Sunday, March 05, 2006

Roy Jenkins - 'Gladstone'

A Sunday spent in bath and bed, ploughing through Roy Jenkins' Gladstone, of which there's still plenty to go. It's currently 1874: Gladstone's 67 and gearing up (or at least the temporally sweeping narrative is gearing him up) for the two more premierships which will take him into old age and... what? Something to do with the Irish, we're told, and a faint glimmer of GCSE History lessons involving the words 'Home Rule', 'Fenian' and 'Parnell' appears through the murk of my mind. I was never very good at History. I took it for A-Level too because it sounded like a nice arty thing to do, sitting well with Art and English. In fact it turned out to be entirely divorced from both. The others offered imaginative scope, the exercise of that part of the brain which is exempt from classification, whereas History might as well have been Physics with all its facts and figures. Richard III did this (or did he?) and Henry IV that, and someone killed himself eating too many apples at a banquet. 'Who cares?' I thought, and drifted back to the intangible regret of Brideshead Revisited. If you explain something you kill it, like a photograph stealing a soul.

Roy Jenkins is good at explaining things, but it's the way he does it rather than the fact itself which makes me like his books. Pithy, amused, at once economical and florid (via the ludicrously wide vocabulary: 'shibboleth', anyone? 'dithyramb'?). It helps that Gladstone with all the contradictions of his personality is manifestly inexplicable. Striding over 20 and 30 mile stretches of countryside as a matter of course, chopping down trees (his own and other people's) and talking to prostitutes by way of recreation, struggling with weighty matters of Church and State in pamphlets with which no-one in the world precisely agrees and which do no good at all to his political career. He cuts a wild flailing dash.

It's in these terms, and not those of political significance, that I've been reading the book. Names of colleagues, movements, factions come at an alarming rate, inviting the regular use of an encyclopaedia in addition to the necessary dictionary. It's also possible just to take these things as read and enjoy the sweep. By now I've worked out that 'Whig' more or less equals 'Liberal', and 'Peelite'... I'm none too sure, except that Peel himself fell off a horse and died aged 50. These things take on meaning by repetition in any case, and if not a literal one, certainly one of the texture of the era. That this is Victorian England is evident at every turn, from the gradual advance of rail travel to the elaborate written language of contemporary sources (not to mention Gladstone's own tortuous prose, quoted sparingly), and unsuspected nuggets such as: the weekend is a 20th Century creation. Legislation on basic things such as primary education for all and giving commoners the vote jars when you realise it wasn't already in place, in this most civilised of societies.

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