David Gilmour

David Gilmour is the author of Curzon, The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling and Victorians in India.

‘Certain families,’ Kipling wrote in his story ‘The Tomb of His Ancestors’, ‘serve India generation after generation as dolphins follow in line across the open sea.’ It was common indeed for three generations of the same family to spend their careers in India; often it was four, sometimes five, occasionally six. A number of Britons (or Anglo-Indians as they...

Ariel the Unlucky

David Gilmour, 5 April 1990

1982 was a critical time for the authors of all four of these books. It was the year of Ariel Sharon’s most sanguinary foreign venture, which ended in massacre, failure, and a measure of disgrace. For the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, it was the year ‘the Land of Israel’ died in Lebanon, while for him personally it aroused feelings of alienation, the sense of being an exile in his own land. For Thomas Friedman, a Jewish American journalist, the refugee camp atrocities produced ‘something of a personal crisis’ and tore away ‘every illusion’ he had ‘ever held about the Jewish state’. And for Robert Fisk, who no longer had illusions about that or anything else, it was a year in which he escaped death a score of times and lived to produce some of the most memorable journalism of the decade.

Gentlemen’s Gentlemen

David Gilmour, 8 February 1990

Novels dealing with childhood memory are frequently said to be ‘Proustian’. Those describing the decline of an aristocracy are likely to be labelled ‘Lampedusian’. The people responsible for these ugly, usually unsuitable adjectives are sometimes reviewers but more often the culprits are publishers. A successful novel from last year was described on the cover as reminiscent of Lampedusa, chiefly because it took place in a part of Southern Italy (as it happens, the wrong part).


David Gilmour, 23 November 1989

Camilo Jose Cela, the recent Nobel Prizewinner, remarked a few years ago that Spain remained ‘excessive’ in all things. ‘This country either destroys you or it puts you on its altars.’ Spanish excesses, the contrasts of landscape and architecture, the sensuality and austerity that exist side by side, often in the same person, have long appealed to outsiders. So have the mysticism and irrationality, the violence of politics, the idealism and barbarism of the Civil War. ‘Spain is different,’ said the Francoists in justification of their denial of human rights and democratic principles: it was not suited to representative government. Everyone else disagreed, rightly, while at the same time hoping that the country would retain its differences. Spain’s contrasts and contradictions were too interesting to be sacrificed for the sake of European conformity.


David Gilmour, 1 June 1989

Hitchens was right to go West. He needed lusher plains of political corruption across which to spread himself. He needed a country of wide horizons and myopic international vision. And he needed an administration of almost limitless power and quite exceptional stupidity. Then he could be happy, indulging in the lethal, jugulating kind of journalism at which he excels.

Blood Ba’th

David Gilmour, 2 February 1989

Few countries were less promising for aspiring politicians than Syria in the Sixties. To begin with, the chances of merely staying alive during the political struggles were not high. Then, even if you managed to avoid death, there was a high risk of imprisonment or exile. In any case, it was not enough to belong to the victorious political party or even to the triumphant faction of the victorious political party. You had to be a member of a tiny committee of a splinter of a faction of a greatly divided organisation, the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party, known as the Ba’th. Then at least you had a two-to-one chance (against you) between elimination and success. If you chose one straw (Muhammad Umran’s), you would be dead; if you chose a second (Salah Jadid’s), you would still be in prison; and if you chose a third, you would be Asad. A Roman emperor of the third century had more chance of honourable retirement than a Syrian Ba’thist leader in the Sixties.

Diary: In Spain

David Gilmour, 5 January 1989

‘Now we are just another European state,’ said a friend in Seville. ‘We are a country without ideals and beliefs. The passions have all gone. People are interested only in making money and being comfortable. They want to make us a third-rate America.’

Cleansing the Galilee

David Gilmour, 23 June 1988

The Palestinian refugee problem was created forty years ago and seems no nearer a solution as it enters its fifth decade. The 750,000 people who left their towns and villages in 1948 have multiplied to three million, many of them still concentrated in refugee camps in or close to their former homeland, the rest dispersed throughout the Arab world and beyond. Their problem remains unsolved today for the simple reason that both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict have always denied responsibility for its creation. Their views, expressed interminably and without variation over the years, are incompatible and indeed opposite.

Fusi’s Franco

David Gilmour, 4 February 1988

Francisco Franco’s uprising in 1936 provoked powerful emotional reactions in Europe and aggravated the continent’s political divisions. Nearly three years later he completed his conquest of Spain on the eve of a war which engulfed the whole of Europe and led to the destruction of his principal international allies. The circumstances of his rebellion, coupled with European events over the following decade, have since made it difficult for writers to look objectively at Franco’s rule. Dogmatic opinions, raucously expressed, were long used as a substitute for rational judgment: perceived as either a brutal fascist or a crusader on a white horse, Franco himself was almost wholly concealed by swags of propaganda. The ‘biographies’ which appeared in his lifetime could generally be divided into three categories: the hagiographic, the vitriolic and the subtly partisan. None of them made much effort to penetrate the man’s personality and almost all were written from a clear political position. Writers in the first category, for example, were fond of spraying their eulogies with ridiculous claims: Franco’s Spain, declared one of them in the Fifties, was ‘an oasis of order, peace, prosperity and tranquillity in a world of fear’.

Two of the finest works of post-war Sicilian fiction were published in Italy in 1958: Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard and Leonardo Sciascia’s Sicilian Uncles, a collection of three (in subsequent editions four) stories dealing with themes from Sicily’s history and experience of foreign intervention which had also interested Lampedusa. Sciascia, however, did not see any connection between the two books. In a review of Lampedusa’s novel he accused the dead prince of having had a ‘congenital and sublime indifference’ towards the peasants and of sharing his protagonist’s view of them as ants. Unlike Verga, who could not finish La Duchessa di Leyra because he was unable to manage aristocratic dialogue, Lampedusa could not make the poor talk because he knew nothing about them. Even worse, he understood little about Sicilian history. It was absurd, according to Sciascia, for Lampedusa’s Don Fabrizio to talk about Sicilians in the days of the ‘Muslim imams’ as if their character had hardly changed over the subsequent millennium – a perfectly reasonable point, though one that came oddly from Sciascia, who in a contemporary essay on Pirandello was writing: ‘Undoubtedly the inhabitants of the island of Sicily began to behave like Sicilians after the Arab conquest.’’

Diary: On Richard Cobb

David Gilmour, 21 May 1987

I first met Richard Cobb at my Balliol interview one late evening in December 1970. The encounter was, by any measurement, a failure. In the ‘interests’ section of my entrance form, I had made the mistake of declaring membership of the Committee for Freedom in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea. Cobb, who was plainly bored at having to conduct interviews after dinner, asked me brusquely which liberation group in Angola I supported and why. When I admitted having heard only of the MPLA, he recited the initials of the others and then turned to the Révolte Nobiliare: what, in my opinion, did its leaders really want? I couldn’t remember who the leaders were, let alone what they were after, and a difficult silence followed until Maurice Keen asked me about the battle of Waterloo. What should have been a straightforward discussion ended in surly disagreement about whether or not Wellington had been unduly cautious about his right flank, and I left the room convinced that I would be seeing no more of Cobb or Balliol. A week later my school received a letter from the senior history fellow saying that I had passed in spite of a Latin paper which was so bad that I needed coaching: ‘to soften the blow,’ he added, astonishingly, ‘perhaps you could tell him how much we enjoyed hearing about Angola.’

Eden and Suez

David Gilmour, 18 December 1986

Writing at the end of the Thirties, George Orwell remarked that the British ruling class had decayed so much that the time had come ‘when stuffed shirts like Eden and Halifax could stand out as men of exceptional talent’: It was an unfair comment, though not so unfair as his description of Baldwin as ‘a hole in the air’: yet it conveyed the view, subsequently shared by many, that with Eden the facade was more important than the interior, the appearance more impressive than the reality. People recognised his ability as a negotiator, skilfully handling diplomatic problems with the support of the Foreign Office, but it was widely held that in politics he was a bit of a lightweight, a ‘natural number two’ who should never have become prime minister. John Grigg wrote of him before the Suez crisis: ‘Popularity means much more to him than it ever should mean to a statesman. Since the early days, when he was idolised by millions on account of his personal appearance and blameless views, he has never lost the temperament and outlook of a prima donna. He still smiles the same ingratiating smile, peddles the same innocuous platitudes.’

Conor Cruise O’Zion

David Gilmour, 19 June 1986

Conor Cruise O’Brien has enjoyed a career of variety and distinction: diplomat, politician, man of letters, an expert on Africa, Irish history and French literature. International affairs have interested him since his UN days in the late Fifties, when his ideas were close to Sartre’s. In a book on Camus published in 1970, O’Brien berated Camus for not supporting Sartre: had he done so, together they ‘would have rallied opinion more decisively and earlier against imperialist wars, not only in Algeria, but also in Indo-China-Vietnam and elsewhere’.

Sicilian Vespers

David Gilmour, 19 September 1985

In the courtyard of the Villa Lampedusa, a few miles from Palermo, Frisian cows pick their way carefully through the rubble. Their home is a wasteland of defunct objects: broken boxes, squashed petrol cans, a clutter of old bath tubs. The villa itself is deserted, its broken shutters creaking with languor in the hot afternoon breeze. The façade is cracked and pockmarked, the stucco has faded to a mild ochre, but the Rococo ceilings are still intact – delicate, highly-wrought arrangements of fruit and flowers.


Ian Gilmour and David Gilmour, 7 February 1985

The most appealing Zionist slogan has always been ‘the land without a people, waiting for the people without a land’. What, in that case, could be more natural than for Palestine to become the land of the Jews? The trouble was that the epigram was not true: Palestine already had a people. On belatedly discovering this, Max Nordau, Herzl’s friend and follower, exclaimed to his leader: ‘we are committing an injustice.’ Much later Arthur Ruppin, who directed Zionist colonisation in the 1920s, warned ‘that Herzl’s concept of a Jewish state was only possible because he ignored the presence of the Arabs.’ Undeterred, Zionists continued to implement what in other circumstances might have been the wholly creditable objective of ruling Palestine and colonising it with Jews. Yet in the circumstances which actually existed – a country already populated with Palestinian Arabs – the building of a Jewish state involved not just brave pioneering or even ordinary imperialism but the displacement of most of the indigenous population and the subordination of the rest. The basic falsity of the slogan has remained to plague political Zionism.’

Amit Chaudhuri writes that ‘the British Empire may have showered Kipling with honours’ and later refers to his ‘public honours’. In fact no writer was ever more scrupulous about rejecting honours, public or imperial. Among others, he refused to become the Poet Laureate, a Companion of Honour, a knight (he was offered both the KCB and the KCMG) or a Member of the British Academy....
S.J. Fisher complained in your last issue that I should not have discussed ‘the rise of Israeli “thug-ism"’ without mentioning the hostility of Israel’s thug-like Arab neighbours.’ I was not discussing ‘the rise of Israeli “thug-ism" ’ but reviewing the autobiography of one particular thug, Sharon, and I saw no need to consider other delinquents. In any...
David Gilmour writes: How kind of this gifted historian to remind you that it was I who ‘decided that the Golan Heights belong to Syria.’ Some of your readers had probably forgotten how T.S. Eliot and I arranged the matter with Balfour and Lloyd George during the war. Later, of course, we managed to fix Woodrow Wilson and old Clemenceau as well, and from then on it was too easy. We were...

So Much to Hate: Rudyard Bloody Kipling

Bernard Porter, 25 April 2002

Kipling is an easy man to dislike. He wasn’t much loved in his own time, apparently, even by people – schoolmates, for example, and neighbours in Vermont – with whom he thought...

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Dear George

Jonathan Parry, 22 December 1994

A building inhabited by George Nathaniel Curzon became a building with a history – one written by himself. Envisaging his own presence there as the latest episode in a colourful pageant of...

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Homage to the Provinces

Michael Wood, 28 May 1992

The funicular railway takes you to the top of the mountain with the strange name: a nonsense word, a child’s burble, Tibidabo. You see the city of Barcelona spread out beneath you; beyond...

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Patrick Parrinder, 7 November 1991

David Craig has an unfashionable concern with truth-telling in fiction. In his earlier role as a literary critic, he wrote a book called The Real Foundations in which he showed how some of the...

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Villa Lampedusa

Marina Warner, 5 January 1989

In The Leopard, the prince embraces Angelica at the moment of her engagement to his nephew Tancredi, ‘and he felt as if by those kisses he were taking possession of Sicily once more, of the...

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It’s as if he’d never existed

Anthony Pagden, 18 July 1985

As Franco lay dying in the winter of 1975 wild conjectures circulated in Madrid as to what would happen when the old dictator who had already been twice rescued from what had looked like certain...

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Permission to narrate

Edward Said, 16 February 1984

As a direct consequence of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon an international commission of six jurists headed by Sean MacBride undertook a mission to investigate reported Israeli...

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