This and that

Sunday, 22 November

I’ve regarded Anthony Trollope as a lightweight Victorian author, the favourite literary tipple of various establishment figures of dubious repute. But I’m about to start the fourth of his six-volume Barchester chronicles and have changed my mind about him. He is a perceptive observer of social relationships, especially the aristocracy with its belief in breeding and blood and their attitudes to the nouveau riche, regarded as not quite gentlefolk but whose competence and money make an impression.

His focus, as might be expected from his background, is sharpest on the lower echelons of the landowning class, the nouveau riche and the rising professionals, stigmatised by their need to earn a living. Dukes appear in his prose but are not centre stage nor  is there much focus on the “common folk”. They flit in and out, carrying things for their employers, at times serving much the same function in the narrative as Shakespeare’s comic relief scenes. It would be interesting to note systematically how these characters are handled and compare it say with Thomas Hardy’s treatment of the “lower orders” and perhaps other Victorian authors. The word “trope” is clamouring for my attention here but I haven’t integrated it in my active vocabulary yet.

I have Richard Mullen’s biography of Trollope on my bookshelf, picked up I believe in some charity bookshop and inscribed to Mama on her 86th birthday.  It would be great if incoming books were accompanied by a provenance, to tell us about their history, the hands through which they have passed and the effect that they have had. It would be fun to concentrate the books with suspected interesting histories on one shelf of my library!

My reading of Trollope has resonated with me as I’ve recently read Philip Augar’s The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism. He describes the effects of the Big Bang on the City of London and how the traditional British merchant banks have disappeared, either taken over by US or European institutions and no longer identifiable as corporate entities, or collapsed like Barings. The opening of the City of London to foreign competition and changing the rules so that brokers could also become principals and not just agents, meant that size became much more important. The US banks with their deep resources of capital made their presence felt, outcompeting the British institutions in their ability to bear losses and risk and pay inflated salaries to attract the best folk. But Augur also points to the effect of social/class relationships in the UK as the title of his book “The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism” might indicate. The Big Bang opened up the City of London so that it was no longer the preserve of the public school educated upper middle classes. He refers to the far superior training and work ethic of the incoming American institutions.

The brokers and jobbers of  the pre-Big Bang City of London worked as agents for the principals who owned the assets. While well funded for their then purpose, they did not have control of such deep pools of capital as their US competitors. And as they were not owners,  they were not either so well schooled in the assessment of risk, especially not with regard to sometimes complicated new risk management products. The big commercial banks, NatWest and Barclays etc. could have gone some way towards filling that gap. There was potential for at least one or a few UK-owned investment banks. Some big European banks managed that – including the Deutsche Bank, Dresdner Bank and Swiss UBS. They became established and could compete despite coming from outside without initial access to traditional knowledge and networks. The British-owned banks didn´t. Most of them scaled down their involvement with various degrees of burnt fingers.

Augur points to the importance of cultural factors in the inability of traditional City institutions to make an alliance with the commercial banks; the reluctance of the commercial banks to interfere with the independence of the brokers and jobbers they had recruited, tending to shy away when confronted by the confident upper middle class/public school ethos of the broking firms they had taken over, a confidence that was often misplaced as these broking firms had fatal gaps in their competence.

The firms owned by commercial banks which had taken over broking and jobbing firms and their staff are described as uneasy places, the different components from different traditions quite simply did not get on and it played a role in their demise.

I had this in mind when reading Trollope; the long-term effect of there not being a clear bourgeois revolution in Britain as there had been in France after 1789. How the landowning aristocracy endured, unwillingly obliged to open its ranks to those distinguished by achievement and money rather than blood and breeding. But none the less still having a huge effect on the cultural values and competence of the UK establishment, which continues to this day, the aristocracy as the Achilles heel of the British bourgeoisie, its negative effects masked for long by the power of the British Empire but much less so now.

Back from these sublime heights to me, I have been pleased that I could read two of the three Trollope novels on my Kindle. I find it works very well for reading novels, which is useful as beds are poorly designed as far as having a good surface to make notes and storage of works of reference (I’m working on this problem…..).

There were some new words in Trollope.  The usual collection of words for horse-drawn conveyances. I have got as far as knowing that a barouche is a considerably larger and heavier construction than a fly. And legal words relating to land ownership; I now know that “jointure” is (was perhaps?) an estate settled on a wife for the period that she survives a husband. But my favourite new word, which I regrettably failed to note the source of, is “sesquipedalian”.  This is a word with a pedigree originating from the Latin “sesquipedalis” meaning a foot and a half, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary.

It now means polysyllabic, long (characterised by long words), long-winded  For me, it was love at first sight, almost as much a coup de foudre as serendipitous and I eager await the first opportunity to use it (not altogether easy in these conditions of isolation as muttering “this is a bit sesquipedalian” when talking to oneself feels a bit cumbersome).

I am making a catalogue for my library, putting it in better order and weeding out duplicates for sending to my country house or to another good home. Shelf marks would be a step too far but when I’ve finished my catalogue, I shall number my shelves and perhaps attempt to master how to make a database so that I can see immediately from any location what I have here on particular topics.

I’d like to go through the collections of Carolina Rediviva and the other libraries in Uppsala to make a note of what they have on some specific subjects dear to my heart but that’s a later project (hopefully).

I am keeping my head well down until covid’s second wave has abated, avoiding contact with other people as much as I can. The other day, shunning the bus, I walked into the city to take my influenza jab. I’ve instructed Santa to use my company box address and not my home address for any parcels, as the company post office is a peaceful place compared with the seething mass of humanity clustered around the post office counter at my local shop. I keep thinking of the mediaeval knight in Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal, playing chess with the grim reaper……

And I’m preparing for Christmas at a record early date so that a motorbike from Amazon has already driven up the track to my relatives’ house in India long before Advent.

I’m looking forward to the New Year, to closing accounts on 2020, which has been a difficult hand to play. I always enjoy the feeling of being at the beginning of something rather than the end and my spirits rise after the festive season. But if Covid abates in the New Year as we all hope, the usual pleasure of the approaching spring will probably feel overpowering. I would like to be in Dorset then to travel through the round hills west of Dorchester, seeing the ancient landscape open up around me as I travel west on the A35. Then perhaps to walk up to the top of Golden Cap, the highest cliff on the South Coast and sit there early in the morning to feel that life has returned (not on a Sunday as the buses don’t run then….).

2 thoughts on “This and that”

  1. As someone who has read well over forty of Trollope’s novels, I think that he is simply the best, although Hardy runs him close.
    I agree that usually the lower orders do not get much of a look in but I guess he knew what he knew.
    Given your interest in the City and capitalism, I would recommend reading his ‘The Way We Live Now’. Indeed, afterwards, you may wish to try to get hold of the DVD of the BBC series based on the novel – something for those long winter Swedish evenings perhaps?

  2. Hi John
    Thanks for the tip. I googled the book you mention and will read it after i’ve finished the Barchester chronicles. I’m reading Richard Mullen’s biography of Trollope. I’m glad you like Trollope . It feels comfortable to have you as a co-admirer rather than, for example, John Major!
    Belated congratulations on yout recent upgrade to version 75. Can we expect any exciting new functionalities? Best regards Dave

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