The History Boy

We all have our favorites, and mine is only hindered by specificity of subject: You cannot when dealing with Toynbee, Just pay him back in his own coin be- Cause talking such piss Would seem rather a miss; So how … Read More

By / February 5, 2007

We all have our favorites, and mine is only hindered by specificity of subject:

You cannot when dealing with Toynbee, Just pay him back in his own coin be- Cause talking such piss Would seem rather a miss; So how would a kick in the groin be?

Or how about this one, a fair bit more "accessible" (assuming most people don't remember Philip Toynbee):

When Gaugin was visiting Fiji, He remarked, "Things are different here, e.g., While Tahitian skin calls for tan spread on thin, You can splotch it on here with a squeegee."

As Hitch makes plain in this remarkable portrait of Robert Conquest, the above limericks constitute the non-ribald in what is otherwise a catalog of filthy genius. Imagine being a world-famous historian, a man who cannot walk down the street today in Moscow without being recognized and adulated by people my age, with always a classic verse, if not one of your own composition, at the ready. To be alternatingly droll or "offensive" with the uses of rhyme and meter, and to know when to occasion either effect, is a rare talent in a full-time poet, let alone someone tasked with pealing back the vestments of Soviet communism and getting everything more or less right.

A history here, an anthology of poems there, an assortment of limericks, a memoir, a lineup of contributions to learned journals and–I forgot to mention–a festschrift of essays in his honor to be edited by the Hungarian-born scholar Paul Hollander. This seems enough to be going on with. Meanwhile, his other great work on the Ukrainian terror-famine of the 1930s, "Harvest of Sorrow," is being produced and distributed, with no profit going to the author, by a Ukrainian charity associated with President Viktor Yushchenko. Is it sweet to be so vindicated? As always, I have to crane slightly to hear the whispery answer. "There was a magazine in Russia called Neva, which found its circulation went up from 100,000 to a million when it serialized 'The Great Terror.' And I later found that at the very last plenum of the Soviet Communist Party, just before the U.S.S.R. dissolved, a Stalinist hack called Alexander Chakovsky had described me as 'anti-Sovietchik No. 1.' I must say I was rather proud of that."

I had the honor of meeting the bete noir of the Politburo in Stanford last summer. I asked him to tell me about the time he fired a shot at a barn inhabited by Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. "I was backpacking through Catalonia then, and met a few rather nice Anarchists in a village tavern. I told them I was a good rifleman at university and they gave me one of their guns, which had been malfunctioning. So I cleaned it for them." And why it took Kingsley Amis so short a time to write his own memoirs: "Because he made it all up."

You can forget about the anemic and self-congratulatory attempts on these shores to try and "reclaim" conservatism from the dread pirates neocon. The cool English empiricism that is the envy of so many Burke nostalgics may just be stranded in the last century, when classical education was mandatory and a catholicity of interest and learning not nearly so noteworthy as it is now. Consider this paragraph and try to come up with a contemporary historian who might have written it:

To read some writers, one would think that the nineteenth century consisted largely of the Peterloo Massacre, the Todpuddle Martyrs and Bloody Sunday. All were exceptional rather than typical events, and even if they were not, they would contrast pretty markedly with experience in, for example, France. Six were killed in the Peterloo rioting; none of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, though they were all disgracefully victimized and "transported," was actually martyred in the normal sense; while Blood Sunday produced precisely one death, an accidental one. Indeed, the use of such a term for such an event shows a remarkable scraping of the barrel by those determined to find British parallels to Continental shenanigans. The total death toll in civil disturbances in Britain over half a century can hardly be much over a a hundred, or, to put it another way, the equivalent of a single busy afternoon on a Paris barricade.

Or this recounted exchange from the same volume, Reflections on a Ravaged Century:

A Russian in [St. Petersburg] once said to the present writer, in late Soviet times:

"Our roads our bad." "…Yes. Why is that?" "It's our weather – an isotherm runs down the Finnish border." "And seriously?" "They were built by the state." "Yes, but we have roads in England which were built by the Roman state nearly two thousand years ago, and some of them are still sound." "Ah, but then the centurion would check that the six layers of stone had been laid down. Here, the inspector asks the foreman if they have been laid down and is answered with a bottle of vodka."

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