Monday, 14 October 2013

When the Tribe gets going the Individual stands no chance


Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy?


I have recently taken a short break from all this “commentary on advertising” stuff, and have spread the net a little wider with a view to seeing how humans behave in the real world as opposed to their reactions to the relative puffery of marketing communications. By way of a start, I review below  a book that I have recently had the pleasure of reading about the life and times of Sir Edgar Speyer by Antony Lentin - Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy?

It mirrored many of the elements of the underlying psychological theory of communication that I explore in this blog and on my web site at , in that it shows the full power of the tribe over the individual, prejudice over consideration, emotion over reason, nature over civilisation. And it shows, too, how, particularly in times of acute stress, the mob can be readily induced to frenzy and reduced to primeval brutality.
As in any good book, Lentin holds up the mirror to the reader: one reflection that might be glimpsed is that we are all, whether we care to admit it or not, part of that mob and unwittingly shackled to such behaviour, even if in times of peace and prosperity we manage, at least superficially, to rise above it. 
Before developing this, a word of introduction.
If you have not heard of Speyer you are by no means alone, for his name has all but been erased from history.
He was born in 1862 in the USA of German Jewish decent and worked in Germany in the family banking business until moving to this country and becoming by choice a naturalised British citizen at the age of 30. He was both immensely wealthy and  industriously innovative, financing a wide range of major infrastructure projects critical to Britain at the turn of the century, most notably the development of, indeed the saving of, the London Underground.
By contrast, he was also a noted patron of the musical arts, aesthete and philanthropist, pouring very large sums of money into amongst other things the Proms – the cradle of Land of Hope and Glory - and numerous charities. The book suggests this was done with a high degree of modesty, even anonymity - Lentin portrays him as being both a private and proud man - and is in stark contrast to the showier displays of public giving that we are more familiar with today.
He counted royalty, Prime Ministers and a range of eminent composers, including Elgar, Debussy and  Richard Strauss (who dedicated Salome “to my friend, Sir Edgar Speyer”),  not to mention the explorer Scott of the Antarctic (whose expedition he financed) amongst his close friends. His outstanding commercial and industrial vision, financial risk-taking and demonstrable achievements were clearly recognised by Britain and he was rewarded not only with a baronetcy but with membership of the Privy Council for services to his (adopted) country. It is fair to say that you couldn’t climb much higher on the ladder than Sir Edgar Speyer, neither in finance nor the arts. Not that he would necessarily have quite seen it as a ladder.   
The situation changes, however, the Wendepunkt occurs, with the outbreak of war, when tribal hostilities surface and the opportunity to create and settle scores presents itself; for it is the lot of mankind that we are programmed to seek security in both gods and scapegoats, the one to be worshipped and the other to be blamed, a lot that finds most obvious intensity in times of unease.
The charges against him ranged from outright treachery to “trading with the enemy”, but the basis for such charges, notwithstanding ambiguities that emerge in the narrative, seemed often to owe more to imagination than reality.
The rest of the story is a relentless stripping of Edgar Speyer - as Privy Councillor, as citizen, as man. Much as his enemies desired, they couldn’t in fact strip him of his baronetcy -as the BBC says “for legal reasons”- but, as the privy Councillor most hell-bent on his destruction -Sir Almeric Fitzroy - consoled himself, at least Speyer  had no sons to inherit it. That Speyer did not always present himself in the best possible light is not contested and he allowed himself to play into his enemies hands on many occasions where his own pride and occasional indiscretion perhaps took his brinkmanship too far. But this was in the face of an appalling witch-hunt, whipped up by various politicians, the judiciary and elements of the press, and subsequently by the nation as a whole, who seized upon the rather convenient ambiguity of his name (pronounced Spy-er) and his origins - which was “worse” German? (openly reviled) or Jew ? (more secretly reviled) - and it is in many ways not surprising that he sometimes failed to dignify certain allegations hurled at him by the Establishment with a response.
The final denouement sees him in exile back in the land of his birth, his contribution to Britain denied, his reputation reviled, even his daughters stripped of British nationality, despite having been born and bred in England. A case of the “sins” of the father being visited on the children in another major miscarriage of justice.
It’s a pretty good story, full of ambiguity, pathos and fatal flaws.
I came away thinking that the ingredients constituted a scenario almost too perfect not to be considered material for a stage play or film - a psychological drama or modern tragedy in the Shakespearean mould. Indeed, it seemed a case of history virtually writing its own screenplay.
The dramatis personae as follows:
Sir Edgar Speyer: German, Jew, naturalised Brit - a fatal, paradoxical, combustible triangle combining accident of birth and free choice - the change of tribal nationality - that would explode  in the right (wrong?) circumstances.
David Suchet

Sir Edgar Speyer
Were I to be the casting director of such a drama I would select David Suchet to be my lead.

His supporters:
The King, George V ( who, famously referring to his own German origins, offered himself for internment ahead of Speyer). Timothy West.
Speyer’s wife, herself a concert violinist, Keira Knightley or Cate Blanchett.
An assemblage of politicians, leading composers, conductors, playwrights and patrons of the arts including Churchill,  Asquith, George Bernard Shaw, Elgar, Grieg, Debussy and  Richard Strauss.
His enemies:

Other high ranking members of the Establishment tribe including politicians and press barons, often openly anti-Semitic, perhaps more understandably anti-German, including Horatio Bottomley (who demanded that naturalised Germans be made to wear a badge of recognition), Lord Northcliffe, magnate of the tabloid press of the day,  Noel Pemberton Billing MP, and the aforementioned Sir Almeric Fitzroy.
Readers can play casting director themselves on this, but I imagine Robert Hardy, Richard Chamberlain and possibly Colin Firth would fit the bill as supporters and Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall would be worthy candidates for enemies.
Below all this, the mob, frightened, confused, easily  led, needing to be assuaged, baying for the fall-guy.
As we head towards the centenary of WW1 I believe such a production would lie somewhere between Elizabeth and The Kings Speech and exceed both in tension and drama. It would be an opportunity to restore, or at least re-examine, a reputation that few knew had ever been lost, and provide a counterpoint to the flood of trenches and gasmarks to which we are no doubt going to be subjected.
This may be wishful thinking and the BBC and Hollywood may have other plans. At a more pragmatic level, Lentin suggests in the book that Speyer’s home address in central London be marked with a blue plaque. I might go further: that he be commemorated fully in a prominent station of the London Underground or, perhaps more appropriately still, in the Royal Albert Hall.