Summer reading: From Beverley Baxter to Joseph Kennedy

| July 5, 2013 | 0 Comments

I’m not sure whether this was a joke or an urban legend, but there was supposedly a period in the 1950s when some members of the Canadian reading public were said to confuse Beverley Nichols with Beverley Baxter. Mr. Nichols was a prolific English author best known for his too-numerous books about gardening and cats. Mr. Baxter was the Toronto-born one-time piano salesman who sat in the House of Commons at Westminster for three decades and edited the Daily Express for Lord Beaverbrook, his fellow Canadian expat. For reasons that are no longer easy to understand, Mr. Nichols was hired as a columnist by Saturday Night magazine to explain British politics to the Canadian public. For his part, Mr. Baxter (or Sir Beverley, as he became) wrote a “London Letter” in Maclean’s. This popular feature ran there from 1936, when the British Empire was still a powerful force in the world, to 1960, when the empire was gone, but the Commonwealth still seemed a workable and useful institution. Today, Mr. Baxter, who died in 1964, within months of Beaverbrook and Winston Churchill, is scarcely remembered. But this is all the more reason to take up Canada and the End of the Imperial Dream: Beverley Baxter’s Reports from London through War and Peace (Oxford University Press, $29.95). The author is Neville Thompson, a former professor of history at the University of Western Ontario in London.

The crew of an M-24 tank along the Naktong River front in Korea.

The crew of an M-24 tank along the Naktong River front in Korea.

Mr. Baxter’s so-called letters (600 of them in all) differed from the sort of columns we see today bearing datelines from world capitals. The man who wrote them was a powerful journalist indeed. He pushed the circulation of the Express to a million — and then doubled it. But he didn’t use his Canadian platform to interview leading personalities or ferret out information that needed airing. Prof. Thompson doesn’t quote many long passages from the Maclean’s pieces. The bits he does give us, however, show that his subject considered himself a prose stylist (sometimes arch, at others sentimental). Moreover, Mr. Baxter comes across as someone who, to say the least, was pushing his own agenda: namely that Canada was first and foremost a British nation. Or, as Prof. Thompson puts it, Mr. Baxter’s work, with its “strong Conservative political, social and economic outlook,” was “infused with a passionate belief in the close identity of Canada and Britain, a fervent advocacy of imperial unity…” Such was simply the spirit of the time. But it gradually slipped away, largely as a result of the two world wars in which Canada, paradoxically, grew so much more independent through the sacrifice and loss it suffered in fighting for the Empire.

USS Missouri fires a salvo from its 16-inch guns at targets near Chongjin, North Korea.

USS Missouri fires a salvo from its 16-inch guns at targets near Chongjin, North Korea.

Surely this is what readers take away from this enjoyable book. The London Letters that “delighted some, exasperated others, and entertained many for a quarter of a century” contained much that “seemed wrong or misguided later…” Yet they show how a “well-informed observer saw events at the time” and explain, given enough context, why so many Canadians “on his authority accepted them.”
Prof. Thompson makes this comment: “In an age of steamships Britain seemed closer, at least to well-educated Canadians and immigrants, than it did at a later time of air travel, television and the Internet.” The generality of Canadians at the time were simply more comfortable with British culture, as much from the fact that British culture was what the marketplace kept in stock as a conscious or temperamental effort to keep American culture at a distance. People were familiar with the faraway personalities and issues about which Mr. Baxter wrote. Prof. Thompson postulates that even in the 1950s, in the long shadow of the Second World War, the pieces in question took on an additional value — as nostalgia — among many Canadian military and naval veterans “who had been posted to Britain, in some cases for years or even the whole war.”
Of course the end had to come. The warning signs of change flashed by, one after another. There were all those successive wars of independence in former colonies, of course, but also the war in Korea, which “caused Baxter to revert to his familiar disbelief in the U.S. [instead of the U.K.] as a world leader,” not to mention the Suez crisis of 1956. But the most important change, the one that made Beverley Baxter redundant, was taking place inside Britain itself: the defeat of the Conservatives. The author writes: “To say that Baxter did not share the enthusiasm for Labour’s effort to build a New Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land and accept austerity as the necessary price is an understatement. [He] made it clear that he considered the new government’s program of guaranteeing full employment, providing increased opportunities and a more egalitarian society through high taxes, nationalizing industries, and allocating resources as totally misguided and destructive of the intended result.”

Joseph P. Kennedy, when he was president of the Columbia Trust Company.

Joseph P. Kennedy, when he was president of the Columbia Trust Company.

Scene-shifting changes were taking place in Canada as well, indeed even inside Maclean’s, though Prof. Thompson discusses the latter only in passing. From 1925 to 1950, the magazine was edited, nominally or otherwise, by Arthur Irwin, a Liberal nationalist of strong views (he wouldn’t allow Norman Bethune’s name to appear in his pages). He was succeeded by Ralph Allan, who was famously a writers’ editor, who brought along an entire new generation of staff members such as Pierre Berton, Peter Gzowski, Peter Newman, Christina McCall and Robert Fulford. But Mr. Allan resigned in 1960 in a contretemps with the publisher, Floyd Chalmers (who was as a young editor of the Financial Post in the early 1930s had sent crooked stockbrokers to prison). It was the best of times, it was the worst of times — in any event, different times, newer times. Beverley Baxter seemed an embarrassing hold-over from a simpler era.

Biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin determined that Kennedy had an affair with actress Gloria Swanson when she discovered he was personally filling out her income tax returns for her.

Biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin determined that Kennedy had an affair with actress Gloria Swanson when she discovered he was personally filling out her income tax returns for her.

He wrote one last London Letter. “What he omitted was more significant than what he included. His only reference to the Commonwealth and Empire and the imperial dream was the recollection that during his first association with Beaverbrook, ‘To the embarrassment of many Englishmen, we beat the Empire drum on all possible and even impossible occasions.’ Even the way he expressed this confirmed his recognition that the imperial era was over as well as his acknowledgement that Beaverbrook’s newspapers had not had much effect on an Empire economic union between Britain and Canada.” He could only express the hope that in “the distant future these London Letters will throw some light on the story of Great Britain in those years of war and peace.” Prof. Thompson adds: “Although he still regarded himself as a Canadian, in saying this he was departing as a Briton.”

THE PATRIARCH AS GODFATHER
Canada and the End of the Imperial Dream deals briefly with Beverley Baxter’s fractious relationship with his occasional golfing buddy, Joseph P. Kennedy, the paterfamilias of the American political dynasty. Mr. Kennedy served as United States ambassador to the Court of St. James’s beginning in January 1938. Like Mr. Baxter, and indeed Lord Beaverbrook, he was opposed to America becoming involved in the world war that everyone knew was coming. The others, of course, changed their minds, but Mr. Kennedy remained an isolationist and indeed a “defeatist.” He was replaced in October 1940 after (Prof. Thompson’s words) “fleeing home from the Blitz and declaring that democracy was doomed in Britain and probably in the United States” as well.
There is a great deal more to learn about the incident in The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (Penguin Canada, $42) by David Nasaw, whose previous biographies have been of other titans — Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst. Indeed, about 20 per cent of this 800-page work deals with its subject’s brief, disastrous and altogether improbable diplomatic career, but the book as a whole is seldom less than fascinating, given that Mr. Kennedy was, to choose a phrase with care, such an extraordinary scoundrel.
He was, of course, an Irish Catholic from Boston, which is to say a Democrat as well, who was determined to transcend what he believed was his outsider status. Capitalism was the tool he used to free himself and his ambitions. Early jobs in banking provided knowledge on which to build, but we can only imagine where he got the courage for some of his shenanigans. He was a master of leverage — and also of some activities that became illegal only later.

Sandra Martin

Sandra Martin

He and his cronies would acquire, on credit, big chunks of a nondescript stock and trade it back and forth amongst themselves until the market took notice, driving up the price. Then they would dump the shares at the right moment. In the early days of Hollywood, when there were many studios rather than a few big ones and they weren’t all in Los Angeles, he made one fortune by egging on the process of rationalization, creating RKO. The testimony of Meyer Lanksy and others to the contrary, Mr. Nasaw can find no evidence that Mr. Kennedy made another fortune in bootlegging. Rather, following the end of Prohibition, he became a “liquor wholesaler” with lucrative arrangements to import spirits from Scotland and Canada. He preserved his wealth during the Depression. According to folklore, he got out of equities after overhearing a “shoeshine boy” giving someone a stock tip. In a sweetheart deal shortly after the Second World War, he bought the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, which was then the world’s largest office building (though not for much longer, as the Pentagon would soon take that title).
During the First World War, Mr. Kennedy managed a shipyard and thus got to know the assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. He nourished the connection, giving a great deal of money to Mr. Roosevelt’s presidential campaign in 1932 and raising even more. President Roosevelt appointed him the first chairman of the new Securities and Exchange Commission, remarking privately that it takes a crook to catch crooks. Mr. Kennedy then outdid himself in aiding the president’s 1936 re-election campaign and when it was over, asked to be made secretary of the treasury. When such an appointment proved out of the question, he held out for the London ambassadorship. James Roosevelt, the president’s son, would remember that when his father heard the suggestion, he “laughed so hard he almost toppled from his wheelchair.”
Not only was Mr. Kennedy’s experience in foreign relations mainly in importing whisky, he was also, in Mr. Nasaw’s words, “among the least diplomatic men in Washington” — someone who “spoke his mind, got into fights with cabinet members […], had no patience for ceremonial events or occasions, was possessed of a fierce temper and a foul mouth” and despised the British as only the Irish diaspora could do.
The Patriarch is an authorized biography, sanctioned (but not censored) by the Kennedy family. The author obtained free access to all the Joseph Kennedy papers at the JFK presidential library at Harvard. Many of them still reposed in the attic of the Kennedy family home at Hyannis Port when presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was writing her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, on which Mr. Nasaw draws for interviews with people who have died in the intervening years. It was Ms. Goodwin, by the way, who seemed to settle beyond a reasonable doubt the question of whether Joseph Kennedy had a long affair with actress Gloria Swanson. She did so by discovering that Mr. Kennedy, in his years as head of the SEC, was personally filling out Ms. Swanson’s income tax returns for her.
In brief, the most intriguing part of The Patriarch is the thorny question of Mr. Kennedy’s efforts to keep the United States out of the Second World War. The facts of the case invite comparison with aviator Charles Lindbergh, “the most famous man in America.” Mr. Lindbergh’s father, a member of Congress, had stoutly opposed U.S. participation in the First World War on simple isolationist grounds. The son’s position differed in important ways. In the 1930s, he and his wife sought voluntary exile in Europe, where he became friendly with some Nazi leaders. Returning to the U.S. in 1939, he became the spokesman for the America First movement, which had anti-Semitic leanings. But he ditched those associations after Pearl Harbor. The story is told in Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olson (Random House of Canada, $35). It’s a book that might profitably be read alongside Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot against America (2004), an alternative-history fantasy in which Mr. Lindbergh steals the White House from President Roosevelt in the 1940 election and establishes a philo-Nazi government.

BOOKS IN BRIEF
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Lebanese-American businessman-turned-philosopher, became famous for his 2007 book, The Black Swan, once its predictions of a global economic catastrophe quickly turned out to be accurate. His new work, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Random House of Canada, $33), argues that the rigidity of strong central governments makes them brittle and prone to danger. By contrast, governments, businesses and other institutions built on flexibility not only absorb big unexpected changes, but have the potential to profit by innovating their way through other people’s chaos. This sounds simple enough, even simple-minded, but the author slowly constructs a sophisticated and complex hypothesis, examining abundant examples. For instance, Switzerland works as well as it does largely because of its decentralized cantonal system of government, absorbing the outside world’s blows like a building designed to survive earthquakes. Yet metaphorical earthquakes — periods of disorder — are essential to the author’s concept of anti-fragility. He cites Silicon Valley as a place where disorientating change is the raw material of success. Overall, however, he believes that the United States is heading in the wrong direction in this regard. Not enough confusion and instability in the U.S.? Who would have thought?
A book that bears a strange coincidental kinship to Mr. Taleb’s is The Pirate Organization: Lessons from the Fringes of Capitalism (Harvard Business Review Press, US$25.50) by two professors of strategy, Rodolphe Durand of Paris and Jean-Philippe Vergne of London, Ont. Published originally in French, their book is partly a quick survey of how pirates organized themselves professionally and socially during the so-called golden age of piracy in the 17th and 18th Centuries. On this level, it’s much less useful and interesting than Peter T. Lesson’s work of 2009, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates (still available from Princeton University Press, US$24.95). But Profs. Durand and Vergne then go on to praise the way that the piratical impulse finds expression today — not so much for its own sake as for the example it sets for business and society. They give a great deal of space in their little book to computer hacking and cyber-piracy, not as criminal activities, but as demonstrations of speed, resiliency, ad hoc organization, market creation, free trade, and other components said to comprise a certain kind — the glamorous kind — of entrepreneurship. A clever book, but one I suspect sounds still more so in the original language.

EVEN MORE BRIEFLY
Canadians have been disproportionately represented in the field of obituary-writing. Alden Whitman, the New York Times obituary editor made famous by Gay Talese, was from Nova Scotia; David Twiston Davies, the long-time necrologist of the Daily Telegraph in London, was born in Montreal and began his newspaper career in Winnipeg. Sandra Martin of the Globe and Mail extends this tradition nobly, as evidenced in her collection of greatest hits, Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives That Changed Canada (Anansi, $29.95).
In the 1960s and 1970s, liberal authors published numerous admiring books about guerrilla fighters past and present. The conservative writer Max Boot views the subject from the other end of the political spectrum in Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (Penguin Canada, $37 cloth). He puts one foot after another, walking us chronologically through such careers as those of T.E. Lawrence, Mao Zedong, Orde Wingate, Fidel Castro and a great many others.
A vaguely similar change in direction attaches to The Great Game 1856–1907 by Evgeny Sergeev (Johns Hopkins University Press, US$65). The title phrase, coined by Rudyard Kipling, refers to the military, diplomatic and economic shadow-war between Britain and czarist Russia to colonize, more or less, parts of Central Asia in the late 19th Century. Previous books on the subject in English have been written from the British side, most notably by the prolific Peter Hopkirk. Prof. Sergeev, who heads the Twentieth Century Socio-Political and Economic Problems Centre at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of World History — whew, what a title — sits on the opposite side of the table.
The Silk Road, that ancient commercial trade route that linked Europe to India and what the British still call the Far East, is an even more popular subject for students of Central Asia. Susan Whitfield’s Life on the Silk Road, still in print as a University of California Press paperback, remains perhaps the most engaging short work on the subject because it is a series of narratives about composite Silk Road travellers. By contrast, a new title — The Silk Road by Valerie Hansen (Oxford, US$34.95) — stands out because it draws heavily on recent archeological findings.
In Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence (UBC Press, $32.95 paper), Andrew Burtch of the Canadian War Museum goes into a deep underground policy bunker, so to speak, in researching Ottawa’s efforts in civil defence planning, which began shortly after Hiroshima, but were becoming somewhat risible by the time of the Cuban missile crisis.
Finally, it’s always fun when someone scours the classics, whether by Lao-tzu, Sun-tzu or Machiavelli, for gems of wisdom that can be applied to contemporary politics through repeated blows from a heavy wooden mallet. Doing so with works from Roman times is particularly popular in Britain, but Philip Freeman, an American, is behind How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders
(Princeton University Press, US$12.95). It is a new translation from the Latin of Marcus Tullius Cicero (born BC 106), a statesman of the Roman Republic. It follows on the heels of Prof. Freeman’s previous work, How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politics. MPs take note.

George Fetherling is the author of The Writing Life: Journals 1975-2005 (McGill-Queen’s University Press).

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags:

Category: Delights

About the Author ()

George Fetherling is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *