Thursday, 13 December 2012

"No man of sense ought to be ashamed of being called a shopkeeper" - Napoleon

Ronnie Barker as Albert Arkwright

I have recently been re-reading Inside Longwood, and came across an interesting letter in which Barry O'Meara quoted Napoleon's explanation of his description of England as "a nation of shopkeepers".

You were greatly offended with me for calling you a nation of shopkeepers. Had I meant by that that you were a nation of cowards, you would have reason perhaps to have been displeased, though it were ridiculous and contrary to a known truth. But no such thing was ever intended. I meant that you were a nation of merchants and that all your great riches, your grand resources, arose from commerce, and so it does. What else constitutes the riches of England? It is not extent of territory or a numerous population. It is not mines of silver, gold or diamonds. Besides no man of sense ought to be ashamed of being called a shopkeeper (1)

The description, which incidentally did not originate with Napoleon, is still seen as an insult, less specific now perhaps than the original perceived slight on England's military prowess.(2) Napoleon consistently maintained that England was not and never would be a land power, a proposition that few could argue with then or now.(3)

More than that though, the reaction reflects the low esteem accorded in our culture to being "in trade". It is a curious fact that the British upper classes, commercial in origin, beneficiaries of the plundering of the wealth of the Catholic Church, developed an almost feudal aversion to trade and industry as a profession, although as Napoleon rightly said, it was the sole basis of the nation's wealth and power.

Perhaps though Napoleon, like most of us, under-estimated the power of Banking which was assuming unprecedented importance in the world emerging before his very eyes.
1. Barry O'Meara to John Finlaison, 29th June 1817, reproduced in Albert Benhamou, Inside Longwood Barry O'Meara's Clandestine Letters, London 2012
2. Adam Smith used it, and others before him.
3. Even at Waterloo the majority of the troops under Wellington's command were not British.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Napoleon Week on the BBC

In commemoration of the retreat from Moscow in 1812, an event of far more significance than Waterloo, Radio 3 is currently scheduling a number of programmes about Napoleon.

The first, broadcast yesterday (1st December) but still available online, was about Tchaikovsky's patriotic 1812 Overture Tchaikovsky A Dishonest Overture?

Napoleon is also the somewhat unlikely subject of Composer of the Week. As far as I am aware he never composed anything, although he did write a novel, but this daily programme, beginning tomorrow, is about Napoleon's musical tastes and his encouragement of music and the arts.

This evening there is Tolstoy and Napoleon, the first of three literary programmes, to be broadcast on successive Sundays,

which is followed tonight by Napoleon Rising, a play by Manchester born author Anthony Burgess, creator of A Clockwork Orange, who wrote a novel about Napoleon and a script for the Kubrick film that was never made.

Then each evening this week there is a short programme, Napoleon and Me, the first of which is about Julia Blackburn's searching for the "ghost of Napoleon" on St Helena.

Overall it looks like an interesting and slightly unusual perspective on Napoleon. I am particularly looking forward to hearing what Andrea Stuart has to say about the Empress Josephine, one of the most misunderstood women in history.

Perhaps the most interesting revelation from the advance publicity, and news to me at least, is that Richard Wagner attended Napoleon's Second Funeral to report the event for a German newspaper.

It is unfortunate though that someone in the BBC appears to think that Napoleon's ashes were returned from Corsica!