Category Archive 'Noel Annan'

05 Jul 2016

Noel Annan on Kipling

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Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936.

Noel Annan, Our Age: English Intellectuals Between the World Wars: A Group Portrait:

[Britain’s Edwardian] serenity was misplaced. Astute observers at home warned that Britain was losing its industrial supremacy and was indifferent to its ill educated population. Acute observers abroad declared that the solidarity of British life was an illusion. The American historian Brooks Adams (brother of Henry) forecast the departure of Britain from the historical stage. The steel production of the United States and Germany was overtaking that of Britain; and the Boer war had revealed Britain’s inefficiency as a world power. Conrad heard the tumult beneath the surface of that thin crust men called civilization – the anarchist world of the secret agent or of Henry James’s Hyacinth Robinson. But there was one writer in particular who was aware how thin the crust was and who redefined the gentlemanly ethos, and it was often through his eyes that Our Age was told to admire it. That was Kipling.

Kipling wanted his generation to recall how much the gentleman owed to society. He valued the independence of the individual – as an artist how could he not? But the individual left on his own, isolated and lonely, disintegrated. Particularly in India where men and their wives died young, where to take one’s work seriously could result in madness because government, unlike in England, never achieved results. What prevented such a society from going over the precipice? Kipling answered: religion, law, custom convention, morality – the forces of social control – which imposed upon individuals certain rules which they broke at their peril. Conventions enabled men to retain their self-respect and even to live together under appalling circumstances. Those who break the conventions must be punished. Numbers of Kipling stories contain scenes in which the individualistic, the eccentric, the man who offends against the trivial rules of the club, are tarred and feathered with gleeful brutality. If the offender is not brought to heel, society will suffer. It is not worth spending much effort, Kipling thought, debating whether the customs, morality and religion of the place you live in are right or wrong. His contemporary, the anthropologist James Frazer, was informing the learned public that religion and magic were a kind of primitive science which would vanish as scientific knowledge spread; but for Kipling, as for Max Weber, religion was a social fact.

These forces of social control, as Kipling admitted, were harsh. The harshness could be alleviated by belonging to in-groups. These in-groups protect the individual, give him privacy, identity and self-confidence. They are the family, the school and the craft or profession you follow. These in-groups, too, teach us our place. We all need a course of indoctrination to find our place and, if you have come up in the world, to be taught it. But when the individual has proven himself in his in-group, and so long as he is not in the strict sense of the word of an eccentric, then the more daring his behaviour and the more abundant his action, the greater is the addition of joy in the world. Stalky was the prototype of this socialized individualism. He acted beyond the formal law of school or army regulations and possessed the gift of seeing himself from the outside in relation to society. In Kipling’s world action revitalized man. That was the obverse of suffering it caused. And suffering was inevitable. Political action is often not a choice between good and evil but between lesser and greater evil.

Social realities interested Kipling. The liberal pictures man as choosing goals to pursue and asks whether or not he is free to pursue them. Kipling thought that men and women were forced to accept those goals which their group or clan in society chose for them and only when they had accepted these constraints were they free to exercise their individuality and take it for a trot. He is not unlike Durkheim who saw the individual as a bolt which might snap if the nut of society held it too tightly, or by being too loose allowed it to vibrate. Excessive integration as in the officer caste in the Army could be as dangerous as imperfect integration.

Brought up in a society untouched for generations by civil wars, revolution or economic disaster, Kipling’s English contemporaries were never compelled to consider why society still continues to hang together. But in India Kipling was forced to consider it. He believed that man achieves happiness when he comprehends where he himself fits into the scheme of things. He has to realize that spring cannot forever be spring and that winter succeeds autumn. Since men continue to nurse illusions they must be taught the terms on which they are allowed to rise. Subject the upstart, therefore, to a course of indoctrination to bring his ambition within bounds and turn his children into gentlemen. Whereas for most of the greatest writers society, with its rules, conventions, customs, morality and taboos surrounding the sacred, is the enemy and their characters in fiction are depicted as locked in heroic combat with them, for Kipling they are a donnée with which mankind has to come to terms or perish.

Kipling therefore defined the gentleman differently from Trollope. His gentleman has come down in the world, is harsher, more meagre, with fewer graces and more limitations. The gentleman has now become the manager, the colonial administrator, the engineer and the skilled worker. You feel his gentleman is more beleaguered. He is threatened from above by the politicians, threatened from below by the lower orders who now have the vote, and threatened by the new barbarians in Europe. In the fable of England he wrote for his children Kipling scanned the future with anxious eyes. Would the wall of British civilization fall again before the democratic hordes of little men and the barbarians, the Prussian Winged Hats? Were not the younger rulers like Churchill tainted by the same ambition that made Roman generals overpower the emperor? Were not the financiers manipulating trade and industry to their own ends, were not luxury and wealth corrupting the ruling class and turning their children to flannelled fools at the wicket? What would be England’s fate?

02 Jul 2016

The English Gentleman


Richard Verney, 19th Baron Willoughby de Broke, 1869-1923.

Noel Annan, Our Age: English Intellectuals Between the World Wars: A Group Portrait:

The ideal that Our Age was taught to admire when they were children was the ideal of English gentleman. The ideal of those pre-1914 days has been caricatured for so long, and sometimes amusingly, that one forgets this was the ethos that Churchill invoked in 1940. It went back to the eighteenth century. Wellington embodied it, Waterloo exhibited it. According to this code an Englishman should be guided by an overpowering sense of civic duty and diligence. Every man’s first loyalty should be to the country of his birth and the institution in which he served. Loyalty to institutions came before loyalty to people. Individuals should sacrifice their careers, their family, and certainly their personal happiness or whims, to the regiment, the college, the school, the services, the ministry, the profession or the firm. Service was an acknowledgment that there were other communities or territories which it was now the duty of the British to rule. Ruling other men and other races did not mean discovering and complying with their wishes. Their wishes would almost certainly be self-interested pleas for ephemeral ends often a mask for the duplicity of would-be politicians, demagogues and agitators. While the rest of the world feared the will to power that was behind the missionary force of the Empire, the British, whose administrators exported the life of the motherland in their clothes, their food, their sport and pipe-smoking, could never be brought to admit they were in danger. They were indignant when told that they exploited idealistic movement such as anti-slavery and Zionism as ways of getting others to do their work for them, or that they betrayed idealists such as E. D. Morel in the Belgian Congo or T.E. Lawrence in Arabia. Plutarch gave them examples of the type to admire: Lycurgus rather than Pericles, Julius Caesar rather than Pompey or Brutus; never Cleon or Catiline.

The gentleman was someone who developed his latent qualities by engaging in gentlemanly pursuits. An officer acquired an eye for country by riding to hounds, and thus learnt the art of moving his infantry platoon into dead ground to hide them from the enemy. Provided he excelled as a sportsman and played games fearlessly, his men would follow him anywhere. At Waterloo, officers courted danger to encourage their men much the same way as naval officers at Trafalgar strolled up and down the quarterdeck regardless of sharpshooters or grapeshot. In the early days both of the Boer war and the Great War to take cover was thought to be a bit iffy. A gentleman disguised his abilities as much as he disguised his emotions: not to do so was to show side and drop one’s guard. When Tony Chevenix Trench, later a public school headmaster, emerged from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, he was greeted by his brother with the words, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect to find you alive.’ The key to recognition was good manners – unceremonious, relaxed behavior designed to put friends at ease. The temptation to intellectualize about one’s calling was unwise and people who had theories needed to be watched. To reduce tradition and custom to dry principles, to become too reliant on technology, was to forget that character was more important than hare-brained schemes. Men should be judged by their conduct rather than their ideas. Mark Anthony was an example of self-indulgence and that weakness of character which tempts a man to desert duty for pleasure. Women were a potential snare and they should be treated warily. But good women were romantic objects and, because they were good, could be treated as such. The young were full of good stuff but callow. They would be all the better for being snubbed and put in their place.

People wanted to show that they too knew what leisure pursuits to follow, what matters to copy. This is how others would recognize that you are incorporated within society. Perhaps it is not going too far to say that a man and his family came to be regarded as citizens by the degree to which they were able to conform to the code of the governing class and to the part of the country they belonged. Before 1914 you had to assimilate as far as your means allowed to the governing class’s way of life to be received within the social pale. Servants indicated status, and it is astonishing how many of those with modest incomes and jobs had servants until one remembers the kitchen ranges, coal fires instead of Central heating, the copper instead of a washing machine, created so much work that there was a real inducement to economize on consumer goods and employ servants. A housemaid needed to be paid only thirty pounds a year. Clothes no less than servants were the clue to your social standing. A hat was a symbol of being socialized. That was one reason why even the poorest wore one: they were staking claim to being a citizen even if they had no vote. Only the self-confident could neglect the requirements of fashion, like the Cecils who dressed in shapeless garments or the intellectuals who climbed mountains and communed with nature on thirty-mile walks. Invited in 1929 to Bicton for a country house party, Alan Pryce-Jones, twenty-one years old and impecunious, descended for dinner wearing a black tie to find the other men wearing tail coats. ‘Which footman have you got?’ asked his uncle and host when he apologized. ‘It is not the fault of the footman,’ he replied, ‘I haven’t brought a white tie.’ Putting a hand on his shoulder, his host proposed the only remedy. ‘My dear fellow, sack your man.’ He was not invited again. …

Like Dickens, Trollope thought that making money and decent ambition in life were desirable: his gentry and clergy talk money all the time. His crooked financiers were guilty not because they pursued wealth but because they overrode the law and morality. But if a gentleman goes in for politics he should not act the prig when he finds he has to bribe his electors. Compromise and dissimulation are part of the game. You stand by your leader even if you don’t like him because personal likes or dislikes should be beneath the gentleman in politics. It is ignoble to claim you are a fly caught in the wheel of history or whine that you had a hard upbringing. Nor is it corrupt to show deference to rank and position. No doubt there are plenty of silly, vain and pompous aristocrats in Trollope’s pages but formal differences in society will always exist. The deference a scientist might show to a Nobel Prize winner or journalist to his editor is no more than tribute to sagacity and know-how. Social distinctions are not barriers, they are signposts which can be disregarded for good cause; but in a country which had no signposts it will be hard to find one’s way.

There were other virtues that the true gentleman required. He should not be too spontaneous in his conduct. That virtue which Castiglione had so admired had become suspect. Like a game fox a man should run straight. Predictability was a virtue. To strain to be original was a sign of side, conceit, vanity and showing off. To be determined to distinguish oneself from one’s fellows was considered disagreeable. A dandy could get by, an aesthete was fishy. Of course, the notion of the gentleman is bound up with social status: indeed it held within it the assumption that a gentleman was responsible for others, for his tenants, the soldiers under his command, his flock in the parish, his servants: but only rarely the hands in his mill. He would command, but off duty he would be courteous.

In his entertaining book on the subject Philip Mason maintains that Protestant Christianity said so impossibly high standard of conduct that the cult of the gentleman had to be substituted to provide a realizable ideal.

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