“Most Englishmen can never get over the embarrassing fact that they were born in bed with a woman.” Whilst this aphorism is said to be Irish, its precise originator, alas, eludes us. Yet a mere Common Reader will find it hard to avoid recollecting the aphorism when he finds himself bespattered with the latest emanation of projectile vomit from the woke crèche: Historic Affairs: The Muses of Sir Arthur Bryant (London: Zuleika Books, 2021), by which one W. Sydney Robinson—a Manchester University graduate manifesting all the accumulated gravitas and humility to be expected from a birthdate of 1986—seeks to besmirch the eminent British historian Sir Arthur Bryant.
Too frequently we non-Americans, our nightmares haunted by the newest Stateside exercises in woke dementia, congratulate ourselves on our own comparative freedom from Ta-Nehisi-Coates-type rants. We should forever abandon this complacency in the face of Robinson’s harangue. Its exhibitions of sheer cluelessness about the life of the mind, and the keenness of its eye to the insatiable market for anti-heterosexual fanaticism, deserve the most terrifying possible indictment: except for the British spelling and the occasional elegant sentence, it could have come straight from today’s Ivy League. As Orwell said of Salvador Dali’s notorious memoir:
I do not think that I have given an unfair account of its moral atmosphere and mental scenery. It is a book that stinks. If it were possible for a book to give a physical stink off its pages, this one would.
Through scarcely credible naïveté, Robinson seems in all candour to believe that he has disposed of Bryant’s ethical pretensions. His hubris calls to remembrance those self-destructive British Labour parliamentarians who elicited from Iain Macleod (former Chancellor of the Exchequer) the jibe that, when granted a choice of weapons, they always selected boomerangs. Robinson has damaged his own credibility far more than Bryant’s. Why Robinson’s book-length censure?
Well, first, Bryant liked women. A lot. We must concede that this seems scandalous in an England which for centuries has demonstrated almost invariable indulgence to aristocratic boarding-schools’ paedophiles. But considering that Bryant perished in 1985, is it not a little late in the day to revile him for unsatisfactory allegiance to marital vows? Especially when the simulated outrage comes from an official Oxbridge-BBC media culture which for decades saw nothing objectionable in the Cambridge Apostles’ bed-hopping and in the Bloomsbury Group’s systematic child abuse? Which at no point has comprehensively reprehended Keynes’s, Churchill’s, and H.G. Wells’s frenzied advocacy of eugenics?
Surely some copyeditor could have prevailed on Robinson, approximately 3% of the way through his first draft, to read some basic modern cultural history and take the nearest chill-pill before he embarrassed himself and any sympathisers by his virtue-signalling. Editorial exhortation need not have been prolonged or abstruse. A simple one-sentence email to Robinson from his publisher would have served, had it been phrased in the language of poker, along the lines of ‘I see you Arthur Bryant and raise you Jimmy Savile.’
Bryant’s second, and still more heinous, shortcoming was his articulation of an old-fashioned, moderate, dignified love for his native soil. This love had no similitude to soccer-hooligan yobbery with violence, nor to the stand-up comedy acts familiar from our own era’s Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg. In present-day Budapest, Vilnius, Warsaw, and Bratislava, even parts of present-day Paris—to say nothing of present-day Kyiv—such orderly, instinctual, non-chauvinist patriotism as Bryant’s is so common that nobody more right-wing than George Soros thinks it objectionable. Only in the Anglosphere, among the Rosenbergs’, Alger Hiss’s, and Kim Philby’s spiritual descendants, is such an outlook considered shocking.
To patriotism Bryant added remarkable business acumen. Rare though this combination is in itself, Bryant blended it with a still rarer standard of prose excellence, so distinctive that even establishment professors like J.H. Plumb grudgingly conceded it. (Plumb’s default level of ideological hygiene can be discerned from his dismissal of Edmund Burke as ‘utter rubbish’). This amalgam on Bryant’s part represents, in proletkultists’ eyes, what would be the sin against the Holy Ghost if the proletkultists believed anything—apart from themselves—to be holy in the first place.
Bryant’s background and agrarian, High Tory worldview have been so thoroughly discussed by his 2005 biographer Julia Stapleton (as well as, much more briefly, by the present writer in Modern Age’s Spring 2016 edition) that recounting them afresh here would be superfluous. Those conversant with Bryant’s oeuvre already know what motivated him, and neophytes are much better advised to encounter Bryant through his own immense output than through the words of any intermediary, however insightful.
Nor should the problems with Bryant’s creed be overly dwelt on here. The problems do exist. He so resented a federal western Europe that he made common cause with irresponsible, pro-Soviet hard-leftists like Tony Benn. Besides, Bryant—whose specialism was the 17th century, not the 16th—tended to play down the totalitarian social revolution which Henry VIII’s schism inaugurated. The paradox whereby Bryant’s elements of undue gullibility cohabited with his basic political decency is best explained in a passage from his hero G.K. Chesterton:
I know that my Victorian uncles did not know how England is really governed. But I have a strong suspicion that if my Victorian uncles had known, they would have been horrified and not amused; and they would have put a stop to it somehow. Nobody is trying to put a stop to it now.
Between the early 1930s and the early 1960s, no British historian surpassed Bryant in fame, loyalty of readership (he inspired keen admiration in not one but three Labour leaders: Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and Michael Foot), or commercial success. These benefits Bryant attained by honest work and, above all before World War II, by solid archival diligence. He could trace connections among the most desiccate, least consciously artistic, most heterogenous primary sources in such a style as to make normally jaded readers wish to turn the page. One of Bryant’s longest, most charming, and most vivid Illustrated London News essays bears the apt headline: “On Discovering The Past Was Real.” Bryant subscribed all his life to William Faulkner’s credo “The past isn’t dead: it’s not even past.”
Among today’s fashionistas, of course, nothing could be more hateful than studying the past for its own sake. In Antifa rent-a-mobs’ Manichean ‘thinking,’ the past is one gigantic millennia-old charnel-house of oppression, ‘homophobia,’ ‘transphobia,’ ‘bigotry,’ ‘patriarchy,’ ‘toxic masculinity,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘imperialism,’ ‘Eurocentrism,’ and insufficient condoms. Bryant operated from a rather different premise. His oeuvre reflected his fundamental Anglican decorum, encapsulated in a quatrain (which he loved) by his co-religionist, the Elizabethan versifier Sir John Davies:
I know my life’s a pain and but a span,
I know my sense is mocked with everything;
And to conclude, I know myself a man,
Which is a proud, and yet a wretched thing.
Likewise, Bryant’s oeuvre reflected an equally fundamental belief that communist empires were not simply misguided but, in the most literal sense, diabolical. Anybody who has survived the experience of reading Tortured for Christ, the blood-curdling autobiography of Lutheran pastor Richard Wurmbrand, will recall the eagerness with which Wurmbrand’s Romanian communist jailers soiled with their own faeces the clergy’s communion vessels. By such purposeless excremental defilement, Bryant would have been grieved but unsurprised.
At a period when even Orwell still minimised every display of mass-murdering sacrilege by the 1930s’ Spanish Reds, Bryant condemned such sacrilege with the utmost clarity. Like his Catholic compatriot Sir Arnold Lunn and like the Australian Catholic activist B.A. Santamaria, Bryant was not to be imposed on by pettifogging attempts to distinguish between Spanish liberals, Spanish Freemasons, Spanish socialists, Spanish Stalinists, Spanish Trotskyists, Spanish anarchists, Spanish anarcho-syndicalists, and simple useful idiots. Every single politician in Spain’s Popular Front hated the same thing, and that thing was the absolute sovereignty of Christ Crucified. Clearly, then, in view of these insights, Bryant had to be reprobated as (to use the Jacobin-Soviet epithet revived by Donald Trump) ‘an enemy of the people.’
Not once in 336 pages does Robinson adequately cover the foregoing cosmic political and theological combat. He seldom alludes to it at all. It could well be unfair to wish that he should. Perhaps he can no more be legitimately asked to lift his eyes from the keyhole of Bryant’s bedroom door, than the latest Peeping Tom arrested in London can be legitimately asked to explain Rishi Sunak’s economic agenda. Be that conjecture how it may, Robinson’s chronicle is soon condensed.
In 1979 Bryant’s secretary Pamela Street, daughter of farmer A.G. Street, produced an authorised, reverential, rarely purchased Bryant biography. What we know now, but did not know then, was that Miss Street became Bryant’s mistress. The ensuing soap-opera script is so boringly predictable that a computer could have disgorged it.
Bryant spent the years from 1941 to 1976 as the husband to Anne Brooke, of the Sarawak ‘White Rajah’ clan. Miss Street hoped, after Bryant’s divorce from Anne, for wedding bells. The astute Bryant, fully mindful of the ancient bucolic maxim ‘Why buy the cow when the milk is free?’, intended to evade wedding bells with Miss Street but, equally, refrained from ruling out wedding bells with some other bride. He strung Miss Street along, not least after he became affianced to Laura, the widowed Duchess of Marlborough. This engagement the octogenarian Bryant’s death aborted. But the hapless Miss Street spent much of her post-Bryant years alternating between psychiatric hospitalisations and dependence upon tranquillising medicaments. Whatever the causative role of Bryant’s behaviour in Miss Street’s decline, this behaviour is still, as the kids would say, “not a good look.”
Most of Bryant’s collected billets-doux to Miss Street and, later, the Duchess are indistinguishable from what millions of us males—ever since postage stamps’ invention—have written to millions of unenviable females, when our short-term tumescence has sucked all the blood-flow from out of our brains and into Mister Happy. The best that can be said for Bryant’s epistles is that sometimes he stops burbling about the camisoles and French knickers which he bestows on his current inamorata (Miss Street referred to his regular groupies as ‘floating doters’), and resorts to the sort of declamation you would get if you programmed Artificial Intelligence software to generate a précis for Camelot:
To be your [the Duchess’s] Knight, my love, is the greatest honour that I could possibly have conferred on me—it is like having the Garter, only far better. Please God make me worthy of it—I will try so hard to serve you in any way you want.
Why did Robinson imagine that he aided higher learning’s cause by copying out this bunkum and making it available to strangers? Tom Lehrer famously implored us to abandon the term ‘plagiarism’ in favour of ‘research’; it would be useful to know what euphemism for ‘voyeurs’ British publishing life currently enforces.
As Kenneth Tynan realised during his frightful last years, the window of chronological opportunity during which the typical adult male may indulge in erotic acts without moving others to nauseated derision is an extremely narrow one; how narrow, Bryant appears seldom to have noticed. Robinson’s descriptions of Bryant’s womanising in the tones of a Georges Feydeau farce cannot dispel the sadness proper to such a narrative. We really need not bother with Robinson’s account if we are literate enough to know the Bard’s most fear-inducing sonnet:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had,
Past reason hated …
Our language contains no more vicious taunt than ‘dirty old man.’ (Compare and contrast with the glamorous, feminist, supermarket-tabloid associations of ‘cougar.’) If Historic Affairs results in Bryant the historian being airbrushed from public consciousness in favour of Bryant the Dirty Old Man, then cultural Marxists will have scored yet another effortless triumph over civilisation. Immeasurably assisted, as cultural Marxists always are, by pseudo-conservatives: such as whoever devised the Daily Mail’s egregious shriek-fest headline of 2 July 2021, which summarised Bryant as “Podgy, vain, needy … but a genius in bed!”
That Bryant should have privately disobeyed Christian teaching on connubial duties is a revelation best dealt with not by the Daily Mail’s smirking spite, but by the anguished plea of Lady Macbeth’s physician: “God, God forgive us all!” One oleaginous sentence from Robinson himself intimates a vague, overdue unease about his abetting of cancel culture: “I do not think that my findings invalidate or ‘cancel’ the truly good work that Bryant undertook in his long life.” Given the 336 pages largely devoted to just such invalidation, that proviso’s sheer disingenuousness would almost qualify Robinson for the ranks of Putin’s spin-doctors.
Who in the long run, outside sexologists’ ranks, cares when and how often Sir Arthur got his rocks off? Bryant never set himself up as a world-saving philosopher. But numerous contemporaries of his did crave this status. Between the wars Bertrand Russell, his second wife Dora Russell, Havelock Ellis, and Marie Stopes congregated in their own think-tank solemnly titled “World League for Sexual Reform On A Scientific Basis.” Subsequently Bruno Bettelheim and Simone de Beauvoir peddled their own crackpot, not to say criminal, syllabi for ‘enlightened’ child-rearing. In more recent times we have witnessed the depravities of Mexico’s Marcial Maciel, a putative theist. All these savants barked orders at the human race; Bryant never did.
On the evidence of his books and essays, Bryant would have refused to call himself an intellectual, although he better merited that accolade than does many a modern doctorate-holder. He was nothing more (also nothing less) than un homme moyen sensuel, much better read than most, with far greater industry and authorial talent than most. In all but his weakest productions, he satisfied Samuel Johnson’s chastening criterion: “The only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”
To adapt Chesterton’s explanation of Dickens’s appeal: Bryant not only knew what his public wanted; he wanted what his public wanted. Admittedly the spectacle of un homme moyen sensuel in the epoch of Partygate, the Kardashians, and Cardi B hardly bears thinking about. But in the Britain of Bryant’s zenith, there remained cultivated, in many instances autodidactic, middle-class and upper working-class book-buyers, who—whether they voted Labour, Conservative, Liberal, Scottish Nationalist, or none of the above—viscerally despised genteel treason when committed by Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, et al at taxpayers’ prodigious expense.
If we are to grasp (as Robinson himself probably does not) the significance of Historic Affairs, we must appreciate that for those who abhor Bryant—and those who previously levelled against Arthur Koestler utterly unproven, because utterly unprovable, accusations of rape and homicide—questions of their charges’ truth or falsehood are not merely irrelevant, but an active nuisance. Both the detractions and the calumnies spring from the same cause: interminable rancour against anyone who, like Koestler and Bryant, and Wurmbrand, and Santamaria, and Lunn, and Solzhenitsyn, and Pius XII, and Cardinal Mindszenty, condemned communism in general and Moscow-controlled communism in particular. Now that slave-owners two hundred years deceased can have their statues routinely vandalised by howling sophomores unable to find Africa on a map, the expectation that Bryant shall be accorded condign tolerance would defy Pollyanna herself to entertain.
Largely futile as literature, entirely futile as scholarship, but warranting gratitude through the manner with which it has disclosed anew England’s Fourth Estate pathogens, Historic Affairs (whatever Robinson imagines that his own aims, if any, involve) has become the Anglophone mainstream media’s latest offensive in its culture war against each remnant of traditional, hierarchical, sacramental Christianity: a war amid which Bryant’s own reputation is mere collateral damage. Whether Robinson himself understands that this culture war permits of no neutrals, and whether his job of character-assassination derives from pampered ignorance or outright malice, one thing rests beyond dispute: in Robinson’s onslaught there is, as mafiosi put it, nothing personal.
A fitting subject for Robinson’s next book is easy to nominate. Let’s hear it for the veteran Stalinist Christopher Hill, long credited with historiographical importance by those slum-dwellers sufficiently purulent to harbour the delusion that a Stalinist is a good thing to be. (In one instructive exploit from 1945, Hill urged Churchill to kick out all anti-communist Russian émigrés from whatever British teaching jobs they held. Once deprived of those jobs, these émigrés would have been easy to repatriate; and they knew the types of deaths which repatriation guaranteed for them. However great Churchill’s disposition to appease the Katyn Butcher, he drew the line at Hill’s advice.)
Or what about a book-length reassessment of Eric Hobsbawm? Unlike the duplicitous Hill—whose long-term Spectator berth during the Cold War echoes Philby’s cynical boast of being “the Englishman decorated by Franco”—Hobsbawm not only remained a self-confessed card-carrying communist until the very end, but paraded enough doctrinal garbage to extenuate Stalin, as late as 1994, on television. Besides, whereas Hill’s Chekist sermons now slumber undisturbed in the libraries of most campuses outside North Korea and Canada, Hobsbawm’s name continues to adorn such campuses’ undergraduate reading lists—on the assumption (which anyone with recent experience of, for example, Australian academic employment will find insanely sanguine) that most modern undergraduates can read English.
Essaying either or both of those projects would require genuine intestinal fortitude on Robinson’s part. He has meanwhile found it much easier and more lucrative to put the boot into Arthur Bryant’s already well-kicked corpse, for the amusement of such mouth-breathers as have temporarily apostatised from their religions of sport, Internet porn, and vaping.