Do and Die

The Reason Why, Cecil Woodham-Smith (1953)

History is a branch of literature, not of science. That’s why it’s so important that historians be good writers. Cecil Woodham-Smith (1896-1977) was a very good writer and this is one of the best works of military history ever written. I don’t know whether she – that “Cecil” is misleading – was influenced by Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) but Strachey’s sublime “Cardinal Manning” is an obvious comparison. Like Strachey’s, her prose has grace, lightness and concision:

Military glory! It was a dream that century after century had seized on men’s imaginations and set their blood on fire. Trumpets, plumes, chargers, the pomp of war, the excitement of combat, the exultation of victory – the mixture was intoxicating indeed. To command great armies, to perform deeds of valour, to ride victorious through flower-strewn streets, to be heroic, magnificent, famous – such were the visions that danced before men’s eyes as they turned eagerly to war.

It was not a dream for the common man. War was an aristocratic trade, and military glory reserved for nobles and princes. Glittering squadrons of cavalry, long lines of infantry, wheeling obediently on the parade-ground, ministered to the lust both for power and for display. Courage was esteemed the essential military quality and held to be a virtue exclusive to aristocrats. Were they not educated to courage, trained, as no common man was trained, by years of practice in dangerous sports? They glorified courage, called it valour and worshipped it, believed battles were won by valour, saw war in terms of valour as the supreme adventure.

It was a dream that died hard. Century followed century and glittering armies faded before the sombre realities of history. Great armies in their pride and splendour were defeated by starvation, pestilence and filth, valour was sacrificed to stupidity, gallantry to corruption. (ch. 1, opening paragraphs)

But Woodham-Smith is a more masculine writer than Strachey: more serious, more sober and much more at home with military affairs. It would be wrong to call The Reason Why a pleasure to read, because although it is often is, it treats of horrors both on the battlefield and in civilian life. The Irish Famine played its part in forging the character of Lord Lucan, one of the chief figures in “The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade”, as the subtitle of a modern re-issue of the book puts it. Woodham-Smith later wrote a book called The Great Hunger (1962) about the Famine, but I’m reluctant to read it: what she describes here is horrible enough.

I have, however, read her biography Florence Nightingale (1950), the book that began her career amid an explosion of plaudits. I was disappointed, just as I was by Strachey’s Queen Victoria (1921). Both writers set such high standards in their best work that the rest of it can suffer by comparison. And history is difficult to write well. Against that, however, are the gifts it offers its practitioners: the wholly improbable situations that no writer of fiction could expect his readers to swallow. The Charge of the Light Brigade was like that. Who would invent a concatenation of incompetence, misinterpretation and personal enmity that sends a brigade of cavalry charging down an occupied valley against a battery of artillery?

No-one would invent that. But it is precisely what happened during the Crimean War. If any small link in the chain of causality had broken, the charge would not have been launched. Nor would it have been launched if Lord Lucan had been less stubborn, Lord Cardigan less stupid, Lord Raglan less incompetent and Captain Nolan less impetuous. Nolan was the rider who delivered Raglan’s scribbled order to Lucan, descending hundreds of feet from a perspective where Raglan’s meaning was clear to a spot where it wasn’t clear at all. That was part of why the charge took place. Another part was Nolan’s contempt for Lucan and Nolan’s misinterpretation of the order:

The crucial moment had arrived. Nolan threw back his head, and, “in a most disrespectful and significant manner”, flung out his arm and, with a furious gesture, pointed, not to the Causeway Heights and the redoubts with the captured British guns, but to the end of the North Valley, where the Russian cavalry routed by the Heavy Brigade were now established with their guns in front of them. “There, my lord, is your enemy, there are your guns,” he said, and with those words and that gesture the doom of the Light Brigade was sealed. (ch. 12, pp. 233-4)

So was Nolan’s own doom. Within in a few minutes he himself would be dead, killed by one of the early volleys fired by the Russian guns. He seems to have realized his error and tried to stop the charge, committing “an unprecedented breach of military etiquette” as he overtook Lord Cardigan at the head and shouted with raised sword “as if he would address the Brigade”. Woodham-Smith asks:

Had he suddenly realized that his interpretation of the order had been wrong, and that in his impetuosity he had directed the Light Brigade to certain death? No one will ever know, because at that moment a Russian shell burst on the right of Lord Cardigan, and a fragment tore its way into Nolan’s breast, exposing his heart. The sword fell from his hand, but his right hand was still erect, and his body remained rigid in the saddle. His horse wheeled and began to gallop back through the advancing Brigade, and then from the body there burst a strange and appalling shriek, a shriek so unearthly so to freeze the blood of all who heard him. The terrified horse carried the body, still shrieking, through the 4th Light Dragoons, and then at last Nolan fell from the saddle, dead. (ch. 12, pg. 240)

Nolan was Irish and his death-shriek was like something from Celtic mythology, as though he had been possessed by a spirit of the doom that was about to engulf the splendid ranks of the Light Brigade. And the charge was a mythic occasion: a pointless slaughter enabled not only by the incompetence, stupidity and arrogance of the British officers, but also by the courage, discipline and skill of the men they led:

And now the watchers on the Heights saw that the lines of horsemen, like toys down on the plain, were expanding and contracting with strange mechanical precision. Death was coming fast, and the Light Brigade was meeting death in perfect order; as a man or horse dropped, the riders on each side of him opened out; as soon as they had ridden clear the ranks closed again. Orderly, as if on the parade-ground, the Light Brigade rode on, but its numbers grew every moment smaller and smaller as they moved down the valley. Those on the heights who could understand what that regular mechanical movement meant in terms of discipline and courage were intolerably moved, and one soldier burst into years. It was at this moment that Bosquet, the French General, observed “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” (ch. 12, pg. 242)

But the charge occupies little space in this book, just as it did in the War and the history of the Victorian Age. Woodham-Smith magisterially sets the stage for 232 pages, describing the horrors of the war, the incompetence of the officers, and the courage of the troops that enabled some improbable victories against overwhelming odds. Then she devotes a single chapter to the charge. It was both horrible and glorious, representing both the worst and the best of the British army in Victorian times. And the army represented both the worst and the best of Victorian Britain. Like Eric Ambler, Woodham-Smith can re-create a complex world and its participants on paper. And like Ambler, she is sympathetic to all her characters, from the best to the worst. Strachey mocks and subverts in Eminent Victorians, partly because that was in his nature as a homosexual outsider and partly because he blamed the horrors of the First World War on the legacy of the Victorians.

By 1953, when The Reason Why was published, that legacy was much further in the past, many reforms had taken place, and a second, and much less senseless, world war had been fought by Britain and her allies. Woodham-Smith could be more objective than Strachey. Moreover, men like Lord Cardigan hardly need a satirical or subversive pen: his absurdities speak for themselves. But if you want a humorous take on the Charge of the Light Brigade, I recommend George MacDonald-Fraser’s Flashman at the Charge (1973), in which the bully, coward and liar Flashman is caught up, wholly against his will, in the two astonishing cavalry actions that took place that day: the Charges of both the Light Brigade and the Heavy Brigade.

Neither of them could plausibly be invented by a writer of fiction, but the Charge of the Heavy Brigade was a success, not a tragic farce. That is why it is much less well-remembered. But the Charge of the Light Brigade has never been so well-remembered, or well-explained, as it was by Cecil Woodham-Smith. If you want to know the Reason Why – or the Reasons – then you’ll find them here. You’ll also find an excellent introduction to Victorian England and one of the best military histories ever written.


The Conqueror Term

True story. I saw a copy of Rub Out the Words (2012) on a library shelf. It’s a collection of letters by core counter-cultural colossus William S. Burroughs. I pulled the book off the shelf, opened it, and began to search for a hit of heresiarchal heroin. Exactly 23 seconds later, my eyes fell on this phantasmagoric phraseology:

I do not think a writer should be called upon to defend his work in terms of a legal system that dates back to the middle ages.

I was stunned. Exactly 23 seconds. Well, I didn’t actually time it, but it would have been exactly 23 seconds if you choose the right base. And it was round-about 23 seconds in base 10. So I think reality was trying to tell me something: that Burroughs was part of the Hive Mind. He used a toxic term that good writers shouldn’t use – never, nunca, nohow, nowhere.

And it wasn’t the sole example in the book, I have since learnt. Here, then, are my suggestions for how Burroughs should have rubbed out the offending words and replaced them with something shorter and less vague (the final two examples are by the book’s editor and by someone Burroughs is quoting):

• I do not think a writer should be called upon to defend his work in terms of a legal system that dates back to the middle ages. → in a legal system
• All this is quite possible in terms of existing techniques. → with / by existing techniques
• I am not talking in terms of a thousand years. I am talking in NOW terms. → not talking of a thousand years. I am talking NOW.
• I am thinking in terms of the no-paying far-out magazines like Yugen and Kulchur. → thinking of / about no-paying far-out magazines
• When two or more letters covered the same ground, I selected the best in terms of quality of writing and completeness of thought. → in quality of writing
• Mr Burroughs writes enthusiastically about apomorphine treatment but I do not feel his enthusiasm is justified in terms of published results. → by published results

Okay, there are a lot of letters in the collection and Burroughs himself used “in terms of” only four (or five) times, which isn’t too bad. However, each use is an echt Guardianism, so Burroughs was undoubtedly a victim of the Conqueror Term, like millions of others, then and now. But it isn’t only English-speakers who can be victims of the Conqueror Term: it has infected usage in French too. This is from a speech by the new French president Emmanuel Macron:

… c’est ensuite les routes des trafics multiples qui nécessitent des réponses aussi en termes de sécurité et de coordination régionale … – Emmanuel Macron empêtré dans une folle polémique, Mediaguinee, 10/vii/2017.

… it is then the roads of multiple trafficking which also require answers in terms of security and regional coordination … – French President Emmanuel Macron is in the middle of a social media firestorm, Vox, 10/vii/2017.

The French and English can be shortened in the same way:

• des réponses aussi en termes de sécurité → des réponses aussi en sécurité
• answers in terms of security → in security

Macron, as you’d expect, is part of the Hive Mind too. He and many other Francophones have succumbed to the Conqueror Term, as you can see from these graphs at Google nGrams (“en termes du” behaves in an interesting way):

En termes de

En termes du

But there are vermicides in French too:

Attention, on confond souvent la signification de “en termes de”. Cette expression signifie « dans le vocabulaire de », « dans le langage de » et ne veut pas dire « en ce qui concerne », « en matière de », « sur le plan de ». Cette confusion est sûrement due à l’expression anglaise “in terms of” qui elle a le sens de “en matière de”. Faut-il écrire “en termes de” ou “en terme de” ?, La Langue Française, Nicolas Le Roux, août 31, 2015.

Take care: people often confuse the meaning of “en termes de”. This expression means “in the vocabulary of”, “in the language of”, and does not mean “in what concerns”, “in the matter of”, “after the form of”. This confusion is surely due to the English expression “in terms of”, which has the sense of “in the matter of”. (My translation, so not reliable)

Things were worse than I thought. Pero… ¡La lucha continúa!

Elsewhere other-posted:

Paradigms Loused
The Conqueror Worm — the title of this incendiary intervention is of course a reference to the famous poem by Edgar Allan In Terms Of Poe

Oh My Guardian #3

“A theatre director and therapist, she had been volunteering in Calais since August 2015, initially distributing donations and then running workshops.” — Borderline: the play finding the funny side of the Calais migrant camp, The Guardian, 21/vi/2017.

Previously pre-posted…

Oh My Guardian #1
Oh My Guardian #2
Reds under the Thread

Zo with the Flo

I had high hopes when I engaged issues recently around a Zoe Williams article in the Guardian interrogating issues around notions of rape in popular culture. And Zoe — what a thinker! — nearly fulfilled those hopes. I nearly had another scintillating sample for my award-winning “Oh My Guardian” series. This is nearly a perfect opening for a sentence of echt Guardianese:

In terms of narrative tropes…

But it should of course have been:

In terms of core narrative tropes…

So near — and yet so far. Still, “In terms of narrative tropes” is pretty darn good, worthy of the Great Gary himself. And it prompted me to interrogate issues around one of the core linguistic enigmas of our day. Here are two graphs from Google nGrams:

In terms of (UK English)

In terms of (US English)

What on earth is going on? Why have ITO usage metrics continued to rise in British English while peaking and falling in American English? This hasn’t happened with other core items of progressive English, like “issues around”:

Issues around (UK English)

Issues around (US English)

And “notions of authenticity”:

Notions of authenticity (UK English)

Notions of authenticity (US English)

And “engagement with” (in its progressive sense):

Engagement with (UK English)

Engagement with (US English)

If those keyly core items of Progressivese are “spiking” so healthily on both sides of the Atlantic, why is the even keylier corer “in terms of” not doing so? At least, I would say ITO is keylier corer, but does the ITO fall in America suggest that it isn’t?

Maybe not. One possibility is that “in terms of” has been depreciated in an influential (and anti-progressive) American manual of style that hasn’t been influential in the UK. However, American speakers have failed to see that the same grounds for rejection apply to “issues around” and so on.

But it’s hard to see why American progressive would take any notice of sensible advice about rejecting ITO. It’s also hard to see why the American drop in “in terms of” shouldn’t have influenced the UK even if this hypothetical style-manual (or arbiter) isn’t influential in the UK.

Something mysterious is going on and more research is plainly needed.

Previously pre-posted:

Septics vs Dirties
Get Your Tox Off
Guardianistas — all posts referencizing this core progressive demographic and their glossocentric performativity

Are U Worthy?

If you’re nagged by doubts as to whether you really are a keyly committed core component of the counter-cultural community, then simply engage issues around the following issues…

1. In terms of “in terms of”, how often do you hear this phantasmagoric phrase in terms of a daily basis?

2. Please hierarchialize the following core components of the counter-cultural icon community in terms of their “in-terms-of”-usage metrics: Will Self, J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Alan Moore, Miriam Stimbers, Michael Moorcock, Kathy Acker, Genesis P. Orridge, Alan Ginsberg, Stewart Home, Hubert Selby Jr., Norman Foreman (B.A.). (I.e., if you think Foreman uses “in terms of” most in terms of usage metrics, put him first; if you think Acker uses it second-most, put her second; etc.)

3. Engage issues around 1 and 2 again, replacing “in terms of” with “prior to”…

4. Engage issues around 1 and 2 again, replacing “in terms of” with “issues around”……

5. Engage issues around 1 and 2 again, replacing “in terms of” with “Vote Corbyn”………

Once you’ve engaged issues around the above issues, email your answers to Evaluator!@NakedKrunch and you should have your doubts laid to rest within 23 working days…

Previously pre-posted on Overlord of the Über-Feral…

Les Sez
Don’t Do Dot…
Metricizing Michael…
Terminal Breach
More Termination…

Oh My Guardian #2

“Instead, Mr Comey has rocket-fuelled a venomous contest just when Mr Trump was desperate for a lifeline…” — The Guardian view on the FBI’s Clinton probe: exactly the wrong thing to do

Previously pre-posted…

Oh My Guardian #1
Reds under the Thread

Terminal Breach

It’s said that, if you hear “in terms of” 23 times in 23 hours on the 23rd of the month, the ghost of William Burroughs will appear and offer you a heroin enema.

I don’t know whether this is true.

Elsewhere other-engageable:

William S. Burroughs
Alan Moore, C.B.E.
Michael Moorcock
Will Self
Stewart Home
Cormac McCarthy
Dr Joan Jay Jefferson
Serpent’s Tail
Titans of Trangression

Bash the Pash

An heretical Guardianista keyly critiquizes a core component of Guardianese:

I recently considered nominating for a board position on a professional association to which I belong, so I had a look at the biographical statements of the incumbents. One claimed to be “passionate about helping individuals, businesses, and communities thrive”, another declared “a particular passion for thought leadership and executive profiling”, and another revealed “a passion for social inclusion”. Yet another claimed “a passion about creating valuable career development opportunities for the profession”. The best was the one that stated, without irony, “a passion for working on meaningful projects”.

In days gone by, job applicants listed hobbies. These days, it appears candidates are expected to declare, not merely interests or things they like doing, but things they are allegedly passionate about. — Being enthusiastic is no longer enough. Now we must all be passionate, Paul Begley, The Guardian, 13/vii/2016.

Elsewhere other-engageable:

Reds under the Thread
Titus Graun — Heresy, Homotextuality, Hive-Mind
Oh My Guardian

He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #35

• Las torres de la iglesia de hoy no han sido señalizadas por el clero progresivo con una cruz sino con una señal meteorológica. — Nicolás Gómez Dávila (1913-94)

    • The progressive clergy crowns the towers of the church of today not with a cross but with a weathervane.