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Field Marshal Montgomery’s Reputation

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 125-126:

“What a headache, what a bore, what a bounder he must be to those on roughly the same level in the service,” a BBC reporter wrote of Montgomery. “And at the same time what a great man he is as a leader of troops.” That contradiction would define Montgomery through Sicily and beyond, confounding his admirers and infuriating his detractors. “A simple, forthright man who angered people needlessly,” his biographer Alan Moorehead concluded. “At times a real spark of genius … but [he] was never on an even plane.” Even the official British history of the Mediterranean war would acknowledge his “arrogance, bumptiousness, ungenerosity… [and] schoolboy humour.” American disdain for Montgomery tended toward dismissive condemnation: “a son of a bitch,” declared Beetle Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff. His British colleagues, whose scorn at times ran even deeper, at least tried to parse his solipsism. “Small, alert, tense,” said Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, “rather like an intelligent terrier who might bite at any moment.” Montgomery so irritated Andrew Cunningham—“he seems to think that all he has to do is say what is to be done and everyone will dance to the tune he is piping”—that the admiral would not allow the general’s name to be uttered in his presence. “One must remember,” another British commander said of Montgomery, “that he is not quite a gentleman.”

That he had been raised in wild, remote Tasmania explained much to many. Son of a meek Anglican bishop and a harridan mother who conveyed her love with a cane, Montgomery emerged from childhood as “the bad boy of the family,” who at Sandhurst severely burned a fellow cadet by setting fire to his shirttail. “I do not want to portray him as a lovable character,” his older brother said, “because he isn’t.” Mentioned in dispatches six times on the Western Front, he carried from World War I the habits of meticulous preparation, reliance on firepower, and a conception of his soldiers “not as warriors itching to get into action, which they were not, but as a workforce doing an unpleasant but necessary job,” in the words of the historian Michael Howard. He also accumulated various tics and prejudices: a habit of repeating himself; the stilted use of cricket metaphors; an antipathy to cats; a tendency to exaggerate his battlefield progress; “an obsession for always being right”; and the habit of telling his assembled officers, “There will now be an interval of two minutes for coughing. After that there will be no coughing.” No battle captain kept more regular hours. He was awakened with a cup of tea by a manservant at 6:30 A.M. and bedtime in his trailer—captured from an Italian field marshal in Tunisia—came promptly at 9:30 P.M.

In Africa he had seen both glory, at El Alamein, and glory’s ephemerality, in the tedious slog through Tunisia. Montgomery much preferred the former. Now the empire’s most celebrated soldier, he received sacks of fan mail, including at least nine marriage proposals, lucky charms ranging from coins to white heather, and execrable odes to his pluck. Professing to disdain such adulation, he had a talent for “backing into the limelight,” as one observer remarked. On leave in London after Tunis fell, still wearing his beret and desert kit, he checked into Claridge’s under the thin pseudonym of “Colonel Lennox,” then took repeated bows from his box seat at a musical comedy as ecstatic theatergoers clapped and clapped and clapped. “His love of publicity is a disease, like alcoholism or taking drugs,” said General Ismay, Churchill’s chief of staff, “and it sends him equally mad.”

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Origins of Scandinavian Emigration

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 200-202.

The reign of Charles XIV also witnessed two interlinked events whose significance only later became apparent. In 1837, a Scandinavian emigrant to Illinois named Ole Rynning published in Sweden and Norway a book entitled A True Account of America for the Information and Help of Peasant and Commoner. The book sold in large numbers and inspired hundreds of families, especially in Norway, with dreams of settling in the New World. A trickle of Scandinavian emigrants began at once to cross the Atlantic – two shiploads had already sailed in 1825 and 1836 – but it was only after the ending of the Civil War and the opening of the American West to settlement that Norway was gripped by what became known as “the American Fever.”

Anybody who reads the works of Norway’s Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) or sees his plays cannot fail to be depressed by the straitlaced, puritan atmosphere under which his countrymen lived in the nineteenth century. Ibsen himself could not bear the moral climate of his own country and spent much of his adult life abroad. Thousands upon thousands of Norwegians resolved to escape, and between 1865 and 1914, 674,000 of them migrated to the United States – the total exodus from Norway in the century between 1836 and 1935 was 861,000.

Sweden, as was natural, thanks to its larger population, played an even more impressive part than Norway in the making of America. Official figures, which are probably on the low side, show that 950,000 Swedes emigrated to the United States (and to a much lesser degree to Canada) between 1851 and 1910. World War I more or less halted emigration from both countries and the tightening of United States immigration laws in 1924 has since imposed a permanent ceiling on the influx of all foreign-born peoples.

The Scandinavian newcomers settled largely in the states of the Middle West and Northwest, whose climate and landscape reminded them of home. Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, and the Dakotas were developed, largely thanks to Swedish and Norwegian workers, and Swedish colonies took root also in Maine, Massachusetts, and Nebraska. American visitors to Norway, in particular, will find it difficult to discover a Norwegian family that does not have relatives in the United States; thousands more Norwegians have visited America in the ships of their country’s great merchant fleet.

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Truman’s First Press Conference

From The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A. J. Baime (HMH Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 140-142:

At 10:30 a.m., dozens filed into the Oval Office for Truman’s first press conference. Standing behind his desk, he greeted reporters as they pushed into the room, which quickly grew uncomfortably crowded. Regular presidential press conferences were a tradition going back to Woodrow Wilson, who on March 15, 1913, set a precedent of welcoming newspaper reporters into his office to answer questions. Roosevelt had held two a week and had elevated these meetings to high art. Wielding his cigarette holder as if conducting an orchestra, he would deliver soliloquies that would entrance his guests, while almost always failing on purpose to answer any question posed.

On April 17 the largest crowd ever assembled for a presidential press conference pushed into the Oval Office—348 men and women reporters—all aiming to size up the new chief executive. Some were forced to stand on the terrace outside the president’s office—lucky ones, because the room got exceedingly hot.

“Good morning,” Truman said, “good morning.”

“Good morning, Mr. President,” someone in the crowd said. “Will you take it sort of slow for us today, please, sir?”

“Surely, surely,” Truman said. “Anything I can do to accommodate you.”

No one in the room could help making comparisons to Roosevelt. For one thing, this president was standing up. “We all knew that Roosevelt had gone to Groton and then Harvard,” recalled White House correspondent Robert Nixon, who was getting his first crack at Truman that morning. “That [Roosevelt] came from a quite old, well-to-do family; that he moved in what is known as the best circles all of his life . . . Truman was a small town, Midwestern Missourian of farm origin . . . The contrast was in appearance, voice mannerisms, and even their attire. President Roosevelt, while a casual dresser, was very well tailored . . . Truman dressed like he had just come off of Main Street in Independence.”

The new president called for attention. “The first thing I want to do to you is to read the rules,” he said. After telling the reporters what they already knew—everything he said was background material, no direct quotes were allowed unless there was specific permission—he began by announcing that most of the Roosevelt staff would stay on, and that Matthew Connelly had been appointed his confidential secretary. Truman read a letter aloud from Mrs. Roosevelt, thanking everyone for their wishes, “which have brought great comfort and consolation to all of us.” Due to the wartime paper shortage, Mrs. Roosevelt would not be responding to all correspondence. Instead, she had asked Truman to read her thank-you letter to the press.

Truman then opened the floor. He answered questions about reciprocal trade, race relations, the wartime ban on horseracing, and the historic United Nations Conference set to open in eight days.

“Mr. President,” said one reporter in the crowd. “Will Mrs. Truman have a press conference?”

“I would rather not answer that question at this time.”

At numerous moments Truman delivered witticisms that sparked laughter in the room. The Missourian had a simple way of speaking that amused his counterparts in the press. He whittled his ideas down to the fewest words and handed them over. Unlike Roosevelt, Truman actually answered questions, and if he chose not to, he said just that.

“His first press conferences were wonderful,” noted press secretary Daniels. At the end of this first one, something happened that had never occurred in any of Roosevelt’s meetings with the press: the room erupted in spontaneous applause.

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Dolley and Decatur, Idols of Their Day

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. 5043ff:

YEARS AFTER THE TRIPOLITAN War, Stephen Decatur, commander of the United States, would send the flag of the British frigate Macedonian to Dolley Madison by a young lieutenant, the son of Paul Anderson, Secretary of the Navy at the beginning of the War of 1812. When the lieutenant, arriving during the Naval Ball of the Christmas festivities of 1812, laid the trophy at her feet, the usually self-controlled Dolley, the center of warmth and witticisms, conceded that she blushed like a schoolgirl. The reason has never been well explained.

But one is privileged to believe it was because the enemy standard had been sent to her by one of the most intrepid and certainly the most handsome officer of the U.S. Navy, whose physical strength and virility were in such contrast, as the bewitchingly feminine Dolley must have observed, to the frail delicacy of her beloved but diminutive Jimmy Madison, the President. If Dolley was not stirred by Decatur’s magnetism she was different from virtually all other women who met him, and most men also, because few could be indifferent to this graceful, athletic officer whose broad shoulders, slim waist, curly brown hair and warm, dancing brown eyes, usually tender in conversation but alert and piercing under the excitement of action, made him distinguished physically in nearly any gathering.

His biographers—and quite a number have written of him in sympathetic and none in disparaging vein—seem to agree that he drew the notice of ladies wherever he appeared, and the allurement went much beyond the appeal of the resplendent naval uniform of the day; while the seamen and others who kept journals dealt with him in terms ranging from admiration to reverence.

Said Marine Private Ray: “The intrepid Decatur is as proverbial among sailors, for the good treatment of his men, as he is for his valour. Not a tar, who ever sailed with Decatur, but would almost sacrifice his life for him.”

There was something more mystical about Decatur than his vivid personality and the stimulating glow of his presence, for when he married Susan Wheeler, daughter of Luke Wheeler, wealthy merchant and Mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, his union was with a young lady who had fallen in love with him desperately before she had ever seen him, merely from looking at an Italian miniature of him.

And it was characteristic of his devotion to the United States and to its naval service that he told the beautiful girl, when he proposed, that he had already made vows to his flag which had precedence, because if not steadfast to it, he would not then be worthy of her. Somewhere along the line he had read Richard Lovelace.

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Three Famous Explorers of Africa

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~300:

Speke was a thin loner whose family home, Jordans, was just forty miles from Bath. He was childlike, entitled, wealthy, bland, deaf in one ear. At thirty-seven, he doted on his mother but had never courted any other woman. Critics acknowledged his prowess as a sportsman, but puzzled over his penchant for slaughter and fondness for eating the unborn fetus of a kill. They wondered about the character of a man who once gave a rifle as a gift to an African chief fond of shooting subjects for fun, and who allowed a live human child to be steamed like a lobster during a tribal ritual in his honor. Speke felt that the ends justified the means—in this case, finding the source was worth the loss of inconsequential African lives. The source, Speke claimed, was a massive rectangular body of water the size of Scotland. He named it Victoria Nyanza—Lake Victoria—for the Queen.

The dark-haired Burton claimed Lake Tanganyika as the source. That body of water lay 150 miles southwest of Victoria Nyanza, separated by mountainous, unexplored jungle. Burton did not dispute that the Nile flowed from Victoria, but he believed that another, yet undiscovered, river flowed from Tanganyika through the mountains, into Victoria.

Lake Tanganyika’s shape was slender and vertical on the map, like a womb parting to give birth to the great Nile. Its choice as Burton’s geographical talisman was apt, for his character tics veered toward the sensual. The accomplished linguist had a fondness for Arab prostitutes and would someday write the first English translation of the Kama Sutra. In 1845, as a young army officer stationed in India, he’d been ordered to investigate Karachi’s homosexual brothels. Burton’s detailed reportage implicated fellow officers and evinced suspicion about his own sexuality—both of which combined to ruin his career. So he’d become an explorer. His knowledge of languages and Islam allowed him to infiltrate cities like Mecca and Harar, which were forbidden to non-Muslims. The resulting books about those escapades were best-sellers in the mid-1850s, earning Burton a reputation for daring while introducing Oriental thoughts and words to his readers. It was Burton who made the term safari—Swahili for “journey”—familiar to the English-speaking world.

The mob packing the auditorium, so eager for spectacle and rage, knew the Burton and Speke story well. The time had come for resolution. When the eleven o’clock starting time came and passed, the crowd “gave vent to its impatience by sounds more often heard from the audience of a theater than a scientific meeting,” sniffed the Bath Chronicle. The audience gossiped loudly about Speke’s whereabouts and stared at the stage, scrutinizing Burton with that unflinching gaze reserved for the very famous. In an era when no occupation was more glamorous than African explorer, Burton’s features were already well known through photographs and sketches from his books. But for many in the audience, seeing his face up close, in person, was why they’d come. They felt the same about Speke.

There was a third explorer many hoped to glimpse, a man whose legend was arguably greater than any living explorer. “The room,” the Chronicle noted of the auditorium, “was crowded with ladies and gentlemen who were radiant with the hope of seeing Dr. Livingstone.” The British public hadn’t caught a glimpse of their beloved Livingstone since the halcyon days of 1857 when he seemed to be everywhere at once. His exploits had been a balm for the wounds of the Crimean War, the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, and the bloody slaughter of British women and children during the Indian Mutiny. Livingstone reminded Victorian Britain of her potential for greatness. The fifty-one-year-old Scot was their hero archetype, an explorer brave, pious, and humble; so quick with a gun that Waterloo hero the Duke of Wellington nicknamed Livingstone “the fighting parson.” Livingstone was equally at home wandering the wilds of Africa and making small talk over tea with the Queen. The public made his books best-sellers, his speeches standing room, his name household. Livingstone was beloved in Britain, and so famous worldwide that one poll showed that only Victoria herself was better known.

Livingstone, though, wasn’t scheduled to appear at the Nile Duel [debate about the origins of the Nile]. His first public appearance since returning from an exploration of Africa’s Zambezi River six months earlier was officially supposed to take place the following Monday. He would lecture the British Association on the details of that journey. Ticket demand was so enormous that Livingstone, standing before a massive map of Africa, would give the speech live in one theater as Clements Markham of the Royal Geographical Society read it concurrently to the overflow crowd in a second auditorium. The Chronicle‘s special edition would publish the text in its entirety. Rumors, however, said Livingstone would make an appearance at the Nile Duel as moderator. His appearance would confirm the Duel’s heft and counterbalance smirks of innuendo. For celebrity gazers and scientists alike, Livingstone, Burton, and Speke on the same stage would elevate the proceedings from grudge match to intellectual field day. Those three greats hurling geographical barbs would make the long hours in the rain more than worthwhile.

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Northern Reactions to Shiloh, 1862

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 208-209:

After Shiloh, Grant was vilified in the press with a fury that surprised him. He was shocked that the northern press construed the battle as a Union loss. Never before had he faced such national scrutiny or virulent attacks. As the war of words grew fierce, Grant was traumatized. Union camps swarmed with correspondents who wrote for partisan papers and weren’t overly scrupulous in their methods. They trafficked in rumors that quickly found their way into print. In the absence of any public relations machinery in the field, legends sprang up overnight, filling entire newspaper columns. With few exceptions, Grant adopted a sensible policy on censorship, giving reporters the liberty to report on past actions while preventing statements about future troop movements. In areas conquered by the Union army, he shut down pro-Confederate papers hawking treasonous views.

In the press Grant was faulted for being caught off guard by the Confederate attack, arriving late at the battle, and failing to chase Beauregard back to Corinth. He was made to seem inept and insensitive to the massive slaughter of his men. The most savage denunciations issued from politicians in Ohio and Iowa, home states to many victims. Grant and his staff suspected that these stories originated with craven soldiers who had fled the front lines on the first day at Shiloh, taking shelter beneath the bluff. Governor David Tod of Ohio was especially irate at such insinuations, portraying these skulkers as victims of criminal negligence by the high command. To prove his point, he sent Lieutenant Governor Benjamin Stanton to talk to Ohio soldiers near Shiloh and the latter claimed in a diatribe that there was “a general feeling among the most intelligent men that Grant and Prentiss ought to be court-martialed or shot.” It was now open season on Grant, with a chorus of voices calling for his removal. Senator James Harlan of Iowa insisted that “those who continue General Grant in active command will in my opinion carry on their skirts the blood of thousands of their slaughtered countrymen.”

Grant received his most damaging coverage when twenty-four-year-old Whitelaw Reid weighed in under the pen name AGATE in the Cincinnati Gazette. An Ohio native, slender and urbane, Reid had studied at Miami University where he absorbed a love of literature and philosophy. His voluminous Shiloh account ran to 19,500 words, occupying thirteen newspaper columns; widely reprinted elsewhere, it became the most influential account of the battle. Brilliant as a piece of narrative prose, it left much to be desired as a first draft of history. Reid took at face value myths peddled by disaffected soldiers. He gave birth to the canard that Union soldiers, caught unawares by rebels swooping down on their camps the first morning of Shiloh, were trapped in their tents and bayoneted in bed. He also falsely pictured Grant as arriving late on the scene from luxurious quarters in Savannah. In fact, Grant had galloped tirelessly across the battlefield that day, exhorting his commanders from early morning. He blamed Grant for not summoning Lew Wallace earlier and loaded Buell with praise for the second-day turnaround. There was more than a germ of truth to what Reid wrote—Grant had been caught by surprise at Shiloh, he had failed to fortify his position—but the bogus, misleading details marred the genuine reporting.

In light of this calumny, it was predictable that Grant would be accused of drinking at Shiloh. So widespread were these allegations that he told Julia, “We are all well and me as sober as a deacon no matter what is said to the contrary.” One Grant supporter told Washburne he was asked “twenty times a day” whether Grant was intemperate. “The public seem disposed to give Grant full credit for ability and bravery but seem to think it ‘a pity he drinks.’” The documentary record makes clear that Grant was sober during the battle. Jacob Ammen, who was with Grant the day before the battle and on its first day, jotted in his diary: “Note—I am satisfied that General Grant was not under the influence of liquor, either of the times I saw him.” Colonel Joseph Webster wrote of Grant: “He was perfectly sober and self-possessed during the day and the entire battle.” William Rowley disabused Washburne of any notion of Grant drinking at Shiloh and added that “the man who fabricated the story is an infamous liar.”

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U.S. Grant’s Literary Masterpiece

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. xix-xxi:

Seldom, if ever, has a literary masterpiece been composed under such horrific circumstances. Whenever he swallowed anything, Grant was stricken with pain and had to resort to opiates that clouded his brain. As a result, he endured extended periods of thirst and hunger as he labored over his manuscript. The torment of the inflamed throat never ceased. When the pain grew too great, his black valet, Harrison Terrell, sprayed his throat with “cocaine water,” temporarily numbing the area, or applied hot compresses to his head. Despite his fear of morphine addiction, Grant could not dispense entirely with such powerful medication. “I suffer pain all the time, except when asleep,” he told his doctor. Although bolstered by analgesics, Grant experienced only partial relief, informing a reporter that “when the suffering was so intense . . . he only wished for the one great relief to all human pain.”

Summoning his last reserves of strength, through a stupendous act of willpower, Grant toiled four to six hours a day, adding more time on sleepless nights. For family and friends his obsessive labor was wondrous to behold: the soldier so famously reticent that someone quipped he “could be silent in several languages” pumped out 336,000 words of superb prose in a year. By May 1885, just two months before his death, Grant was forced to dictate, and, when his voice failed, he scribbled messages on thin strips of paper. Always cool in a crisis, Grant exhibited the prodigious stamina and granite resolve of his wartime effort.

Nobody was more thunderstruck than Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who had recently formed a publishing house with his nephew-in-law Charles Webster. To snare Grant’s memoirs, sure to be a literary sensation, Twain boosted the royalty promised by the Century’s publishers and won the rights. Twain had never seen a writer with Grant’s gritty determination. When this man “under sentence of death with that cancer” produced an astonishing ten thousand words in one day, Twain exclaimed, “It kills me these days to write half of that.” He was agog when Grant dictated at one sitting a nine-thousand-word portrait of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox “never pausing, never hesitating for a word, never repeating—and in the written-out copy he made hardly a correction.” Twain, who considered the final product a masterwork, scoffed at scuttlebutt he had ghostwritten it. “There is no higher literature than these modest, simple memoirs,” he insisted. “Their style is flawless . . . no man can improve upon it.”

For Twain, the revelation of Grant’s character was as startling as his storytelling. Eager to spare his family, Grant was every inch the stoic gentleman. Only at night, when he was asleep, did his face grimace with pain. “The sick-room brought out the points of General Grant’s character,” Twain wrote. “His exceeding gentleness, kindness, forbearance, lovingness, charity. . . . He was the most lovable great child in the world.” For one observer, it was wrenching to watch Grant “with a bandage about his aching head, and a horrible and mortal disease clutching his throat.” He felt “a great ache when I look at him who had saved us all when we were bankrupt in treasure and in leaders, and see him thus beset by woes and wants.” In a magnificent finale, Grant finished the manuscript on July 16, 1885, one week before his death in upstate New York. He had steeled himself to stay alive until the last sentence was done and he could surrender his pen.

The triumph of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, which sold a record-breaking three hundred thousand copies in two-volume sets, was vintage Grant. Repeatedly he had bounced back from adversity, his career marked by surprising comebacks and stunning reversals. He had endured many scenes, constantly growing and changing in the process. Like Twain, Walt Whitman was mesmerized by Grant and grouped him with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the quartet of greatest Americans. “In all Homer and Shakespeare there is no fortune or personality really more picturesque or rapidly changing, more full of heroism, pathos, contrast,” he wrote. The plain unadorned Grant had nothing stylish about him, leading sophisticated people to underrate his talents. He was a nondescript face in the crowd, the common man from the heartland raised to a higher power, who proved a simple westerner could lead a mighty army to victory and occupy the presidential chair with distinction.

Dismissed as a philistine, a boor, a drunk, and an incompetent, Grant has been subjected to pernicious stereotypes that grossly impede our understanding of the man. As a contemporary newspaper sniffed, Grant was “an ignorant soldier, coarse in his taste and blunt in his perceptions, fond of money and material enjoyment and of low company.” In fact, Grant was a sensitive, complex, and misunderstood man with a shrewd mind, a wry wit, a rich fund of anecdotes, wide knowledge, and penetrating insights. Many acquaintances remembered the “silent” Grant as the most engaging raconteur they ever met.

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Why Write about Calcutta?

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1380-1405:

Sumitro and I were sitting in the last row of a minibus, bouncing from Ballygunge to Rajabazar, travelling northward up the city’s spine.

‘Who are you writing for? Why are you writing about Calcutta? And whose Calcutta?’ Sumitro fired those questions away with his piercing intelligence.

The minibus was idling in the traffic snarl at Park Circus when Sumitro asked: ‘Why is it that representations of Calcutta seem unchanged for centuries?’

The first Europeans who came to these shores had refused to get out of their boats. They called the settlement in the swamp Golgotha. Most accounts of Calcutta since have hardly varied. Calcutta to Western eyes was the epitome of urban hell, the Detroit of the world, the punchline to a joke: your room looks like the slums of Calcutta. Every visitor, even those who came to slum it in Calcutta, seemed to take away the same city, I said, the same crumbling mansions of colonial elites, graveyards full of dead Englishmen who could not survive the tropics, and everywhere, like a disease, the suffering of the poor. Ultimately the slummers all fell back upon the idea of the urban hellhole, the city as a place of darkness and death. Even Louis Malle and Allen Ginsberg arrived as gleeful voyeurs and headed to the cremation ghats at Nimtala, as if the last rites were a morbid spectator sport, as if they came from places where no one died. Had any of them ever been to Nimtala to give shoulder to the dead? Had they any idea how it might have felt to be on the other side?

‘Where in the representations of Calcutta is the jumble-tangle human clot of Baguiati?’ Sumitro asked, its intersection throbbing at every hour of the day with careening autos and overtaking buses and people rushing away in every lane clutching polythene bags from Ma Sarada Stores full of moong dal and Surf Excel?

‘Why not the Maniktala Market?’ I said, ‘With its fishmongers seated on their concrete plinths like sultans, surrounded by mounds of hilsa, pomfret and koi.’ ‘What about all the shops and little village-worlds in Bowbazar, in the heart of Calcutta?’ Sumitro asked.

At Sealdah, the bus roared up the overpass we called ‘the Flyover’. To our right, the suburban train station was bright with fluorescent lights; its orange neon signs were flashing SEALDAH, SEALDAH, SEALDAH, alternately in English, Hindi and Bengali, as they have eternally in my memory. To our left, the evening rush at Baithakkhana Bazar spilled out onto Bowbazar Street. Three centuries ago, the English trader Job Charnock, who is said to have founded the city, had sat under a banyan tree there and turned it into his parlour, hence the name Baithak Khana, Living Room. The street was barely visible now, covered over by the evening vegetable sellers squatting with their goods spread out on tarps, backlit by the beckoning glow of the jewellery shops that lured in wedding shoppers. Under a canopy of sulphur street lights stretching all the way to Dalhousie, was the perpetual human parade.

From atop the Flyover, Sumitro surveyed the sweeping view of all that was revealed below, and asked, ‘Where has anyone represented all this?’

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The Times of Appeasement, 1930s

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 842-62:

The Times of London, then co-owned by another member of the Astor clan, John J. Astor, was at the time the daily journal of the British establishment. As Lord Halifax, Chamberlain’s foreign minister, put it, in prewar Britain, “Special weight was held to attach to opinions expressed in its leading articles [that is, editorials], on the assumption that these carried some quality of government stamp, if not approbation.” The newspaper fervently supported appeasement throughout the 1930s, to the point that it was willing to tolerate and even embrace Hitlerian tactics. Following the “Night of the Long Knives,” a series of shocking political murders carried out on Hitler’s orders in mid-1934, the newspaper soothed, “Herr Hitler, whatever one may think of his methods, is genuinely trying to transform revolutionary fervour into moderate and constructive effort and to impose a high standard of public service on National-Socialist officials.”

In 1937, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, confided to his Geneva correspondent, “I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their susceptibilities.” According to the Times’s own official history of itself, published in 1952, those who opposed appeasement were all too often “intellectuals, utopians, sentimentalists and pacifists satisfied with a programme of resistance without the means of resistance.” The Times’s history, with extraordinary nerve, blames those hotheads for making the disastrous policy of appeasement necessary, arguing that the newspaper, “like the Government, was helpless in the face of an apparently isolationist Commonwealth and a pacifist Britain.” What this explanation fails to note is that the role of a leading newspaper is not just to follow opinion but to try to shape it, especially when a major government policy rests on faulty assumptions. And it certainly is not the role of a newspaper editor to suppress news on the grounds that it might bother people or force government officials to reconsider their policies.

King Edward VIII himself, during his eleven-month reign in 1936, supported appeasement. According to one account, when Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland in March 1936, breaking the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the king called the German ambassador in London to tell him that he had given Prime Minister Baldwin “a piece of my mind.” To wit, “I told the old-so-and-so that I would abdicate if he made war. There was a frightful scene. But you needn’t worry. There won’t be war.” The king actually would abdicate for other reasons later that same year. During the war, his rightist views and contacts would become a persistent worry for Churchill and British intelligence.

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Fake News in Spain, 1937

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1153-70, 1262-68:

On the afternoon of May 7, some six thousand additional government troops arrived, and the fighting ended. Again, Orwell was impressed by how well these rear-area units were equipped, compared with his front-line unit. To his disgust, the government blamed all the fighting on POUM, because it was the weakest of the leftist factions.

Watching all this, Orwell arrived at some conclusions that clashed with leftist conventions of the era. At a time when leftist solidarity was considered mandatory, the right thing to do, Orwell began to harbor suspicions. Observing the fighting in Barcelona between different antifascist factions, he noted, “You had all the while a hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police.”

In effect, the events in Barcelona forced him to examine the left as he once earlier had scrutinized imperialism and capitalism. He concluded, “The Communist Party, with Soviet Russia, had thrown its weight against the revolution.” It was determined to systematically wipe out the anticommunist parts of the left—first POUM, then the anarchists, and then socialists.

But to say this in public was a form of modern heresy. Orwell realized, with shock, that the left-wing newspapers did not report the situation accurately, and did not want to. Rather, they willingly accepted lies. “One of the dreariest effects of this war has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right,” he wrote. This set him on his life’s work, to push continually to establish the facts, no matter how difficult or unpopular that might be.

On May 10, 1937, he left Barcelona to return to the front, where the POUM was still deployed, despite being suppressed back in Barcelona by the government whose territory it was defending. On May 11, the POUM was denounced in the Daily Worker as “Franco’s Fifth Column.” Posters appeared on Barcelona walls with the headline TEAR THE MASK, showing a face marked POUM, and a fascist face underneath it. It was classic “big lie” propaganda.

The POUM soldiers at the front there had not been told that they were being denounced in Barcelona, and the newspapers from the city remained quiet about the purge.

From Spain on, his mission was to write the facts as he saw them, no matter where that took him, and to be skeptical of everything he read, especially when it came from or comforted those wielding power. This became his faith. “In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts,” he wrote a few years later. He continued:

I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing those lies and eager intellectuals building superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various “party lines.”

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