Terry Eagleton wrote last year : “Christopher Hitchens, who looked set to become the George Orwell de nos jours, is likely to be remembered as our Evelyn Waugh, having thrown in his lot with Washington’s neocons.” Hitchens responded in a ‘Comment is Free’ piece on the Guardian website: “Eagleton also slammed me for disappointing him and not, after all, becoming the George Orwell of my generation. I have instead, he snorts, become the Evelyn Waugh! How is one to come to grips with a man so crude in his sneers that his idea of an insult is to compare me to one of the greatest novelists of the past century?” For a man who has read and admired both Eagleton and Hitchens (Hitchens before Eagleton, and Hitchens no longer, though I respect his rhetorical wit and skill even if overblown and portentous) and has not touched Waugh at all, this comparison mystified me. Then I read Piers Brendon’s lengthy The Dark Valley, and in his chapter on the invasion of Ethiopia and its destruction at Italian hands, we find a choice quote from Evelyn Waugh, referring to the chemical gas attacks against the cities and soldiers of Haile Selassie: “i hope the organmen gas them to buggery” (325) Of course, in Ethiopia, Waugh refused to see “anything more than a travesty of white civilization mummed by outlandish natives, many of whom ‘were still primarily homicidal in their interests.’” (311) This all reminds me of some of the more damning statements that Hitchens has made in the last five years or so: “Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.”
That was probably the most memorable result of reading The Dark Valley, and the Waugh quotes were chosen carefully in a chapter as much about European colonial racism as about the invasion and conquest of Ethiopia. To his credit, Piers Brendon does not hold back his scorn or contempt for colonialism, nor does he hesitate to point out the brutality of the British and French (Black races to an Englishman are always niggers and we don’t see why we should be plunged into a war on their account – General Pownall, War Office) (424) and the “racial arrogance” (639) of their empires that so incensed the Japanese popular imagination; indeed, his book, which is written for and targeted at a popular audience, is refreshing in some ways for its refusal to sugarcoat the past, or fall into the clichés so common of the 1930’s more popular literary and electronic visions of that decade; that is, he can be equally scathing of the democracies as of their contemporaries in communism and fascism. He is not polite to the House of Lords and its membership, nor of the police and their bias towards Mosley in the early 30’s nor to Lord Beaverbrook or the lickspittle press of Great Britain, ready and willing to censor itself without being asked in deference to royal command, or in support of the Conservatives: Baldwin was portrayed as a British bulldog, the epitome of patriotism, appearing in newsreels before Greek columns and leatherbound books, delivering his speech with fluidity, while his Labour opponent, Clement Attlee, was filmed from a high angle to reveal his balding head and left to stumble through his speech perched on a chair. “The film companies pretended to be neutral,” says Brendon, but they inserted cheering audiences and campaign slogans for Baldwin in their reels. Brendon has no trouble pointing out how little many of the elites of democratic countries actually wanted to do about the Depression, and the cowardice ofabout aid to Spain is likewise harshly criticized, and we are left with the impression that if nowhere near as ‘villainous,’ brutal and extremely dangerous like the totalitarian states, Britain and France were corrupt and craven.
There is about the 1930’s and the 20th century in general, a long tradition of moralistic historical writing for Brendon to fit himself within snuggly, and aside from what seems to be a greater degree of emphasis on the failings of the ‘heroes’ there isn’t actually all that much to distinguish The Dark Valley from dozens of other similar histories. It’s certainly long, which in itself is no distinction but the prose is clear and readable without flourishing, workmanlike I suppose being the favoured term in this case (save that the workers never actually appear much in this history as actors in their own right, or even as a subject to be written about); there are, as there tend to be in narrative history like this, plenty of interesting quotes and anecdotes to liven up the proceedings, and I had little trouble working through chapter after chapter, each one covering a region or country for few years and covering all the major events, personages and politics in a thorough enough way. His description of France’s ‘hollow years’ and of the Depression in Japan are particularly good, and treats them with a sympathy and depth that is unusual in so broad a work and impressive given that Brendon doesn’t read or write French or Japanese. Yes, it’s one of those books: the author writes about half a dozen countries without knowing the languages of any of them, and therefore relies almost exclusively on translated documents and other people’s histories, and contemporary coverage by English speakers; it’s enough to give a specialist historian who actually knows the language and the literature to a point of tizzy (France is my specialty, but luckily I could get on easily enough without gritting my teeth too much). To his credit, he is well versed and idscusses historical debates about this and that with knowledge and familiarity; Brendon isn’t a bad historian, and this book, by and far, wasn’t that bad either. There are no enormous revelations but as noted, it is refreshing to find an author, a historian of Churchill even, who refuses to idolize his home country.
As I mentioned, Brendon’s focus is almost exclusively on states and statesmen, wars and militaries and political actors; the masses suffer, starve, strike and occasionally rebel, but they are never the focus, Hobsbawm this is not, and organized labour, international Communism and the working man in general receives scant attention, and there is little feeling save in his sections on the America and Japan that there was any widespread discontent with the status quo. Likewise, India, Gaza, the British Empire as a whole, or the French Empire, Latin America or Africa outside of Ethiopia, in any way, and much of Europe, receive scant or no attention; this is a Eurocentric narrative, by and large. Instead, the Popular Front in Spain and France are disasters that change nothing and do nothing to benefit the working class, the anarchists are bloodthirsty and foolish, the Communists in Germany disorganized and outmaneuvered and lacking support (true in the first two cases, certainly) and the only time that Communists really get sympathy from our historian is when they are tortured by Japanese military officers or sent to concentration camps (though strangely the Mao of the 1930’s, the Communist Party of China and the Long March are treated with a glimmer of respect and heroism). His approach to the Soviet Union is the standard line, and so really should elicit no surprise or shock; he repeats the standard claim that Soviet and German totalitarianism are basically the same, without any sort of measured distinction, indeed going so far as to quote Hitler (!) and his belief that “there is more than binds us to Bolshevism than separates us from it” (286), a bit like relying on a slave owner for an objective analysis of his slave taking; only a few sentences later, Brendon states “fanaticism, so alien to bourgeois liberals, was what the two creeds had in common.” WTF, as they say on the internets.
Thankfully Brendon doesn’t tread in orientalist stereotypes when dealing with Japan (aside from the odd ‘inscrutable’) but he does call Haile Selassie’s support for the League of Nations “something like a fetish” (315) as if he was a tribal witch doctor praying to the god of collective security (even historians trade in afrobollocks, it seems). Likewise, Franco and the republicans are often equated because both told propaganda lies, it seems. The worst is his respect for Churchill (Piers
Brendon is a historian of Churchill so this expected): while admitting that he was a political opportunist, a “pirate” at one point, a man of the wilderness who was odd with modern society, who supported or admired Franco and Mussolini, angered everyone almost all of the time, and was essentially absolved only by World War Two, Brendon nonetheless treats the more problematic of Churchill’s political ideas, his “blimpish reactionary” ideas about India, his adherence to Edward VIII, his attitude towards the working class and his harsh attacks on strikers, simply as “aberrations fed by ambition” (608), as if they were not fundamental to his character. WFT, indeed; imagine, Hitler’s bloodthirty eradication of the SA, for instance, was just ‘an aberration fed by ambition.’ There are plenty of other howlers like this scattered throughout the book, and many more could be mentioned, but then this review would balloon up far too much: by of them, let me just say quite strongly that this book was a bargain bin find and probably will return there now that I have read it. I don’t want to give the final impression this book was bad; far from it, it was competent, entertaining and served to give a detailed overview, with enough moral editorialising and eye for paradox and hypocrisy to be additionally engaging; this is a book one’s mill working dad could read, and indeed mine did. So instead, I’ll end this review with a brief quote from a section that I thought was really quite good: Japan in 1938, a country essentially hostage to the demands of its military. It’s a subject much less known about than Germany at the same time, so it really does represent a nice addition to a Eurocentric narrative:
“The pressure to pinch and scrape left its mark on the entire population. They were pressed to renounce costly
ornaments, seasonal gifts and new clothes. Women wearing bright kimonos, cosmetics and permanent waves were publicly rebuked. Later kimonos were compulsorily abbreviated to save material; and some were died khaki, while others bore patriotic motifs – arrows, fans, bells. Frills and pleats were removed from Western dresses, though women who really wanted to identify with the military adopted mompei, drab peasant pantaloons. Men wore single-breasted jackets, shirts with attached collars and shortened tails, and trousers without turn-ups. Brass buttons and hair-pins were banished. Iron was as scarce as gold and children were no longer given metal toys. To save timber, matches were shaved by 0.029 of an inch. To save leather, handbags were made of bamboo, willow or cellophane. Shoes were fashioned from shark or whale skin, and there was a campaign in favour of cloth slippers (zori) and wooden clogs (geta). Chemists from the ministry of Agriculture experimented with tanning rat skins. Designs were even advance for a national uniform costing 30 yen (less than 2), to be worn by officials, and if times got harder, by everyone.”