Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Henry St.John Hart

The Dean of my college, the Reverend Henry St.John Hart, deserved to be remembered for a great many things, but my principal recollection is of the occasion when he intoned the following little homily to a group of undergraduates, in his much-imitated voice where every word was clearly enunciated:
"When you are old men, you will tell your grandchildren, "When I was at Cambridge, I knew a clergyman". And they will say, "Cor!" And you will say, "And he smoked a pipe". And they will say, "Lumme!" And you will say, "And he read to us from a book". And they will say, "Phew!" And then they will think for a little while and they will say, "Gosh, granddad, you must be very old!"
We haven't quite got there yet, though some progress has been made.

As well as being a biblical scholar, Henry Hart was one of the great Cambridge characters. He had on his desk a framed card proclaiming, in his beautiful calligraphy, "Leisure time is best spent in reading for a degree". He knew and admired Tolkien, both as a philological scholar and as an author. We suspected he was part-Ent. (Professor Sir Herbert Butterfield, by contrast, was quite obviously a Hobbit)

Friday, 23 September 2011

Shakespeare and Malvolio

I shall approach this subject tangentially. A few miles from Penrith in the Lake District, where I was brought up, there is a stately home called Dalemain. Its core is a late mediaeval house, the centre of an estate which was bought in the 17th century by a certain Sir Edward Hasell, whose descendants still own the property. Sir Edward Hasell owed his wealth to the fact that he was the steward to a great noblewoman, Lady Anne Clifford - in other words, he was an exact parallel to Malvolio in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night".

Living in the present age, we tend to think of Malvolio as "just a servant"; not the sort of person who could have bought himself a stately home; but in Shakespeare's day it would have been rather more complicated. Perhaps it would be best to think of Malvolio as a "servant" in the same way as the Prime Minister is a "servant" of the Queen (the word "minister" does actually mean "servant"). In the context of Shakespeare's England, Malvolio would probably have been the younger son of a landowning gentleman, and quite likely educated as a lawyer. As the Lady Olivia's steward, he would have run her household and acted as the managing director of her estates, which would probably have totalled hundreds of thousands of acres. It would have been a very responsible position: large sums of money would have passed through his hands and a great many people would have worked under him. In other words, it was a perfectly respectable occupation for an able and ambitious man; and if he played his cards carefully, Malvolio could expect to become a rich gentleman in his own right, like Sir Edward Hasell. At the same time, Shakespeare makes clear the ambiguous relationship between Malvolio and Lady Olivia's relatives and hangers-on, like Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew and Maria, and the disastrous impropriety of Malvolio imagining he could ever hope to marry the Lady Olivia. It would be almost as bad as the Prime Minister trying to get off with the Queen!

Another man in a position analagous to that of Malvolio was the great philosopher Thomas Hobbes; born in 1588, and so a generation younger than Shakespeare. Hobbes was the son of a minor clergyman from Wiltshire, but his talents were recognised at school and he was able to go to Oxford University. He then spent his life in the household of a great nobleman: William Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire, as tutor and secretary. But Hobbes did not begin to put forward his revolutionary ideas until the 1630s, after Shakespeare's death, and the intellectual world he inhabited and helped to change was wholly different from the semi-mediaeval world of Shakespeare.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Rousseau in England

It is not widely known that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great 18th century French philosopher, lived for a year in Staffordshire!
Rousseau was born in Geneva, in Switzerland, in 1712. At the age of 15, having lost both his parents and hating life as an apprentice engraver, he ran away, and after various adventures came to Paris in the 1740s. He was an excellent musician, good enough to have an opera and a ballet staged before the King, and wrote a number of controversial and widely-read essays. Besides his musical and literary talents, he was very good-looking and always got on well with upper-class ladies. Soon he was the darling of the salons, well-known to all the progressive intellectuals of the time, though he frequently disagreed with them. But his personal life was always troubled. He was always self-obsessed, with a strong masochistic streak, and suffered from persecution-mania which developed into a disabling paranoia. Increasingly he could find happiness only by retreating to seclusion in the countryside. For more than 20 years he lived unmarried with Therese le Vasseur, an illiterate kitchen-maid: they had five children, all of whom were given to a local orphanage - or so Rousseau tells us in his posthumously-published “Confessions”: scholars have always disputed how much of this was made up.
In 1762 he published his most important book, “ The Social Contact”, which was quickly condemned for heresy both in Paris and his native Geneva, where his books were publicly burnt. Influential friends protected him from government persecution, but when in 1765 his windows were broken by a mob he fled from his home. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume, who was attached to the British embassy in Paris, suggested he should come to England.
Rousseau arrived in London, without Therese, in January 1766. Just as in Paris, he was an immediate social sensation; he was feted by all intellectuals and had his portrait painted (in Armenian dress! see picture above) by Allan Ramsey. But, just as in Paris, he hated the attention he received in London, and accepted an invitation to stay at Wootton, the home of Richard Davenport, on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border not far from Ashbourne. Rousseau arrived there in April, to find the area still frozen: something that present-day residents could well understand! He was joined there by Therese, who had been conducted from France by James Boswell - not yet the biographer of Dr. Johnson; at this stage just a young Scotsman on the make, who shamelessly intruded himself upon the great and famous. One local admirer was a young landowner, Sir Brooke Boothby. A few years later, Boothby had Joseph Wright of Derby paint his portrait: he is shown reclining full-length beside a stream in a woodland glade, with a volume of Rousseau in his hand; a setting of which his hero would doubtless have approved.

(In the church at Ashbourne there is a beautiful monument to Boothby’s little daughter Penelope)
Rousseau lived at Wootton for a year, working on his “Confessions“, until eventually his growing paranoia got he better of him. He turned down an offer conveyed by General Henry Conway of a royal pension of £100 a year, on the grounds that it too much resembled charity, and then a satirical article written by Horace Walpole convinced him that there was a gigantic conspiracy afoot to discredit him. Even Ramsey’s portrait, he imagined, was an attempt to make him look ridiculous. For some reason, he blamed David Hume, and published a ferocious attack on the Scottish philosopher, who was unwise enough to reply. Eventually Rousseau fled back to France, after appealing to Lord Chancellor Camden to provide him with armed bodyguards, and writing to the doubtless bemused Conway, warning him not to get involved in any assassination plots.
There was a warrant out for Rousseau’s arrest in France, but he was protected by his powerful friends. In 1768 he married Therese, after living with her for 23 years, and resumed his secluded life in the countryside. He died in 1778.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

William Pitt's finances

William Pitt the younger became British Prime Minister in 1783 at the age of only 24 and remained in office with just one break of three years through to his death in 1806. During this time he acted as his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, and until the coming of war with revolutionary France in 1792 he must be reckoned as one of the most effective directors of the national finances there has ever been. He achieved what most Chancellors can only dream of: he balanced the budget, put funds aside to pay off the National Debt, reduced customs and excise duties, saved money by letting unnecessary government jobs lapse, and presided over a boom in trade and manufacturing. But, though he was rigorous in his control of the nation's money, his personal finances were in a terrible mess. Despite earning a very high salary of around ten thousand pounds a year (well over half a million pounds in today's money: massively more than the present prime minister is paid), William Pitt was always heavily in debt. It is not at all clear why this should be: he was a batchelor with no family to support, he owned only a very modest country house, he did not gamble or collect art treasures, and his only known vice was heavy drinking. Yet we find him borrowing enormous sums from Coutts Bank and other sources, and then having to take out even larger loans to cover the interest due on these: a certain formula for disaster. By the time of his death, his indebtedness amounted to the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Where had the money gone?
John Ehrman, examining Pitt's household bills, finds some extraordinary figures, which must be remembered in the context that most families in his day were surviving on less than £30 a year. In three years, Pitt paid almost £38,000 for stabling horses: a sum amounting to over a million in today's money; and yet he owned only two carriages and never had the least interest in horse-racing. Equally extraordinary were his food bills, including one from the butcher for £96 for two months in 1785, which was equivalent to the cost of one and three-quarter tons of meat! How could this be possible? Was he being swindled by his tradesmen, or robbed blind by his servants? How could a man who was so meticulous with the national finances be so careless with his own?
I sometimes wonder whether Pitt was being blackmailed; but if so, for what? Since he was a batchelor with little interest in women, there were naturally rumours that he might be homosexual, but the best researches of his opponents completely failed to turn up anything scandalous or incriminating against him, and modern historians have been no more successful. The matter is likely to remain a mystery.
Pitt dies in January 1806 at the age of 46, of exhaustion complicated by liver failure brought on by excessive drinking, having spent almost all his adult life as Prime Minister. The previous year had seen Nelson's victory at Trafalgar secure Britain against foreign invasion, but then Napoleon crushed the Russian and Austrian armies at Austerlitz, making it clear that the war would continue for many years yet. Thanks to Pitt's stewardship of the national finances, his successors were able to find the enormous sums needed to win the war; and when the parlous state of his personal finances became known, Parliament voted to pay off his debts by public subscription, as a mark of respect to his memory.

(Source: John Ehrman: "The Younger Pitt; the Years of Acclaim")

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Wilfred Rhodes

If, a hundred years ago, you had asked a Yorkshire cricket fan, “Who’s the best all-rounder in the world?” he might well have replied, “I don’t know, but I can tell you that he bats right-handed, bowls left, and comes from Kirkheaton”. The point of this answer was that it applied to two mighty stalwarts of the Yorkshire and England teams: George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes. (The photograph shows Hirst, on the left, with Rhodes)
Kirkheaton is a small village of stone-built houses on the slopes of the Pennines, not far from the great wool manufacturing town of Huddersfield in what used to be called the West Riding of Yorkshire. George Hirst was born there in 1871, leaving school aged ten, working in a dye-works and playing weekend cricket until invited to a county trial at 18, but not gaining a regular place in the team until three years later. He originally won recognition as a fast-medium bowler, being one of the first exponents of making the ball swing in the air, as well as a strong, aggressive batsman and a superb fielder. In 1896 he achieved his first “double” of a thousand runs and a hundred wickets for the season: he was to reach this milestone 14 times, including a “double double” of 2000 runs and 200 wickets in 1906; the only man ever to manage this extraordinary feat. He was called up into the England team for the tour of Australia in 1897-8, winning 24 Test caps altogether, but never having quite the same impact as he did at County level.
Wilfred Rhodes was born in the village in 1877, and like Hirst he began as a Saturday cricketer for the village, working as a railwayman at nearby Mirfield during the week. In 1896, however, he was already skilled enough to be employed as the club professional al Galashiels on the Scottish border. After two seasons there he was called into the Yorkshire team; the county’s chief spin bowler, Bobby Peel, having been sacked for drunkenness. His impact was immediate: despite his youth and inexperience the accuracy of his slow left-arm bowling was infallible, he could turn the ball sharply from leg to off and even the best batsmen had difficulty reading his deceptive line of flight. On a wicket taking spin, he was virtually unplayable. So in his first season, 1898, he took 154 wickets, then 179 in his second, and over 200 in each of the next three: over a thousand wickets by the age of 25! It could have come as a surprise to no-one that in 1899 he was selected for the England team; his first Test, with nice symbolism, being the last ever played by the legendary W. G. Grace. In his early days Rhodes was seen as number 11 batsman, but this was soon to change.
There was a sensational series against Australia in 1902. In the first Test the visitors, caught on a bad wicket, were dismissed by Hirst and Rhodes for just 36 runs: Rhodes’s contribution being 7 wickets for 17 runs in 11 overs. Then in the last Test, England were set a modest total of 263 for victory. They collapsed to 48 for 5, then the great hitter Gilbert Jessop smashed his way to a century in an hour and a half, but when Rhodes entered as last man in to join George Hirst, a further 15 runs were still needed. “We’ll get ’em in singles, Wilfred”, said Hirst, and the pair duly saw England home.

In 1903-4 Rhodes was selected for his first tour of Australia. Many experts doubted whether he would be able to turn the ball on the hard, unresponsive Australian wickets, but this fear proved to be unfounded. One of the central themes of the series was his contest with the great Australian batsman Victor Trumper. In the second innings of the first Test at Sydney, Trumper scored 185 not out, destroying all the English bowlers except one: Rhodes in this innings took 5 wickets for 94 runs; the rest of the England attack, 3 wickets for 357 runs between them! Then in first innings of the second Test, Australia were dismissed for 122, of which Trumper scored 74. Rhodes took 7 wickets for 56 runs, 15 for 124 in the match, despite having no fewer than eight catches dropped off his bowling! (The second England innings was a close parallel: all out for 103, 62 of these being contributed by Johnny Tyldesley). But in this series Rhodes also began to emerge as a batsman: at Sydney he and R. E. Foster put on a world record total of 130 for the last England wicket. Rhodes was left on 40 not out, and decided that he liked batting. In fact, his batting was improving all the time: he had scored his first century in 1901 and two years later reached his first “double”. He was to repeat this achievement almost every season until the First World War; though critics maintained that his bowling was losing its old lethal penetration.
When Rhodes returned to Australia for the 1911-12 tour, everything had changed. He did not take a single wicket, and yet he played in every Test. This time he had been chosen to open the batting with the young Jack Hobbs. The pair were quickly in business, with an opening stand of 147 in the Adelaide Test and then 323 at Melbourne. So Rhodes had now taken part in world record stands for both the first wicket and the last: a unique achievement. The pair managed eight century opening partnerships before Test cricket was brought to a halt by the First World War.

Rhodes dropped out of Test cricket after the war, but, in his mid-forties, rediscovered his bowling. More “doubles” followed; his sixteenth and, as it would turn out, his last, coming in 1926. But that summer witnessed yet more amazing events. Once again the Australians were touring England, having won overwhelmingly the three previous postwar series. Rain prevented any conclusions in the first four matches, and for the final match Rhodes was recalled to the team. He was not far short of his 49th birthday, but as he told the selectors, “I’m still landing them there, or thereabouts”. Three members of the England team, including the captain, Percy Chapman, had not even been born when Rhodes had made his first international appearance back in 1899. The turning-point of the match came when Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe opened the English second innings with a stand of 172 on a terrible pitch, but Rhodes too played his part in England’s victory. By this time he hardly spun the ball at all, but his line and length were as immaculate as ever as he lured great batsmen like Woodfull, Ponsford, Bardsley and Collins to destruction: 6 wickets for 79 runs in the match.
Even this was not quite the end, because in the winter of 1929-30 Rhodes was selected for the team to tour the West Indies. He was now the oldest Test cricketer of all time. This series marked the emergence of George Headley as the first-ever world-class black batsman, scoring four centuries in the Tests, including 223 at Kingston, Jamaica. But he never managed to dominate Rhodes, who bowled for marathon spells in the stifling heat: 256 overs in four Tests, the most he had ever bowled in a series, never conceding more than 2 runs an over on average. It was all reminiscent of his duels with Victor Trumper a quarter of a century earlier.

Rhodes finally retired from cricket at the end of the 1930 season. Fittingly, his last match was in his home county of Yorkshire against the touring Australian team, who had brought with them a young man who was emerging as the most devastating batsman of all time. So Wilfred Rhodes, who had begun his career bowling at W. G. Grace, ended it by bowling at Don Bradman. “And I’d have had him first ball if mid-off had been awake!” he liked to recall afterwards.
In retirement, George Hirst spent seventeen happy years as a much-loved coach at Eton College. Rhodes had a season coaching at Harrow, but did not enjoy it very much: his method being to walk down the wicket after an imperfect shot and say, “Jack Hobbs used to play them like this”. He died in 1973: for the last years of his life he was blind, but he continued to attend matches and always enjoyed reminiscing about the game. Modestly, he would describe himself as a “good utility player” rather than a star. In his career he had scored almost 40,000 runs, including 58 centuries, held 764 catches and taken 4,187 wickets; this last being a record which we can be confident will never be equalled.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Karl Marx

I was told the following story some years ago at the Cambridge University Library. Back in the 1920s the oldest attendant at the British Museum Reading Room retired, and it occurred to someone that he might be the last person to have seen Karl Marx when Marx was doing his research for "Das Kapital" there. So the old man was asked, did he remember Kark Marx? He thought a bit, and said, "Oh, you mean the German gentleman with the beard? Yes, I remember him: he used to come and read here day after day, for years. Then one day he left, and no-one ever heard of him again!"
The first time I went to the Soviet Union I retailed this anecdote to our guide, but I don't think she was amused.

(For a summary of Marx's ideas, see my earlier posting under the heading of Politics/Philosohy: Marxism)