The great Italian historian, Arnoldo Momigliano, could, his admirers said, make history "out of two used bus tickets" . Patrick Wright can not only do the same; he proves that the litter, the ruins, the rusty old vehicles of the past are our most trustworthy records of the heap of hope, deathliness and mendacity which is history. What's more, he adduces such proofs in some of the most vigorous, ironic and generous-hearted prose of any historian of our day.
In On Living in an Old Country, he described both method and vision for an English historian of patriotic feeling and a caustic, unsentimental eye. In The Village that Died for England, he retraced the passages of left and right, heavy artillery and the infantry of peace, across the once-exquisite Dorset hamlet of Tyneham. In A Journey Through Ruins, ironically dedicated to Baroness Thatcher, Wright dramatises unexpected heroes and villains of the present as they struggle over the archaeological debris of lost London. And in the classic Tank, he contrives a grand tapestry not only of the infernal machine itself, but its origins in the massive engineering of the Victorians, and its elephantine mutation into the key emblem of desert victory and metropolitan repression.
Now, this magnificent new book remakes history out of Churchill's canonical speech at Fulton, Missouri in 1946. Wright goes all the way back to the "iron curtains" which, once installed, saved London theatres from fire. By way of the father of a cousin, a Labour MP of the 1920s called Charles Roden Buxton, and a forgotten ghost-story writer and historian called Violet Paget, he pursues the metaphor of the iron curtain in the innumerable uses of the term as the Russian Revolution descended into Stalinism, and the Anglophone left and right lined up to praise or bury the body of Communism.
He hitches a vivid ride on the trains of trade-union and Labour delegations as they were infamously led by the nose around the 1920s Soviet Union, past the starving kulaks during the sanctioned atrocity of the famine in the early 1930s, deriding George Bernard Shaw and the unfortunate Webbs as the vainest and most gullible figures in a stiff competition for self-delusion among the fellow-travellers. Meanwhile, releasing neither side from grim responsibilities for the casting and hammering of the damnable curtain, Wright counterposes to the antique left Churchill himself: easily the most prominent forge-master long before he declared Cold War in Missouri, and was crazily commemorated by the Americans who crated up a blitzed Wren church and reassembled it in a small Missouri town.
The detail of the church is a typical bit of treasure found by Wright's signature archaeology. He has devised a new historical form of glimpses, fragments, overlooked but authoritative memoirs, and journalism, of strange and well-chosen aperçus, quotations and cartoons. Rearranged in a startling new narrative, they together comprise a new constitution of the iron-clad frame of mind. He persuades us, by way of his multitudinous and teeming book, that all hands worked to manufacture and lower the iron curtain deep into national sensibilities after 1917. He teaches us that the European imagination has required such an obstacle running more or less, as Churchill said in Fulton, from "Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic" (Wright's retelling of that fated occasion is a marvel of vitality), and that, moreover, the bloody thing is still standing.
Wright ends with no comfort for London, Washington or Moscow. For what he has reanimated is the endless human making of delusion and prejudice, tightly manacled by cast-iron metaphor. He has proved himself one of that small body of noble writers who, in EM Forster's excellent phrase, present to his readers exactly what it is "to march to our destiny by catchwords".
Fred Inglis's books include 'The Cruel Peace: everyday life in the Cold War' (Basic Books)
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