When Britain Was a Bellend

This week: death by cannon, Cole Porter, and a missing obituary

Someone in the United Kingdom is about to make a television show out of the journalist James Felton’s book 52 Times Britain Was a Bellend, a melding of comedy and history which no less an authority than actress Emma Kennedy has deemed “the perfect book for a nation built on arseholes.”

This is the twenty-seventh edition of SHuSH, the official and free non-fiction newsletter of Sutherland House Inc. Subscribe to get SHuSH in your inbox weekly:

Here are three of the times Britain was a bellend (if you don’t know what a bellend is, there’s a clue in the cover illustration beside the picture of Felton below):

'“We killed 500 people in 38 minutes then invoiced the survivors for the bombs” (an account of the Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896.

“We passed an act of parliament making it illegal for us to return all the shit we stole” (a review of the Elgin Marbles case and similar controversies).

“We used to execute hundreds of people with cannons” (a reference to the method of execution, once popular with the British Raj, known as “blowing from a gun,” in which the victim is tied to the mouth of a cannon, which is fired, obliterating his body and sending his head on a journey of several hundred feet).

Cole Porter’s Great War

There are various accounts of Cole Porter’s activities in the First World War, which the United States joined not long after he had left Yale. It is reasonably certain that the legendary composer of such hits as “I get a Kick out of You” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” traveled to Paris to volunteer for a relief organization. His subsequent claim to have joined the French Foreign Legion is disputed by some writers but the legion accepts him as one of its own. His account of working for the recruiting wing of America’s Aviation Headquarters is not supported by evidence. Regardless, there is no doubt that, whatever his participation in the conflict, he managed to have a great time.

In March 1918, Porter (that’s him in Paris above) wrote his friend Monty Wooley:

I’m going to Spain on the 22nd of April for a month’s motor trip with the Duc D’Albe, my newest best friend. He’s got two Rolls and two country places and its [sic] going to be rather congenial, what with that horrible woman, Linda Thomas going, and several other people that you’d despise. It appears that the motors are meeting us at the frontier, whence we roll to Madrid, where we stay only a few days and make immediately for Seville to see the Fair. He’s got a place just outside that is supposed to be fairly beautiful. I don’t believe you’d mind him as much as most of the awful acquaintances I’ve made in France. He looks rather like his cousin, the King, but much better looking. And he’s really very British, which doesn’t usually irritate you, if I remember correctly…. Please tell your father that I’ve found a wonderful new perfume called Le Moment Passione, that I’ve been given a marvelous dressing-gown made of an old Persian material and lined with purple and orange silk, and that, every evening at sun-set, I undress, take a bath in the perfume, put on the dressing gown and read Baudelaire aloud to the concierge’s pink young son. It may please him.

From the highly diverting The Letters of Cole Porter, edited by Cliffe Eisen and Dominic McHugh.

Lines we wish we’d written

In the New York Review of Books, David Graeber describes Robert Skidelsky (above), the economist and author of Money And Government: The Past and Future of Economics thusly: “He embodies a uniquely English type: the gentle maverick, so firmly ensconced in the establishment that it never occurs to him that he might not be able to say exactly what he thinks, and whose views are tolerated by the rest of the establishment precisely for that reason.”

Skidelsky’s book, by the way, is much better than Graeber’s review suggests. It is a thoughtful effort to reconsider the discipline of economics in the wake of 2007-8. Rather stupid of the Review to give it to a cultural anthropologist with a history of dubious writing about economics.

Jim Bacque’s missing obituary

Last week we provided a gossipy account of a dinner party attended by the authors Julian Barnes and John Fraser at the home of a third author, James Bacque. We mentioned that Bacque had written a book called Other Losses(1989) about American prisoner-of-war camps during and after the Second World War. Bacque blamed Eisenhower’s policies as Allied Supreme Commander for the unnecessary deaths of 790,000 German captives in internment camps between 1944 and 1949. Although his research was quickly discredited, the book sold well. We also mentioned, as an aside, that Bacque had died several weeks ago at age 90, and that there had been no obituary of him. We considered this a slight. We now consider it more so.

We ran across Bacque over the weekend in Roy MacSkimming’s excellent The Perilous Trade, a history of book publishing in Canada. We learned that in the 1960s Bacque had been in line for the headship of MacMillan of Canada. At the time, MacMillan was the great Canadian publishing house, home to Morley Callaghan, Robertson Davies, Douglas Creighton, and Hugh MacLennan.

Bacque left MacMillan in the late sixties and along with MacSkimming and Dave Godfrey tried to take over the fashionable literary upstart, House of Anansi. Failing, they founded the more radical New Press and shared premises with Anansi. Bacque commissioned some of Canada’s earliest work on Indigenous and environmental issues and somehow arranged to sell an interest in the New Press to Maclean Hunter, the magazine publisher. With their coffers brimming, Bacque and partners churned out timely displays of a left-wing political commitment by Mel Watkins, Jim Laxer, David Lewis Stein, and others.

The New Press did some great work before spending its way into oblivion and closing its doors amid much personal acrimony in the mid-seventies. Among its bestsellers was Walter Stewart’s Shrug: Trudeau in Power. Godrey’s novel The New Ancestors won the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction in 1970.

After the New Press adventure, Bacque concentrated on writing. He published a collection of short stories, The Queen Comes to Minnicog, and a novel of Quebec separatism called The Lonely Ones (“meditative but muscular prose,” said the Times Literary Supplement). His piece of comedy theatre, Conrad, satirizing one “Lord Bilk of Cross-Purposes” was performed at the George Ignatieff Theatre in 2009. Three years before he died, he released Spirit Builders: Charles Catto, Frontiers Foundation, and the Struggle to End Indigenous Poverty.” He was blogging about the horrors of Donald Trump as recently as September 2018.

As mentioned last week, Bacque was a founding member of the Writer’s Union of Canada. He was also instrumental in a successful campaign for enhanced federal support of Canadian publishers in 1970. Quite a career. May he rest in peace.

That’s it for this week. Don’t forget that Sutherland House is always looking for non-fiction book proposals and manuscripts. And tell everyone you know: