prep school in remotest Wales in January 1925. He was, as you can imagine, completely miserable and quit 6 months later.)

At Llanabba Castle, as you would totally expect, he meets a ripe cast of eccentrics. It’s very much St Trinians 20 years avant la lettre.

Thus the head is an obvious rogue, Dr Augustus Fagan PhD. He has two daughters, Florence and Diana, who the boys nickname Flossie and Dingy. There’s a slightly sinister butler, who improbably calls himself Sir Solomon ‘Solly’ Philbrick. Only a few other teachers are named, namely Mr Prendergast,  a weak and vacillating man who constantly thinks about leaving to become a vicar, whose most notable feature is his ill-fitting wig which the boys ceaselessly taunt him about; and Captain Grimes, a leery, rambuctious man with wooden leg and a liking for the local pub.

Obviously there are several chapters filled with comic incidents, especially Paul’s abrupt introduction to the rough and tumble of teaching i.e. the boys ragging him, playing tricks, him slowly realising how pointless it is to try and teach them anything. Once a week he has to take young Peter Beste-Chetwynde to the local church and supervise him playing the organ, which neither of them know the first thing about.

There are a number of storylines or themes. Paul discovers that everyone wants to tell him the story of their lives, he’s that kind of person, a passive listener. The most florid example is Philbrick who tells him a long cock and bull story about being an experienced burglar and criminal which goes on for pages and pages. Later Paul discovers that he’s spun equally as extensive and detailed yarns to Prendergast and Grimes except with completely different content.

Grimes finds himself manoeuvred into a position where he is going out with, and then expected to marry, Dingy, which fills him with comic unhappiness. As often as he can, he takes Paul down the local pub, run by a Mrs Roberts, to bemoan the latest blow to his fortunes. He is, he laments, constantly landing ‘in the soup.’

Sports Day

The big set piece – rather as in the St Trinians films – is the annual sports day. It is, of course, a fiasco. There are no running tracks laid out (the boys are told to run to a clump of trees at the edge of the ground and back), the marquee keeps falling down, a local company delivers ‘hurdles’ which turn out to be 5 foot tall metal railings with lethal spikes along the top, and so on.

It’s an opportunity to meet the some of the parents who all have comic names, for example Mr and Mrs Clutterbuck, the Earl of Circumference whose son, little Lord Tangent is at the school, the local Vicar, Colonel Sidebotham and the Hope-Brownes. A mangy looking peevish local brass band shambles up. It’s a comic version of an Agatha Christie village fete.

By far the most impressive parent is Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde whose son Peter Paul has got to know and like on their pointless weekly trips to the organ loft. She arrives in ‘an enormous limousine of dove-grey and silver’. She is to become the dominating presence of the narrative, certainly dominating and guiding Paul’s destiny.

The door opened, and from the cushions within emerged a tall young man in a clinging dove-grey overcoat. After him, like the first breath of spring in the Champs-Elysées, came Mrs Beste-Chetwynde—two lizard-skin feet, silk legs, chinchilla body, a tight little black hat, pinned with platinum and diamonds, and the high invariable voice that may be heard in any Ritz Hotel from New York to Buda-Pest.

Not only is she magnificent but she has brought her boyfriend, Chokey, who is an impeccably dressed, stylish black man. Some modern readers may struggle to get past the fact that several of the other characters refer to him using the n word. But it seemed to me an obvious reference to the extreme fashionability among a certain type of upper class bohemian woman of taking a cool black lover, as exemplified by the rich society heiress Nancy Cunard who, in 1928, began an affair with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz musician who was working in Paris. Chokey drops out of the narrative later, but makes a great impression in his beautiful suit, accompanying the stunning Margot.

(It’s initially a peripheral event among the general mayhem that Prendergast fires the starting pistol (an actual service revolver lent to him by Philbrick) into the ground as ordered, but in doing so grazes little Lord Tangent’s foot, his ankle in fact. Later we learn that the foot becomes infected and has to be amputated. One of 3 or 4 harsh and bleak snippets or details away to the side of the main narrative, which hint at a darker world.)

After the fiasco of the sports day, attention shifts to Captain Grimes and his reluctant marriage to Dingy, much to the disgust of her father, Dr Fagan. He’s doing it because he needs to get on and the marriage will, he hopes, bring him a part share in the business.

There is, however, a catch, which Grimes points out to Paul. He’s already married! To an Irishwoman, who shortly afterwards begins to make enquiries about him. Miserably unhappy in his new marriage, Grimes one day stages his own suicide, leaving all his clothes on the beach, in the style of John Stonehouse and Reggie Perrin.

(It may be worth noting the striking fact that this mode of suicide was based on Waugh’s own. In the summer of 1925 he quit his job at a Welsh prep school, believing he had secured a post as assistant to the noted author, C. K. Moncrieff, at the same time enthusiastically sending off the manuscript of his first novel to a friend from Oxford. But the post with Moncrieff fell through and the friend from Oxford savaged his novel, and the twin blows were enough to make him suicidal. He records that he went down to a nearby beach, left a farewell note with his clothes and walked out into the cold waves. However, in the best comic tradition, an attack by jellyfish made him reconsider his plan of action and he returned quickly to the shore.)

Part two – Margot

Mrs Beste-Chetwynde had taken rather a fancy to Paul at the sports day and now asks him (via a letter to her son, Peter) to come and visit her at her house, King’s Thursday, in Hampshire, over the upcoming East holidays.

Margot’s house is the pretext for some broad satire of contemporary life, namely the fashion for the new, modernist, Continental architecture of the Bauhaus mode. Several pages are devoted to describing the traditional splendour of King’s Thursday, its Tudor brickwork and original wood carvings and panelling etc. We are told that when it is put up for sale, a national campaign is launched by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings to save it for the nation. Then, with comic brutality, we are told that Mrs Beste-Chetwynde buys it and has it completely demolished.

She has it rebuilt in the modern style by fierce and unforgiving Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus, a Hungarian modernist architect of advanced opinions. His advanced opinions are described in detail, rotating around the idea that houses are machines for living in and would ideally be inhabited by machines. He is very disappointed by humans and their failure to be more like machines.

The utterly up-to-date modernist masterpiece he constructs for Margot becomes a running joke throughout Paul’s extended stay there, the narrative dotted with casually comic references to the luminous ceiling in Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s study, the india-rubber fungi in the recessed conservatory, to the little drawing-room whose floor was a large kaleidoscope set in motion by an electric button.

There are references to the glass floor and the pneumatic rubber furniture and the porcelain ceiling and the leather-hung walls. To the lift which carries passengers to the top of the great pyramidical tower from which they can look down on the roofs and domes of glass and aluminium ‘which glittered like Chanel diamonds in the afternoon sun’ (p.142). There’s a tank of octopuses. The study is shaped like a cylinder (p.133).

Here Paul is taken by young Peter Beste-Chetwynde in a chauffeur-driven car and spends wonderful, idle weeks of what turns into a permanent house party, a more brittle, glass and steel version of the weekend house parties which feature in the early novels of Aldous Huxley only more chaotic, the young people ‘faster’, with racier slang. The guests have names like the Honourable Miles Maltravers MP and Lord Parakeet, with pride of place going to the slightly older Sir Humphrey Maltravers, the Minister of Transportation who wanly wants to marry Margot. In fact all the men want to marry Margot. But as the arrive, have hi jinks and cocktails, play tennis, go for walks, pine for Margot and eventually leave, Paul remains a fixture and slowly becomes aware that she has taken a shine to him.

In fact she manages to manoeuvre Paul into proposing to her and she accepts. That night, in a scene which was presumably daring for 1928 (remember some of D.H. Lawrence’s novels were banned for obscenity) Margot slips into the darkness of Paul’s guest bedroom, lets her silk pyjamas fall to the floor and climbs into bed with him, just to check that she isn’t making a mistake.

At one point Paul is surprised to discover his old friend from Oxford, Arthur Potts, arriving at King’s Thursday to enquire the whereabouts of Captain Grimes. As far as Paul knows Grimes is dead, but he’s struck by Potts’s role as some kind of official snoop.

The looming marriage promises to transform Paul’s life. He is going to be rich. He writes to Dr Fagan quitting his job at Llanabba Castle.

The Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd

All this is very entertaining in a lazy social comedy kind of way, but the plot sharpens up a bit when we hear that Margot is involved in a commercial enterprise, The Latin-American Entertainment Co. Ltd, which was founded by her father. Margot and Paul head to London to finalise arrangement for their marriage i.e. sending invitations to all the Bright Young Things and a lot of shopping.

In among this Margot takes Paul along with her to an ‘audition’ carried out in a bizarrely furnished sports room, where she interviews a series of young women for work in her entertainment venues in South America. Paul is puzzled by the way the ones with the least experience get the gig. They are all quite rough, working class girls.

Paul is surprised to discover Arthur Potts hanging round outside the interview venue, as if he’s spying on things.

With only days to go, Margot asks Paul to do her a little favour and fly to Marseilles to sort out the passports and visas for Margot’s girls to catch their ships to South America. Being the unquestioning cipher and innocent abroad that he us, Paul proceeds to do this, excited at flying to the South of France and staying in a swish hotel, though there is momentarily a sense of menace when he finds himself taken by taxi later the same night into an increasingly dark, dingy and threatening slum quarter of Marseilles. He is eventually so scared that he runs away and back towards the well lit streets, but not before the reader has gotten a pretty shrewd idea that these English girls are being shipped into prostitution.

Next day Paul shuttles between French passport and visa offices to clear the girls’ way to travel abroad, not understanding the officials’ nods and winks and innuendos, although the reader does. Then he flies back to London just days before the date set for the wedding.

Paul is enjoying a is surprised at the squalid slum they seem to be staying in and then the nods and winks and innuendoes of the French officials he has to speak to and pay small bribes to ensure their passage.

Back in London he is having a boozy lunch with his best man-to-be, Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington, (the same bounder who debagged him right at the start of the story, but all’s fair in love and war, old man) when there’s a tap on his shoulder and Inspector Bruce of Scotland Yard arrests him.

Part three – prison

Paul is convicted of white slaving and sentenced to 7 years hard labour. Margot’s name is never mentioned during the trial and Paul doesn’t mention the fact that he was simply carrying out instructions for his fiancée who, he now realises, made her money from running what they used to call the white slave trade and we nowadays call people trafficking. In fact the reverse; the pompous judge goes out of his way to contrast Margot’s spotless reputation with Paul’s implied depravity.

Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s name was not mentioned, though the judge in passing sentence remarked that ‘no one could be ignorant of the callous insolence with which, on the very eve of arrest for this most infamous of crimes, the accused had been preparing to join his name with one honoured in his country’s history, and to drag down to his own pitiable depths of depravity a lady of beauty, rank and stainless reputation.’

This is a complete comic inversion of the truth, structurally identical to the way the titled yobbos who debagged Paul at Oxford got off scot free while his life was ruined.

Paul is shipped off to Blackstone Prison as Prisoner D.4.12. Here, in the best tradition of comic novels, he meets many of the characters we know from earlier in the book, namely Philbrick, who’s got the cushy job of meeting new convicts, delousing them and handing out a uniform covered in arrows. And when the chaplain visits Paul in his cell, he turns out to be none other than weedy Mr Prendergast, still full of doubt and uncertainty, still wearing a terrible wig, and ragged by the prisoners even worse than he was by the boys.

Satire

The prison is the setting for multiple strands of comedy and satire. There is a great deal of fun at the expense of the newish governor of the prison who is an academic, Sir Wilfred Lucas-Dockery, a sociologist, whose fatuous attempts to treat the prisoners as sensitive individuals is epitomised by his belief that:

I came to the conclusion many years ago that almost all crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression.

Thus Sir Lucas insists that all the prisoners take part in an Arts and Crafts class he’s set up for them to express their creativity but where, in fact, one or two prisoners each week take advantage of the sharp tools to try and commit suicide. He sets up a bookbinding class which fails because many of the prisoners eat the paste, claiming it’s better than the prison porridge.

Sir Lucas is prey to all kinds of fashionable fads like his plan to introduce artificial sunlight into prisons. He also wants to hire a permanent psychoanalyst and his interviews with the prisoners are continually pushing psychoanalytical ideas (‘Would you say you are an introvert or an extrovert?’) which confuse both the prisoners and the strict disciplinarian Chief Warder. He is, in other words, a broad caricature of the well-meaning, high-minded liberal whose pampered upbringing means he has no understanding at all of the institution and people he has been set to manage. The dynamic between his wispy ideas and the hard-knuckled approach is identical to the dynamic between the governor of Slade Prison and Mr Mckay in the TV series Porridge.

The extended satire comes to a gruesome climax when the governor, in thrall to his faddish beliefs about psychoanalysis and frustrated creative urges, lets a man who is clearly a religious psychopath attend carpentry class in order ‘to express himself’. With utter predictability, at the first opportunity, the psychopath uses the carpentry tools to attack Mr Prendergast the chaplain, who he is convinced is the antichrist, and saw his head off! Like the incident of little Lord Tangent being shot in the foot and dying of blood poisoning, only on a much bigger scale, this incident takes farce and ‘humour’ to the limit.

The good news for the prisoners is the incident quite dampens Sir Wilfred’s faddish ideas and the prison returns to being run by the Chief Warden, who is much more of a stickler for rules and regulations. The prisoners like him. They know where they are and what to expect. Everyone is very happy.

There’s a minor thread satirising public school (every novel written by someone who went to public school has to criticise public school, it’s part of the contract). There’s comedy in the way that Paul, like all arrivals at Blackstone, has to undergo 4 weeks of solitary confinement but how, when the 4 weeks are up and he goes to see the governor, he surprises both him and the Chief Warden by asking if he can continue being in solitary. He finds it peaceful and thoughtful. After all:

anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul-destroying. (p.188)

Egdon Heath and Captain Grimes

After a few months, Paul is transferred to the Convict Settlement at Egdon Heath, where the prisoners spend the day hacking rocks in a quarry. Here he meets none other than Captain Grimes. After faking his own death, he travelled incognito to London and was hoping to start a new life away from his two wives, but he was caught, charged, convicted and sentenced to 3 years for bigamy.

On the train to Egdon a warder charitably shows him the day’s paper which happens to contain a big photo of Margot and the news that Peter has inherited the title of Earl of Pastmaster. While we were at King’s Thursday Peter somehow morphed in a few weeks from being a schoolboy to becoming the self-possessed young man who claimed to have set Paul and Margot up (though, as we know, Margot had her own motives in ‘hiring’ Paul to do her bidding). Now he is an Earl. He has aged far more than the time described in the novel, but then it is a panto.

Paul settles in to life at Egdon but soon becomes aware that a guardian angel is looking after him: unaccountably nice food is sent to his cell, the prison trusty offers, instead of greasy tomes from the library brand new books sent from London. The guardian angel is, very clearly, Margot, who feels frightfully guilty at how things turned out for him.

Then the Great Lady herself comes to visit, mainly to complain that her acquaintances are cutting her and she feels she is growing old and to tell Paul that she is going to marry Maltravers (who has now been promoted to Home Secretary) she hopes he doesn’t mind and she sweeps out, leaving Paul stunned but no longer surprised. Nothing surprises him.

Meanwhile Grimes gets restless. He can’t stand being locked up (unlike Paul who rather likes the solitude and lack of distraction). One foggy day in the quarry Grimes creates a distraction, then manages to leap astride a warder’s horse and gallop off into the gloom. He escapes. His hat is found in the centre of the great Egdon Marsh and he is reported dead, but Paul realises Grimes is too much of a life force to ever be extinguished.

Paul’s escape

Then Paul escapes. It is impresario-ed by Margot, with the details managed by her now very capable son, the ever-more mature Peter. Peter arranges for his stepfather, Sir Humphrey, who is now the Home Secretary, to sign a form permitting Paul to be taken to a clinic to have his appendix removed.

(Sir Humphrey has been made a lord and taken the name Lord Metroland, which makes Margot Margot Metroland. We learn that none of this has stopped Margot taking a younger lover, Alisdair.)

Paul protests to the warder taking him to the clinic that he’s already had his appendix out, but the warder gives him a broad wink and more or less tells him it’s a scam. Paul will be taken to a clinic on the South Coast where he will apparently ‘die’ under the knife. Death certificates will be signed to terminate his legal existence. Then the man with no legal existence will be rowed out to Margot’s yacht, waiting anchored off the coast, and sail civilisedly round France, into the Med and be conveyed to Margot’s luxury villa on Corfu.

Which is exactly what happens, the comic element being played up by the fact that the clinic he is sent to is run by none other than our old friend Dr Fagan, who’s packed up the teaching lark and sold Llanabba Castle. And by the presence of young Peter and Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington to oversee it all, not least handling the comically drunk surgeon, who is so plastered they easily persuade him the patient has died under the knife, with the result that he bursts into drunken tears and signs the death certificate before passing out.

Corfu

The scene cuts to Corfu. Life is very civilised in Margot’s villa. Who should he meet but Professor Otto Friedrich Silenus, spouting his metallic modernist opinions. He delivers a speech which might sort of be the serious point of the novel – or a semi-serious meditation on life provided for readers who enjoy that sort of thing. It’s to the effect that there are two kinds of people, the static and the dynamic. Paul is static and ought to sit in the stalls watching life. Margot is dynamic and loves throwing herself onto the whirling fairground ride of life, screaming her head off. Silenus naturally gravitates to the centre of the spinning wheel of life where, for a master such as himself, there is stability. Paul should never have got involved with dynamic people.

Epilogue

The book ends with a very satisfactory completion of the circle, when Paul, comically disguised with a moustache, returns to Oxford, gains readmission to his old college and resumes his studies in divinity.  After a bit of thought he retains the surname Pennyfeather but takes another first name and tells everyone he is the other guy’s cousin.

There is some broad comedy in the way he discovers that ‘Paul Pennyfeather’ has, in his brief absence (of, we are startled to discover, only a little over a year) become a legend at Scone College, various college worthies telling him about the legendary figure’s madcap escapades, all of which Paul knows to be utterly fictitious. Fictions within a fiction. Comic quirkiness and character are added when Waugh gives us details of some of the early Christian heresies Paul is now happily studying.

The story really does come full circle when, one quiet and studious evening, Paul hears a loud commotion in the quad outside and realises it’s the Bollinger Club again. Soon afterwards his door crashes open and it is none other than Peter Beste-Chetwynde who is now a student at Paul’s college and has been getting plastered with the other aristocrats. He drunkenly reels off all the adventures they’ve had in the past year, which serves as a useful summary of the story, told by a drunken student, a clever and funny device. Peter reels out and quiet Paul returns to his study of the Ebionite heresy.

Very neat, very stylish, very satisfying.

Descriptions

So much for the plot. This young man’s first novel also contains all kinds of verbal and stylistic pleasures. Here are a couple from Paul’s time at King’s Thursday.

Paul had noticed nothing in the room except Mrs Beste-Chetwynde; he now saw that there was a young man sitting beside her, with very fair hair and large glasses, behind which his eyes lay like slim fish in an aquarium; they woke from their slumber, flashed iridescent in the light, and darted towards little Beste-Chetwynde.

And:

As the last of the guests departed Mrs Beste-Chetwynde reappeared from her little bout of veronal, fresh and exquisite as a seventeenth-century lyric. The meadow of green glass seemed to burst into flower under her feet as she passed from the lift to the cocktail table.

Characters and tones

Waugh is excellent at mimicry, at ventriloquism, at doing various voices. There’s the raffish, disreputable voice of Captain Grimes always wanting to go off down the pub; the Germanic mechanical tone of Professor Silenus; or the impressive capture of Peter Beste-Chetwynde’s drunken dialogue right at the very end. There’s the elaborate Welsh locutions of the Llanabba brass band and the chilled drawl of Chokey, the extremely smooth black man.

Waugh particularly relishes music hall cockney, which I find particularly enjoyable to read in my mind’s ear, or out loud. Here’s a warder at Egdon reassuring Margot, when she comes to visit, that she can say what she likes without fear of being reported:

‘Don’t mind me, mum, if you wants to talk personal,’ said the warder kindly. ‘I only has to stop conspiracy. Nothing I hears ever goes any further, and I hears a good deal, I can tell you. They carry on awful, some of the women, what with crying and fainting and hysterics generally. Why, one of them,’ he said with relish, ‘had an epileptic fit not long ago.’ (p.194)

‘He said with relish’ :). Waugh is always looking for the comic detail, the foible which reveals people as the rogues and rascals that, deep down, they all are.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines by John Allen Paulos (1995)

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. (p.201)

Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us. (p.3)

John Allen Paulos

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who came to wider fame with publication of his short (130-page) primer, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, published in 1988.

It was followed by Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man in 1991 and this book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper in 1995.

Structure

The book is made up of about 50 short chapters. He explains that each one of them will take a topic in the news in 1993 and 1994 and show how it can be analysed and understood better using mathematical tools.

The subjects of the essays are laid out under the same broad headings that you’d encounter in a newspaper, with big political stories at the front, giving way to:

  • Local, business and social issues
  • Lifestyle, spin and soft news
  • Science, medicine and the environment
  • Food, book reviews, sports and obituaries

Response

The book is disappointing in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, he does not look at specific stories. All the headlines are invented. Each 4 or 5-page essay may or may not call in aspects of various topics in the news, but they do not look at one major news story and carefully deconstruct how it has been created and publicised in disregard of basic mathematics and probability and statistics. (This alone is highly suggestive of the possibility that, despite all his complaints to the contrary, specific newspaper stories where specific mathematical howlers are made and can be corrected are, in fact surprisingly rare.)

The second disappointment is that, even though these essays are very short, they cannot stay focused on one idea or example for much more than a page. I hate to say it and I don’t mean to be rude, but Paulos’s text has some kind of attention deficit disorder: the essays skitter all over the place, quickly losing whatever thread they ever had in a blizzard of references to politics, baseball, pseudoscience and a steady stream of bad jokes. He is so fond of digressions, inserts, afterthoughts and tangents that it is often difficult to say what any given essay is about.

I was hoping that each essay would take a specific news story and show how journalists had misunderstood the relevant data and maths to get it wrong, and would then show the correct way to analyse and interpret it. I was hoping that the 50 or so examples would have been carefully chosen to build up for the reader an armoury of techniques of arithmetic, probability, calculus, logarithms and whatever else is necessary to immediately spot, deconstruct and correct articles with bad maths in them.

Nope. Not at all.

Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier

Take the very first piece, Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier. For a start he doesn’t tell us who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier is. I deduce from his introduction that she was President Clinton’s nomination for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. We can guess, then, that the nickname ‘quota queen’ implies she was a proponent of quotas, though whether for black people, women or what is not explained.

Why not?

Paulos introduces us to the Banzhaf power index, devised in 1965 by lawyer John F. Banzhaf.

The Banzhaf power index of a group, party or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa. (p.10)

He gives examples of companies where three or four shareholders hold different percentages of voting rights and shows how some coalitions of shareholders will always have decisive voting rights, whereas others never will (these are called the dummy) while even quite small shareholders can hold disproportionate power. For example in a situation where three shareholders hold 45%, 45% and 10% of the shares, the 10% party can often have the decisive say. In 45%, 45%, 8% and 2% the 2% is the dummy.

He then moves on to consider voting systems in some American states, including: cumulative voting, systems where votes don’t count as 1 but are proportionate to population, Borda counts (where voters rank the candidates and award progressively more points to those higher up the rankings), approval voting (where voters have as many votes as they want and can vote for as many candidates as they approve of), before going on to conclude that all voting systems have their drawbacks.

The essay ends with a typical afterthought, one-paragraph coda suggesting how the Supreme Court could end up being run by a cabal of just three judges. There are nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine (key word for Paulos), imagine a group of five judges agree to always discuss issues among themselves first, before the vote of the entire nine, and imagine they decide to always vote according to whatever the majority (3) decide. Then imagine that a sub-group of just three judges go away and secretly decide, that in the group of five, they will always agree. Thus they will dictate the outcome of every Supreme Court decision.

So:

1. I had no idea who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier was or, more precisely, I had to do a bit of detective work to figure it out, and still wasn’t utterly sure.

2. This is a very sketchy introduction to the issue of democratic voting systems. This is a vast subject, which Paulos skates over quickly and thinly.

Thus, in these four and a bit pages you have the characteristic Paulos experience of feeling you are wandering all over the place, not quite at random, but certainly not in a carefully planned sequential way designed to explore a topic thoroughly and reach a conclusion. You are introduced to a number of interesting ideas, with some maths formulae, but not in enough detail or at sufficient length to really understand them. And because he’s not addressing any particular newspaper report or article, there are no particular misconceptions to clear up: the essay is a brief musing, a corralling of thoughts on an interesting topic.

This scattergun approach characterises the whole book.

Psychological availability and anchoring effects

The second essay is titled Psychological availability and anchoring effects. He explains what the availability error, the anchor effect and the halo effect are. If this is the first time you’ve come across these notions, they’re powerful new ideas. But I recently reread Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland which came out three years before Paulos’s book and spends over three hundred pages investigating these and all the other cognitive biases which afflict mankind in vastly more depth than Paulos, with many more examples. Next to it, Paulos’s three-minute essay seemed sketchy and superficial.

General points

Rather than take all 50 essays to pieces, here are notes on what I actually did learn. Note that almost none of it was about maths, but general-purpose cautions about how the news media work, and how to counter its errors of logic. In fact, all of it could have come from a media studies course without any maths at all:

  • almost all ‘news’ reinforces conventional wisdom
  • because they’re so brief, almost all headlines must rely on readers’ existing assumptions and prejudices
  • almost all news stories relate something new back to similar examples from the past, even when the comparison is inappropriate, again reinforcing conventional wisdom and failing to recognise the genuinely new
  • all economic forecasts are rubbish: this is because economics (like the weather and many other aspects of everyday life) is a non-linear system. Chaos theory shows that non-linear systems are highly sensitive to even minuscule differences in starting conditions, which has been translated into pop culture as the Butterfly Effect
  • and also with ‘futurologists’: the further ahead they look, the less reliable their predictions
  • the news is deeply biased by always assuming human agency is at work in any outcome: if any disaster happens anywhere the newspapers always go searching for a culprit; in the present Brexit crisis lots of news outlets are agreeing to blame Theresa May. But often things happen at random or as an accumulation of unpredictable factors. Humans are not good at acknowledging the role of chance and randomness.

There is a tendency to look primarily for culpability and conflicts of human will rather than at the dynamics of a natural process. (p.160)

  • Hence so many newspapers endlessly playing the blame game. The Grenfell Tower disaster was, first and foremost, an accident in the literal sense of ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury’ – but you won’t find anybody who doesn’t fall in with the prevailing view that someone must be to blame. There is always someone to blame. We live in a Blame Society.
  • personalising beats stats, data or probability: nothing beats ‘the power of dramatic anecdote’ among the innumerate: ‘we all tend to be unduly swayed by the dramatic, the graphic, the visceral’ (p.82)
  • if you combine human beings’ tendency to personalise everything, and to look for someone to blame, you come up with Donald Trump, who dominates every day’s news
  • so much is happening all the time, in a world with more people and incidents than ever before, in which we are bombarded with more information via more media than ever before – that it would be extraordinary if all manner or extraordinary coincidences, correspondences and correlations didn’t happen all the time
  • random events can sometimes present a surprisingly ordered appearance
  • because people imbue meaning into absolutely everything, then the huge number of coincidences and correlations are wrongfully interpreted as meaningful

Tips and advice

I was dismayed at the poor quality of many of the little warnings which each chapter ends with. Although Paulos warns against truisms (on page 54) his book is full of them.

Local is not what it used to be, and we shouldn’t be surprised at how closely we’re linked. (p.55)

In the public realm, often the best we can do is to stand by and see how events unfold. (p.125)

Chapter three warns us that predictions about complex systems (the weather, the economy, big wars) are likely to be more reliable the simpler the system they’re predicting, and the shorter period they cover. Later he says we should be sceptical about all long-term predictions by politicians, economists and generals.

It didn’t need a mathematician to tell us that.

A lot of it just sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about society going to the dogs:

Our increasingly integrated and regimented society undermines our sense of self… Meaningless juxtapositions and coincidences replace conventional narratives and contribute to our dissociation… (pp.110-111)

News reports in general, and celebrity coverage in particular, are becoming ever-more self-referential. (p.113)

We need look no further than the perennial appeal of pseudoscientific garbage, now being presented in increasingly mainstream forums… (p.145)

The fashion pages have always puzzled me. In my smugly ignorant view, they appear to be so full of fluff and nonsense as to make the astrology columns insightful by comparison. (p.173)

Another aspect of articles in the society pages or in the stories about political and entertainment figures is the suggestion that ‘everybody’ knows everybody else. (p.189)

Sometimes his liberal earnestness topples into self-help book touchy-feeliness.

Achieving personal integration and a sense of self is for the benefit of ourselves and those we’re close to. (p.112)

But just occasionally he does say something unexpected:

The attention span created by television isn’t short; it’s long, but very, very shallow. (p.27)

That struck me as an interesting insight but, as with all his interesting comments, no maths was involved. You or I could have come up with it from general observation.

Complexity horizon

The notion that the interaction of human laws, conventions, events, politics, and general information overlap and interplay at ever-increasing speeds to eventually produce situations so complex as to appear unfathomable. Individuals, and groups and societies, have limits of complexity beyond which they cannot cope, but have to stand back and watch. Reading this made me think of Brexit.

He doesn’t mention it, but a logical spin-off would be that every individual has a complexity quotient like an intelligence quotient or IQ. Everyone could take a test in which they are faced with situations of slowly increasing complexity – or presented with increasingly complex sets of information – to find out where their understanding breaks off – which would become their CQ.

Social history

The book was published in 1995 and refers back to stories current in the news in 1993 and 1994. The run of domestic political subjects he covers in the book’s second quarter powerfully support my repeated conviction that it is surprising how little some issues have changed, how little movement there has been on them, and how they have just become a settled steady part of the social landscape of our era.

Thus Paulos has essays on:

  • gender bias in hiring
  • homophobia
  • accusations of racism arising from lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs (the problem of race crops up numerous times (pp.59-62, p.118)
  • the decline in educational standards
  • the appallingly high incidence of gun deaths, especially in black and minority communities
  • the fight over abortion

I feel increasingly disconnected from contemporary politics, not because it is addressing new issues I don’t understand, but for the opposite reason: it seems to be banging on about the same issues which I found old and tiresome twenty-five years ago.

The one topic which stood out as having changed is AIDS. In Innumeracy and in this book he mentions the prevalence or infection rates of AIDS and is obviously responding to numerous news stories which, he takes it for granted, report it in scary and alarmist terms. Reading these repeated references to AIDS made me realise how completely and utterly it has fallen off the news radar in the past decade or so.

In the section about political correctness he makes several good anti-PC points:

  • democracy is about individuals, the notion that everyone votes according to their conscience and best judgement; as soon as you start making it about groups (Muslims, blacks, women, gays) you start undermining democracy
  • racism and sexism and homophobia are common enough already without making them the standard go-to explanations for social phenomena which often have more complex causes; continually attributing all aspects of society to just a handful of inflammatory issues, keeps the issues inflammatory
  • members of groups often vie with each other to assert their loyalty, to proclaim their commitment to the party line and this suggests a powerful idea: that the more opinions are expressed, the more extreme these opinions will tend to become. This is a very relevant idea to our times when the ubiquity of social media has a) brought about a wonderful spirit of harmony and consensus, or b) divided society into evermore polarised and angry groupings

Something bad is coming

I learned to fear several phrases which indicate that a long, possibly incomprehensible and frivolously hypothetical example is about to appear:

‘Imagine…’

Imagine flipping a penny one thousand times in succession and obtaining some sequence of heads and tails… (p.75)

Imagine a supercomputer, the Delphic-Cray 1A, into which has been programmed the most complete and up-to-date scientific knowledge, the initial condition of all particles, and sophisticated mathematical techniques and formulas. Assume further that… Let’s assume for argument’s sake that… (p.115)

Imagine if a computer were able to generate a random sequence S more complex than itself. (p.124)

Imagine the toast moistened, folded, and compressed into a cubical piece of white dough… (p.174)

Imagine a factory that produces, say, diet food. Let’s suppose that it is run by a sadistic nutritionist… (p.179)

‘Assume that…’

Let’s assume that each of these sequences is a billion bits long… (p.121)

Assume the earth’s oceans contain pristinely pure water… (p.141)

Assume that there are three competing healthcare proposals before the senate… (p.155)

Assume that the probability of your winning the coin flip, thereby obtaining one point, is 25 percent. (p.177)

Assume that these packages come off the assembly line in random order and are packed in boxes of thirty-six. (p.179)

Jokes and Yanks

All the examples are taken from American politics (President Clinton), sports (baseball) and wars (Vietnam, First Gulf War) and from precisely 25 years ago (on page 77, he says he is writing in March 1994), both of which emphasise the sense of disconnect and irrelevance with a British reader in 2019.

As my kids know, I love corny, bad old jokes. But not as bad as the ones the book is littered with:

And then there was the man who answered a matchmaking company’s computerised personals ad in the paper. He expressed his desire for a partner who enjoys company, is comfortable in formal wear, likes winter sports, and is very short. The company matched him with a penguin. (pp.43-44)

The moronic inferno and the liberal fallacy

The net effect of reading this book carefully is something that the average person on the street knew long ago: don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

And especially don’t believe any story in a newspaper which involves numbers, statistics, percentages, data or probabilities. It will always be wrong.

More broadly his book simply fails to take account of the fact that most people are stupid and can’t think straight, even very, very educated people. All the bankers whose collective efforts brought about the 2008 crash. All the diplomats, strategists and military authorities who supported the Iraq War. All the well-meaning liberals who supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Everyone who voted Trump. Everyone who voted Brexit.

Most books of this genre predicate readers who are white, university-educated, liberal middle class and interested in news and current affairs, the arts etc and – in my opinion – grotesquely over-estimate both their value and their relevance to the rest of the population. Because this section of the population – the liberal, university-educated elite – is demonstrably in a minority.

Over half of Americans believe in ghosts, and a similar number believes in alien abductions. A third of Americans believe the earth is flat, and that the theory of evolution is a lie. About a fifth of British adults are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is what Saul Bellow referred to as ‘the moronic inferno’.

On a recent Radio 4 documentary about Brexit, one contributor who worked in David Cameron’s Number Ten commented that he and colleagues went out to do focus groups around the country to ask people whether we should leave the EU and that most people didn’t know what they were talking about. Many people they spoke to had never heard of the European Union.

On page 175 he says the purpose of reading a newspaper is to stretch the mind, to help us envision distant events, different people and unusual situations, and broaden our mental landscape.

Is that really why he thinks people read newspapers? As opposed to checking the sports results, catching up with celebrity gossip, checking what’s happening in the soaps, reading interviews with movie and pop stars, looking at fashion spreads, reading about health fads and, if you’re one of the minority who bother with political news, having all your prejudices about how wicked and stupid the government, the poor, the rich or foreigners etc are, and despising everyone who disagrees with you (Guardian readers hating Daily Mail readers; Daily Mail readers hating Guardian readers; Times readers feeling smugly superior to both).

This is a fairly entertaining, if very dated, book – although all the genuinely useful bits are generalisations about human nature which could have come from any media studies course.

But if it was intended as any kind of attempt to tackle the illogical thinking and profound innumeracy of Western societies, it is pissing in the wind. The problem is vastly bigger than this chatty, scattergun and occasionally impenetrable book can hope to scratch. On page 165 he says that a proper understanding of mathematics is vital to the creation of ‘an informed and effective citizenry’.

‘An informed and effective citizenry’?


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: