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A true cosmopolitan: Maurice Baring, A Citizen of Europe by Emma Letley | Review by Jon Elsby

Criticism Posted on Sun, April 19, 2020 11:42:13
Jon Elsby

Maurice Baring (1874–1945) – poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, critic, and all-round man of letters – rather reminds one of what E. M. Forster wrote about the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy – namely, that he stood “at a slight angle to the universe”. Baring seems to have had a similar oblique quality.

A member of the Baring banking family, he was born into the aristocracy (his father was the first Lord Revelstoke and his mother the grand-daughter of the second Earl Grey) and also into immense wealth and privilege – so much so that Emma Letley’s account of his early years (“The Enchanted Land (1874-1898)”) has an atmosphere of almost magical fantasy about it, like Alain-Fournier’s novel, Le Grand Meaulnes. It conjures up a world that has vanished so completely that it might never have existed: a slightly unreal, paradisal world of great country houses, exquisitely tasteful surroundings, extravagant parties, aristocratic families, beautiful women, elegant gentlemen, and, by today’s more egalitarian standards, a somewhat sybaritic opulence. As was customary in his family, Baring was schooled at Eton, and then proceeded to Cambridge and Oxford successively, despite his inability to grasp even the rudiments of Mathematics. The best private tutors that money could buy were unable to remedy this defect. How he managed to get accepted at Cambridge, and then at Oxford, is not satisfactorily explained, but the fact that he was so well connected cannot have hurt his chances.

Baring’s innumeracy meant that he was unsuited to enter the family business. After university, he led for several years a checkered existence, first as a diplomatic attaché, and later as a journalist. He was generously supported financially by his elder brother and other family members, which meant that he was able to live lavishly and indulge his penchant for irresponsible (and sometimes very expensive) schoolboy pranks, in spite of his own modest (or non-existent) earnings. On formal occasions, he wore clothes of the best quality, he smoked a special brand of cigarettes which could be procured only from a particular tobacconist in London, he dined at the finest restaurants, and his habits in general were far from frugal. Letley records that

Though unpaid [as a diplomatic attaché], Maurice was […] habitually extravagant. […] He became addicted to “the expensive craze of constructing anthologies for himself by the simple process of cutting favourite poems out of hundreds of books and periodicals and pasting them in admirably bound manuscript books.” The books so compiled he called “gepack” (luggage) and there were two types – Heavy Luggage and Light Luggage; as soon as one volume was complete, it would be given to a (generally) delighted recipient and another one started. Best known of the gepack is the published anthology, Have You Anything to Declare? (1936).

It is difficult to speak of such things without seeming envious or censorious, but one cannot, in good conscience, approve of the sort of insouciance that leads to the vandalizing of books or the breaking of all the plates and glasses after a riotous party. It recalls Evelyn Waugh’s caustic gibe about “English county families baying for broken glass”. Only people born into the wealthiest stratum of society are, or can afford to be, so thoughtlessly wasteful and destructive.

In 1909, Baring converted to Roman Catholicism from his previous agnosticism. He never discussed his conversion either before or afterwards, saying only that it was “the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted.” The most personal literary account he has left us of this critically important decision, is in the beautiful sonnet sequence “Vita nuova”.

As a poet, Baring was certainly not a modernist, but neither was he prone to the artificial archaisms of the Georgian poets. The best of his poems (and there are not a few of them) combine directness and simplicity of diction with delicacy of feeling and subtlety of expression. They have a classical restraint, owing partly to the poet’s technical mastery of verse forms, and partly to their understated quality, which is rare in the poetry of any language. Here, for example, are some lines he called “Stop-Shorts”, explaining that “Stop-Shorts are Chinese poems in four lines. They are called Stop-Shorts because the sense goes on when the sound stops”:

STOP-SHORTS

The lake is growing grey: the lotus flower

Remains yet roseate with the sunset hour.

The moon has climbed above the mountain’s rim:

The water shines: the lotus flower is dim.

*

The mist is on the sky and sea, a veil:

And in the silver stuff a russet sail.

*

I waited for you all the dark night long,

And listen lonely to the sky-lark’s song.

*

The twilight is not darker than the day,

And pipes are playing somewhere far away.

*

Here once a thousand men in battle died,

Where the red clover grows by the wayside.

This elegiac note is something we encounter often in Baring’s poetry; in fact, it occurs in nearly all his work, in prose as well as in verse.

Baring travelled widely and possessed a remarkable facility for languages, speaking French, Italian, German, Russian and Danish, fluently, and being able to read in several other languages. He became an authority on Russia and Russian literature, and wrote extensively on both subjects. An insightful, discriminating critic, he was probably the first Western writer to recognize the genius of Dostoevsky. [1] But, unlikely as it seems, it was in the Great War of 1914–18 that Baring really came into his own. Though apparently utterly unsuited to the discipline of military life, he served with the Royal Flying Corps with such distinction that his commanding officer, Colonel Hugh Trenchard,[2] who had initially doubted Baring’s suitability for service in the RFC, wrote after Baring’s death, “He was the most unselfish man I have ever met or am likely to meet. The Flying Corps owed to this man much more than they know or think.” Letley records that

General Foch summed up the extraordinary career of this unlikely soldier: “there never was a staff officer in any country, in any nation, or in any century, like Major Maurice Baring.”

During the war, Baring lost many close friends. Afterwards, he realized that the war had taken its toll of him. His health was poor and he felt exhausted. Although he was only 44 years old, he described himself as “a bald-headed half-blind crock with half his inside cut out and an inflamed bladder and an inflated prostate gland and in perpetual danger of colitis.” After the war, like many who survived, he seems to have been haunted by a sense of loss and a pervasive melancholy which he hid under a mask composed, in equal parts, of upper-class English reserve and good manners, and the propensity for light-hearted jokes and witty banter that had always been one of his chief characteristics. But the sadness found an outlet in what now became his main occupation – the writing of fiction.

Baring’s novels have never been popular either with the general reading public or with academics and intellectuals, but he has always found a few discerning admirers. It is not hard to account for this. The novels evoke and recapture the mood and manners of a bygone age: the age when he was young and still inhabiting “the enchanted land”. To the Bloomsbury intellectuals, they seemed old fashioned. To academics, they seemed out of tune with the Modern Movement and therefore uninteresting. But for writers and readers who were indifferent to changing fashions and the moods of the moment, their perfect taste, psychological subtlety, and deceptive simplicity of manner, exerted a peculiar charm. Letley quotes André Maurois as saying of C. (one of Baring’s best-known novels) that “he had found comparable pleasure only in the work of Proust and Tolstoy”. Baring’s novels were translated into several European languages, and were more admired and widely read on the Continent, especially in France, than they were in England. François Mauriac thought that the English underestimated Baring, commenting astutely: “What I most admire about [Baring’s novels] is the sense he gives you of the penetration of grace – without making you aware of it”: a verdict which, when the actor and writer Robert Speaight communicated it to Baring, left him too moved to speak. Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, dismissed C. as “second rate art”, professed herself “quite unable” to read Baring’s novels, and called them “pallid and meretricious” – although if, as she claimed, she was unable to read them, one wonders on what she based her criticism.

Baring was a typical product of his cultural and familial background, which is to say that he was highly civilized, a thorough gentleman (he was incapable of being ill-mannered, whatever the provocation), and possessed a cultivated taste in all the arts. He was conversant with Latin and Greek, as well as the modern European languages already mentioned, and he was widely read in the literatures of all those languages. He was acquainted with the history of civilizations. However, he wore his learning lightly and was avowedly anti-intellectual. This cannot have commended him to the members of the liberal Bloomsbury Group, who were self-consciously intellectual and wore their learning on their sleeves: it seems there was no point in being clever and well-educated unless you let everyone else know just how clever and well-educated you were.[3]

The Baring who emerges from Letley’s biography is a man of surprising contradictions: a scion of the upper classes and a lover of luxury who preferred to travel third class because it allowed him to meet and talk to ordinary people; someone born into the aristocracy whose salient characteristics included modesty and humility; a man of extravagant habits who was described by his commanding officer as “the most unselfish man I have ever met”; a man who unaffectedly enjoyed the company of beautiful, intelligent, and sophisticated women, but who wrote only of disappointment in love, and of whom his friend, Lady Diana Cooper, said that she doubted whether any woman had ever been in love with him; an intellectual who was anti-intellectual; an inveterate joker who concealed beneath his japery a profound sadness; a gregarious man who was self-effacing and lived a solitary life; a lover of children (by whom he was adored) who had none of his own; a subtle, allusive writer who never outgrew his schoolboy love of slapstick; and a devout Catholic who never discussed religion with anyone outside the Church.[4] If, per impossibile, one could conceive an amalgam of P. G. Wodehouse, Monsignor Ronald Knox, and Henry James, one would come close to capturing the essence of Maurice Baring.

In the last ten years of Baring’s life, he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease: a cross he bore with a quiet, uncomplaining fortitude at which all who witnessed it marvelled. From August 1940 until his death on 14 December 1945, Baring lived as a “loved and honoured guest” at the Highland home, on the island of Eilean Aigas, of Laura Lady Lovat, the last of his “Beauties”. She later wrote of Baring’s last year that

With the end of the summer he seemed to grow more remote from the events of this world, except those which affected his immediate surroundings; for these his sympathy and care never varied, and if possible increased. But the problems of the world’s agony he felt could now be left only to its Creator.

Baring’s old commanding officer, Hugh Trenchard, wrote his obituary in The Times. A man not given to exaggeration, he wrote of Baring that he was “truly the best character I ever knew” and that his spirit would live on “especially in the Air Force – I feel that there will be thousands waiting to welcome him on the other side.” Conrad Russell,[5] another close friend, observed to Lady Diana Cooper that “no man ever got such praise as Maurice got from Trenchard. I was very glad. It’s strange to think that Maurice’s real claim to greatness may be as a staff officer – not as a man of letters.”

From time to time, admirers of Baring’s work have prophesied that, one day, there will be a revival of interest in him, and he will at last be given his due as one of the finest writers of his age. Perhaps they are right. But their hopes may be disappointed, and Baring might remain one of those unlucky writers who are destined to be admired by a few and ignored by the many. In Emma Letley, his great-niece, he has at least found a worthy biographer and an eloquent apologist. The last word should be left to her. She concludes her biography thus:

It was not surprising that at Farm Street [6] there was “little sorrow” now that “the martyrdom of Maurice Baring was over and those who mourned were mourning their own last hope of seeing once again, in this life, their incomparable friend”.

Notes

[1] The brilliant Constance Garnett translations had not then appeared: Baring read Dostoevsky in the original Russian.

[2] Hugh Trenchard was a colonel when Baring first knew him. He later became Marshal of the Royal Air Force, 1st Viscount Trenchard GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO. He has been described as “the Father of the Royal Air Force”.

[3] I suspect that Baring would have regarded the Bloomsburys’ intellectual ostentation and addiction to one-upmanship as “not quite the thing” – but would have been too well-bred to say so.

[4] Baring adjured Belloc to “never, never, never talk theology or discuss the Church with those outside it. People simply do not understand what you are talking about and they merely (a) get angry and (b) come to the conclusion that one doesn’t believe in the thing oneself and that one is simply doing it to annoy.”

[5] Conrad Russell (1878–1947) was an English farmer and letter writer. He is remembered today chiefly for his humorous correspondence with some of the most celebrated society beauties of his time. He was a cousin of the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, and is not be confused with the latter’s sons, John Conrad Russell (1921–1987) and Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell (1937–2004). Evelyn Waugh called him “one of the most exquisitely entertaining men I have known”.

[6] The site of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which is run by the Society of Jesus in Mayfair, central London. References to “Farm Street” are generally understood to mean the headquarters of the Jesuits in England.



Trump and the Coronavirus, by Jon Elsby

Criticism Posted on Sun, April 12, 2020 12:12:05

In spite of the upward trajectory of coronavirus cases and deaths in the West, Donald Trump is talking about lifting the restrictions introduced barely two weeks ago and re-opening America for business. This amounts to having made a calculation that a certain heavy loss of human life is preferable to damage to the US economy.

Trump’s political opponents have said that it is unacceptable to put a dollar value on human life, but that is precisely what the president seems about to do. Social Darwinists will say – in private at least – that a cull of ‘useless eaters’ (i.e. the aged, the chronically sick, the severely disabled, and the infirm) is unavoidable, and that it will relieve the economy of a huge burden (i.e. the costs of their pensions and health care), thus facilitating economic recovery from the ravages of coronavirus. Few among the general public, for whom the above are not abstract socio-economic categories but include well-loved family members (siblings, parents, and grandparents) and close friends, will agree.[1] Which is probably why even the most dedicated social Darwinists do not care to make the argument publicly. But it will certainly be made behind closed doors in the corridors of power. And not a few governments, if only they can think of a plausible way of presenting the policy as something other than what it is, will be tempted to adopt it and thus to limit the economic cost by driving up the number of deaths.

From the first, Trump’s public statements on the coronavirus pandemic have comprised his customary mixture of outright falsehoods, wild exaggerations, misleading statements, self-aggrandizing boasts, and utter imbecilities. Ordinarily, this makes little difference: the USA in general, and Washington in particular, have adjusted their expectations to the abysmal realities of Trump’s presidency. But these are not ordinary times. They are times when clear, decisive leadership is called for, and when qualities like integrity, rationality, judgment, compassion, empathy, and reliability are needed. Trump has none of them. The people who voted for him are about to be brought face-to-face with the consequences of their irresponsibility. They cannot run or hide from a global pandemic. And viruses notoriously do not respond to threats, lies, bullying, or distortions. Trump can say and do whatever he likes. But he cannot change the facts. And the central fact about coronavirus is that the US is now the epicentre of this pandemic, and it isn’t going away any time soon – not even with a $2 trillion dollar boost to the economy.

The implications of this are frightening. We are in the grip of a pandemic which we are very far from understanding. We do not know how infectious the coronavirus is, or what the mortality rate is. We know that it is much more readily transmissible than influenza, and that its mortality rate is higher. But beyond that, there are very few facts of which we can be certain. It seems, on the face of it, that flu has a mortality rate of 0.1% and coronavirus of approximately 1%, but even this may be a distortion: there may be many unreported cases of coronavirus where the symptoms were mild, so the mortality rate may be significantly lower than the official figures indicate. No-one knows for sure. And there are many more unknowns: for example, why some people are severely affected while others suffer only mild symptoms (and some are asymptomatic); whether it can be caught more than once; why some people relapse, and even die, after having appeared to make a partial recovery; why the effects of the virus are worse at night than during the day; why men are more susceptible to the virus than women, and why men over 50 seem the most susceptible of all; whether the coronavirus will abate when the weather turns warmer; how long it will take to acquire a herd immunity…all these and many other questions remain to be answered. As I write, teams of doctors, specialists, and scientists all over the world are searching desperately for the answers. Meanwhile, Donald Trump indulges in happy talk and groundless assertions that a miracle cure is practically at hand, or that the coronavirus will soon be brought under control so that America can re-open for business.

A television documentary, Trump and the Virus, has contrasted Donald Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus with (1) previous presidents’ responses to emergencies which occurred on their watch – e.g. Roosevelt’s to the great depression and George W. Bush’s to 9/11, and (2) other world leaders’ responses to the present pandemic, highlighting Trump’s inconsistency, his incessant lying, his lack of basic understanding, his ignorance of the facts, his evidently moronic intellectual level,[2] his peddling of misinformation, his penchant for self-congratulation, his claim that the crisis was unforeseeable (on the contrary, it was both foreseeable and foreseen), his refusal to accept responsibility for anything that has gone badly on his watch, and his insistence on claiming all the credit for anything that has gone well.

The programme also highlighted some of the USA’s endemic problems: e.g. weak federal government, a culture of excessive individualism and extensive gun ownership (significantly, the purchase of guns has increased enormously since the pandemic began – as if a virus could be stopped at the point of a gun),[3] inadequate healthcare (there is very little public healthcare provision, and an astonishing 80 million Americans, out of a total population of 327.2 million, have either no health insurance at all or manifestly inadequate health insurance), widespread poverty and homelessness, and huge economic inequalities.

These problems are plain for anyone to see. Anyone, that is, except Americans themselves, too many of whom are in denial. Some believe the coronavirus is a hoax. Others believe it is real, but that they will be somehow immune. Yet others have joined private militias in the belief that the virus will lead to a general breakdown of law and order, which they will have to restore by force of arms (although it is not clear under whose authority they will be acting). None of these beliefs is even remotely rational. It all adds up to a picture of a society in meltdown. Contrast that with the responses of China, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, where governments quickly ascertained the facts, got on top of the situation, took the necessary stringent measures, and rigorously enforced them. In all those states, the pandemic was successfully contained and fatalities were kept to the unavoidable minimum. In the USA, health experts have soberly predicted that casualties might be well in excess of 100,000.

Trump and the Virus posed the question whether this will be seen in retrospect as the moment when the USA surrendered its global leadership. But that ship has sailed. The USA surrendered its claim to global leadership (insofar as it ever had one) on the very day it elected Donald Trump as its president. China now has a stronger claim to moral leadership than the USA. But what this really underscores is the folly of looking to any state or national leader for moral leadership. To provide such leadership is a function of religions, not of politics. And those who reject religions are thrown back upon their own philosophical resources.

Notes
[1] It is notable that many of the older generation themselves chafe against the restrictions imposed by government and aver that they would rather take their chances by living as normally as possible. They believe that they have lived full lives and would rather die bravely than cower in their houses before the coronavirus. However, they are overlooking the fact that, by living ‘normally’ and ignoring restrictions, they are placing others at risk of contracting Covid-19 from them. Their invocation of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ is based on an inappropriate analogy and therefore misplaced.
[2] For probative evidence of this, see the transcripts of virtually every Trump rally held, every press briefing given, or extempore speech delivered since he was elected president.
[3] Many Americans apparently see their chief priority as defending their rights against other citizens, or even against the federal authorities, rather than protecting themselves and their families against the virus.

Jon Elsby is a writer and critic, and is published by CentreHouse Press [jonelsby at centrehousepress dot com]