Chamberlain, in short; Chamberlain plain

So it had come to pass. Exit, stage right, a weeping King, led by his belt buckle. Exit, stage left, a bruised bruiser of a Prime Minister, supernumerary, a worked-out Warwick, a provincial kingmaker needed no longer now the King was unmade. And in his place, stepping into the Premier spotlight, a man of quiet confidence, a man who had always known this moment would come and who was utterly assured as to its rightness: a conceited man, a man, in other words, well-practised in mastering conceit. Scrubbed, pressed, immaculate in a wing collar. A stickler, a grey man with a salt and pepper moustache: and yet, for all that, a man who’d almost succeed in convincing you there was a twinkle, a mischievousness behind the bombastic façade. Chamberlain, in short; Chamberlain plain.

It was like the denouement to a History Play. Or, who knew, the opening scene of its First Act.

He stepped right over to the lip of the stage and stood there, scanning to left and to right, as if to take the measure of every single member of his audience. And then it seemed as if he were about to strike a dramatic pose. Looking up now, uppish, his eyes fixed on the back row of the gods, it seemed possible that at any moment he might shape a definitive gesture; his hand might shoot up and he’d clutch at an essence in the empty air, destiny perhaps, and pull it passionately to his breastbone in his fist.

But of course this gesture, the gesture of all great dictators, did not come. He merely stood there, the faintest suggestion of a smile playing on his lips. There were a few scattered coughs from the darkest depths of the auditorium; but not a pin dropped. And the more he stood there in the spotlight, inviting you to take him in, Chamberlain plain, the more you were aware of motes of dust dancing in the column of lit air that isolated him from the darkness.

Motes, like microbes, like a swarm of tiny insects. They somehow made him seem moth-eaten.

And behind him, lit only by their leader’s reflected glory, his cabinet. The sort of supporting cast of which only a Caesar might dream: Hailsham, Halifax, Simon, Hoare, Eden, MacDonald, Hore-Belisha, Inskip. Even Harold was there, to the very back of this tableau.

Opening section of Book 8 of Flying Over Ruins, a project currently hurtling towards its ultimate destiny at a glacial pace

Elegy for Emma Tennant. With Bananas

Am I right in thinking that there were several attempts to revive Bananas (or something like it) throughout the 1980s?

Right up until fairly recently, there were those who believed fervently that exotic forms of flora could be encouraged to grow in the nexus formed by literature and counter-culture.

It may be true. But it seems unlikely.

And indeed that was always the problem with the so-called underground press: nice in theory, toxic in practice.

So we could also advance the notion that Bananas was responsible for what we did get in the end, the mind-numbingly stupid Modern Review. Which in turn inspired the monstrosity that was and is the Sunday Times Culture section, a sink-hole that’s done so much to undermine the sorts of adventurous writing that Bananas existed to champion.

If so… Oh the bitter irony.

Anyway. An Emma Tennant obituary can be found here:

In which your humble correspondent finds himself in agreement with Sir Ronald Harwood and essays a sublimely pointless gesture of solidarity

I’ve said it before and I’ll (probably have cause to) say it again: the political is the enemy of the creative. So it goes without saying that I agree with Sir Ronald Harwood’s recent comments on the state of British theatre. I don’t often go these days (my most recent expedition took me to Kenneth Branagh’s excruciatingly awful version of Osborne’s mediocre play, The Entertainer – but that’s another story for another time). When I do turn out and take one for the team, I usually come away feeling profoundly depressed.

And yes, I’m well aware that Branagh’s production wasn’t state-funded. Of course it wasn’t. Or at least not directly – but it breathed deeply of the miasma emanating from that particular swamp.

And it’s almost inevitable that state funding engenders certain insidious forms of deafness. Or worse, numbness.

Few of those making a tidy living at, say, The National Theatre, can even begin to imagine how exciting it might be to rebel against a tired and outdated consensus.

Sadly, it falls to marginalised artists with nothing to lose (and therefore, almost by definition, little influence) to point out that tiresome is as tiresome does.

There is a better way. No, really, Melvyn, there is.

Flying Over Ruins Book One: The Lives of the Caesars

That night, drifting, Anne allowed herself to dream. And she saw how it would be. First she’d sleep, sleep at long last, such a deep, nourishing sleep; then she’d awaken, refreshed. She’d wake Jon and Charles; and gradually, as they stirred, they’d realise that the boat was no longer rolling.

They’d already docked. Already alongside, tied up.

Why had no-one come for them?

Wonder upon wonders. But of course it was not yet dawn. Not a soul stirred below decks or on the quay.

A clear night. Dead still. Cold. Moonlit.

So they decided they’d make a break for it. They told Jon it was all a great game. They disembarked like fugitives, hunched, their coat collars turned up around their ears, stealing onto the quayside, fearful that each footstep might echo. They set off, hand in hand, across cobbles slick from a shower of earlier rain: they walked, the three of them, Anne, Jon and Charles, into a sleeping city.

“Anne? Anne!”

She stirred eventually, reluctantly. It felt like she’d only just drifted off.

“What time is it?” she asked.

Not yet dawn. That bit of her dream, at least, had come true. But the boat was still rolling.

The captain put his head around the cabin door when they were eating breakfast. He’d been in communication with the port authorities and the police. A crowd had already gathered. It was probably in everybody’s best interests if they agreed to remain below decks for an hour or two, maybe more, after they’d docked. Let the excitement die down. Maybe people would begin drifting away.

Fat chance. Just after dawn, in the offing, as they began negotiating the channel approaches, they were buzzed by an aeroplane. More were to follow.

They did as they were told. They remained below.

They read, played cards with Jon, stared at the cabin walls. The hours turned into what felt like days.

So, no, in the end, it wasn’t a bit like Anne’s fugitive dream. Stepping out into a new life… the reality was a little less than magical: they came ashore in broad daylight, Anne leading, Charles ten feet behind, cradling Jon in the crook of his right arm, feeding the gangway rail deftly through his left hand for support. It was blustery yet mild: Charles wasn’t even wearing an overcoat.

This was New Year’s Eve. They’d cross the Atlantic on the American Importer (the irony of the name was not lost on them, nor on the legions of newspaper reporters covering the story around the world), a modest-sized cargo ship carrying no other passengers. They made some friends though. Two, precisely: the ship’s kitten and a nice white-haired steward who served them their meals in their cramped (sometimes they felt like stowaways) little cabin. An Englishman, he’d served in two wars.

“And now we’re getting trimmed for another one,” he told Charles.

“Think so?” replied Charles, more amused than surprised.

“Oh yes, sir. To settle the question…” The steward paused here, glanced from Charles to Jon to Anne and then back again to Charles. “A chop for the baby?”

Jon was distinctly unimpressed with this. “I’m not a baby am I?” he protested, wriggling irritably in the nest of cushions they’d made for him so he could sit up at the table.

Jon had a point. He was not a baby. He was almost three-and-a-half.

Charles nodded. The steward withdrew.

War. Now we’re getting trimmed for another one. To settle the question. To settle it once and for all.

Two days out from Liverpool, it felt as if it had already begun. They’d sailed into a storm; and one particularly monstrous wave had almost done for them all, overwhelming the ship, crashing broadside, threatening, for an instant, to capsize it. The Lindberghs’ cabin flooded and their clothes (the clothes they were standing in and the clothes in their luggage) were ruined.

But they’d sailed through; and as they’d passed the coast of Ireland, though the seas were rough, the skies were blue. The breeze carried with it the distinctive smell of land, powerfully evocative after more than a week at sea, and their hearts lifted.

The decision to leave America had been made in secret. Charles hadn’t even told Anne until a couple of days before. Then he’d talked to Deak Lyman on The New York Times, on the strict understanding that the interview was to be embargoed until after the American Importer had sailed.

The article, 1750 words that would win Lyman the Pulitzer Prize, ran on Monday 21 December 1935. The front page headline of the Times that day, set in huge type across four columns, was:




The headlines ten days later in Liverpool were rather simpler but no less dramatic:


It was all a blur on the quayside. Police, some on horseback, a milling mob of reporters and photographers. Yet they made it to their waiting car.

Jon was brave. Anne and Charles, sitting back, looked at each other, smiled, squeezed hands.

Then, as if by divine intervention, the crowds parted and they were off.

Anne stared out of the car window as images of an unfamiliar city flitted by. Trams, omnibuses, chimney pots, red-cheeked children, women with shawls, nursemaids wheeling prams, dirty brick terraces, raincoats, drably dressed girls.

And on every street corner, newspaper sellers crying their wares. Extra! Extra!


Anne felt a frisson. Butterflies in her stomach. That intoxicating mix of fear and anticipation.

On every street corner as their car sped through the city streets:



Charles Lindbergh’s clandestine role in the Munich crisis is not widely known. It may surprise many

Flying Over Ruins: a synopsis

Flying Over Ruins is a portrait of two of the most remarkable marriages of the 20th Century – and of the period in the late 1930s when their fortunes intertwined.

Charles Lindbergh, heroic aviator, the most famous human being on the planet, and his wife Anne, as sensitive as she is courageous, a first-rate writer in the making, seek a new life England in the aftermath of the murder of their first child.

They already know Harold Nicolson, who’d been a guest of the family in the States when he was writing a biography of Anne’s father. Now they’re destined to fall under the spell of Harold’s wife too: Vita Sackville-West.

Their arrival coincides with the revival of Harold’s ambitions as a statesman – and, for a while, his friendship with Charles is advantageous. But this proves a double-edged sword as Charles, naively, accepts invitations to visit Berlin and allows himself to be feted by Nazi Germany; and when he allies himself to the pro-Appeasement faction back in England, he helps throw Britain’s foreign policy into disarray.

As a result, Harold’s career soon lies in ruins. He can console himself that he’s been highly influential in Anne’s emergence as a writer of real talent; and he rediscovers his love, unlikely as this may seem to outsiders, for Vita. Anne and Charles, meanwhile, are drifting apart.

All the source material for Flying Over Ruins is already in the public domain; but no-one has put the material together in quite this way before – and there are genuinely new perspectives here. For instance, Lindbergh’s role in the Munich crisis will come as a surprise to many.

But as we see as our narrative unfolds, when Charles preaches about the invincibility of German air power, the nation listens… and his arguments are a major factor in emboldening the Cliveden Set. Similarly, Harold’s role in pre-war politics is almost always ignored: he’s far better known these days as Vita’s husband. But he’s a witty and colourful character in his own right – and Flying Over Ruins aims to show him at his compelling best.

At the outset of the book, the Lindberghs are installed in Harold and Vita’s Long Barn property; and the supremely well-connected Harold begins introducing Charles to all the people who matter, including royalty and the political elite. Along the way, he tries to co-opt him to the side of the foreign policy hawks warning of a growing German menace.

But Charles, much to his mentor’s chagrin, drifts towards allegiance with Nancy Astor – no friend of Harold’s. Coincidentally, despite several barnstorming speeches in The House, Harold’s star begins to wane.

Both men are damaged, professionally and personally, by events as they unfold – and have every reason to feel disillusioned. There’s a catalogue of failures here, some darkly comic (not least the Lindberghs’ Berlin trips), others poignant. Yet there’s resilience here too: Harold, outmanoeuvred, finds consolation in a new understanding with Vita; Charles, his naivety now cruelly exposed, heads back home, defeated in Europe but ready to meet turbulent new challenges in Washington.

As their story heads towards an elegiac conclusion, we begin to realise that history will eventually prove both men right, though in very different ways.

But Charles and Harold aren’t the whole story. Though they give the book much of its narrative structure, Anne is its beating heart. She was one of the most remarkable women of the age, celebrated for her role as co-pilot and navigator on Charles’s more sensational expeditions. Indeed, we’re party to one of these as they seek to fly over the ruins of all the world’s ancient civilisations (thus the book’s title) in one round trip before following Alexander’s route to India, where Charles meets one of his heroes, the mystic writer, Francis Younghusband.

In the opening chapter, Anne arrives on these shores still haunted by tragedy – the kidnap and murder of her first son in the so-called Crime of the Century. In England, she finds herself once more; and, encouraged by both Harold and Vita, begins to emerge as a writer of real talent.

In particular, we focus on the evolution of the acclaimed “Night Flight from Bathurst” chapters of Listen! – a book destined to become an instant bestseller.

More people should know about Anne Lindbergh – her story is an uplifting one.

In summary, Flying Over Ruins is a fictionalised account of a true story, as-yet-untold in this detail, about two marriages, four extraordinary people – and the ways in which they each see the world. Sensitively derived from the diaries and letters of the four main characters, it’s also a book very much about a time and a place, evoking Kent and London during a vividly intense period in Britain’s history.


In which we confirm that it is more profitable to explore hidden bypaths of knowledge than to tread the common highways

Had it appeared 30 years earlier, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance by Edgar Wind, published in 1958, might have become a hugely important book, not just in the field of Art History but in the (slightly) wider world of general aesthetics.

Sadly, though, it arrived just as the English Cultural Revolution was hitting full swing (the paperback, for instance, was published in 1967). This was an era (and actually we’re still stuck in it) when anything that smacked of subtle complexity was routinely dismissed out of hand as just so much oppressively indulgent jiggery pokery.

And of course Pagan Mysteries seeks not just to elucidate but to re-evaluate subtle complexity.

There’s no immediate prospect of people rediscovering this book. But don’t despair. Its time will surely come (again). And in fact, in that respect, it’s somewhat self-reflexive. In passages like this one, it seems almost to evoke the mechanism by which this sort of resurrection might come to pass.

Not that this is really a hidden by-path:

The belief that because a thing is not stressed it must be important is not entirely without merit, but it can lead to exegetic madness. Gibbon ridiculed a faith which taught its adherents that a “contradictory doctrine must be divine since no man alive could have thought of inventing it.” By the same token it is a prejudice to assume that a thing must be central because it looks marginal. Yet, the supposition that some things which look marginal may be central is one of those judicious reflections that rarely fail to open up new fields of knowledge because they introduce a change of focus.

Not only is it true that great discoveries have generally “centred” on the “fringes” of knowledge but the very progress of knowledge may be regarded as a persistent shift of centre. In Cusanus and Pico, a sharp instinctive awareness of the rule, that any given knowledge may be transcended, was condensed into a mystical superstition: a belief that all important truths are cryptic. But from this bleak, retardative axiom of faith, perhaps the most perilous vestige of Neoplatonism, they drew a prophetic rule of learning: that it is more profitable to explore hidden bypaths of knowledge than to tread the common highways. Enlightenment and obscurantism are tightly linked in the method of docta ignorantia.

When I look up long enough to see a shooting star, I think of you

Of course I do. We lay on our backs on a Cornish beach that August night, staring into the sky, you and I, each newly single, or soon to become so; and because the Perseids performed for us we assumed, quite naturally, that we would fall in love.

But we did not.

The truth is we were worlds apart. I hardly saw you at all after that night; and never again the two of us alone.

But yes, in one of the luminous fragments in the sentimental novella of my life in a parallel universe, it all played out rather differently: though to what end, I’m still not entirely sure.

Even so, in August, when I look up long enough to catch a falling star, I think of you. Of course I do.

The dustbin of history escapes from… er, um, ah… the dustbin of history

Sounds a bit like the conundrum that triggered Bertrand Russell’s nervous breakdown in 1901 as he set about finessing set theory. Can a set be a member of itself? Turns out it depends who’s asking. Or put it another way: Is this a question?

But enough prevarication. I come bearing gifts. Because philologists, I have been informed, reliably, have recently been noting the improbable revival of that most hallowed of receptacles, the Dustbin of History.

This was, you will hardly need reminding, an object much-beloved once-upon-a-time by Marxist historians, though credit for its consecration can’t go to Charlie Marx himself. No: that plaudit goes instead to Charlie’s pithy grandson (philosophically speaking) Lenin.

But yes, clearly, the notion is properly Marxist. In a universe where the passage of time is synonymous with progress, it’s axiomatic that some ideas and methods will become obsolete. And where do you put things when they’ve become obsolete?

That’s right! Lenin initially evoked the bin as a final resting place for the moderate Menshevik wing of his party. The Mensheviks were bad eggs, the sorts of wretches we’d now call Blairites and spit at in the street.

So of course they deserved their fate. But over the years, though it had originally been fashioned from the finest galvanised steel, the bin began losing its lustre. The last thing consigned to it (or so we thought) was that sublime breezeblock monument to Marx’s life and work, The Berlin Wall.

In the last few months, though, we’ve seen it (the bin, not the wall) making the odd re-appearance.

Perhaps it’s something to do with the notion that sundry Mensheviks have been escaping, intent on wreaking all sorts of mischief.

But one commentator will be pleased, and indeed will feel vindicated. Over the last couple of decades or so, he has continued to evoke the Dustbin of History, and he has done so without any need to resort to apologetic irony. We are of course referring to that Hegelian philosopher and social commentator, Homer Simpson, famed for reducing the concept to a resonant three-letter acronym: “DOH!”

Suggested essay questions

  1. “Hegel hielt weniger auf Plotin als auf Proclus, und legte besonders diesem Buche des letzteren einen grossen Wert bei.” (Friedrich Creuzer) Discuss
  2. Set in order: i) the UK Parliament ii) British Home Stores iii) Welsh figure-skating
  3. Have you used both sides of your paper?
  4. Conjugate: i) ecstatically ii) with ironic detachment iii) soundly
  5. “All proper tea is theft” (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon on the Lapsang Souchong Crisis of 1764.) Are you calling me a liar?
  6. Can you catch the Zika virus from a toilet seat? (Please demonstrate.)
  7. Ever felt like just giving up and starting again?

I have sat up with them, the last of Edinburgh’s rentier class, as they blew what remained of their inheritance on amphetamines

Thanks to Lynn Barber’s recent TV interview with a portly pop-eyed gentleman, name of John Lydon, it has all come flooding back. Public Image Limited. That’s what they, we, were listening to. In chi-chi Cumberland Street mews flats, in shabby genteel apartments in Marchmont and Bruntsfield. The soundtrack to that time and space.

Ainslie, Fiona, Mark Cunninghame, Adj. Someone probably pledged one day to write about you. Only later might they have realised there was nothing really to say.

They came like house martins and like house martins went

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,
The intellectual sweetness of those lines
That cut through time or cross it withershins.

Holed up for a fortnight recently in a west Somerset village, I acquired a new skill. I reckon I’m now able, for the first time in my life, to identify with confidence each member of that glorious scimitar-winged trinity: the swift, the swallow and the house martin.

I’m now starting to wonder whether WB Yeats was ever able to say the same. We’ll never really know for sure, obviously: so there’s no point me stating definitively that the gregarious birds he describes in Coole Park, 1929 were martins, not swallows.

Someone somewhere would be sure to put me right, pointing out that swallows sometimes behave in exactly the way he describes. Or that they were particularly prone to do so in County Galway during the 1920s. Or alternatively they’ll invoke Yeats’s poetic licence and say it’s hardly worth quibbling about. And, you know, they may well be right.

On the other hand, maybe this is an unlikely scenario, because the poem isn’t much talked about these days: for many Yeats scholars, it’s a source of awkwardness and embarrassment. After all, you can’t read it without being reminded, even in passing, of one of the 20th Century’s most shameful acts of cultural vandalism.

Coole Park was the house and estate of Augusta Gregory, prime mover in the Irish Literary Renaissance. As such, the building should have become a national treasure; instead, because of its emotive associations with the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, a family seat in a time of civil war, it was bulldozed to make way for the Irish Republic. Celebrate that the next time you’re in Dublin for the Bloomsday craic.

Spookily, in the last stanza of the poem, Yeats offers us a vision of the building as a mound of rubble. He could hardly have guessed this would actually come to pass less than two years after he died.

So maybe he was fallible where swallows are concerned too. We have an odd attitude to writers, especially the ones we endow with god-like powers, who get things wrong. And this is not just a modern thing. Shakespeare, for instance, though steeped in country lore, often invoked the natural world in ways that tax the ingenuity of those minded to police his ex-Cathedra infallibility.

But such concerns have become even more marginalised in the wake of the English cultural revolution. Thanks in no small part to the subsequent rise of New Left Criticism, with its aggressively hostile attitude towards the English pastoral tradition, we’ve seen (to take one obvious example) the literary novel peppered, in recent decades, with all manner of shabby improbabilities. Daffodils in August, nuts in May.

So chuffing what, I hear you say. And, again, maybe you’re right. Maybe we’re all Magical Realists now. Literary people, and artistic people in general, are less curious about the natural world than they’ve ever been.

I’ve seen this at first hand several times. A decade ago, walking across Clissold Park in London with a couple of very talented painters, both newly anointed by the Royal Academy, I was astonished to discover that neither could identify a single one of the trees we passed.

Some were hard. It’s not everyone who knows what a grey poplar looks like. But they were confounded even by the humble horse chestnut.

It wasn’t their lack of knowledge that upset me at the time: more the fact that this didn’t give them pause for thought. Quite the opposite.

And indeed I witnessed a variant of this in Somerset. One afternoon, we came upon a man standing staring up under the high eaves of a derelict clapboard warehouse set back from the path by the old weir. We stopped to say hello. You tend to find yourself doing that sort of thing when you’re in west Somerset.

He said he was curious to see so many swallows coming and going and wondered what they were up to. We chatted for a while. He was colourfully dressed, flamboyantly so, urbane and cosmopolitan. Late 30s, middle class, affluent, well-educated. He was clearly a cultivated and curious and open-minded man. There was a compelling sense of mischief about him too: he had a giggling sort of laugh; and I could see he had that effortless knack, one I’ve always envied, of making instant friends.

We shared some of our own (admittedly limited) knowledge about what the birds were up to. We pointed out their nests, rough hemispheres of mud and twigs in the ragged shadow of the roofline. We told him if you looked carefully you could see the chicks peeking out. That’s what all the incessant coming and going was about. Swallows feeding their young.

We watched in silence for a while. Just the sound of water over the weir somewhere in the background.

And then, breaking the spell, I said: “But of course they’re not swallows, they’re martins.”

This seemed to irritate him; and what he did next, I realise now, should be regarded as a kindness. “Oh, come on,” he said as he turned to walk off. “Now you’re just being technical.”