Historians, if they are unusually lucky and popular, sometimes publish collections of essays between major monographs. David Cannadine is lucky enough to do this is two distinct genres. The first are the collection of reviews and journalism "The Pleasures of the Past," and "History in Our Time." The second are the collections of more scholarly essays "Aspects of Aristocracy," and this book. Unfortunately for the reader, this voume is the most disappointing of the four books.
Notwithstanding the title and the prominent photograph of Churchill on the cover page, this book is not really about Churchill, who is the subject of only three of the book's twelve essays. Already this book does not have the coherence that united "Aspects of Aristocracy," with its intimation of aristorcratic power and decline. What do we have? The book consists of three quartets of essays. The first one supposedly deals with Churchill, but the first essay is really a history of Parliament, and the second discusses Churchill along with Margaret Thatcher and Joseph Chamberlain. The third essay is more informative, as it deals with Churchill's ambiguous relationship with the monarchy, and its actual unimiginative rulers. The fourth essay is even better, as it discusses both the strengths of Churchill's remarkable oratory, but also its weaknesses, such as its lack of nuance or pitch, so that Hitler and Gandhi appear to be equally dangerous to Britain. The next quartet is less interesting. The essays on the decline and fall of the Chamberlain dynasty in Birmingham and the success of Stanley Baldwin's emollient pseudo-rural imagery tell nothing particularly new. An essay on Josiah Wedgewood tells how he wanted to produced a history of parliament, ignored all the historians, and got a work of limited historical value or accuracy. The chapter on correspondence between two historians, one English, one American, which led to a letter of somewhat limited importance being sent to FDR, seems like filler.
The last quartet is most useful. True, the chapter on the National Trust is somewhat disappointing. Cannadine describes it as it moves from a group with liberal and radical origins to a pilar of the establishment whose main purpose is to allow indebted aristocrats to keep their country houses by opening them to the public. I cannot help but point out that the late Raphael Samuel's "Theatres of Memory," was much more stimulating about this topic. The other three chapters are much better. Cannadine discusses the success of Gilbert and Sullivan in the context of its rather conservative, chauvinistic and increasingly unsatirical style, while benefiting from the invention of traditions in the last quarter of the 19th century. Cannadine also produces a useful chapter on the decline of Noel Coward, whining endlessly about the decline of the empire and the end of the welfare as his talent dribbled away on sentimental pieces. (It is alarming that Cannadine quotes so much, and that none of it is funny.) Finally there is Cannadine's fine essay on Ian Fleiming and James Bond, which is better than Alexander Cockburn's essay in "Corruptions of Empire" and much better than recent commentaries by Christopher Hitchens and Anthony Lane, and really shows how childish the whole James Bond phenonemon is. Cannadine is excellent on the double side of Fleming/Bond: on the one side "apolitically" conservative, xenophobic, chivalric and so patriotic as to laud British cooking above all others. On the other side both Fleming and his creation are promiscuous, they drink and they gamble and they show an alarming infatuation with consumer goods.
Ultimately though, this is a disappointing volume. Many of his reviews and articles in the past were unusually vigorous and vital in pointing out the flaws and mediocrity of the British royal family. So it is most disturbing to find on the chapter of parliament that Cannadine thinks it would be too radical for the Prime Minister to give "the speech from the throne," let alone call for an actual republic. Likewise, the chapter on Stanley Baldwin does not really dissect the Uriah Heep like quality of the way Baldwin promoted his reputation for moral conduct. The fact that Baldwin and Chamberlain were the worst British prime ministers of the 20th century, that they nearly led Britain to defeat in the one war that it could not afford to lose, does not really get sufficient emphasis, or disgust, from Cannadine. Finally on the chapter on Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill and Thatcher and the prospect of British decline, Cannadine produces a workmanlike effort on their failed attempts. But in closing when he states that the relative decline was not so bad, he shows a weakness of many British historians. Whether what happened was inevitable or not is a complex questions. But even if nothing could have been changed, much of the recent work on Germany, Russia, Israel, Spain or the United States is based on the belief that things SHOULD have been better. There is no such feeling in most Briitsh historiography, and one suspects that here realism is confused with complacency and quietism. It is disturbing indeed, that Cannadine cannot discern the difference.