DEBTS OF HONOUR by Michael Foot


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After the riots, after The Wedding, some British mettle. As Harrison Salisbury writes in an introductory toast, there is no one in American public life as steeped in literature and history as Michael Foot: ex-Fleet Streeter, long a democratic Socialist, since 1980 leader of the Labour Party. In these 14 passionate, knife-edged essays, Foot pays tribute to other literary-cum-political figures--all of them, regardless of creed, iconoclasts. His father, fiery Liberal M.P. Isaac Foot: scourge of tyranny and drink, and ""bibliophilial drunkard."" (""When each member of the family was ready to leave home, the parting could be borne. Valuable wall space was released. Wordsworth or Napoleon or Montaigne or Dr. Johnson could at last have a room of his own, like John Milton."") Essayist William Hazlitt: ""He gave to the English Left a perspective and philosophy as widely ranging as Burke had given to the English Right."" (He was also, self-confessedly, ""the very fool of love"": Foot makes a touching tableau of his meeting with Stendhal, ""who understood his predicament with Sarah so much better than his own countrymen."") Later, some stout-hearted contemporaries: Hyde Park orator Bonar Thompson; ""philosopher-Englishman' Bertrand Russell; political journalist H. N. Brailsford; cartoonist Vicky; anti-Stalinist/unyielding Socialist Ignazio Silone. And--in major pieces--some heroic forebears: Tom Paine, Defoe, Swift. But also, among these cynosures, the disreputable ""Randolph"": ""A Churchill who scarcely ever tasted victory, and what super-Churchillian courage that must have taken."" The one woman, intriguingly, is another disparaged Churchill: Sarah--for her mastery of ""sharp, hard,"" plain writing and her fierce political good-sense. Along those lines too, of championing the elsewhere-scorned (and politically incompatible), are the two long central pieces: ""The Good Tory,"" on Disraeli, and ""The Case for Beelzebub,"" on press-lord Max Beaverbrook. The Disraeli essay, triggered by a biographer ""who dares to assert that Disraeli lacked imagination,"" encompasses the ""comic genius"" of Disraeli's novels as critiques of British society. The memoir of Beaverbrook--Foot's employer, mentor, antagonist--is an exuberant salute to a ""rampaging individualist."" Strong words, altogether--in ringing prose.

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 1981
Publisher: Harper & Row