Unusually, I am reading two books at the same time. Not literally at once, but on the same day. The new biography of Stalin, a painstakingly exhaustive study which will extend to three volumes when finished is a hefty read. The book itself weighs 875g, of which 739 pages are text and there are a further 208 pages of notes, references and indexes.
Stalin The Paradoxes of Power 1878 to 1928 by Stephen Kotkin is a big read, but endlessly fascinating and engrossing. Except for its weight and the small font, it is un-put-downable. Starting way back at the beginning and moving slowly forward (we do not even meet Stalin until page 130) we are given the background to Iosip Jughashvili: parentage, birthplace and status in detail and at one and the same time, the Russian situation prevailing as he was growing up. It was not until he was an established journalist/writer for the Bolshevik press (writing in the Enlightenment) that Iosip dropped his patronymic and took on the title Stalin (Man of Steel). “Marxism and the National Question” was partly derivative but succeeded in addressing a crucial aspect of revolution in the polyglot Russian context. It drew, as well, a positive and admiring response from Lenin.
From that time forward, Jughashvili never used another name, he became simply, universally known as Joseph Stalin.
I haven’t finished the book yet, I have reached the First World War, the Patriotic War as it is called in Russia. The Tsar and his family are gone (but not dead yet) and Lenin is back in Russia, along with Trotsky and several others. Stalin missed his call up because he was in internal exile, for the fourth and last time, in Siberia well away from the railhead to prevent him from escaping again. In any event, his deformity (a withered arm not unlike Kaiser Wilhelm II) would have excluded him from front-line service. The Provisional Government is on the point of collapse and the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets is poised to seize power. This was a moment of promise…how did it all go so wrong?
In the meantime, and partly because I cannot read such a small typeface at night, I have gone back to an old favourite, recently re-published by the House of Stratus press: Dornford Yates. I first read these one summer holiday in our Westmorland cottage, back in the day when there was such a county. The books came in a mixed box from my grandmother’s house that had recently been closed, the contents dispersed. I suppose no one knew what to do with this odd collection of books, so they came to us.
Among them were Berry & Co and Jonah & Co. By today’s standards, I think they would be regarded as hugely over-written, but I find them glorious in their lush, florid descriptions of places (many that I know) and situations, including travels in a Europe that has largely disappeared. Set in a period between two wars, Berry and his family, the Pleydells have an estate in Hampshire call White Ladies, they winter in rented villas in Pau, and travel grandly (until is it stolen) in a 1914 Rolls Royce. When this is lost, it is replaced with two identical coupés (make unspecified) in blue which they call Ping and Pong. The adventures they have driving across England, France and eventually into Spain are inconsequential, silly, playful and pointless – but matchlessly funny. Only a very few authors make me laugh out loud – Dornford Yates is one. His Berry books of which there are several, are not novels as such, but a series of short stories; they tell of a vanished age, of a vanished Europe and I adore them. The Pleydell family, first cousins and their respective wives [actually Berry and Daphne are married to each other, although from the family tree it is quite clear that they are first cousins, though DY indicated that they were second cousins – his knowledge of the Table of Consanguinity was clearly shaky] live together and holiday together, the narrator in all the books is Boy (Daphne’s brother) and another pair Jonah and Jill (brother and sister) make up the party – not to forget the Sealyham terrier Nobby.
Jonah, more serious and quieter than his family, was wounded in the war at Cambrai, and at the same time as his groom was killed, he lost his horse Zed. Later, on holiday in Spain, he sees that horse again.
If the way from Zarauz was handsome, that from Zarauz to Zumaya was fit for a king. Take us a range of mountains – bold, rugged, precipitous, and bring the sea to their foot – no ordinary sea, sirs, but Ocean himself, the terrible Atlantic to wit, in all his glory. And there, upon the boundary itself, where his proud waves are stayed, build us a road, a curling shelf of a road, to follow the line of that most notable indenture, witnessing the covenant ‘twixt land and sea, settled when Time was born.
Above us, the ramparts of Spain – below, an echelon of rollers, ceaselessly surging to their doom – before us, a ragged wonder of coast-line, rising and falling and thrusting into the distance, till the snarling leagues shrank into murmuring inches and tumult dwindled into rest – on our right, the might, majesty, dominion and power of Ocean, a limitless laughing mystery of running white and blue, shining and swaying and swelling till the eye faltered before so much magnificence and Sky let fall her curtain to spare the failing sight – for over six miles we hung on the edge of Europe…
Little wonder that we sailed into Zumaya – all red roofs, white walls and royal-blue timbers – with full hearts, flushed and exulting. The twenty precious minutes that had just gone by were charged with the spirit of the Odyssey.
While lunching, Jonah spies his horse, harnessed to a mule cart, being thrashed to its knees. Safe to say, he rescues the beloved beast and thrashes the owner. A Black Beauty moment…Zed is nurtured back across Europe to laze again in the pastures at White Ladies.
I said: over-written, lush and florid. But gorgeous and gone: that coast is now a heaving metropolis of condominiums, highways, noise and devastation.
Dornford Yates is the nom-de-plume of C W Mercer, a son of Victorian parents destined for the Bar. His parents scraped together enough money to educate him at Harrow. He qualified for the Bar but later sent writings to various magazines. He was incidentally a cousin of H H Munro, better known as “Saki”, whom he admired and mourned. H H Munro was shot by a sniper in the trenches of France. Dornford Yates’ short stories (very similar in tone to the Clovis stories of his mentor) that had appeared regularly in the Windsor Magazine and The Strand were collected (in the volumes here described) immediately after the end of the War, they were immensely popular and went into several editions, some as many as eight reprintings. Later on, in the mid 1920s he began a new series of thrillers in the mode of John Buchan, in Forty Years On, Alan Bennett wrote of the genre: “Sapper, Buchan, Dornford Yates, practitioners in that school of Snobbery with Violence that runs like a thread of good-class tweed through twentieth-century literature”.
We are not talking here of Swedish Noir, Blind Corner and others in the same vein are Boy’s Own adventure stories: hidden treasure, villains and car chases, sudden death and hair-raising escapes with a young man called Richard Chandos, who in this, his first crime-busting adventure meets up with one Jonathan Mansel, the self same man as appears in the Berry books as Jonah. Resourceful, calm, calculating and brilliant with a Rolls Royce, lots of money and a Sealyham terrier called Tester…