Absent Friends: Ashley Redburn 1914-1996: “England Hath Need of Thee”

Absent Friends: Ashley Redburn 1914-1996: “England Hath Need of Thee”

This trib­ute to an extra­or­di­nary Churchillian was writ­ten twen­ty-three years ago in 1997. Please par­don ref­er­ences to con­tem­po­rary events no longer in the news, though it would seem that some oth­er Red­burn thoughts are star­tling­ly relevant.

Ashley Redburn, Anglo-American

Cyn­ics some­times sug­gest that West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion needs a war every few gen­er­a­tions to main­tain its sense of val­ues and faith in itself. Ash­ley Red­burn was a man who believed it. “Eng­land,” he declared grim­ly, “needs to be con­quered in war and occu­pied by a venge­ful ene­my before its spir­it can be revived. Ger­many and France between them have ruined Europe for two cen­turies. They are now gang­ing up to sub­ju­gate the con­ti­nent. [Britain had just signed the Maas­tricht Treaty.] Per­haps it doesn’t mat­ter. Some­where in the uni­verse there must be oth­er beings who are mak­ing a bet­ter test of things than the inhab­i­tants of this plan­et. You and I will nev­er know, but two gen­er­a­tions hence, they may.”

Win­ston Churchill was an hon­orary Amer­i­can cit­i­zen. Ash­ley Red­burn would resist the com­par­i­son, but he in his own way also deserved that hon­or. A friend, goes the say­ing, is some­one who knows all about you but likes you. Ash­ley knew all about Amer­i­cans, and liked them despite what he knew. There was nev­er in Ash­ley a hint of that odd com­bi­na­tion of envy and scorn dis­played toward Amer­i­cans by cer­tain for­eign­ers, some clos­er than Eng­land. Equal­ly there was no hint of the over­bear­ing way some Amer­i­cans treat foreigners.

* * *

Mark Twain intro­duced the Anglo-Amer­i­can Churchill to a New York audi­ence in 1901: “Mr Churchill by his father is an Eng­lish­man, by his moth­er he is an Amer­i­can, no doubt a blend that makes the per­fect man. Eng­land and Amer­i­ca, we are kin. And now that we are also kin in sin, there is noth­ing more to be desired. The har­mo­ny is per­fect, like Mr. Churchill him­self, whom I now have the hon­our to present to you.” Red­burn knew all about “kin in sin” of the two fra­ter­nal nations. Rep­re­sent­ing any­thing less than his frank views, which were not opti­mistic, would be dis­re­spect­ful to his memory.

Ash­ley main­tained that nowa­days “the bulk of the best work on the study of Churchill is being done by Amer­i­can aca­d­e­mics.” Cit­ing such excep­tions as Sir Mar­tin Gilbert, Paul Addi­son, David Stafford, Andrew Roberts and a few oth­ers, he believed there is “not much zeal in respect of Win­ston in British uni­ver­si­ties.” (I think he missed David Reynolds, John Rams­den, R.A.C. and oth­ers back then.)

“The unctuous rectitude of my countrymen”

Ash­ley wished age didn’t keep him from attend­ing Churchill events. Yet he react­ed to them as if he had been there. In 1996, the 50th Anniver­sary  of Churchill’s “Sinews of Peace” speech was cel­e­brat­ed in Ful­ton, Mis­souri. Its keynote speak­er was Mar­garet Thatch­er. “I am glad Lady Thatch­er took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to empha­size the impor­tance and pre­science of Ful­ton,” he wrote. “She was the one to do it. I cringe over today’s lead­ers. As I told our local MP, the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty should reflect that their for­tunes have been in steady decline since they sacked her. ‘Eng­land hath need of thee,’ Wordsworth wrote of Mil­ton.

“Charles De Gaulle observed that pol­i­tics is too impor­tant to be entrust­ed to politi­cians. They sel­dom under­stand human nature and will not admit that mankind is inca­pable of nat­ur­al good­ness. The almost uni­ver­sal exhi­bi­tion of envy and cov­etous­ness, assid­u­ous­ly cul­ti­vat­ed by the media, is sick­en­ing.” Hmm. He said that twen­ty-five years ago.

In 1996 a furor arose over the pur­chase of the Churchill Papers with Nation­al Lot­tery mon­ey. The Inde­pen­dent said the pur­chase was “vital.” They should have edi­to­ri­al­ized with Ash­ley Redburn’s reaction:

I fol­lowed with inter­est the out­raged howls. The smell of mon­ey, par­tic­u­lar­ly oth­er people’s mon­ey, dri­ves many Eng­lish peo­ple mad. It deprives them of ratio­nal dis­cern­ment. I am remind­ed of the com­ment of Cecil Rhodes on arriv­ing in Lon­don for the enquiry on the Jame­son Raid. Know­ing he would have been lion­ized had the Raid suc­ceed­ed, he found him­self exe­crat­ed because it had failed. In answer to a reporter’s ques­tion he referred to “the unc­tu­ous rec­ti­tude of my coun­try­men.” The reporter asked, “Don’t you mean anx­ious?” Rhodes replied, “No, I said unc­tu­ous and I mean unc­tu­ous..” The com­ment is appo­site regard­ing the Churchill Papers affair.

Harsh judgements

Red­burn looked upon Amer­i­ca and Britain as a dis­pas­sion­ate observer—perhaps “mourn­er” would be a bet­ter word. He deplored what he viewed as a relent­less slide toward medi­oc­rity, the ebbing of indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty and respon­si­bil­i­ty, the rise of all-per­me­at­ing Sta­tism and a vague, unsat­is­fy­ing, unequal egalitarianism:

Our two coun­tries some­times remind me of third world states, ours more often. The Sec­ond World War impov­er­ished us, and our pover­ty in 1945 was com­pound­ed by the advent of social­ism. Impe­r­i­al Britain is defunct, Amer­i­ca may fol­low suit. I have lived the greater part of this cen­tu­ry of decline. Will our off­spring fare any better?

Noth­ing upset him more than the prob­lems of the Roy­al Fam­i­ly: “The monar­chy will sur­vive in spite of calls for a repub­lic, par­tic­u­lar­ly from some in the Labour Par­ty. But it angers me that the fam­i­ly of the best monarch we have had for cen­turies should have so dimin­ished the monar­chy itself.”

Occa­sion­al­ly he sug­gest­ed panaceas: “I hope the West will find wis­dom and take up the chal­lenge of the Pacif­ic Rim. There lies our joint future—an eco­nom­ic bloc of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples, includ­ing India and the rest of the Com­mon­wealth. A super-eco­nom­ic com­bine. The USA and Britain are dis­si­pat­ing their seed corn of cap­i­tal in bol­ster­ing worth­less regimes and are in dan­ger of impov­er­ish­ing their next gen­er­a­tions. Small won­der that many of my gen­er­a­tion feel life has been in vain.”  A harsh judge indeed, but he was qual­i­fied to be one.

War and remembrance

Born in Leices­ter­shire in 1912, Red­burn stud­ied his­to­ry at Not­ting­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and taught it in South Africa and Eng­land. In 1936 he joined the Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Army (reserves). Three years lat­er he met Gen­er­al Sir Richard Hak­ing, who inad­ver­tent­ly saved Win­ston Churchill’s life in 1916. Alas, he did not know of Haking’s role until he read Mar­tin Gilbert’s offi­cial biog­ra­phy. His sto­ry is pub­lished by the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.

He land­ed on Sword Beach in the van­guard of the Nor­mandy inva­sion on D-Day. In Novem­ber 1944 he joined the mop­ping up forces in Bur­ma. Men­tioned in despatch­es, he was demo­bi­lized in Decem­ber 1945 with the rank of Lt. Col, the OBE (Mil­i­tary) and the Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Dec­o­ra­tion. From 1949 to his retire­ment in 1972 he was Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion in Bam­s­ley, South Yorkshire.

I met Ash­ley around the time of his retire­ment, when he began seri­ous­ly to get busy. A mutu­al friend often men­tioned this fas­ci­nat­ing schol­ar, and the nov­el­ty that he then lived in Rut­land, Britain’s small­est coun­ty. Ash­ley became one of my senior edi­tors, which is what we called peo­ple who were indis­pens­able. He wrote the most won­der­ful book reviews—erudite, pol­ished, wit­ty and wise, stud­ded with price­less quotes from the clas­sics. But they were increas­ing­ly hard to get because of his work­load. Like Churchill, the idea of retir­ing appalled him.

Winding up

His last two book reviews were of Long Sun­set by Churchill’s last pri­vate sec­re­tary, Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne; and a crit­i­cal work on the Anglo-Amer­i­can alliance. He acced­ed to the first out of admi­ra­tion for the author, to the sec­ond because he felt sor­ry for the author. “Such an excitable young man, still at heart an under­grad­u­ate. I shall have to be very care­ful to put down my inner prej­u­dices.” But these would have to be his last:

By the end of 1996 I shall have fin­ished all Churchill study. Then I will con­cen­trate on my own reading—literature chiefly, and the Greek and Roman authors (not in the orig­i­nal!). Greek civil­i­sa­tion fas­ci­nates me: If denied in this life I hope to become pro­fi­cient in it in the next. I often think Churchill would have become a great Greek schol­ar in oth­er circumstances.

Now that he has got to Heav­en, Ash­ley will cer­tain­ly spend a con­sid­er­able por­tion of his first mil­lion years study­ing Greek civ­i­liza­tion, and so get to the bot­tom of the subject.

* * *

I nev­er knew Ash­ley Red­burn to have a healthy year, and he often remind­ed me he would not be around for­ev­er. We pre­sent­ed him with a lit­er­ary award, and arranged to deliv­er it to his home. We made a small del­e­ga­tion and vis­it­ed  Ash­ley and Mar­garet for tea. “It was such a hap­py day,” he said. That evening he gave a most elo­quent accep­tance speech, and was typ­i­cal­ly dis­mis­sive about it. It is avail­able by email if any­one wish­es to read it.

In his last let­ter, Ash­ley Red­burn urged that Churchill schol­ars con­tin­ue what he called their vital work: “Keep tilt­ing at the rewrit­ers of his­to­ry: their books have taught them so lit­tle of life. The class­room of Acad­eme is no sub­sti­tute for the class­room of Life. I wish I could join you in the fray.” He gave so much, to his coun­try and to the mem­o­ry of her great­est son. He still had more to give. But he was weary, too, and one can­not believe he mind­ed the approach­ing shadows.

I wrote these words on Eleuthera, a long, high island on the Bahamas out­er banks, whose name, from the Greek, means “free­dom.” I think he would like that, and apply his favorite word: “How appo­site you should write it there.”

One thought on “Absent Friends: Ashley Redburn 1914-1996: “England Hath Need of Thee”

  1. Ash­ley Redburn’s D-Day papers are held by us at The D-Day Sto­ry, Portsmouth. Much of them can be viewed online. It was good to read about oth­er aspects of his life.

    Thanks very much; good to know. RML

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