The Strange Death of Liberal England (Modern Library Nonfiction #82)

(This is the nineteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Vermeer.)

It was a picnic-perfect summer in 1914. The rich flaunted their wealth with all the subtlety of rats leaping onto a pristine wedding dress. The newspapers steered their coverage away from serious events to pursue lurid items about sports and celebrity gossip. A comic double act by the name of Collins & Harlan recorded an absurd ditty called “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” which Thomas Pynchon was to describe fifty years later as “the nadir of all American expression.” Few human souls twirling their canes and parasols in these conditions of unbridled frivolity could have anticipated that an archduke’s assassination in late June would plunge Europe into a gruesome war that would leave twenty million dead, permanently altering notions of honor, bloodshed, and noblesse oblige.

But even a few years before the July Crisis, there were strong signs in England that something was amiss. Politicians demonstrated a cataclysmic failure to read or address the natural trajectory of human progress. Women justly demanded the right to vote and were very willing to starve themselves in prison and burn down many buildings for it. Workers fought violently for fair wages, often locked into stalemates with greedy mining companies. They were intoxicated by a new militant brand of syndicalism from France then popularized by Georges Sorel. The atmosphere was one of increasing upheaval and escalated incoherence, even among the most noble-minded revolutionaries. The influx of gold from Africa inspired both lavish spending and an inflated currency. The liberals in power were supposed to stand up for the working stiffs who couldn’t quite meet the rising prices for boots and food and clothes with their take home pay. And much like today’s Democratic Party in the States, these tepid Parliamentary wafflers past their Fabian prime revealed a commitment to ineptitude over nuts-and-bolts pragmatism. They allowed the Tories to play them like rubes losing easy games of three-card monte. Amidst such madness, England became a place of oblivious tension not dissimilar to the nonstop nonsense that currently plagues both sides of the Atlantic. With the middle and upper classes keeping their heads in the clouds and their spirits saturated in moonbeam dreams and a bubble gum aura, is it any wonder that people were willing to incite war and violence for the most impulsive reasons?

George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England examines this crazed period between 1910 and 1914 with an exacting and quite entertaining poetic eye. Dangerfield, an erudite journalist who parlayed his zingy word-slinging into a teaching career, is somewhat neglected today, but his remarkable knack for knowing when to suggest and when to stick with the facts is worthy of careful study, a summation of the beautifully mordant touch he brought as a historian. He describes, for example, the “dismal, rattling sound” of Liberalism refusing to adjust to the times, and eloquently sends up the out-of-touch movement in a manner that might also apply to today’s neoliberals, who stubbornly refuse to consider the lives and needs of the working class even as they profess to know what’s best for them:

[I]t was just as if some unfortunate miracle had been performed upon its contents, turning them into nothing more than bits of old iron, fragments of intimate crockery, and other relics of a domestic past. What could be the matter? Liberalism was still embodied in a large political party; it enjoyed the support of philosophy and religion; it was intelligible, and it was English. But it was also slow; and it so far transcended politics and economics as to impose itself upon behaviour as well. For a nation which wanted to revive a sluggish blood by running very fast and in any direction, Liberalism was clearly an inconvenient burden.

Dangerfield knew when to let other people hang themselves by their own words. The infamous Margot Asquith, the starry-eyed socialite married to the Prime Minister who led England into World War I, is quoted at length from her letters to Robert Smillie, the brave union organizer who fought on behalf of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. Asquith, so fundamentally clueless about diplomacy, could not understand why meeting Smillie might be a bad idea given the tense negotiations.

I did feel that Dangerfield was unduly harsh on Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the key organizers behind the suffragette movement. His wry fixation upon Pankhurst’s indomitable commitment — what he styles “the fantastic Eden of militant exaltation” — to starvation and brutality from the police, all in the brave and honorable fight for women, may very well be a product of the 1930s boys’ club mentality, but it seems slightly cheap given how otherwise astute Dangerfield is in heightening just the right personality flaws among other key figures of the time. The Pankhurst family was certainly eccentric, but surely they were deserving of more than just cheap quips, such as the volley Dangerfield lobs as Christabel announces the Pankhurst withdrawal from the WSPU (“She made this long-expected remark quite casually — she might almost have been talking to the little Pomeranian dog which she was nursing.”).

Still, Dangerfield was the master of the interregnum history. His later volume, The Era of Good Feelings, examined the period between Jefferson and Jackson and is almost as good as The Strange Death. One reads the book and sees the model for Christopher Hitchens’s biting erudite style. (The book was a favorite of Hitch’s and frequently cited in his essays.)

But it is clear that Dangerfield’s heart and his mischievous vivacity resided with his homeland rather than the nation he emigrated to later in life. In all of his work, especially the material dwelling on the United Kingdom, Dangerfield knew precisely what years to hit, the pivotal moments that encapsulated specific actions that triggered political movements. As he chronicles the repercussions of the June 14, 1911 strike in Southampton, he is careful to remark upon how “it is impossible not to be surprised at the little physical violence that was done — only a few men killed, in Wales in 1912, and two or three in Dublin in 1913; in England itself not a death. Is this the effect of revolutionary methods, and, if so, do the methods deserve the word?” He then carries on speculating about the pros and cons of peaceful revolution and ties this into the “spiritual death and rebirth” of English character. And we see that Dangerfield isn’t just a smartypants funnyman, but a subtle philosopher who leaves human possibilities open to the reader. He is a welcome reminder that seeing the real doesn’t necessarily emerge when you lock eyes on an alluring Twitch stream or a hypnotic Instagram feed. It comes when you take the time to step away, to focus on the events that are truly important, and to ruminate upon the incredible progress that human beings still remain quite capable of making.

Next Up: John Keegan’s The Face of Battle!

Evie Wyld (The Bat Segundo Show #543)

Evie Wyld is most recently the author of All the Birds, Singing.

Author: Evie Wyld

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Subjects Discussed: The Call of the Wild as workplace novel, the stability of work in wild environments, physical labor and working in bookstores, coming from a family with a farming background, the engineering mindset, the virtues of being a messy writer, the interest in what we hold back, having to write moments that aren’t revealed to the reader, the dangers of creative pride, how to organize a messy 60,000 words on a floor using scissors and tape, structure and certainty, hating your book, attempts to write linearly and literally, the virtues of an innate rebellious streak, when flashbacks become integral to structure, the many insects within Wyld’s fiction, how horror films are more willing to dramatize the relationship between humans and animals, Jeffrey Lockwood’s The Infested Mind, entomophobia and Western culture, why sharks are misunderstood, Australian insects, Holiday Cigarettes, the autonomy of smoking, attempts to find control over your environment, kangaroos hit by utility trucks, appreciating life by confronting death, why kangaroos are mutinous, dogs vs. kangaroos, animals and social projection, sheep, when kangaroos stop being cute, pet kangaroos, when giving a character a job is the hardest part of fiction, sheep shearing pubs, farming pubs, sheep integrity, Ernest Hemingway, Robert De Niro and Method writing, imagination vs. process writing, getting bogged down in research, notes and memory, characters with palindromic names, bidirectional retreats to the past, how to get around writing boring scenes, romantic notions of writer’s block, why it’s important to write drivel, thinking on the page, despising the manuscript and knowing the moment when it needs to be plucked away, happy nightmares, families of solitary figures, eccentric exercise regimens, the back as a footstool, sheep killing as an ambiguous mystery, the Pulp Fiction briefcase, the appeal of monsters, the pros and cons of setting up reader expectations with a mystery, Stephen King’s It, disappointing endings, why seeing the monster isn’t relevant in storytelling, narrative entitlement, how novelists contend with increasing reader distractions, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Venn diagram of genre and literary fiction, the advantages of working as a bookseller, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Wyld confronting her dead father’s records in the bookstore database, having a healthy suspicion of lists in a BuzzFeed age, Keith Richards’s Life, and the benefits of accidents and coincidences.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I had a rather strange way of entering this rather raucous novel. About three years ago, another critic Matthew Battles and I, we were having this online conversation about The Call of the Wild. And we were both arguing that Jack London’s great novel was actually a workplace novel. Because Buck, he’s forced to contend with the aggressive cubemate, like Spitz, and essentially he has to find individualism and this independent work ethic over the course of his journey. Your book happens to involve two dogs — one of them actually named Dog — and Jake has to learn sheep shearing and driving skills during her journey. Why do you think work became such a dominant part of this novel’s fixation in your efforts to contend with these rather feral environments, both in Australia and in England?

Wyld: Well, I think work is a way of normalizing yourself. It’s a way of getting yourself away from the stuff that’s actually happening in your life. A way of processing it. So I think for Jake, handling sheep is very much who she is. She expresses herself through wrestling with sheep and trying to keep them alive. And she tries to kind of make amends for some of the things in her life by working really, really hard and working very hard at looking after these sheep, trying to keep them alive, failing a lot of the time.

Correspondent: Why do you think it’s tied so much into the idea of existing in this kind of wild environment? That’s the real question. Why work is the defining quality of a naturalistic environment.

Wyld: I think it keeps you sane in some sense. I mean, I certainly find. that lives in the wilds of Peckham, where I am in London, I work very, very hard in the bookshop and I work very hard at writing novels. And I think it’s something to do with, as long as you’re working hard, you feel you’re existing in a way that is worthwhile, in a way that you feel like — sometimes you can feel like you’re very transient and that you’re slightly floating above the earth and you’re not really experiencing anything. And you find that if you actually do something physical to kind of make your mark on the earth, then it has a calming effect, I find.

Correspondent: Do you feel that there’s any difference between working in the wild of a bookstore and working in the rather saner, urban environment of sheep shearing?

Wyld: I think probably a fair amount of difference. I think I really admire physical work. I would love to…

Correspondent: How much physical work have you done?

Wyld: Well, I’ve done absolutely no sheep shearing. I don’t know how physical bookselling is. I lift the books.

Correspondent: It is pretty physical. I mean…

Wyld: Stacking shelves.

Correspondent: Stacking.

Wyld: Dusting. The whole lot.

Correspondent: Moving shelves for author events.

Wyld: Wrestling the odd shoplifter to the ground. That sort of thing. But, yeah, I think my mother’s family are Australian and they’re farmers. So it’s always been something that I have looked on with envy and amazement, really. This amazing, quite masculine work. Actually growing stuff. Actually keeping something alive.

Correspondent: Why didn’t you decide to enter the farming racket?

Wyld: Not sure I’m that talented, to be honest. My Australian family aren’t big readers or big intellectual kind of thinkers. But somehow they’re some of the most intelligent people. They can look at a broken tractor and they can fix it. And I find that incredible. And I don’t have that skill. I don’t have the maths, I think, mainly.

Correspondent: The sort of engineering brain to look upon some casual thing to fix and then you’ll be able to find a solution through a MacGyver situation by putting it back together.

Wyld: Put some oil on it. (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. Exactly. Well, the novel here is built on a series of alternating chapters. It’s almost this two-lane highway. You have this forward motion in the present and you also have these backwards chapters that depict Jake’s past. I’m wondering how this structure emerged, first and foremost. But how much of Jake’s background did you plan out in advance or come to know in the act of writing? Just to start off here.

Wyld: Well, I’m a very messy writer.

Correspondent: You need structure.

Wyld: Yeah. I tend to start in the middle and kind of work outwards.

Correspondent: Okay. So you just write all over the place.

Wyld: I just write all over the place and then I get to a point where I’ve written a certain amount of words. And I try and find what the story is, what the arc of the story is. So mostly for me the writing process involves getting to know the character. And for me, that involves their childhood, their family. It doesn’t always enter into the story in the end. But it’s central to me that I can’t understand who someone is unless I know about them before the sort of now of the book. So I’d written about 60,000 words. About a third of the book. Maybe half the book. And then I just realized that I was enjoying her as a character and I was enjoying her life in Australia and in the UK. But it was lacking tension. And there was just something really to be gained by folding it over on itself. And I’m a big fan of playing around with structure, only in terms of furthering the story, only in terms of not just for fun but because it’s so exciting to me when you have two objects that shouldn’t go next to each other and they create a third feeling.

Correspondent: Yeah. Did you find that your sense of Jake deepened when you had this structure in place? That you knew here even more intimately than you could ever possibly anticipate knowing?

Wyld: Yeah. I think so. I think there’s something about somebody who is trying very hard not to think about something that appeals to me and that makes me feel that they’re much more human.

Correspondent: It allows you to get outside of your own head.

Wyld: Exactly.

Correspondent: Because you’re sort of a cerebral person and you need something who isn’t a cerebral person to escape to.

Wyld: Yeah. I think there’s definitely something to be said for the things we hold back. I think they’re more interesting than the things we say a lot of the time.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, and 40a. )

The Bat Segundo Show #543: Evie Wyld (Download MP3)

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