Two decades ago I invented a pair of detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May. A reader pointed out that a real-life counterpart, Sir Arthur Wynn Morgan Bryant, spoke at my alma mater, and the choice of nomenclature suddenly seemed no coincidence. Had I met him and forgotten? He was a historian of the old school, a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and The Illustrated London News, much admired by Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson. Why did he fall from favour?
Born in 1899, the son of a knight who was the chief clerk to the Prince of Wales, Bryant grew up in a house beside Buckingham Palace Gardens. Armed with a powerful sense of social justice and a passionate zeal for British history, he was convinced that education held the key to national improvement. Cutting a dashing, chivalrous figure, he flew bombers in the First World War, then returned to talk debutantes into helping him teach the poorest children of slum London. After training as a barrister he became the youngest headmaster in England. He married a baronet's daughter, published an acclaimed biography of Charles II and founded the National Book Association. His three-volume life of Pepys was considered to be a superlative historical biography.
But there was a darker side looming; as a hardline Conservative with an ingrained belief in patrician rule, Bryant ill-advisedly wrote a foreword to the English edition of Mein Kampf in 1939, praising Hitler and concluding that the Third Reich was good for Germany. When he realised he had gone too far, he tried to buy up all the unsold copies. In his study of late Teutonic history, Unfinished Victory and subsequent volumes, he really overstepped the mark by comparing Hitler to Napoleon. It was said that his writing helped lift British patriotism, and his books, essays and columns formed a formidable body of work that proved popular and readable. However, he was criticised for skimping on his research, and drew vociferous detractors who accused him of vulgarising history, retaining Nazi sympathies, and being a traitor to his country (he considered Churchill a warmonger).
For all this, Bryant's late works The Turn of the Tide and The Triumph in the West are considered key volumes to understanding the British military in wartime. He's now out of print, whereas his fictional namesake has a new book out this week (shameless plug).
'Bryant & May and the Invisible Code', by Christopher Fowler, is published by Transworld.
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