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Voyages of discovery

10 December 2011

10:00 AM

10 December 2011

10:00 AM

Resurgent Adventures with Britannia edited by Wm. Roger Louis

I.B. Tauris, pp.352, 33.99

Roger Louis is an American professor from the University of Texas at Austin who knows more about the history of the British Empire than any other two academics put together. When the Oxford University Press embarked on its mammoth history of the Empire the general editor they chose —to the chagrin of certain professors from the Commonwealth — was Roger Louis. Among his other responsibilities is the British Studies seminar, which was founded at Austin 36 years ago.

But Professor Louis is not the university’s only attraction. The Harry Ransom Center houses one of the most, if not the most, important collection of modern literary manuscripts in the English-speaking world. If you want to study Samuel Beckett or James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh or John Fowles, Tom Stoppard or Penelope Lively, then you will have to go to Austin. The result is that there is rarely a time when some distinguished writer or scholar is not to be found visiting the campus. And few escape without being recruited by Roger Louis to lecture to his seminar.

The results were too good to be confined to so small an audience. In 1995 Roger Louis drew together a first tranche of lectures in a volume called Adventures with Britannia. It was an immediate success and was followed by More Adventures with Britannia, Still More Adventures with Britannia, Yet More Adventures with Britannia, then, with increasing desperation, Penultimate Adventures with Britannia, Ultimate Adventures with Britannia, and, in this latest manifestation — reminiscent of the traditional hero who is tied up, gagged and deposited in a capsule several hundred feet down in a shark-infested sea: ‘With one bound he was free’ — Resurgent Adventures with Britannia.  

Most of the lectures fall loosely under the headings of literature or history, though some are harder to categorise: Steven Isenberg’s splendidly self-indulgent description of lunches with W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, Philip Larkin and William Empson is certainly literary but also eccentrically autobiographical. So too — autobiographical if not eccentric — is John Berry’s vivid account of what it was like for an itinerant geologist to establish himself in the Zambian Copperbelt. But these are exceptions: for the most part it is books, the people who write them and the effect they have on other people, which is the driving force behind these lectures.

Some of the lecturers talk about work in progress or books that they have recently completed. This carries an obvious risk. If I had not already read and vastly admired Selina Hastings’ biography of Somerset Maugham I would have wondered whether her elegantly economical essay on the subject did not tell me all I needed to know about this important but not totally prepossessing writer. But on the whole there is an immediacy about these pieces which makes them eminently readable — the lecturers are on a voyage of discovery: they may not yet fully have formulated their conclusions but they want their audience to share in the day-to-day adventure of research.

Two Oxford notables come in for contrasting treatment. In Glen Bowersock’s view Maurice Bowra was a poor scholar and worse writer who was redeemed only by his wit. Worse still, the celebrated parodies which he wrote of his contemporaries’ works were often ‘unspeakably vicious and small-minded’. There must have been more to him than that: Isaiah Berlin considered him to be ‘a major liberating influence …. It is not merely love and admiration for you that I feel …. but I owe you a transformation of my entire mode of life and attitude towards it.’ But though the Oxford of his day was a more stimulating and — provided you were not the target of his maligner flights of wit — a more enjoyable place because of him, Baversock convinces one that he was essentially second-rate.

The same could not be said of Neal Ascherson’s Hugh Trevor-Roper. Trevor-Roper was as brilliant a writer as Bowra was a dull one and no one ever questioned the excellence of his intellect. The mystery with him was why he under-achieved. His triumphant The Last Days of Hitler was a one-off; as Ascherson points out, it was ‘reportage and detective work rather than conventional history’. His only major work of history was his life of Archbishop Laud: otherwise it was essays, reviews, aborted sketches for longer works. He once rashly told Mrs Thatcher that he had a book on the stocks. ‘On the stocks?’ she expostulated, ‘On the stocks? A fat lot of good that is! In the shops, that is where we need it.’

Everyone rejoices when pride has a fall and even Trevor-Roper’s most ardent admirers felt a flicker of schadenfreude when he came a spectacular cropper over the Hitler diaries. Ascherson argues convincingly that, though Trevor-Roper was certainly guilty of rashness, he was as much the victim of bad luck as bad judgment.

This piece is beautifully written and compellingly cogent. I wonder, though, whether it is fair to include David Irving among the ‘shady, greedy con-men’ in whom Trevor-Roper put confidence. Trevor-Roper himself believed that Irving was the best and most persistent researcher he had ever encountered; the fact that one does not necessarily approve of the way in which he used his findings should not detract from his very real qualities.

I have mentioned only five among 21 lectures. There are no duds among them and some — Bernard Porter on Victorian Gothic Architecture to cite only one — are conspicuously trenchant and enjoyable.

Britannia has re-surged with a vengeance, and there is plenty of life in the old woman yet.

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