Monday, 30 December 2013

The ten laws of Bond

Even though (as Skyfall, the latest Bond film tells us) James Bond is over fifty years old in film terms (and even older as a written character), he is much older than that. Bond is simply the latest incarnation of the medieval knight of courtly love. His job is to favour the poor and oppressed, rescue damsels in distress, and restore justice. At least, that is the kind of things he does – truth is, he varies a bit from film to film and from novel to novel. I haven’t noticed him saving old ladies  - although he does comfort Judi Dench, she is after all his boss and social equal, and Bond’s care and concern does not extend to the poor. In this respect he is the exact mirror of the medieval knight.

Perhaps the best way to summarise Bond is to attempt to compile the laws of Bond, just as Andreas Capellanus (Andre the chaplain) did back in 1184 when he formulated the 31 rules of love (in his Tractatus de Amore). Here, then, are the ten laws of Bond:

Friday, 20 December 2013

Cobbett the curmudgeon

Anyone who has ever read E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) will come away from that book with a determination to read more about, and more written by, the main characters in Thompson’s drama: Samuel Bamford, Francis Place, William Lovett, and probably the best known of all, William Cobbett. Unlike the others mentioned, Cobbett is still remembered for a specific title, Rural Rides. Many years after reading Thompson, I finally got round to Cobbett. Rather than Rural Rides, I encountered a copy of his autobiography, wonderfully subtitled “The Progress of a Ploughboy to a Seat in Parliament”.

The first surprise was that there is no real autobiography of Cobbett. For a man who wrote so much, you would expect at the very least he would write the story of his astonishing life. That he did not is quite revealing. He always intended to write it, and the subtitle is Cobbett’s own, but the demands of journalism and other books always took precedence, so William Reitzel, the editor, assembled biographical sections from Cobbett’s other writings. This method proves workable, in that Cobbett seems to have written something about most periods of his life, but the result I found somewhat incomprehensible. It soon becomes clear, as Cobbett reaches adulthood, that the reader is only given part of the story. Partly the problem is that Cobbett did not assemble the sections here collected with an overall structure, and partly, perhaps mostly, because Cobbett was such an opinionated curmudgeon that although he had no difficulty writing polemical tracts and even whole books of argument, he was not particularly good at describing dispassionately a life that ended with him not on speaking terms with anyone in his own family. You get the impression, not admittedly from the autobiographical writing, but from Richard Ingrams’ marvellous The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett (2006), that Cobbett was not an easy man to live with. Having read both Cobbett and Ingrams, I think you start to get an idea of the man’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths there are without doubt. Cobbett was clearly a wonderful journalist, able to seize on a theme and exploit small details of his victims’ case or even their appearance, and by repeating these details mercilessly, turn them into figures of fun. Thus, defending Queen Caroline against the campaign of persecution against her by the Government, Cobbett writes an open letter to Canning:

She has been pursued by a spirit of persecution of the lowest and yet the most malignant description. A nasty, envious, jealous, grudging, bitter, venomous, grovelling, hate-engendered, soul-degrading spirit seems to have hunted her spirits as the dark and deadly minded polecat pursues the traces of the pheasant or the hare. [Letters to Grenville, 1819, quoted by Ingrams]

Queen Caroline was by no means blameless in this affair, but Cobbett’s relentless focus on those who condemned her produced an upsurge in feeling to defend, as depicted here, a poor woman who had been wronged. By focusing on a part rather than the whole, Cobbett succeeds in turning the argument around. It is not surprising that he successfully defended himself against a charge of seditious writing.

But Cobbett’s defects! Most importantly, Cobbett depicted himself as a simple agricultural labourer, and never really recognised the Industrial Revolution. He remained throughout his career a monarchist, a kind of radical Tory, a man who would happily put the clock back to a mythical pre-lapsarian agricultural paradise that can never have existed. As Stefan Collini pointed out, Thompson is not averse at times to this kind of wish-fulfilment. Then, if you add the quirks and oddities that seem to be peculiar to many self-made men: Cobbett’s obsessions about potatoes, paper money, Lord Brougham, and getting out of bed late, as well as his monstrous egotism, are enough to convince me that his family was completely justified in breaking off relations with him.

So a fascinating story, and an astonishing man, but Cobbett should be enjoyed for his polemics and for his striking phrases, not for his very partial and unstructured thinking, and certainly not for his autobiography.

Note: astute readers will notice that no travel was involved in the writing of the above post. However, Cobbett was a great believer in going to see things for himself, so I feel entirely justified in including the life of a traveller in this blog, even if I never got out of my armchair in my reading of him. I was with him everywhere he went, in the United States, in Ireland, yes, even in Farnham, his birthplace (where I stood respectfully in front of what was The Jolly Farmer pub, owned by his father).