My Big Brother

Not long ago, while reading A.J.P. Taylor’s impressively turgid English History: 1914-1945, I found, suspended in the tepid depths of all the fussily annotated tables and statistics, a sentence that all but knocked me out of my chair.  It read, “Until August 1914, a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could cheerfully grow old and hardly notice the existence of the state.”  After catching my breath, I absorbed this for a moment and read on.  In a few, seemingly casual lines, Taylor reveals how, within the limits of his bank account, “a citizen of almost any western nation could then live anywhere and travel anywhere he wished, without anyone’s permission.”  Now transfixed, I read how Rupert Brooke had made a leisurely tour of North America in the year before the outbreak of the Great War, with only his personal calling card as identification.  He would have been “appalled,” apparently, at anything so vulgar as owning a passport.  When the 20-year-old Harold Macmillan traveled around Europe in early 1914, cycling back and forth over the scene of what would become some of the war’s bloodiest battles, he was “waved through international borders with as little fuss as if passing between Sussex and Hampshire.”

Perhaps it’s extrapolating too much from Brooke’s or Macmillan’s experience...

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