The Battle for Britain’s Myths
This month Britain is remembering the Blitz. Last month, it was the Battle of Britain. Old films and original reminiscences about bombing and being bombed have replaced these on fighter battles and "the Few." Publishers hope to extend the time for celebrating our solo stance against Nazi Germany a little longer. A wide range of new books, reviewed by John Gooch this week in the TLS, marks the 70th anniversary of Britain's finest days—from a techno-biography of the Hurricane by Leo McKinstry to the mythical-historical style of Malcolm Brown's Spitfire Summer and the little-known claim, in Anthony J. Cumming's The Royal Navy and the Battle of Britain that credit for the triumphs of 1940 has been unfairly snatched from the Senior Service. On what date did the Battle of Britain begin? Historians disagree. Did the failure of the Blitz prevent Hitler's invasion of Britain? Not much doubt about that.
George Orwell had to make a vigorous defense of P.G. Wodehouse on charges of wartime treachery for broadcasting to Britain from Nazi-occupied Europe. The book that Orwell cited as “psychologically the most revealing” of the novelist's early period was Psmith in the City, 1910, whose centenary is marked this week by the critic, D.J. Taylor. The character of Psmith, the upper-class sharp operator loosely based on the proprietor of the Savoy Hotel, Rupert D'Oyly-Carte, was to be supplanted in public esteem by those later arrivals, Wooster, Jeeves, and Lord Emsworth. There were other Psmith books, including Psmith, Journalist, culled appropriately enough from New York press cuttings, and Leave it to Psmith, a country house romance, that may have deserved their fate. But, Psmith in the City, a picture of that time when a young man's “roseate blur” is replaced with the hard sharpness of work, remains the perfect combination of Wodehouse's unique artfulness and painful personal experience.
John le Carré’s New Britain
John le Carré made his novelist name in the Cold War—and has produced a range of books with backgrounds in the varied conflicts that have followed since its end. Our Kind of Traitor is his 22nd and stars a Russian gangster seeking asylum in Britain in exchange for information about his bosses' banking secrets and agents in the West. The critic Sean O'Brien considers this one to be “stronger” than its predecessor and “pessimistic” even by the standards of le Carré's classics. There is a memorable scene of bored Russians watching Roger Federer win the French Open at Roland Garros stadium.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.