Saturday, 13 April 2013

a good read

Today I have drunk coffee with my parents, bought two bales of compost and a piece of aluminium section in B&Q, and done some weeding.  That's not much on which to hang a blog entry.  Instead, I will have to turn to what I have been reading.

I have got two books on the go.  The first is Queen Anne: The politics of Passion (as I told you, it is a misleading title).  Having leapt ahead to 1708 and the death of Prince George, it has backtracked to 1702 and the early days of Anne's reign.  We are now just about solidly up to Marlborough's victory over the French and the Bavarians near Blenheim in 1704, though popular history books nowadays seem to take a non-linear approach to the passage of time, so we may yet regress, or jump forwards again.

Anne sounds a thoroughly decent, dull, and obstinate person.  She had almost no small talk, preferred to live quietly, which is fair enough since she was generally ill, pregnant or both, enjoyed playing cards and lost some money at it, though by the later standards of the Georgians she was incredibly frugal.  She used to like dancing until ill-health and obesity overcame her, enjoyed driving her two wheeled carriage in the hunt at Windsor, cared somewhat about her clothes, adored her husband and the Church of England, and spoke French.  She was kind to her staff, and desperate to be liked by her friend, Sarah Churchill, eventually Duchess of Marlborough, who was generally fairly horrid to her.  She took a conscientious interest in affairs of state, and was either lucky or shrewd in placing the confidence she did in the military abilities of the future Duke of Marlborough.

The Whigs and Tories in Parliament were still loose groupings rather than formal political parties. Anne's sympathies lay more naturally with the Tories, partly because they had a more deferential attitude to the established Church.  The Tories were hostile to non-conformists, the Whigs more tolerant, and there were periodic spats over Tory attempts to legislate against Occasional Conformity, the practice whereby non-conformists took sacrament once a year to appear nominally practising members of the Church of England and so eligible for positions which needed one to be so.  Poor old Prince George, a Danish Lutheran, was an Occasional Conformist but found himself bullied into voting against it in the House of Lords.

Once, the supporters of the move against Occasional Conformity tacked the legislation against it on to a vital finance bill, in the hope that the Lords would not risk rejecting the bill and so casting the country's finances into chaos.  There are few new tricks in politics, hence just weeks ago we saw libel reform legislation, for which there was cross-party consensus and whose supporters had been working towards it for years, imperilled by the decision to tack legislation relating to the Leveson enquiry on to the libel bill, in the hope that supporters of libel reform would not risk losing their bill at such a late stage.

Even once the English parliament had voted that Anne's successor should be Sophia of Hanover or her heirs, as being the next in line who were not Catholic, it did not automatically follow that the Hanoverians would succeed to the Scottish throne.  An awful lot of people had a better claim than Sophia, apart from the fact that they were all Catholic, and the spectre of Jacobinism stalked England.  Charges of Jacobinism were lobbed at the Tories by their more rabid opponents, including the dreadful Sarah, which seems odd, given that the Tories were for the Church of England and not particularly pro-Catholic.

It is all great fun, and while the past is a foreign country where they do things differently, the modern age has recognisably begun.  In many ways it was still very archaic.  Queen Anne was the last English monarch to practice the laying-on of hands for the King's Evil, and two of her children died of smallpox, as did the Marlborough's heir.  She sat in cabinet, as was her right.  But compared to what I've read of the intrigues of the Tudor court, it suddenly feels a great deal closer to the politics of 2013.

The other book on the go is Adventures of a Gardener by Sir Peter Smithers.  He was born in 1918, and after public school, war service with Ian Fleming in the branch of the navy that would evolve into MI6, and a career as a politician and diplomat, he managed to retire to Switzerland in his fifties, where he devoted himself to making a fabulous woodland garden on an old vinyard above a lake.  Oh, and he married an American heiress, which helped.  One of his friends told him to his face that with his upbringing it was amazing he was not more spoilt, and he comes across as a delightful man.  Passionate about plants since childhood, he was a distinguished plant hybridist as well as a gardener.

His book, written when he was eighty, is an account of his gardening life, with odd anecdotes about his war and diplomatic life thrown in, and I had it on my Amazon wishlist for years, and was starting to think I'd missed the boat, as it's out of print, and prices were climbing into the tens of pounds region, which is a lot for a set of second hand gardening memoirs.  When I saw that a clean copy was on offer at £2.88 (plus postage) rather than £30 or £50 I jumped at it.  It turned out to have an inscription on the title page, which I don't think the vendor's description mentioned, but at £5.68 including delivery for an otherwise unmarked copy I'm not grumbling.  There is also an Italian edition, still in print, but of no use unless you read Italian.  I don't.

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