A fresh look at personalities and the past

Back in the 20th Century (the blog has been looking for an excuse to write that for a while) the former Victorian Liberal Premier, Dick Hamer, was opening an exhibition at Melbourne’s Chinese Museum.

Towards the end of a typically graceful and erudite speech about history, the Victorian Chinese community and the exhibition he was opening Dick spoke a bit about the similarities between the Chinese and the Scots (he was of very Scottish heritage) and talked about the commonalities such as a widespread diaspora, mutual support, emphasis on extended family ties, links to the homeland and commercial success. He then paused for a few moments, looked down, and then said with all seriousness: “of course there are some differences in cuisine.”

The speech came to mind when reading Margaret MacMillan’s History’s People, a record of her 2015 Massey Lectures (the equivalent of our Boyer lectures). The blog always thinks much on the similarities between Canada and Australia when he visits or reads about the place. The first visit, many years ago, was for work and it necessitated several trips backwards and forwards across the US-Canadian border and the similarities become remarkable when you see monuments to the 1914-18 and 1939-1945 Wars (as opposed to the shorter version on the other side of the border) and statues of Queen Victoria. It was in December and – as with Dick Hamer and cuisine – the Canadian weather was “a source of some differences” between our two countries in the blog’s mind.

Professor MacMillan is Canadian, although she is a great granddaughter of Lloyd George, and has a chair at the University of Toronto and is the warden of St Antony’s College in Oxford as well as an Oxford professor of international history. She has written some wonderful books on subjects as diverse as women in the Raj, the 1919 Peace Conference, the outbreak of WW1 and one – The Uses and Abuses of History – which all politicians should read.

The five Massey lectures covered Persuasion and the Art of Leadership, Hubris, Daring, Curiosity and Observers. Confessing that she “like(s) to think of history as an untidy sprawling house” she also believes it is important to pay attention to individuals despite it being regarded with suspicion by some historians. “If the troubled and erratic man who was Kaiser of Germany in 1914 had been the King of Albania – as a distant relative was – he could not have caused much trouble for Europe,” is an illustration of her point. But in thinking of individuals, as a Canadian and obviously to a certain extent needing to talk to a Canadian audience, she intersperses stories about global figures with distinctively Canadian figures.

So in discussing persuasion and leadership she singles out Bismarck, FDR and William Lyon MacKenzie King – the former Canadian PM – who was for Canadian history a combination of Curtin and Menzies. “In Canadian history ….King is as important as Bismarck is for Germany”, she says. The point that MacMillan brings out is the ambivalence Canadians feel about King and his curious mixture of talent, caution, spiritualism, bad breath, celibacy and the lessons he picked up from studying under Veblen and working in Chicago at the pioneering Settlement House movement. King also provides a pertinent message for US and Canadian politics under Harper and Abbott: “In a country like ours it is particularly true that the art of government is largely one of seeking to reconcile rather than exaggerate differences – to come as near as possible to the happy mean.” The difficulty of doing that is shown by FDR and it is easy to forget that FDR was subjected to as much abuse and denigration (the capitalist classes never forgave him for saving them from their own excesses) during his period as Obama has been – despite the fact that the people kept electing him and most saw him as inspiring hope and keeping society together.

Under Hubris she groups two democratic politicians – Thatcher and Woodrow Wilson; and, two dictators – Hitler and Stalin. Although MacMillan does recount the 1912 view of the French Ambassador that Wilson was “a man who, had he lived a couple of centuries ago, would have been the greatest tyrant in the world, because he does not seem to have the slightest conception that he can ever be wrong.” Essentially MacMillan looks at how individuals, imbued with massive self-belief can exploit “times when changes were taking place that gave them opportunities which they seized” but pay the price of hubris (in the case of Stalin not in his lifetime).

In Daring she looks at risk-takers ranging from Australia’s own Nobel Laureate, Dr Barry Marshall; the little known Libussa Fritz-Krockow (read her memoir Hour of the Women); and of course that great Canadian risk taker, Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook). Max was ruthless, sailed very close to the wind, probably inspired Baldwin’s comment about power without responsibility and was regarded by General Alan Brooke as “an evil genius who exercised the very worst of influence on Winston.” But as A.J.P. Taylor makes clear in his biography of Beaverbrook, his re-organisation of aircraft manufacturing was probably extremely important to Britain’s success in the Battle of Britain. Beaverbook’s Men in Power and his biography of Bonar Law (a Thatcher pre-cursor?) are amongst the best guides to British politics in the period 1917 to the early 20’s. Incidentally, Breakfast with Beaverbrook, the memoir by Australian historian, Ann Moyal, is also worth a read including her decorous description of Max trying to put the hard word on her. For non-Canadians MacMillan’s discussion of Champlain and Quebec is a fascinating part of the Daring lecture.

In Curiosity MacMillan discusses Ada Lovelace the mathematician daughter of Byron and a series of other remarkable women including Hildgarde of Bingen, Heloise and Margery Kempe. She also presents mini-biographies of Fanny Parkes and other English women in India as well as Elizabeth Simcoe in Canada and Edith Durham in the Balkans – all of whom led remarkable lives but were then largely ignored until feminist historians began reclaiming their histories in the 1970s. This lecture and its associated bibliography are absolutely terrific and worth the price of the book alone.

The Observers lecture starts with descriptions of the destruction of observations – Byron’s memoirs, Jane Austen’s letters, Sir Richard Burton’s writings, Sylvia Plath’s journal, the diaries of Hardy’s first wife – and some close run things such as the saving of MacKenzie King’s 60 years of diaries; and, the Sidney Sonnino records of the 1919 Paris Peace talks. She rounds up a few usual suspects – Pepys, Babur and Saint-Simon, but also highlights lesser known figures such as Anna Comnenas. Canadians who many Australians would never had heard of (well at least the blog hadn’t) such as the feminist Nellie McClung, Marcel Trudel and Charles Ritchie (Elizabeth Bowen’s lover for almost 30 years) are also featured.

She also talks about  two great German diarists – Klemperer and Count Harry Kessler. Kessler, in particular, was in danger of disappearing from sight until the publication of his diaries and a biography, by Laird Easton,  brought back to life this critically important figure in early 20th century art and culture.

Lectures often don’t translate well to the page. History’s People, like David Cannadine’s Making History Then and Now, is an outstanding exceptions.