Reviewed: 1913 - the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson

In search of lost time.

1913: the World Before the Great War
Charles Emmerson
Bodley Head, 544pp, £25

Not many saw the bloodbath coming and it wasn’t inevitable. One of the great merits of Charles Emmerson’s global panorama is to show events in the months leading up to the summer of 1914 as something other than a precursor to mass slaughter. You didn’t have to be quite as mistaken as the University of California president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who in 1911 nominated Kaiser Wilhelm II for the Nobel Peace Prize, to think that things were going well enough.

The three kingly cousins who ruled a third of the world –Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II and King George V –met in Berlin and the crowds cheered. A few years earlier, Britain and France had replaced their deeply entrenched rivalry with an entente cordiale. The Economist, never frightened of a bit of prediction, thought that it was “an expression of tendencies which are slowly but surely making war between the civilised communities of the world an impossibility”. Note the civilised world bit – because virtually nobody in power in Europe on the eve of a European-made war thought that the continent’s empires were anything other than a reflection of moral superiority, as well as military power.

Emmerson starts with a tour of Europe’s major cities but this is largely a device for a series of potted and fairly orthodox histories of each country, stretching back 50 years or so – Germany and Italy since their respective unifications, France under the Third Republic, the Habsburg empire since Hungary and Austria formed the dual monarchy, and so on. The obvious neuroses, as well as the complacencies, of the mighty are described and analysed. Britain, though still top dog, was weakening fast, enervated by the Irish Home Rule crisis and suffragette violence that posed a serious enough threat in 1913 to close many of London’s major tourist attractions. France, meanwhile, was obsessed with its declining population and Berlin’s modernity. Emmerson also points out that some of the more reactionary regimes – notably Russia and the Ottoman empire – were enjoying an economic boom. Their crises were born as much out of growth as political decrepitude.

Emmerson sprays his book with quotations, many of them too long. Some hit the mark, however, such as this from Walter Hines Page, the US ambassador to Britain, in a letter to Woodrow Wilson: “We are in the international game . . . in the inevitable way to leadership and to cheerful mastery in the future; and everybody knows that we are in it but us.” That is acute. Then there’s this from Lenin: “Capitalism has triumphed all over the world.” (Perhaps in the long term he had a point.)

There are other surprises. Argentina was seen by many as a new United States, with Buenos Aires a world city adored by City of London investors and brimming with artistic life; its engineers lectured around the Old World on the back of the construction of a spanking new underground system. Winnipeg, the largest grain centre in the Americas, was a cosmopolitan hub and similarly poised for greatness. By contrast, Tehran is described as a hellhole, in a much worse state than Bombay, Algiers or even Mexico City, then in the grip of civil war.

There is some attempt at discussing painting, literature and architecture but it’s a bit half-hearted: 1913 was the year of the riot in Paris on the opening night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring but Emmerson barely mentions it. Proust published the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was translated into English. Yet we are none the wiser about their impact.

Emmerson, reasonably enough, does not peddle an overarching thesis to link his individual portraits of cities, states and empires but he is good on racial fears and tensions – and not only in the context of European colonialism. Wilson, who could do sanctimony on a grand scale, presided willingly over a deterioration of the position of African Americans in the federal government. Gandhi, who was still in South Africa, fought his first big successful campaign of passive resistance on behalf of the country’s Indians but was not much concerned with the plight of the black population, whose limited land rights were eroded even further in 1913.

In California, ethnic Japanese similarly found their property rights curtailed but, back in Tokyo, the Japanese were only too keen to insult, at the highest level, the Chinese or Mongolians.

Naturally, the shadow of 1914 is present much of the time – it could hardly be otherwise. Yet, occasionally, the world of 1913 throws up something satisfyingly contemporary – and none better than this from a French author arriving in New York who noted the questioning style of US customs and immigration. “Are you an anarchist? Are you a polygamist? Are you an idiot? Have you ever shown signs of mental alienation?” The war changed most things – but not everything.

Mark Damazer is the Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford and a former controller of BBC Radio 4

An "electric brougham" in Waterloo Place in London in 1913. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.