The Old Bunch.Like Anton Chekhov in his early drama, Platonov, even a modern master of sophisticated English prose can fall prey to reflexive prejudices as a product of an atavistic cultural inheritance.
Consider, then, Evelyn Waugh in whose Vile Bodies (1930) there can be read ‘Dirty yid,’ spoken of a Jew by a struggling actress; indeed, there is also Waugh’s Scoop in which the foreign correspondents arriving in Ishmaelia are described as ‘All the old bunch,’ with the exclusion of just one reporter. ‘Yes, and there’s a highbrow yid . . . but we don’t count him.’
For those who affect the condescending manners of the quintessential Mayfair Man-About-Town we should look no further than The Romantic Lady (1921) by Michael Arlen, a bestselling writer of Armenian origin. There is an offhand back-handed putdown of another émigré class in this character sketch :
[He] had actively sat as member for __ since he was twenty-six, was now recognised as one of the leaders of the Opposition, and certain, in spite of his youth, of office at the fall of the Liberal ministry. It was after all, so original of him to be so clever and polished and dark and ambitious without being a Jew.From his writings it’s clear that Michael Arlen cunningly adopted an English class consciousness and xenophobia to negotiate the exclusiveness of London’s high society. And, here, in this passage can be detected a kind of inverted antisemitism, which both praises the virtuosic outsider and condemns him.
Today we can spot this same knee-jerk cultural envy in the long-running cartoon strip in the satirical magazine, Private Eye, which lampoons London’s publishing houses whose founders, in many well known instances, were émigré Jews of exceptional brilliance who’d coupled their names with certain scions of the tweed-jacketed English County Gentry. Thus, Snipcock & Tweed.
The brass plate of Snipcock & Tweed may have slipped over time, but its significations still have a precarious hold on Britain’s collective unconscious . . . and stir half-forgotten guilty impressions from reading certain popular fictions in our youth . . .
So let’s take a look at these extracts from pages of hazy recall with their concordances to a DATELINE of world events at the time of publication as a sobering counterpoint. As Max Hastings writes in the same vein:
‘Before the second world war, such [antisemitic] sentiments were commonplace, not least in the “Clubland Hero” thrillers of Buchan, Sapper and Dornford Yates. “Bolshevik Jews” were responsible for many of the villainous conspiracies frustrated by Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond and Jonah Mansell, before they gave the culprits a good flogging.’Let us then begin with a quintessential Edwardian . . . because I intend this modest conspectus of hints and glints and glimpses to end with one.
The Un-Rest Cure.We begin in the first decade of the 20th Century with Saki (H H Munro).
DATELINE 1911: The persecution from recurring outbreaks of
pogroms has driven over 2 million Jews to flee the Russian
Empire between 1881 and 1910.
“To-night is going to be a great night in the history of Christendom,” said Clovis.
“We are going to massacre every Jew in the neighbourhood.”
“To massacre the Jews!” said Huddle indignantly. “Do you mean to tell me
there’s a general rising against them?”
“No, it’s the Bishop’s own idea. He’s in there arranging all the details now.”
“But—the Bishop is such a tolerant, humane man.”
“That is precisely what will heighten the effect of his action. The sensation will
That at least Huddle could believe.
“He will be hanged!” he exclaimed with conviction.
“A motor is waiting to carry him to the coast, where a steam yacht is in
“But there aren’t thirty Jews in the whole neighbourhood,” protested Huddle,
whose brain, under the repeated shocks of the day, was operating with the
uncertainty of a telegraph wire during earthquake disturbances.
“We have twenty-six on our list,” said Clovis, referring to a bundle of notes.
“We shall be able to deal with them all the more thoroughly.”
[ The Unrest-Cure, 1911.]
Before they’re sorted out ...Here, as we advance into the 1930s, ‘well-bred’ snobbery blends with not-so-subtle racial antipathy signalled by biblical allusion to the condemned and redeemed.
DATELINE 1933: The Nazi Party assumes control of the German
state and the SS establishes the Dachau concentration camp.
I put up at . . . a second-rate hole [in Paris] . . . It had two distinct clienteles . . . there was a sprinkling of English honeymooners . . . balanced by an equally large sprinkling of doubtful Semites; altogether a very well-proportioned mixture of sheeps and goats—like Judgement Day, you know, only before they’re sorted out.
[Risk by Margery Sharp, 1933.
From The Strand Magazine .]
an’ send them to prison if they don’t.
Yes, the insular British can be blinkered to the point of ostrich-like self-deception, but what is difficult to accept, however, is the cold reality of an extraordinarily casual dismissal of human suffering by that favourite English schoolboy mischief-maker, William Brown, created by Richmal Compton.
DATELINE 1935: The antisemitic Nuremberg Laws for the Protection
of German Blood and German Honour are passed in Nazi Germany
by the Reichstag; together with the Reich Citizenship Law, which
declares that only those of German or related blood are eligible
to be Reich citizens.
[ William and the Nasties, 1935.]‘What did you say they were called?’ said William. ‘Nasties,’ replied Henry, who as usual was the fount of information on the subject. ‘They can't be called nasties,’ said William. ‘No one would call themselves a name like that. That mus’ be what people call them that don’t like them.’ ‘No, it’s their real name,’ persisted Henry. ‘They really are called nasties. Nasty means something quite different in Germany.’ ‘Don’t be silly,’ said William. ‘Nasty couldn't mean anything but nasty anywhere. What do they do?’ ‘They rule all the country,’ said Henry, ‘an’ make everyone do jus’ what they like an’ send them to prison if they don’t.’ ‘I’d be one of them if I was in that country,’ said William, ‘but I bet I’d find a better name than nasty.’ ‘I tell you nasty means somethin’ else in Germany,’ said Henry. ‘Well, why can’t they say somethin’ else instead of nasty then?’ demanded William. ‘Haven’t they got any sense? What else do they do?’
‘I must say we could do with a bit of Hitler here . . .’
That an Oxford Professor of Poetry, Cecil Day Lewis, could conceive in 1938, even as caricature, the callous views in the passage quoted, below, is all the more remarkable from the lover of a distinguished woman of Jewish lineage, Rosamond Lehmann, his mistress of a nine-year affair.
DATELINE 1938: Exclusion of Jews by a new German decree closes
all Jewish-owned businesses. In desperation, Jewish parents send
their unaccompanied children abroad to escape Nazi persecution.
The first Kindertransport arrives in Great Britain.
A film executive introduces the novel’s protagonist to a starlet who complains
of Weinberg, a producer, and takes to task one of Weinberg’s sidekicks, another
imputed Jew who’s made advances to her. She protests all in a rush:
‘I keep on telling Weinberg he must ring up the Embassy and have the man deported the country’s not big enough to hold both of us either he goes or I but of course all these Jews are in league I must say we could do with a bit of Hitler here though I do rather bar rubber truncheons and sterilisation . . .’
[The Beast Must Die by Cecil Day Lewis
‘A sub-Aryan called Cohen.’
And what are we to make of this unthinking character sketch in 1939 from a master practitioner from the Gold Age of Detective Fiction, Cyril Hare, once appointed to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions before he was made a county court judge.
DATELINE 1939: Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia begins.
Germany invades Poland. Persecution of Jews in Poland and
Czechoslovakia; all Jews in Nazi controlled territory forced to wear
the yellow star.
‘There’s no such person – in the office of Vanning, Waldron and Smith, anyway.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘I looked them up in the official list . . . I checked up on accountants as well. And there wasn’t a Vanning . . . Not a solitary one. So far as this crowd goes, the partners now are Waldron, Smith and a sub-Aryan called Cohen . . . ’
[Suicide Excepted, p.154. 1939.
by Cyril Hare,
Judge Gordon Clark, 1900-1958]
|Harold MacMillan, |
1st Earl of Stockton
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose . . .
and so to the UK in the 1980s . . .
to recall an Edwardian Etonian’s celebrated bon mot.
[A telling extract from You can take the boy out of Eton . . . by Nick Fraser from The Guardian, 2005.]
There have been a number of Etonian prime ministers, among them William Ewart Gladstone, and, in modern times, AJ Balfour, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home. More than half the members of AJ Balfour's 1902 cabinet were Etonians, but there were nine in Macmillan’s 1956 government and 11 in Douglas-Home’s. Neither Ted Heath (cabinet-maker’s son) nor Margaret Thatcher (grocer’s daughter) displayed any conspicuous love for Eton. There were Etonians in Thatcher's first cabinet, but it appears that she didn’t feel easy in their presence.
In 1983, she sacked four of the most prominent Tory Etonians, prompting Macmillan's snobbish (and anti-semitic) mot about there being more Old Estonians than Old Etonians in the cabinet.
Last Word from T S Eliot at 5.55pm September 14th 1943, Wigmore Hall, London.
We know with certainty that at teatime, on an autumnal Tuesday in London, T S Eliot spoke these lines from his Gerontion:
My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp . . .
During the WW2, over 20,000 of the Antwerp’s Jews perished in the Holocaust, rounded up between 1941 and 1942 by the Germans with the collaboration of the local police.
In his TS Eliot, Anti-semitism and Literary Form Anthony Julius writes: ‘Eliot’s offence lies in his willingness to give offence, in his deployment of anti-semitic language. Eliot’s anti-semitic poetry is very deft . . . Refusing either to acquiesce in, or to rail at, Eliot’s contempt for Jews, one strives to do justice to the many injustices Eliot does to Jews. This is what adversarial reading allows. It is an alternative to two kinds of silence: the coercive silence of censorship, the passive silence of the submissive reader. It combines resistance with respect.’
Post postscriptum: Cricket averages of consuming interest to Brits.
A British P.o.W. escapee, who was witness to the genocidal purges of the Nazi regime, explains:
“War crime!” sneered McIntosh. “I paid my first visit to Belsen in ’38, Major, when you people back home knew more about Hutton’s centuries than Hitler’s rest-homes for the Jews. Things were much the same then as they were later.”
Richard Pape. Fortune Is My Enemy (1957)
For German literary antisemitism in 1944, see also
See also my father’s despatch from Paris in 1944
For a tragedy of a native German’s alienation in the face of the NSDAP’s inexorable rise to power incited by antisemitism see also my The Eleven Surviving Works of L v. K at the South Bank Poetry Library
Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence,
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)
and A Bad Case (2015)
and A Bad Case (2015)