A few weeks ago I found this series of books in an antique shop. Six books all in a row. Six books about the Second World War, written by one of the main participants. I hefted one volume, and checked out the price, more in hope than expectation. Six volumes, all first editions (the first published in 1948)…..£30 for the lot. I was so surprised at this that I checked with the owner that the price was for all six and not £30 for each volume. Then I bought them. Now, this is not what I normally do. For a start, I don’t frequently frequent antique shops. Also, this is the first multi-volume series I’ve ever bought in one go. They are by far the oldest books that I have bought in the last 40 years.
What was going on here? Hard to say, but they are sumptuous, in a non-sumptuous way. Not sumptuously illustrated like an ancient medieval manuscript; sumptuous in their very being. What do I mean? Well, for a start, they feel very close to the action. The first has the following inscription “This book is produced in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards”….remember, it was published in 1948. There’s also a little tab of paper near the beginning which says: “Author’s note: July 15, 1948. Various Errata and Corrigenda are set forth at the end of the Appendices, facing page 610. W.S.C.” And this is another clue as to the appeal of these volumes; the language used. This comes from page 4, where Winston is talking about the negotiations associated with the end of The Great War:
“France, by right alike of her efforts and her losses, held the leading place. Nearly a million and a half Frenchmen had perished defending the soil of France on which they stood against the invader. Five times in a hundred years, in 1814, 1815, 1870, 1914 and 1918, had the towers of Nôtre Dame seen the flash of Prussian guns and heard the thunder of their cannonade. Now for four horrible years thirteen provinces of France had lain in the rigorous grip of Prussian military rule. Wide regions had been systematically devastated by the enemy or pulverised in the encounter of the armies. There was hardly a cottage nor a family from Verdun to Toulon that did not mourn it’s dead or shelter it’s cripples.”
I love the way he constructs the sentences and his word choices. I love the feel they capture and communicate. I can hear his voice when I read the words. Of course, broadly I am familiar with the Second World War. It was still fresh in people’s minds when I was born, and one of the first books I bought and read (many times) was A. J. P. Taylor’s The Second World War. Incidentally, it is interesting to consider my school time introduction to History. I studied History as a standalone subject for three years in Secondary school (everyone did), and I liked it. I can’t remember what we covered. But, it was one of the subjects I dropped for O-levels. I remember the choice being between History and Geography, and by that time it was clear that I was going to be a Scientist. Geography simply had more science in it. However, since leaving school I don’t recall ever reading a book on Geography, whereas History has been evident in many books I have read. I have even bought and read books that are clearly history books (e.g. Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 by Diarmaid MacCulloch). History is ever present, weaved through space and time.
Recently I have read Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, and am reading Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein. Both of these dwell on the period of history around the Second World War (though from different perspectives). My cultural framework is now broader and deeper than it has hither-to-fore been. I know that Winston’s version will be biased. I know that he will not be mentioning the role of Bletchley Park. I appreciate that there will be huge gaps and vast areas where alternative interpretations will have been presented in the intervening years. Now, I know all that. I’m ready to read Winston’s account.
[I checked on Amazon, and you can still buy the 6 volumes, they are about £20 each.]