Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young: Personality before policy

Hurd and Young try to separate the public and private strands of Disraeli's career to work out how he made it to "the top of the greasy pole", writes Michael Prodger.

Disraeli: or the Two Lives
Douglas Hurd and Edward Young
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 320pp, £20
 
If ever a politician exemplified the precedence of personality above policy, it was Benjamin Disraeli. He may be remembered as the founder of One Nation Toryism (a phrase he never used) and the imperialist who made Queen Victoria Empress of India, but the rest of his political beliefs have been obscured by the vividness of his character.
 
As a novelist, dandy and orator he makes his great opponent, William Gladstone, seem dully one-dimensional. Admittedly, few people read his novels today but the idea of a prime minister producing 18 popular works of fiction seems, in this narrowminded age, nothing less than extraordinary.
 
The aim of Douglas Hurd and his established writing partner Edward Young is to separate the public and private strands of Disraeli’s career into a pair of brief lives in order to see how he made it to “the top of the greasy pole”. The phrase is, of course, one of Disraeli’s innumerable quips: indeed he has 88 entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations while his nearest challenger in terms of cultural roundedness, Winston Churchill, has just over 50. This verbal sprezzatura, as the authors point out, was one of the cornerstones of his character – a Boris Johnson but with substance.
 
Disraeli stated his political position early when he first stood for parliament as a radical in 1832: “Toryism is worn out & I cannot condescend to be a Whig.” So he helped mould a new Conservative Party – and led it twice to government as prime minister – when the Peelites split in the wake of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. It was helpful that he possessed a valuable attribute: he was “almost immune to slights on his personal honour”. Hurd and Young track the complexities of his career deftly while pointing out that although his governments did much to help the working class, Disraeli himself was no democrat.
 
They are perhaps more interesting, though, on his personality, one that sought “emotional support and political encouragement” rather than love or intellectual equality. Theirs is a concise but balanced assessement, full of bracing comment, on a man who “was always less interested in other people than he was in himself”.
 
Michael Prodger is former literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph
 
Disraeli at rest: The idea of a prime minister who is also a popular novelist would be pretty hard to imagine today. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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