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The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday

By (May 12, 2015) No Comment

the vanished pomps of yesterdayOur book today goes by the quintessential Steve-book name of The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday, an utterly delightful 1920 “diplomatic memoir” by Lord Frederic Hamilton, a minor younger son of the Duke of Abercorn who could expect little in the way of any inheritance and so entered the British diplomatic corps and duly shuttled around the world from legation to legation, having a great many adventures that are polished in these pages by Hamilton’s enormous storytelling skills.

And he starts off his reminiscences by looking back wistfully on some legations that have vanished in the harsh light of the modern world:

The tremendous series of events which has changed the face of Europe since 1914 is so vast in its future possibilities, that certain minor consequence of the great upheaval have received but scant notice. Amongst these minor consequences must be included the disappearance of the Courts of the three Empires of Eastern Europe, Russia, Germany, and Austria, with all their glitter and pageantry, their pomp and brilliant mise-en-scene. I will hazard no opinion as to whether the world is the better for their loss or not; I cannot, though, help experiencing a feeling of regret that this prosaic, drab-coloured twentieth century should have definitely lost so strong an element of the picturesque, and should have permanently severed a link which bound it to the traditions of the medieval days of chivalry and romance, with their glowing colour, their splendid spectacular displays, and the feeling of continuity with a vanished past which they inspired.

“A tweed suit and a bowler hat are doubtless more piratical for everyday wear than a doublet and trunk-hose,” he writes. “They are, however, possibly less picturesque.”

Tweed suit or no, Lord Frederic manages to find quite a few picturesque situations as he travels from England to Russia to Berlin to Vienna to Tokyo to Lisbon. He’s caught in “the attire of Adam” in a legation in Brazil; he encounters shoals of pirahna; he attends bullfights and tiger hunts (and a Russian choral performance with Arthur Sullivan), and he sees the busy people of Russia setting up temporary taverns and tea houses on the frozen Neva once the ice was thick enough – and reflects on the oddness of the sight:

A stranger from another planet might have imagined that these buildings were permanent, that the fir trees were really growing, and that wall the life on the frozen river would last indefinitely. Everyone knew, though, with absolute certainty that by the middle of April the ice would break up, and that these little houses, if not removed in time, would be carried away and engulfed in the liberated stream. By May the river would be running again as freely as though these temporary edifices had never been built on it.

We sit down with him while he eats all the exotic meals of the day; we suffer with him when he’s swarmed by mosquitoes; he shudder alongside him at the sight of enormous alligators lolling in the shallows – indeed, when he declares simply that the three things he hates are “sharks, snakes, and earthquakes,” who can argue? What traveler hasn’t felt the same?

Like in his other books (this author really deserves to be back in print – he scarcely knows how to write a dull sentence), Lord Frederic routinely breaks into broader observations that are always interesting, grounded on experiences that were exceptional even for his fellow world-travelers of the day. His summings-up are a lucy reads hamilton 2particular favorite of mine:

I have seen most of the surface of this globe, and I say deliberately, without any fear of contradiction, that nowhere is there anything approaching Rio in beauty. The glorious bay, two hundred miles in circumference, dotted with islands, and surrounded by mountains of almost grotesquely fantastic outlines, the whole clothed with exuberantly luxurious tropical vegetation, makes the most lovely picture that can be conceived.

Lord Frederic frames his book explicitly with a mild lament for a vanished world, little guessing how much of the tweed suit and bowler hat world he looked upon when he wrote this book would likewise vanish, particularly after a war that would dwarf the “tremendous series of events” so fresh in his mind. Reading through these wonderful pages, I couldn’t help but reflect that diplomatic memoirs like this one have likewise almost disappeared from the world. Maybe not vanished pomps, but vanished all the same.