A Modest Proposal (TIME, March 24, 1941)

TIME’s supercilious treatment of Kaufman’s Germany Must Perish! in 1941.

Reviewer starts out supposing it’s satire, like Jonathan Swift’s. But then sees it isn’t.









Review: Ian Kershaw’s Personality and Power


Personality and Power:
Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe

New York: Penguin Press, 2022

Margot Metroland

This book caught my eye when it came out a few months ago because its format reminded me of Standardbearers: British Roots of the New Right, which I reviewed here some seasons back. That is to say, a collection of short critical biographies of a dozen or so worthies, assembled together on a common theme. In the case of Personality and Power, most of the worthies are rather more famous than the serried ranks assembled in Standardbearers. They are the 20th century statesmen (including one woman), mainly European (including British), who made a striking difference in the cohesion and political direction of their countries.

These include Charles De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Francisco Franco, Helmut Kohl, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Margaret Thatcher and others. As this sample suggests, Kershaw is not making any value judgment. His subjects made the cut if they were a) prominent government leaders, b) navigated one or more severe crisis while in office, and c) set their country on a new path, with a new and different national self-regard. You can be a president, a prime minister, or a dictator; lead a democracy or a totalitarian satrapy; you can be a Builder or a Destroyer; just so long as you were head of a government and made a difference.

Kershaw is generally very fair and insightful in these analytical biographies. He considers Josef Broz “Tito” a thug but gives him his due as a consummate opportunist able to navigate the rapids of the Cold War years, thereby making himself very popular in the West while still polishing his Communist credentials. Helmut Kohl he regards as a wayward political hack who had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. Francisco Franco he admires for his close-mouthed, steely determination, and refusal to be challenged or countermanded by rivals and associates. There’s a wonderful description of how he would hold day-long conferences with ministers and subordinates, subduing them by refusing to let them answer the call of nature. “Franco’s bladder control was extraordinary; until December 1968 he never paused the meetings to go to the toilet.” This headstrong, I-will-not-be-crossed personality we also find in Margaret Thatcher, Charles De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer (though without the proscription on lavatory breaks).

The author falls down in his analyses of the two most popular subjects of 20th century history, Messrs. Churchill and Hitler. We get the worshipful praise and steadfast apologias for the first—it’s like something out of Martin Gilbert or the preposterous Churchill stans of Hillsdale College. And then we are fed rote and unnuanced Schrecklichkeit in consideration of the second. (Hitler’s face “has come to represent the face of political evil.”) Really now, a veteran historical writer and Hitler biographer like Kershaw should realize that titanic figures, whether you love ’em or hate ’em, are best painted in shades of grey. Among other things, it makes the story more interesting.

The book is unfortunately structured like a pineapple upside-down cake, with all the fruity goodness baked in at the bottom—that is to say, in the long plenary “Conclusion: History Makers — in Their Time.” So what you want to do here is turn the cake over, and begin from that end: you may read the biographies afterwards, or refer to them now and again, as though they were appendices, as you work your way through the tasty Conclusion. It would have been better if Kershaw had combined this Conclusion with his Introduction, which touches on some of the same subjects without going into them in depth.

Class equilibrium?

As a starting point, Kershaw weighs Karl Marx’s theory of “class equilibrium,” which supposedly explained why a “nonentity” and “buffoon” like Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was able to ascend to power in mid-nineteenth century France. [1] By “class equilibrium,” Marx/Kershaw mean a political situation where there was no clear ascendancy to power, no “bourgeois capitalists” in total control, no powerful aristocracy, no Deep State, no dictatorship of the proletariat. I’d say that’s pretty much the story of most of Western Europe for the past century or two, so we shouldn’t be surprised that none of Kershaw’s subjects fit the theory. Nevertheless he litmus-tests them one-by-one and finds that not only are they contra Marx, the circumstances that brought them to power were quite different from “class equilibrium” and much easier to explain. They possessed a dominating personality and they were standing in the right place during a political upheaval or vast shift in public sentiment. And they proved themselves and steered their nation’s destiny through some major early crisis. That’s pretty much the commonality here.

As a digression, I’ll say that Kershaw’s challenge to Marx’s purported theory is really shooting fish in a barrel. Does any knowledgeable person today regard Louis Napoleon Bonaparte the way Marx did? A clown, a bottle-imp who strived but failed to achieve the gloire of his illustrious uncle? I doubt it. As president and emperor, Napoleon III served a good deal longer than his uncle did as consul and emperor (22 years vs. 14+) and did so without tearing Europe apart. When he fell from power, it was entirely because of his good intentions: he lifted censorship of the press in 1869, whereupon the irresponsible journo firebrands and their Assembly friends immediately commenced sword-rattling against Prussia…and we know where that led. By any measure Napoleon III was one of the most, if not the most, able and brave statesman of his time. Marx didn’t like him simply because this Bonaparte didn’t fit neatly into his timeline of historical necessity.

Helmut Kohl

Anyway, being the right figure at the right time, and sometimes a stubborn cuss, was what allowed someone like Helmut Kohl to make the cut in the Kershaw schema. Germany needed a unifier 1989-90, and here was this grinning, oversize paterfamilias, with no serious political enemies, ready to welcome the tatty, broken-down, polluted DDR into the mighty economy of the Federal Republic. Kohl’s predecessor Helmut Schmidt, an economist by training, might have done a better job of integrating the economies, instead of simply giving the store away as Kohl was prone to, but Schmidt’s political career by then was kaput. At one point in 1990 Chancellor Kohl was going to merge the East German Mark with the Deutschmark at a 1:1 parity, although the true exchange rate (per Kershaw, quoting a Kohl biographer) was 1:8 or even 1:9! Eventually the Bundesbank talked him down to a 1:2 exchange for most currency, with a 1:1 for some savings and pensions. But even the 1:2 rate proved destabilizing to the already tottering East German economy. Wages and salaries immediately rocketed skyward, without being offset by new revenue from outside. “As moribund industries collapsed, unemployment soared.” The outside world wasn’t suddenly rushing in to buy Trabants simply because the Berlin Wall came down. Economic malaise inevitably spread to Germany as a whole, as it was the old West Germany that paid most of the cost of unification. Perhaps this was inevitable; anyway the restructuring depressed the economy for most of the 1990s.

A happier instance of headstrong insistence had come early in the Kohl chancellorship, in May 1985. That was the famous incident when Helmut Kohl took Ronald Reagan to visit a military cemetery in Bitburg. Reagan was then doing the rounds of 40-year VE-Day commemorations in Europe. Since Kohl had been excluded from the Normandy events the previous year, it was thought fitting and proper for the President to drop by a German military cemetery, and say a word or two about amity and peace.

Immediately an “international” (ahem) hue and cry was raised when it was revealed that adjacent to the Wehrmacht cemetery was a plot with the remains of 47 Waffen SS men. Reagan and Kohl were urged to call off the event. Kohl stood his ground and, backed up by White House support (Pat Buchanan, mostly), the President went off to Bitburg, for a brief and quiet ceremony. The whole affair looks comic in hindsight now [2] but in Germany it raised the stature of Chancellor Kohl immensely. Put it in context: a couple of years earlier, the new chancellor had permitted the placement of Pershing II missiles on German soil, and now the American President returned the favor by showing solidarity with the Germans and their war dead

Margaret Thatcher

The Milk-Snatcher: Ian Kershaw likes her very much. There’s an Alan Clark level of fawning admiration. If she weren’t the only woman here, she’d be the quintessential example of leadership, per Kershaw standards. “Often feminine but never a feminist,” and opposed to tokenism, Thatcher was an outlier in more ways than one.

She came to power because she was pretty much the last man left standing. As you may recall, Edward Heath lost the premiership in March 1974 in the wake of miner strikes, three-day-day workweeks, and severe power (i.e., utility) cutbacks, problems that were exacerbated by OPEC’s cut in fuel exports. Any government would have been tossed out after that. Harold Wilson came in with a slight plurality and a few months later he nearly got tossed out as well. Somehow Labour staggered on for a few years more, usually with a razor-thin majority or coalition government. In 1976 Wilson resigned, perhaps for health reasons, perhaps not [3], to be succeeded by onetime chancellor James Callaghan. Meantime Heath had been voted out as Conservative party leader. When an election finally needed to be called in 1979, any head of the Conservatives would have ended up as prime minister, and by this point that leader happened to be Milk-Snatcher Thatcher.

In hindsight Thatcher’s initiatives, whether in the Heath government or her own, were so terribly commonsensical that it’s astonishing they caused a fuss in the 1970s-80s. Do 11-year-olds need free milk at school? Is there something weird about allowing council-house residents to buy and own their homes? Is it really wild and crazy to de-nationalize Rolls-Royce or British Telecom? But these were portrayed as radical ideas at the time.

Kershaw considers the Falklands War in the spring of 1982 to be the turning point in Mrs. Thatcher’s success as PM. It may be true that her post-Falklands approval rating had doubled (to 51%), and it certainly was a time of peak British glory after the sooty, bedraggled, unemployed 1970s. But when an election was called in 1983 and Thatcher’s Conservatives won again, and with a great gain in seats (though not popular vote), it was patently obvious that Labour didn’t stand much of a chance. Mrs. Thatcher would probably have won in any case. The crises that tempered her between taking office in 1979 and the Falklands War were continual, and if times were difficult at least the government didn’t seem as ineffectual as in the 1970s.

And then there was the new Labour party leader, an old socialist journalist named Michael Foot—nicknamed Worzel Gummidge by Private Eye, after a musical scarecrow, because of his unkempt appearance. While Foot was a worthy man in many ways (an old associate of Orwell’s, after all), he did not command respect. Post-election, Labour dumped him for Neil Kinnock, whose poor-mouth speech was famously plagiarized by Joe Biden, and who went on to lose to Mrs. Thatcher in 1987 in a time of greatly rising prosperity. Meantime the PM was operating from a position of strength, successfully settling the miners’ strike in 1985, leaving us a patch of history that is mainly remembered in the context of film scripts (Brassed Off, Billy Elliott).

Mikhail Gorbachev

Even more crumbly and bedraggled than Great Britain in the 1970s and 80s was that other sometime superpower, the Soviet Union. Kershaw offers us the charming insight that Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded in his transformation of the USSR because he possessed “unquenchable self-confidence: and “naive optimism,” traits sorely missing in his immediate predecessors: thuggish nonentity Konstantin Chernenko, and the KGB’s career hood Yuri Andropov, memorable for welcoming Soviet tanks into Budapest in 1956 and also sending them into Prague in 1968. Gorbachev on the other hand is memorable for having a port-wine birthmark on his forehead, for being an amiable negotiator and apparent friend to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, for pronouncing a new policy of Glasnost, or government transparency, and finally for bringing the Cold War to an end with a soft landing. Russian nationalists may view his legacy very dubiously: in 1980 the USSR was not only a superpower, it was a leader in science and technology. Twenty years later it was a frail assemblage of Eastern European and Asiatic “republics” and breakaway provinces, some of which are continuing to break away.

Konrad Adenauer

No statesman is without a blemish, but Konrad Adenauer may come closest in the Kershaw lineup. What a very old West German Chancellor he was, 73 when first elected (1949) and 87 when he resigned, with yet another four years to live. A conservative Catholic Rhinelander, he became lord mayor of Cologne in 1917—youngest Oberbürgermeister in the state of Prussia—and remained such until deposed at the start of the Nazi era. Thereafter he and his large family lived in penury for some years,  subsisting on handouts from friends until he finally was granted his pension in 1937 (parts of the German bureaucracy had managed to remain honorably intact). For a while he took refuge in a monastery. Postwar he emerged as one of the few politicians who had never been a Socialist, a Communist, a Nazi, or an anti-Hitler plotter. He helped found the CDU (Christian Democratic Union party) immediately after the war, and declared he intended to become Federal Chancellor. Writes Kershaw,

He had a high level of self-discipline and — even in advanced old age — a Stakhanovite capacity for hard work. He would prove unshakeably loyal to his colleagues and advisers. Neither in appearance nor in public speaking did he exude natural charisma. He instinctively conveyed authority, however…

The key plot point in Adenauer’s early career as Federal Chancellor came in 1952. Stalin was making overtures to the new Federal Republic (BRD), proposing a Four-Power Conference to “reunite” Germany into a neutral state with “free activity of democratic parties and organizations.” Reunite, that is, according to the 1945 borders; no East Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania.

Stalin’s initiative was a plain attempt to wean the Federal Republic away from the embrace of the western Allies. Smelling danger, Adenauer’s negative reaction was unhesitating…

Superficially, what Stalin was offering was far from unattractive… There were powerful voices [in the West] at least in favour of exploring the possibilities… Adenauer authorized a press communique however that was strongly negative in tone, given the threat Stalin’s initiative posed … and the certain and permanent loss of the eastern provinces. Opinion surveys showed that his stance enjoyed much support with the public.

Comment: this episode is the background to F. P. Yockey’s The Enemy of Europe (1953) a long propaganda tract of the period, aimed mainly at West Germans, and cleverly echoing both pro-Soviet and nationalist-Right agitation of the time. Yockey calls out the anti-nationalist politicians who allied themselves with the USA and the Allied High Commission, referring to them as the “Michel element,” Michel being an old German idiom for cowardly dunderhead, here used with traitorous overtones. Yockey doesn’t name any politicians, but the main suspect would have to be Chancellor Adenauer. Though in reality Adenauer helped issue a general amnesty for most of the former Nazi Party members, including full reinstatement with pension rights for civil servants and career soldiers. His regard for nationalist feeling is one reason why he was elected for four terms.

In those early years of the Federal Republic, opinion polls showed that half the population thought National Socialism was a good idea, that the best era in twentieth century Germany was 1933-1939, and that the Führer had done much more for the country than Herr Adenauer. But opinion polls swung around as the Adenauer years flew by. By the time he finally resigned in 1963, age 87, he was rated the greatest German ever, even greater than Bismarck.

Much of this was due to the economic miracle, the Wirtschaftwunder, of the 1950s. Kershaw is careful to point out that the this boom was not directed by Adenauer but by his finance minister and successor Ludwig Erhard, who used the power of the state to support “a burgeoning liberal market economy linked to principles of social welfare.” But another, major reason for the popularity of both Adenauer and Erhard was that the Iron Curtain ran down the middle of Germany. Over on the other side was a glaring example of a system that was abhorrent to most Germans.

Kershaw bias

Kershaw has a decided political bias, of the moderate-Left stripe. Indications are that this is simply because his political education sort of ended in the 1990s, ergo he spouts  commonplace verities from that time. At one point he mentions that when Franco won the Spanish Civil War he had some difficulty forming a consensus because he had no support in the “working class.” No support in the working class—truly? Well, who exactly was fighting on the winning side? Were they all upper bourgeoisie, latifundian grandées, bishops of Burgos and Seville?

What Kershaw really means is that there weren’t any Popular Front-style Left-wing cadres in Franco’s camp. But how could there have been? Anyway this is a very strange and dangerous outlook to have, or at least an unfortunately lazy slip of tongue and pen.

Trying to stay topical, Kershaw makes a late (2019?) interpolation to his manuscript:

Having recently experienced how, out of the blue, the coronavirus pandemic could upturn societies across the globe, we need a special reminder of the impersonal determinants of historical change (though its harmful impact could be significantly worsened by the role of individual leadership, such as that of Trump or the Brazilian president Jair Bolnosaro).

And then, later on:

Democracy is in some ways on the retreat. Donald Trump’s four years as President of the USA showed alarmingly how personality could challenge (and even warp) the structures of the world’s foremost democracy. The American constitution only just survived the battering it took from Trump, and its much-vaunted checks and balances proved to be weaker than had been presumed. The pseudo-monarchical executive powers of the President are, as Trump showed, so extensive that, in the wrong hands, they can endanger democracy itself. The damage Trump’s narcissistic personality and autocratic style of leadership inflicted on the USA, and on democracy in other parts of the world, cannot yet be fully assessed. He came to power on the promise of upholding America’s strength. But he has left the USA looking globally weaker as it contends with forces of authoritarianism, especially though not solely in China.

There are no words. This incoherent rant completely undoes Kershaw’s reasonable analysis elsewhere in the book, as he reveals himself as just one more ignorant foreigner who can’t find Idaho on a map. His broad implication—that President Trump was more radical and alarming than immediate predecessors Obama, Bush the Younger, and Clinton—is laughable. So Donald Trump has a “narcissistic personality and autocratic style of leadership”? More narcissistic than, say, GWB, LBJ, FDR? Where do you see this, Prof. Kershaw? More narcissistic than, say, your big hero Winston Spencer Churchill? Is not a domineering, self-aggrandizing style key to effective leadership, for good or ill, according to the theories you propound here in your little book?

Ian Kershaw enjoys sausage, he likes to eat it, he likes to critique it. He just can’t bear to see sausage being made.


Pinocchio — The Face of Fascism II

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Three years ago I did a semi-humorous, shaggy-dog piece about Pinocchio and the Fascisti (“Pinocchio: The Face of Fascism“). Its jumping-off point was talking about several Pinocchio films in the works, particularly a long-awaited stop-motion animation feature directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson. The film was then scheduled for release on Netflix “next year” (i.e., 2021) and was said to be very dark in theme. This darkness, we were told, lay mostly in its being set in Fascist Italy. There would be bombing and violence and cameos of Benito Mussolini.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (for such is its full name) finally dropped in December 2022. Like the curate’s egg, it’s excellent in parts. It is truly dark in the sense that most scenes are in twilight or have an available-light look. Gustafson’s stop-motion is superb, and the set design is often breathtaking. The script is imaginative and original, though often cluttered with puzzling elements and subplots. There are two very well done scenes of bombers flying overhead, seen from below in silhouette, but with the falling bombs themselves drawn in detailed closeup; followed by extended scenes of destruction and carnage. These seem to be inspired by old newsreels of the London blitz, though a closer model may be the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

Yet this is ostensibly Italy in the 1930s or even 1920s, and you have to ask why the bombing? I’ve seen it said that the first instance actually depicts Austro-Hungarian bombers in the Great War; looking this up, I find there were in fact some bombing missions, mainly around Venice. But this scene still seems a stretch, as the narrator tells us it was all an accident. I suppose these bombing scenes were beautiful in storyboard and, once filmed, too gorgeous to cut, however confusing and unlikely. All that glorious fire and destruction musn’t go to waste.

Much of the script is like this. We get brilliant little set-pieces that are there for show, not for continuity.

Unlike the 1940 Disney version, which kept most of the basic storyline of the 1883 Carlo Collodi book, this Pinocchio isn’t really based on the original source. No, it’s rather more like a vaguely remembered notion of the 1940 Disney film, passed through a game of Telephone. We start with a wooden puppet who is often naughty, and he has a woodcarver “father,” Geppetto, and they get separated but finally discover each other inside a giant fish. There’s an island where bad boys go and get punished. There is also a blue fairy who transforms Pinocchio into a “real boy” at the end. And then you have a loquacious, didactic cricket.

And those are the basic elements that remain in this Pinocchio script. They got strung together here, and then shaped and stuffed into a new story with all kinds of novel plot devices. To help hold it all together, we have a narrator in Mr. Sebastian J. Cricket, a literary insect who speaks with the voice of Ewan McGregor and sometimes sings, though he looks nothing like Jiminy. He is dark blue and grotesquely detailed, like a giant ant in a 1950s sci-fi flick. The blue fairy (Tilda Swinton) is even weirder, a shape-shifting “wood sprite” who appears variously as a lizard-like alien or sphinx-like blue dragon.

The script’s most extensive invention comes at the beginning, in a long backstory of how and why Pinocchio, the puppet, came to be. Now, in the book he begins as a talking log, while in the Disney version he’s a cute toy created by a merry Tyrolean craftsman who specializes in cuckoo clocks. In the del Toro film, the puppet is created as a replacement for Carlo, Geppetto’s beloved son who got killed when bombers dropped their payload on the local church, while little Carlo was standing inside, in rapt contemplation of the crucifix that Geppetto had built. Years later, in a drunken rage, Geppetto chops down the memorial tree by Carlo’s grave and makes it into an ungainly wooden puppet—you know, the kind you make when you’re drunk.

The religious aspect is another new embellishment. There are no churches or pietistic allusions in the book. It’s set in a secular, middle-class post-Risorgimento Italy without any reference to popes or kings or nobles. But here in the del Toro film we have a grand church edifice that figures large in the first act. It is bombed and destroyed, yet rises again. Somehow Geppetto’s giant crucifix survived the bombs and still hangs above the altar. Unfortunately Geppetto’s grief and drunkenness have kept him from finishing the painting of this masterwork. The unfinished crucifix is a sore point with the grumpy, nagging, unsympathetic pastor, a recurring character in the first half of the movie. Another point of contention is the unruly and mischievous Pinocchio, who misbehaves in church. The priest comes by one day with the local Fascist official (“Podesta”) to browbeat Geppetto for this and other things.

I suppose the screenwriters’ rationale for adding all the church business was, “Hey this is Italy. They have some fine old churches in Italy, don’t they? So let’s put one in as realistic detail. And then we can add a mean priest too, and imply he’s pro-Fascist.” Likewise the very pretty set of Geppetto’s mountaintop town is basically a tourist’s idea of a medieval city in Tuscany or Umbria. Not exactly wellsprings of Fascism, which was rooted mainly in the north, places like Milan and Mussolini’s native Romagna.

The “Fascist” part of the story really begins when Pinocchio goes on tour with a puppet show. This plot arc is very nimble, very satirical. For the last stop on the tour, the show’s impresario, “Count Volpe,” is staging a special production for his “good friend” Il Duce. Volpe and his company sail to Catania (Sicily), and watch the crowds cheer when Mussolini makes his appearance, driven up in an impossibly long red parade-car while the soundtrack cues up “Giovinezza, Giovinezza.”

I must say, this is a very squat, hideously caricatured Duce; but funny. Circa 1936, I suppose, given that a newspaper headline has shown him announcing We Win the War! Mussolini salutes the crowd and goes straight to the puppet theater. “I like-a puppets,” he tells the fawning puppet-master Volpe.

Today’s show is supposed to be a special command performance for Il Duce. However, Pinocchio has recently learned that the greedy, foxy Volpe is stealing all his earnings instead of sending them home to Geppetto. So in revenge he turns the performance into a scatalogical burlesque of the “Douce” (as Pinocchio calls him). He dances with a turd-puppet and sings about how he, Mussolini, is full of urine, caca, baby poop.

Mussolini, munching popcorn in the audience, says, “These puppets, I do not-a like,” and orders his bodyguard to shoot Pinocchio. Which the bodyguard does, but being a wooden puppet Pinnochio cannot die. As a result of this, he is recruited into the Italian army.

This unlikely plot twist is the substitute for the famous “donkey transformation” in the original tale. Instead of traveling in a coach-and-four to Toyland (Pleasure Island in the Disney film), Pinocchio and his friend Candlewick get locked in the back of a military van and driven to an “elite” Fascist military academy, the inside of which looks rather like an avant-garde rock-climbing gym. Instead of becoming donkeys (as naughty boys did in the original) the boys are herein being transformed into soldiers ready to give their lives for the Fatherland.

Pinocchio’s friend Candlewick is accused of being a weakling by his martinet father. The father hands his son an automatic pistol and tells him to “Shoot the puppet!” (An allusion to The Conformist, perhaps?) This crisis is quickly resolved, deus ex machina style, when enemy bombers suddenly appear overhead and bomb the school to smithereens. This second bombing scene is even more confusing than the first. Who is the enemy? Who was bombing Italy in the mid-1930s? I’ve read reviews that claim this is really supposed to be WWII, but that doesn’t work for a number of reasons I will forgo enumerating.

I’m obviously thinking too hard about this stuff. I understand the film is not attempting historical verisimilitude. I just wonder why certain new elements are invented and emphasized, while much of the original story and its cultural context is deprecated. Recently I viewed the 1940 Disney version, which I mistakenly believed I had seen many years ago, though it turns out I hadn’t. And truly, it is quite as disjointed as this one, a concatenation of beautifully done set-pieces, even though it hews pretty closely to the (extremely uneven) original book. What it doesn’t do is treat the Collodi story as a sort of Mr. Potato Head text, where anything’s permissible so long as you’ve got a puppet in there called Pinocchio.

The promotional videos and press releases for this film keep reminding us of its renowned voice-artist cast. A particularly notable name is Cate Blanchett, who has done a couple of interviews for the film, and also appears in an accompanying Netflix documentary in which cast and crew describe the film’s impossibly protracted development and production. As it turns out, Cate “plays” a manic monkey that mainly hisses and giggles. You wouldn’t recognize her in a million years.




P. K. van der Byl: African Statesman

Hannes Wessels

PK van der Byl, African Statesman

Johannesburg: 30º South Publishers, 2010


Margot Metroland

If you need a useful and practical hero in the field of race politics and statecraft, you might take a good look at a colorful and headstrong eccentric named Pieter Kenyon Fleming-Voltelyn van der Byl (1923-1999).

When it comes to the story of independent Rhodesia, most people only remember Prime Minister Ian Douglas Smith. But statesman-soldier PK (as he was always known) was the truly steadfast and remarkable figure in that saga. Without him, Rhodesia might well  have folded its tent in four years, instead of surviving for a battered and beleaguered fourteen. Had there been a hundred PK’s, Rhodesia might well have gone on forever.

Born into one of the oldest Cape Dutch families in South Africa, PK served in the Second World War (British Army, 7th Hussars, in Italy and Austria) and then read law at Pembroke College, Cambridge. After which he became, of all things, a tobacco planter in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia. Gradually he entered politics, becoming active in the new pro-white-rule Rhodesian Front party. In 1965 Harold Wilson’s Labour government announced their intent to turn Rhodesia into yet another disastrous black-run satrapy, and never mind the recent examples of Gold Coast (Ghana), the Belgian Congo, Kenya, and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). PK was second to none in his insistence that Rhodesia cut its ties to Britain and go its own way.

But first, in September, Ian Smith went to London to plead with Harold Wilson. Wilson and the government were intransigent. Wilson threatened military force, and 40 Labour MPs were calling for immediate invasion. Nor were many Tory MPs sympathetic. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury got in on the act, demanding that the RAF bomb Salisbury, Rhodesia’s capital.

And that’s how we got to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, or UDI, signed in Salisbury, Rhodesia by Prime Minister Ian Smith and his government on November 11, 1965, PK van der Byl’s 42nd birthday.

For the next 14 years PK remained the most passionate hard-liner in the government. Intimating that Smith was irresolute and maybe too willing to compromise, PK let it be known that he’d eagerly take over if he ever detected “the least whiff of surrender.” Beginning as a lowly deputy minister of information, PK soon became full minister, later was given the ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs. Throughout his tenure he was determined to control the national narrative, imposing firm censorship of anti-UDI newspapers and journalists, and even deported visiting British journalists for negative coverage. Young Max Hastings came to Salisbury to write sneeringly in the Evening Standard that Smith and PK “would have seemed ludicrous figures, had they not possessed the power of life and death over millions of people.” Max got the boot.[1] So did other writers, academics and politicians who came to Rhodesia on a hate mission.

PK loved to visit the forces in the bush (SAS, Rhodesian Light Infantry, Rhodesian African Rifles) and share in their terrorist-hunting. He dressed for the occasion and was a sight to see. A group captain recalls PK’s arrival one day in the Zambezi region (NW Rhodesia):

[H]is arrival…for his helicopter flight to the site was quite an eye-opener because his dress was so appalling. Below his Australian bush hat he wore a pink shirt with bright blue tie, khaki shorts with black belt, short blue socks and ‘vellies’ (veldskoene, lit. bush shoes). His strange dress in the bush was often discussed. I honestly think he did this from time to time for the shock effect. He knew the Zambezi Valley like the back of his hand, having walked it extensively on his hunting expeditions.

When the RLI and SAS got to know him better, PK became very popular with the soldiers. His ridiculous accent appealed to them just as much as his strange dress.He often requested to be taken on patrol so he could “shoot a terrorist” but asked that care be taken not to get him “lawst.”  (pp. 143-144)

Here is some real insight into the PK mystique. Tall and striking to begin with, he cultivated further attention (or authority) through sartorial elegance or oddness. And his drawling accent was from another era entirely, something one might associate with an elderly palace courtier, who pronounces “house” as hice and “girl” as (hard g) gel. An affectation, many people assumed. At Cambridge in the ’40s they called him the Piccadilly Dutchman.[2]

PK out in the bush.

Speaking of which, South African Prime Minister John Vorster couldn’t stand him (“that dreadful man”), and told Ian Smith never to bring PK along when Smith and Vorster met at rugby matches for quasi-unofficial strategy discussions. To Vorster, PK was a traitor to his people, a old-stock Boer who affected a phony British accent and “imperial mannerisms.”

Old Cape Dutch he certainly was, at least on his father’s side, but he was scarcely a Boer. The van der Byls had been Anglicized since the mid-1800s, and sided with the Crown during the Boer Wars. PK’s father “Major Piet,” another soldier-statesman, had been a minister in General Smuts’s cabinet in Pretoria during the 1940s. Moreover, PK’s mother was Scottish, daughter of an Army physician and Lieutenant Colonel. With this sort of pedigree, you can easily see PK shaping up into a cross between Harry Flashman and something out of P. G. Wodehouse’s Drones Club. (PK’s London club was in fact White’s.)

Further to PK’s character, a succinct description is found at the start of PK van der Byl, African Statesman, in the Foreword by longtime friend Lieutenant-Colonel Ron Reid-Daly:

My early impression of PK was…most unfavourable, because at first sight he appeared to have all the characteristics of a chinless Pom. I remember wondering how Ian Smith, a down-to-earth Rhodesian, had seen fit to accept him into his party. ***[B]ut I was soon highly impressed by him. Unlike many of the more pedestrian types in the military and political hierarchy, PK was focused and absolutely determined to do whatever it took to win the war… Vilified in the international press as an unrepentant racist, he was totally committed to the welfare of his black troops.***

In the light of history there is little doubt in my mind that South African Prime Minister John Vorster, in his misguided effort to win favours from African leaders, scuppered Rhodesia’s chance of survival, hastened the collapse of white rule in Africa and altered the course of continental history when he forced Ian Smith to dismiss PK van der Byl as Minister of Defence.  (pp. 6-7)

“Get rid of van der Byl or I’m turning off the tap,” Vorster said in a 1976 phone call to Smith, according to PK. PK remained in the cabinet as foreign minister, but that was hardly more than a title, inasmuch as Rhodesia was an international pariah, maintaining diplomatic relations only with South Africa…which didn’t want to talk to Foreign Minister van der Byl!

In the mid-70s, Marxist hegemony in Africa moved at a galloping pace. A Leftist military coup in Lisbon meant that once-friendly Portugal now broke relations with Rhodesia, and condoned the Soviet-backed black nationalists in Mozambique (on Rhodesia’s east and north) and in Angola. Rhodesia was now nearly encircled by hostile governments—except for South Africa, where John Vorster was playing a “please eat me last” game, hoping to buy time by gradually sacrificing Rhodesia.

There were other, subtler international factors that disadvantaged Rhodesia as the 1970s progressed. Though frozen out of official diplomatic intercourse, the country had maintained useful contacts with senior intelligence in France during the De Gaulle years (enabling exports of Rhodesian agricultural products), but these became less useful with changes of government. Ian Smith nurtured some warm, promising relations with British ministers early in the Heath years (notably Foreign Secretary and former Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home). Instead of “black rule” or “majority rule,” Whitehall in 1971 agreed to pursue the idea of “responsible rule,” and a friendly British-Rhodesian agreement seemed to be in the offing.

It emerged Heath sunk the Rhodesia settlement in exchange for Liberal support for UK entry into the European Common Market. Liberal leader Jeremy ‘Bomber’ Thorpe had long sought Rhodesia’s fall and Heath traded this irresistible scrap. Thorpe considered white Rhodesians homophobic and an embarrassing relic of a shameful imperial past. (p. 160) [3]

Rhodesia ceased to be in 1979, with the so-called Lancaster House Agreement in London. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher didn’t want to drag this tiresome Rhodesia legacy any further into her premiership, and so she forced an agreement to accept a new “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” government under the black Bishop Muzorewa.

But even that effort was a failure, as the Muzorewa regime was regarded by most governments (including Jimmy Carter’s in America) as merely a puppet of Ian Smith and company. The following year Robert Mugabe took power.

For the next few years, PK sat in the Zimbabwe parliament. There were ten reserved “white” seats in the early years, per agreement. Otherwise he and his new wife Princess Charlotte, granddaughter of the last Habsburg Emperor Karl I, retreated to the elegant van der Byl family estate in the Western Cape (South Africa). They had three sons.

Wedding in Austria, August 1979.

I first bought this book ten years ago. But in coming back to it now, I realize I mainly just delved into the “hot parts,” i.e., the UDI, the collapse of Rhodesia in the latter 1970s, and the extensive photo section. This time around, I was impressed by the densely detailed history of southern Africa from the 1600s to 1800s, and by the geopolitical background to the UDI. Ian Smith and PK and their colleagues in the Rhodesian Front clearly perceived the Communist effort to wreck stable governments in Africa in the early 1960s, using the pretexts of anti-colonialism and black rule.

My paperbound copy of the book cost me about $20. You can now buy the same edition for about $199. But not to worry. There is finally a Kindle version for only $6.99.



[1] Though according to author Wessels, Max Hastings visited numerous times, “masquerading as a Rhodesiaphile hunter-fisherman, [and] repaid endless hospitality with vitriolic scorn”:

Like most of my colleagues I reported from Rhodesia in an almost permanent state of rage. We saw a smug, ruthless white minority, beer guts contained with difficulty inside blazers with RAF crests, proclaiming themselves the guardians of civilization in the heart of Africa. (p. 127)

[2] On a bawdier angle, P.K. was called “Tripod” by his fellow tobacco farmers, for his rumored sexual prowess.

[3] While author Wessels may be guessing right, it’s more likely Mr. Thorpe was just being bien-pensant. “Homophobic” is an anachronism here as it did not enter popular parlance until about 1990.


Review—Royal Navalese: A Glossary of Forecastle and Quarterdeck Words and Phrases

Commander John Irving, Royal Navy
Royal Navalese
(originally published 1946)
London: Focal Point Publications, 2020

Somebody recently gifted me with this trim, entertaining little book. Perhaps because of the season, I immediately identified it as one of that peculiar species of “Christmas books”: small volumes, usually elegantly designed, illustrated with line drawings, and often found stacked near the bookseller’s cash register in December.

As the subtitle tells you, this is a glossary of nautical jargon. Some of the expressions evidently originated in the Royal Navy, others are simply slang picked up from other services or the World Beyond. Many are extremely funny, a few are risqué, the best are brain-scaldingly obscure.

Marry the Gunner’s Daughter, To. To get a whipping—an old-Navy expression but one that is still sometimes heard. In days gone by, when a ‘boy’ was ordered a dozen of the best with the cane for some offence, he was secured face down across the breech of a gun to ensure that official retribution should fall across a suitably tightened part of his anatomy.

Foo-Foo Egg. An egg of more than doubtful age and edibility. The term hails from Chinaside where John Chinaman buries an egg in especially unsanitary surroundings and keeps it there maybe for fifty years before he eats it as an especial delicacy.

Then you have something like “Low-Down, The” which is herein cited as an Americanism, “The inside information about something.”  For me the phrase conjures up Runyonesque characters and mid-century tabloid journalism (e.g., Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer’s New York Confidential: The Lowdown on the Big Town, 1948). As the book at hand, Royal Navalese, was first published in 1946, it tells us the phrase had made its way into the RN lexicon  by the Second World War. Good to know.

John Irving, we read on the dust jacket, was a naval gunnery expert who served in the Royal Navy from 1941 to 1945, and had earlier seen action at the Battle of Jutland (1916). But the book is very much a joint effort between Commander Irving and his wife Beryl, who was a noted children’s book writer and illustrator. Here Beryl Irving decorates the alphabetical headings with delicate, wry, line drawings that have a distinctive 19th century feel, very close to W. S. Gilbert’s cartoons for his Bab Ballads. In fact there’s a whiff of Gilbert & Sullivan throughout this book, in text and in pictures:

I gather the book was out of print for many years, though I see copies of the old edition at places like AbeBooks and Amazon for around $80. But the co-creators’ son David Irving, the celebrated historian, had the whole thing newly typeset and published recently (2020). It doesn’t have his mother’s illuminated, if nearly illegible, cover design but it’s currently priced at $15.00 at Focal Point Publications/David Irving Books.

The 1946 edition.

It’s a book to be thumbed through at random. Some expressions are so obvious, or long-embedded in common parlance, I wondered whether they really had a nautical origin at all. E.g., “Looney Bin. The sailor’s name for a lunatic asylum, ‘the observation ward’ at a naval hospital, or a psychopathic centre.”

Also still popular and current:

Bumph. A vulgarism, but one in very frequent use for it refers to the never-ending spate of printed and written forms, orders, hand-outs and instructions, amendments and cancellations whose volume rolls daily onward. [N.B. Originally meant toilet roll, I believe, but mainly the very cheap, old-fashioned pulpy sort.]

Chop-Chop! In a hurry; Hurry up! Pidgin English from the Chinese coast.

And finally, the odd-but-intriguing:

‘Breadcrumbs!’ In a Gun-room Mess, should the conversation verge upon subjects too advanced or too indelicate for the hearing of the younger midshipmen, the Senior Sub-Lieutenant will order ‘Breadcrumbs!’ The ‘young gentlemen’ are then required immediately to stuff their fingers in their ears and continue to block all sound until the order is rescinded.

Off White. Half caste.

Trick Cyclists. Psychiatrists.

Eyetie. Italian. [Which is funny because there’s elsewhere a cross-reference: “Macaroni. Italian: see Eyetie.” And we also have, “Ice creams. Italian.”]






Pep Wheat Flakes

I did a cartoon treatment of the Big Eight CPA firms around 1980. For some reason Peat Marwick (later Peat Marwick KPMG) had the Pep Wheat Flakes guy. Free association.

I was thinking of the Pete’s Bicycle Shop guy in New Haven, who never failed to advertise in every and any Yale student publication, 1930-1980. “Everybody Knows Pete!”

This had nothing to do with financial accounting, but they loved it at Touche Ross. Peat Marwick had ESSO/Exxon, while Touche had to settle for Associated Dry Goods and Chrysler.



The Selfie Poet

Rolleiflex selfie of Philip Larkin and Monica Jones in Paignton, Devon, circa 1957. (From Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, 1993.)

He’s been dead for 37 years, but the Philip Larkin literary industry keeps burbling along, fueled by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of titillating tales, spicy correspondence, and uncollected reviews, diary scraps and photographs. He’s been the subject of stage plays and TV docudramas, countless critical essays and monographs…and no end in sight.

Just last year we were treated to a new memoir about Larkin and Monica Jones, his longtime colleague and—inamorata? soulmate? caretaker?

“Philip Larkin’s Muse, Monica Jones, Revealed as a Racist” screamed one typical headline. As clickbait this subject was so tasty that The Times (London) reviewed the book three times.

Philip Larkin was vilified after his death for his racism, misogyny and philandering. Now the bigotry of his muse has been exposed in a book…

A ditty hitherto attributed to Larkin read: “Prison for the strikers / Bring back the cat / Kick out the n*****s / How about that?” Any idea that this was satirical is tempered by her once telling Sutherland she planned to vote for the British National Party.

Antisemitism appears to have been Jones’s primary racial preoccupation. A letter she wrote in 1960 about a dinner referred to “a young Y*d publisher” and she later described a female philosopher as a “mincing lisping foreign Jew dwarf”.

Asterisks courtesy The Times. [1]

This is a good example of how far afield the literary tabloid-sensationalism has crept with regard to Larkin. Back in the 1990s we had exposés of Larkin’s odd family and odder love affairs. A decade later we were treated to Larkin’s scurrilous correspondence with Kingsley Amis and others. (Seems they both liked jazz…and porn.) And now apparently we’ve moved into the outer suburbs of the subject, where we trawl through the mean-girl thoughts of the poet’s girlfriends.

Ironically the author of this book quoted above, John Sutherland, was for many years a friend of both Philip Larkin and Monica Jones. Sutherland explains that he originally intended the book to rehabilitate Monica’s reputation, but somehow it just didn’t come out sympathetically when he set it down on paper. And Sutherland couldn’t resist setting it all down. It was too saucy and scandalous, and that stuff always sells when Larkin’s involved. [2]

So when did this Larkin boom begin? Loosely speaking, Philip Larkin first came onto most people’s radar during the Margaret Thatcher era. Meeting him at a dinner in 1982, the Prime Minister gushed like a schoolgirl about how he was her favorite poet. Whereupon a dubious Larkin asked which of his poems was her favorite! So the PM quickly misquoted a line from one of his poems, the title to which she did not recall.

This misquote endlessly impressed Larkin. It told him that Mrs. Thatcher was truly searching old memory banks, and not reciting something she’d learned just that afternoon. [3]

Two years later Poet Laureate John Betjeman passed away, and Mrs. Thatcher offered the post to Philip Larkin. But Larkin didn’t want to be Poet Laureate. No, he preferred his relative obscurity as librarian at the University of Hull, on the bracing North Sea. He didn’t want to have to go on the telly or write vers d’occasion on demand. No doubt he noticed that Betjeman’s own late-career stuff was pretty awful. Besides, Larkin thought he had become old and fat, and figured he was going to die soon. As indeed he did, of throat cancer, at the end of 1985.

Selfie with newspaper, 1957.

The first version of his Collected Poems came out in 1988, and then Selected Letters in 1992. But the interest in Larkin really took off in early 1993, when fellow poet Andrew Motion published Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, a fat, sympathetic, but perhaps too revelatory biography. [4] Motion’s book was generously illustrated with photographs, and invited hoots of mockery in the London media when in March 1993 some newspapers reviewed it alongside lavish photo spreads of Larkin and his various girlfriends and other companions. Larkin at Oxford, Larkin in Devon, Larkin in Hull, Larkin in the Channel Islands. It was as though some anonymous photographer just followed him around for much of his life.

Much later we learned that the photographer was often Larkin himself. He was an avid taker of selfies a half-century or more before Instagram. Usually his self-portraits were medium-format black-and-whites, done in available light with a Rolleiflex atop a tripod. He took them using the timer setting or maybe a shutter-release cable. [5]

I had a friend named Simon Hoggart who was among other things the “Parliamentary sketch writer” (a kind of gossip columnist) for The Guardian. Simon told me that the journo folks in Clerkenwell and Westminster were all a-twitter about a campy photo of a simpering, sandaled Larkin in 1955, with his hands clasped upon a knee. (“Did you see that picture of him at the beach?”) Andrew Motion says the picture was taken by Monica Jones during a holiday on Sark, and maybe it was. I say it has all the appearance of a jokey Larkin selfie. [6]

The notorious “camp” photo on Sark, 1955. Or 1957? Either a selfie or by Monica Jones. (From Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, 1993.)

A bigger subject of wide-eyed wonder in 1993 was Motion’s description of Larkin’s father. Sydney Larkin was City Treasurer of Coventry in the 1920s, 30s, 40s. We’re told he had a great admiration for Nazi Germany, and was even a pen-pal of Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht, the German economics minister. According to a onetime Hull professor who was Larkin’s drinking companion,

Sydney had been “an ardent follower of the Nazis and attended several Nuremberg rallies during the 1930s; he even had a statue of Hitler on the mantelpiece…which at the touch of a button leapt into a Nazi salute”… As late as 1939, Sydney had Nazi regalia decorating his office in City Hall, and when war was declared he was ordered by the Town Clerk to remove it. … He didn’t even change his tune when Coventry was blitzed in November 1940. Instead, he congratulated himself on his foresight in having ordered one thousand cardboard coffins the previous year, and continued to praise “efficient German administration,” while disparaging Churchill—who had, he thought, “the face of a criminal in the dock.” [7]

Classic, priceless, hilarious stuff. But how much of it to believe? Back in March 1993 I think we  believed most of it. This was still the age of Alan Clark, the far-Right Tory diarist, MP,  and sometime Thatcher government minister, who once responded to a taunt by saying, “I am not a fascist. Fascists are shopkeepers. I am a Nazi.” The story of Larkin’s father was edgy, but not all that outré. It was rather chic, in fact, to have had Blackshirt tendencies.

But while some of these stories about Sydney seem to be true (they’ve been corroborated), others are most likely romantic, imaginative embellishment on the part of Philip Larkin. Because right after telling us about Nuremberg, and the push-button Hitler doll, and the excellent deal on cardboard coffins, biographer Andrew Motion pretty much implies that these stories came mainly from Larkin himself, back in the 1950s and 60s:

Sydney Larkin was generous to his son, and often indulged him, but nevertheless strutted through his early life with a singular arrogance. He was intolerant to the point of perversity, contemptuous of women, careless of other people’s feelings or fates, yet at the same time excitingly intellectual, inspirationally quick-witted and (at least in the matter of books) unpredictably catholic in his tastes. Everything Larkin disliked or feared in his father was matched by something he found impressive or enviable… As the first half of Larkin’s childhood dripped away, the mixture of feelings he had for his family gradually thickened. By early adolescence…it had turned into rage. “Please believe me,” he told his first important friend, “when I say that half my days are spent in black, surging, twitching, boiling HATE!!!”  [8]

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and Larkin knew it. He was very much his father’s boy, and was both embarrassed and exalted by that.

Herein lies, I submit, the core of the Larkin genius. It’s a depressive, self-loathing attitude that nevertheless focuses hard on loathing of self, family, and present surroundings, and yields painful and satirical insights. Bad selfies, sad selfies, good selfies, but selfies nevertheless.


[1] “Philip Larkin’s Muse, Monica Jones, Revealed as a Racist,” The Sunday Times, London.  April 11, 2021.

[2] John Sutherland, Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves. London: W&N, 2021.

[3] The poem is a thorny thing called “Deceptions,” about a ruined girl and her rapist. It wasn’t one of Larkin’s better known poems in 1982, but has become so since, thanks to Mrs. Thatcher’s mangled recitation: “All afternoon her mind lay open like a drawer of knives.”

[4] Andrew Motion, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. London: Faber & Faber, 1993.

[5] Many of his photographs are collected, and his selfie technique explained, in The Importance of Elsewhere: Philip Larkin’s Photographs, edited by Richard Bradford. London: Frances Lincoln, 2015.

[6] Obscure literary trivia: Around the same time Philip Larkin and Monica Jones holidayed on Sark—one of the smaller Channel Islands—the writer Bill Hopkins visited the island. Bill used it as a setting for his legendary/notorious novel The Divine and the Decay. Did Larkin and Hopkins ever cross paths, there or elsewhere?

[7] Motion, Philip Larkin, 12.

[8] Motion, Philip Larkin, 13.


About a year ago I stumbled across the online Willis A. Carto correspondence archive. It’s a source of never-ending delight.

Officially it’s called the Willis A. Carto Library— http://willisacartolibrary.com —which it literally is, as it sells rare and not-so-rare volumes from the late Mr. Carto’s extensive private collection of books. Mainly though, it’s a revealing trove of letters and other documents from the second half of the 20th century. Like an online Presidential library, it’s full of once-secret, strange & surprising stuff that extensively revises our received history of Conservatism and the Dissident Right.

For example, there are vague old legends in the Right-o-sphere that Willis Carto was generally at odds with, or was disdained by, such notable personages as Revilo P. Oliver, Wilmot Robertson, or John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. This appears to be nonsense. At least during the late 1950s, Mr. Carto had a lively friendship with both Oliver and Welch. WAC, like RPO, was a Birch Society member in its early days, before they both turned sour on Welch. (Note: I’m not linking specific pages or sections, because they are readily searchable within the site.)

An amusing if inconsequential eye-opener for me was learning that Mr. Carto, whom I and his wife and employees (and seemingly everyone else) called Willis, was once known as Al. This comes out in correspondence from the mid-1950s, when Liberty Lobby was first founded in San Francisco, under the name “Liberty & Property.” Was Al just a salesman’s front, a name that sounded friendlier than the formal, chilly Willis? (“That Al, he’s a regular, affable guy! You know me, Al!”) Or was it a private, family name, for close kin and intimates? I just don’t know. Maybe there were laughs aplenty when folks found out that Al was short for Allison, his middle name: thus Willis he became and Willis he stayed. Right here I’m mostly referring to him as Mr. Carto, though even that can be fraught with problems. One of the first people he ever introduced me to was ex-spook Victor Marchetti, who proceeded to lecture me that Mr. Carto’s name is properly pronounced Car-TO. Because it’s French, you see, originally Carteaux. I suspect this faux pedantry was just a hobbyhorse of Victor’s. He was probably in mind of the French general at Toulon in 1793 whose captain of artillery was 24-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte. But I digress.

Now let’s go to August 1965. Someone calling himself Wilmot (or W.J.) Robertson sends Liberty Lobby (headquartered near Capitol Hill in D.C.) a huge doorstop of a manuscript called The Dispossessed Majority. This finds its way to Willis A. Carto, Liberty Lobby’s “Secretary-Treasurer,” as he styles himself. WAC reads it, makes notes and suggestions, and these are deeply appreciated by the author. As both men were living in the San Francisco Bay area for much of the 1950s and 60s, it’s not surprising they eventually get together in November 1965 for dinner at Robertson’s house in Berkeley.

By now they’re good friends, and they have a good dinner. Mr. Carto doesn’t think Liberty Lobby is an appropriate publisher for the book. His idea rather is private publication, with advertising in appropriately targeted journals. (Which is what Wilmot Robertson ended up doing. I first noticed the book in early 1973, in an ad in American Opinion.) On the other hand, Mr. Carto finds Robertson’s manuscript very similar, topically speaking, to his new magazine, Western Destiny.[1] And in due course a excerpt from the manuscript, bylined “Wilmot Robertson,” appears in Western Destiny.[2]

At that time Wilmot Robertson usually signed his letters W. J. Robertson. But early on, he clued-in Mr. Carto to his true identity. So sometimes in letters the puckish Willis addresses him as “Wilmot” (with quotes), and other times he calls him Humphrey (his real name).

Another scribe Mr. Carto sought for Western Destiny was a genuine seasoned professional. A celebrity in fact: the funny, irascible Westbrook Pegler. Now 70 years old, living in Tucson, Arizona, and cut off without a penny from the Hearst and Scripps-Howard syndicates he enriched for forty years as top columnist.

Young Willis Carto first wrote to him in 1948, and now calls him “Peg,” which is how Mr. Pegler signs himself. Writing to Willis in 1964, Peg lets it all hang out:

Goddam it, I am one of the best reporters we ever had and here the Jews have me muzzled and nobody else will write a peep about some very dangerous things. The negroes are close to wild revolution under the stimulation of the Kennedy machine. They could overthrow Johnson any time. [sic] New York is on the brink. Nobody ever heard of this Shriver until he married one of those Irish belles and now he runs the sinister CIA. Bob Welch is yellow and hiding out. His organization is disgusted with him and that letter which his wife wrote me very clearly invites the belief that my work was unpalatable to the ADL and curtailed contributions.

There can be blood on the moon in this land. Our violent crime rate down this way makes Dallas looks like a Methodist camp meeting.

The NY papers madly fomented the “march” on Washington for a whole dam year under the Kennedys’ auspices, driving white people into corners and now the whites in New York are afraid to go window shopping or to ride the subways at night and no authority is more to blame than the American press and the Kenndys. [sic] What makes people believe revolution can’t happen here?

Peg may be three sheets to the wind here. He makes no sense when he says Sargent Shriver is Director of the CIA. John McCone was Director from 1961 to 1965, while Sarge was busy with the Peace Corps. (Then again, perhaps Peg knows something we don’t.)

But no matter. Mr. Carto is looking for name-brand contributors to his new journal. He sends Peg a copy of Western Destiny, and suggests that Peg—once the highest-paid columnist for King Features Syndicate—write for it:

….let me know if you could do a short article once in awhile and on which subjects? Could you do one on how the Catholic Church has changed here in the US in its attitude on Communism and Jews?

Westbrook Pegler was definitely Catholic, but his métier had been sports and politics, not Church affairs, and it is doubtful whether he was paying much attention to the aftermath of Vatican II. Mr. Carto conversely was not Catholic, but he followed such things with a keen eye. At one point he lectured Wilmot Robertson on the burgeoning Leftism in the Catholic Church in America, something to which Robertson had been oblivious in his early draft of The Dispossessed Majority; and Robertson was grateful for the corrections.

Now let’s move on to William F. Buckley, Jr. WFB is on hand here with cordial, if not quite chummy correspondence, from 1955 to 1960. Our Mr. Carto begins by proposing a few National Review articles, to be penned by himself or Lawrence Dennis. Come 1957, he warns Mr. Buckley that the Anti-Defamation League is trying to smear National Review as a bigoted anti-Catholic hate sheet. No doubt the ADL were doing this, as well as defaming Buckley and his family in other ways. [3] But the notion of National Review and WFB being anti-Catholic is still pretty funny, all things considered.

WFB wrote back to WAC sporadically, but eventually cooled on his fellow young conservative entrepreneur, breaking off relations around 1960. The cause of the break wasn’t Mr. Carto’s Bircher connections, or his hobnobbing with the likes of American fascist Lawrence Dennis, or his wish for National Review to push the conservative case against Hawaiian statehood. [4] No, indeed, it was about differences over…trade policy!

Dear Mr. Carto [Buckley writes in 1960], We did indeed endorse the Liberty Lobby, but would have done so with less enthusiasm had we known it would direct its efforts to erecting high tariff walls, which I view as antipathetic to liberty.

WFB then goes on to defend his opposition to tariffs as an opinion he shares with “Frank Chodorov, Friederich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises…Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard,” et al.

In all likelihood this tariff argument was merely a convenient pretext on Buckley’s part to chase away a persistent pest whom he had come to identify with the fever-swamp right. [5] Nevertheless this dry exchange points up how the moral rot at National Review was there at the beginning. The magazine’s “conservative” values revolved mainly around the sanctity of laissez-faire capitalism and free trade. For the National Review of 1960, economic libertarianism was regarded as an all-purpose magic-shield, guaranteed to protect you from legal onslaughts against housing covenants and segregated restaurants. Except, of course, it couldn’t—and didn’t.

Trade policy and tariffs also figure greatly in Mr. Carto’s correspondence with Avery Brundage (construction tycoon, Chicago hotel owner, longtime chairman of the International Olympic Committee, and one of the early-40s stars of the America First Committee).[6] There was a bill before Congress to revise New Deal-era trade rules, a bill that Mr. Carto believed was of existential importance. (“Unless the Mason bill is passed, we will be irretrievably and inevitably in world government within the next three or four years.”) Mr. Carto organizes a Trade Policy Congress, with rented headquarters at the National Press Club building, and solicits Mr. Brundage’s participation as sponsor and board member. Mr. Brundage agrees to the first, says no to the second, because the Olympics are going on (it is 1960) and he can’t mix up politics and sport.

Five years later, Carto writes Brundage at the Montecito Country Club in Santa Barbara, asking for help with a very different project. It seems Roger Pearson and his family are moving to America from England so Dr. Pearson can edit the new Western Destiny magazine. (How often WD raises its head here!) Mr. Brundage sends a check.

The funniest solicitation I’ve come across is a request to Carroll Quigley (Georgetown professor, author of Tragedy and Hope). In 1975 Mr. Carto hopes to bag Prof. Quigley as a featured speaker at Liberty Lobby’s 20th Anniversary party in Los Angeles. Prof. Quigley says no, he’s too busy, despite Mr. Carto’s tempting offer of $500, a coach class air ticket, “a sleeping room (with a bed) and all the chicken and creamed peas you can eat.” Prof. Quigley avers, however, that he might take look at a book Mr. Carto recommends. It’s called The Occult Technology of Power.[7]

Needless to say, this Carto correspondence online is but a tiny, curated fraction of 60 or 70 years’ worth of letters and other documents. It was a massive undertaking to sort out these files and scan them in as images, along with written commentary, in a WordPress website. I hope I don’t sound churlish or ungrateful if I say I wish to see more, more, more.


[1] Edited by Roger Pearson—who is still with us at 95 years of age, as we recently learned!

[2] I do not have that issue anymore, but I believe it is from 1966. All issues of Western Destiny are rare, but this number must have had a big press run, as copies were available from the Noontide Press for many years. The cover, incidentally, shows a handcuffed Francis Parker Yockey.

[3] The ADL’s Arnold Forster kept a close watch on WFB and National Review in the 1950s and 60s. He also kept a dirt file on the Buckley family, which he fed to Gore Vidal, Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, and other Left-leaning media personalities of the era. This eventually led to legal disaster for Vidal and Esquire magazine when Esquire published a slanderous Vidal piece about the Buckleys (September 1969 issue). WFB generously let Esquire work off its damages settlement by providing many years’ worth of subscription ads for National Review.

[4] Opposition to Hawaiian statehood is often portrayed in pop history as something driven by racial prejudice. The leading opponents in Congress seemed to be segregationist Southerners, and this made for a tidy explanation among politicians and newspapers in New York. But as Willis Carto liked to emphasize, there was a deep Constitutional issue as well. Not only were a majority of Hawaiian “citizens” nonwhite, only a minority of voters there were in any sense Americans by birth and ancestry. Hawaii was not created by American settlers who first developed a territory and then petitioned for statehood. The Hawaiian situation was as if the USA were to annex the Bahamas as a protectorate and then declare most Bahamians to be American citizens…after which such “citizens” might be encouraged to vote for statehood. It is poignant to recall that the first American President ostensibly born, and partially raised, in Hawaii, was Barack Obama.

[5] “Whatever you do, don’t send this to Buckley,” writes Willis Carto to Revilo Oliver in March 1958, after making some criticisms of National Review articles. “I’m already in the doghouse with him, it seems, as he not only rejects any articles I send him, he doesn’t even bother to answer letters to him now.”

[6] Avery Brundage is still tarred in the gutter press as a pro-Nazi and anti-semite because he opposed an American boycott of the Berlin Olympics back in 1936, when he was chairman of the American Olympic Committee. (He would chair the IOC from 1952 to 1972.) A related sin on his dossier is that he kept the two slowest sprinters on the American team from participating in the games. They were both Jews, as it happens. What we’re not usually told is that one of their replacements was Jesse Owens.

[7] “The Transcriber” (Author), The Occult Technology of Power: The Initiation of the Son of a Finance Capitalist into the Arcane Secrets of Economic and Political Power. First published in 1974.

Paul Fussell’s Class, 40 Years On

Paul Fussell
Class: A Guide Through the American Class System
New York: Summit Books, 1983 (First edition—many since)

Written in 1980-82 and published in 1983, Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System is one of those rare books that most literate people seem to have heard of, say they want to read if they haven’t, and have fierce opinions about whether they’ve read it or not. I see this last aspect frequently on social media. When a few people were discussing it on Twitter, one of them described it dismissively as “an old book, it’s mostly just about white people.”

My Twitter friend was trying to be helpful, I think. He wanted to disabuse us of any possible misapprehension that Prof. Fussell’s book was a treatise on urban socioeconomics and ethnicities. Because nowadays some people do in fact use “class” as a euphemism for income or race. If you’re Joe Biden, for instance, you might use “lower class,” “poor people,” and “black folks” pretty much interchangeably.

But I wanted to Twitter-shout in all caps: OF COURSE the book is mostly just about white people! Otherwise it would be called Race, or something. Even in a mock-sociology book like this one, discussion of class distinctions only makes sense within the context of a fairly homogeneous population. The same way the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York does not permit you to enter your cat or ferret. Because it’s all about dogs. Likewise Class does not examine the social habits of the Vietnamese community in Westminster, California. Because it’s not about Vietnamese.

Besides homogeneity, it also helps if you restrict your examination of class markers to a fairly tight geographical area. This is why this genre of book is so much more persistent and successful in Great Britain than in America. If you’re at Waterstone’s and you see a cartoon book about Social Stereotypes (the Telegraph Magazine actually had a long-running series by that name), you automatically know it’s going to be about upper-middle-class people in Home Counties England. But America is too vast for that sort of thing. The lower-middles don’t know the upper-middles even exist (or they think it’s all about money). Americans don’t share that many identifiable social markers and stereotypes. The closest thing perhaps is the tedious caricature of Flyover Country so beloved of the Washington Post and other Leftist organs. You know—obese people in red MAGA hats who go to Walmart.

Fussell dispensed almost entirely with Flyover Country, limiting his book’s scope mainly to the Middle Atlantic and New England region, with the occasional sneer at Texas, Hawaii, and fat people at the Minnesota State Fair. Nevertheless his funniest bits are put-downs of what he presents as the horrendous style sense of people out in the boonies. Since the Pasadena-born Fussell spent most of his professorial career in central New Jersey and Philadelphia, and traveled mostly to England and Italy, I have to wonder how he did field work on such grotesqueries as the “prole hat” you see below. My guess is that he didn’t, really. He just glimpsed them in some airport concourse, and conjured up a cockeyed explanation. But what he says is all the funnier for that:

Proles take to visor caps instinctively, which accounts for the vast popularity among them of what we must simply call the prole cap. This is the “baseball” cap made largely of plastic meshwork in primary colors (red, blue, yellow) with, in the rear, an open space crossed by a strap for self-adjustment: “One Size Fits all [Proles].” Regardless of the precise style of the prole cap, it seems crucial that it be ugly. It’s the male equivalent of the purple acrylic slacks worn by the prole’s wife… The little strap at the rear is the significant prole feature, because it demeans the buyer and user, making him do the work formerly thought the obligation of the seller, who used to have to stock numerous sizes… To achieve even greater ugliness, the prole will sometimes wear his cap back to front. This places the strap in full view transecting the wearer’s forehead, as if pride in the one-size-fits-all gadget were motivating him to display the cap’s “technology” and his own command of it.

This is Fussell at his delightful snarkiest. Nobody had a name for this pictured headgear before he named it the prole cap. Neither did anyone suggest the rationale for turning it backside-to was to show off the adjusto-strap technology. Of course this fanciful explanation isn’t quite true. It was skateboarders who started the fad of turning the visor to the rear, sometime in the 1970s. Wearing the cap hind-side-to lowered the drag coefficient, or whatever, and allowed for unobstructed vision, which might be useful when doing a 360º loop. And skateboarders didn’t wear high-profile mesh numbers like Farmer Yokel here (that would defeat the purpose) but rather tight-fitting low-profile caps, almost like those skimpy things that Italian cyclists wear. You’d have to be as old as Steve Buscemi or me to recall such sartorial trivia. As the good Professor was then in his fifties he missed it entirely.

When I attempt to gather up my favorite Fussell snippets, I find that they generally pertain to clothing and accessories:

Only six things can be made of black leather without causing class damage to the owner: belts, shoes, handbags, gloves, camera cases, and dog leashes.

Jewelry is another instant class-lowerer, like the enameled little Old Glory lapel pins worn by the insane and by cynical politicians working backward districts.

Today hats, because of their rarity, present an easier class problem than neckties. Since the felt fedora went out, upper-middle-class people can wear only the equivalent of parody hats — “Russian” fur, the L. L. Bean “Irish” tweed hat favored by Senator Pat Moynihan, or the floppy white fishing or tennis hat popular among the top classes despite its being favored by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

[Displaying your shirt collar] spread out over the jacket collar, unless you’re a member of the Israeli Knesset or teach at the Hebrew University, is flagrantly middle-class or prole—and may be even then.

Some of his best lines are still funny but very dated:

All synthetic fibers are prole, partly because they’re cheaper than natural ones, partly because they’re not archaic, and partly because they’re entirely uniform and hence boring—you’ll never find a bit of straw or sheep excrement woven into an acrylic sweater.

Smiling is a class indicator—that is, not doing a lot of it. On the street, you’ll notice that prole women smile more, and smile wider, than those of the middle and upper classes.

It’s the three prole classes that get fat: fast food and beer are two of the causes, but anxiety about slipping down a rung, resulting in nervous overeating, plays its part too, especially among high proles. Proles can rationalize their fat as an announcement of steady wages and the ability to eat out often: even “Going Out for Breakfast” is a thinkable operation for proles, if we believe they respond to the McDonald’s TV ads the way they’re conditioned to.

For me, these three are period pieces. Synthetics still meant doubleknit polyester leisure suits for men and purple polyester pantsuits for women, not tech fabrics, Gore-Tex, Ultrasuede. And I can’t imagine where Fussell saw gangs of smiling proles waddling down the pavement and gulping breakfast at McDonald’s. Perhaps my airport-concourse theory  explains all. The 1970s were the decade when people stopped dressing like the Mad Men cast when they went to the airport. They started to arrive in sweatshirts and ballcaps, and by the 1980s fashion-forward frequent flyers were doing it in two-piece nylon tracksuits, with a canvas duffelbag carry-on. The new slovenliness was perhaps connected with the fact that airlines had begun to hire stewardesses who were gay males, 55-year-old grandmothers, and colored folk. Before that, stews had a distinct “brand,” enforced by tape measures, girdle checks and uniform makeup. From what the stews told me, Pan Am gals usually had dark hair, while United mainly went for blondes. But then smart appearance no longer mattered, esprit took a dive, and the public started to board the Buses of the Air wearing any old thing. A slippery slope.

As a professor emeritus, Fussell missed the casual-Friday/casual-everyday abandonment of office dress codes circa 1995-2000, but I suspect he could have diagnosed the problem. It was a move spearheaded by tech geeks who viewed office life as a perennial cold war between Techies/Creatives and The Suits. Fussell muses upon “the social-class problems of engineers, uncertain always where they fit, whether with boss or worker, management or labor, the world of headwork, or the world of handwork.” When The Suits were top dog in Corporate Land, they enforced a dress code originally based on the uniform of counting-house clerks and bankers, circa 1820. But then tech engineers became ascendant, and they preferred a livery that was a mashup of golf wear and something you’d pull on when cleaning the garage. And so was born the Age of the Slob.

Like that other pungent snob, Wilmot Robertson, Fussell was a dab hand at coining memorable phrases to describe troublesome social phenomena. Given his fear and loathing of prole culture, it’s appropriate that his biggest contribution to the language is “Prole Drift.” It describes widespread class sinking, “the tendency in advanced industrialized societies for everything inexorably to become proletarianized.” Many of Fussell’s examples of prole drift are biased and cranky, such as the proliferation of newspaper horoscope columns, and a fortune-teller ad that ran in The New Republic in 1982. But then there astute, far-reaching complaints, such as the gradual “disappearance of service and amenity, the virtue universality of ‘self-service'”:

Self-service is ipso facto prole. Proles like it because it minimizes the risk of social contact with people who might patronize or humiliate them. All right for them, but because of prole drift we’re all obliged to act as if we were hangdog no-accounts.

Coming out in late 1983, Class appeared at almost the same time as the unspeakable Official Yuppie Handbook, which I spoke of a while back. Unlike that sad Yuppie book Fussell’s Class has never gone out of print or slithered off into complete irrelevancy or become a nostalgia curio. It grew out of a shrewd, witty piece that Fussell wrote for The New Republic a few years earlier. (“A Dirge for Social Climbers,” July 19, 1980.) So when you open Class, you’re meeting a mindset that really jelled around 1978 or 1979. This explains a few of the book’s obsessions, and also its design and title. You see, in 1979 the English writer Jilly Cooper had published a book of similar heft, topic, and line drawings, also called Class (subtitled A View from Middle England). The resemblance is of form rather than substance, since the Cooper book chatters on about Eton ties and Clubland and Hooray Harrys—things that have no meaningful parallels in America, or at least no parallels that the average reader would be conversant with. Cooper’s Class moreover echoes earlier humor books on the theme of class and status, most notably Noblesse Oblige (by Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Osbert Lancaster, et al.) and Social Types by Ronald Searle; both of them from 1955.

These English writers all illustrated class distinctions by caricaturing familiar types of the upper and upper-middle class (familiar, that is, to their peers and neighbors). Paul Fussell couldn’t do anything like that because he wanted to draw a bigger picture, and there just aren’t enough Americans with shared history and biases. Or rather there are, but we’re mostly in little particularist tidepools. If you try depict the common stereotypes you know, you end up with something like Flannery O’Connor or John P. Marquand: an illustration of a somewhat exotic community rather than a broad-based, shared class structure. So Fussell, like Thorstein Veblen and Dwight MacDonald before him, tries to construct a general theory of American class and status. He posits an awkward, dubious taxonomy of nine distinct classes, beginning with “Top-Out-of-Sight” (so upper-upper you’ll never see them or their houses) and ending with “Bottom-Out-of-Sight,” who rank below “Destitute” and are probably institutionalized someplace. He also gives us an X class, consisting of people who don’t quite fit into any of the other nine: artists, writers, expats . . . probably a lot of the people you know.

In the end Fussell’s class system is a put-on, just an excuse to make fun of the three Prole groups (High, Mid, and Low). Some years after publishing Class, Fussell still had a lot more to say on this score, and so produced a little book called BAD—Or, the Dumbing of America (1991). BAD was pretty bad, just another opportunity for Fussell to have a go at prole pop culture.

Being a lifelong academic, Fussell didn’t really have a good sense of what other classes were about. He saw, or thought he saw, proles at the airport and shopping mall and on TV, but his notion of upper-middle-class people seems to be based on the more worldly, genteel, probably tweedy academics he met in his English departments and at scholarly conferences. Sometimes he just wings it, teases us, makes stuff up.

He informs us, bizarrely, that upper-middle-class Americans often affect an Anglomania and fascination with British royalty. “You meet people whose dinner tables ring not just with passing references to the royal family but with prolonged earnest dissertations about Charles and Lady Di and Margaret Anne and Andrew and Little Prince William.”

Have you ever encountered folks like that? I certainly haven’t, and I doubt such dinners were ever a frequent occurrence for Fussell. I assume such Royal-stans would be sluggards who make a fetish of supermarket tabloids and tabloid TV, or are themselves lower-middle-class Brits in origin, or they’re really Jewish (or maybe all three at once, as has been known to happen); in which case they’re certainly not upper-middle-class Heritage Americans. I’ve known only one American who ever even mentioned the Royals in dinner table conversation, and that was the eldest of the four Koch brothers. (Certainly an Upper, if not actually Top-Out-of-Sight in the Fussell taxonomy.) And Fred Koch didn’t say “Charles and Lady Di,” but correctly referred to them as the Prince of Wales, etc. He was making some brief point about a charitable venture he was affiliated with. Fred was no more than a passing acquaintance of that family. But he did have a recent Christmas card from “Lilibet and Phil.”

Is Fussell just having a big joke with us here, as with his X Class and those enameled Old Glory lapel pins “worn by the insane and by cynical politicians”? That’s a pretty good guess. Fussell himself never took his Class book very seriously and was surprised when people did, or when they were alarmed or offended to the point of sending hate mail—or when they studied it as a vademecum, a literal “Guide Through the American Status System.” As Fussell gleefully admitted in his memoir, Doing Battle (1996):

This was hardly a serious book, for often the presentation was conducted in the comical voice of an excessively earnest, pedantic professor of sociology, accustomed to rigid classifications and pseudo-scientific method.

Whimsically, he supplied Class with an author’s note that went, “In real life, Paul Fussell is Donald T. Regan Professor of English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania,” that being the new English chair to which Fussell was appointed. But when the London paperback edition was being prepared, an editor added a superfluous comma, making the sentence, “In real life Paul Fussell is Donald T. Regan, Professor of English…”

Thus for months, and it’s still happening, I would receive anti-fan mail from England beginning as follows:

Dear Professor Regan,
Your book is so offensive that I quite understand why you feel it necessary to hide your actual identity behind such a ludicrous pseudonym as “Paul Fussell.”