28/09/2012 by noonobservation
It’s taken me a bit longer than I expected to finish my book about General Gordon. There are three reasons:
1. It is too fragile to read on buses, trains, in the bath, etc.
2. Harold Godwineson’s manly moustache caught my eye and I became temporarily distracted.
3. There were some really boring-looking chapters in the middle about religion.
Though Seton Churchill’s biography is wildly pro-Gordon, the author is unable to disguise the fact that Gordon was mad as a bag full of squirrels. I was originally going to address the question “Was Gordon mad?”, but have revised this to:
What were the distinctive features of Gordon’s madness?
1. Extreme antisocial behaviour
Gordon famously hated social gatherings and was known to walk up to 12 miles into the African bush to avoid attending receptions held in his honour. As he wrote in 1884 while besieged in Khartoum, “I would sooner live like a Dervish with the Mahdi, than go out to dinner every night in London. I hope, if any English general comes to Khartoum, he will not ask me to dinner. Why men cannot be friends without bringing their wretched stomachs in, is astounding.”
Unsurprisingly, he was not popular with most of his fellow officers.
2. Preference for small boys over ladies
Gordon remained a bachelor his entire life (leading some people think he may have been a closet homosexual). He took great care never to be in the society of ladies, many of whom were in the habit of talking to him and even paying him compliments – something he abhorred. Gordon claimed that he did not marry because he had never met the right girl; a statement which is fully believable considering the efforts he went to not to meet any girls at all.
He generally preferred the company of small boys (leading some people to think he may have been a paedophile). Both his love of small boys and lack of success with ladies is illuminated by this brief anecdote from his time at Gravesend:
“Another story is told of a case in which Gordon handed over a dirty little urchin to one of his lady friends, with the remark, “I want to make you a present of a boy.” Under good influences the lad grew up until he became a respectable member of society.”
Gordon was clearly unaware that it is essential to wash urchins before giving them as presents to ladies.
3. Hulk-like fits of RAGE!!!!!
Like professor Banner, Gordon was able to turn into a snot-coloured bundle of unreasoning muscular violence at the slightest provocation. As well as occasionally shooting Chinese subordinates, he once got so angry with his employer, Governor Li Hung Chang, that he roamed the city of Soo-Chow for a day brandishing a revolver with the intention of shooting him in head. He was also known to kick his servants until they screamed and once reduced New York to a pile of rubble because he’d misplaced his moustache net.
4. Disregard for worldly possessions
Gordon had absolutely no interest in personal gain. For his services in the Taiping rebellion, the Chinese government tried to give him a small fortune, which he stubbornly refused to take. On accepting the governorship of the Sudan, he negotiated his wages down from £10,000 per year to £2000.
Some of this money might have come in handy during his time as a fort-builder and philanthropist in Gravesend, where his table was so meagre that even the urchins he took in thought that the food was awful.
By the time he set off for the Sudan in January 1884, Gordon’s phobia of worldly goods had become extreme. He turned up at Charing Cross station with one bag and no money. The foreign secretary had to buy his train ticket for him and Lord Wolseley had to give him his own watch and all his spare change so that he could at least make it to Calais.
Gordon’s queer religious views were perhaps the driving force behind all of Gordon’s other madnesses. Seton Churchill devotes a whole chapter to explaining how, despite his eccentricities, Gordon was, like all true Christian Heroes, firmly C of E.
Gordon’s heretical views included:
1. That god’s throne was located directly above the Temple of Jerusalem, while the devil lived somewhere above the Pitcairn Islands.
2. That some Catholics are “OK”.
3. That communion works because it is a direct antidote to the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden.
4. That the Garden of Eden is in the Seychelles.
5. Reincarnation is real.
Churchill excuses these “errors” on the grounds that “Gordon was not a trained theologian but an earnest Christian soldier,” and that his solitary lifestyle meant that he “often lost opportunities of hearing both sides of a question.” Otherwise, we can rest assured, he would have been a thoroughly conventional Anglican.
6. Being difficult
Gordon was famous for being difficult. During a brief hiatus in his soldiering, he signed up to be the Viceroy of India’s private secretary. Having undertaken the long sea voyage to India, on his third day in the job, he was asked to tell a deputation that the Viceroy had “read their address with great interest”. Gordon told Lord Beresford, “You know perfectly that Lord Ripon has never read it, and I can’t say that sort of thing, so I will resign.”
Gordon concluded his resignation speech by hitting Beresford on the arm and saying, “Yes, that is flesh, that is what I hate, and what makes me wish to die.”
Following this, he embarked on a year-long tour of Palestine, visiting as many biblical sites as possible, most of which he decided were both “disappointing” and “wrong”.
Gordon had a strong belief in predestination, i.e. that man has no free will and that god has predetermined everything that happens. He writes:
“For my part, I can give myself no credit for anything I ever did; and further, I credit no man with talents, &c. &c., in anything he may have done. Napoleon, Luther, indeed all men, I consider, were directly worked on, and directed to work out God’s great scheme.”
It is amusing to think of Napoleon as merely fulfilling god’s plans when he so clearly thought he was satisfying his own giddying ambitions using his own exceptional talents. How wrong he was! The 3.5-6 million fatalities in the Napoleonic Wars were also presumably part of the plan and no fault of his at all.
In these circumstances, Gordon argues, “The only consolation is to fall back on the text, ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding.”
Personally, I am fond of leaning unto mine own understanding. Gordon would doubtless tell me this is because I am prideful, but I like to think my understanding prevents me doing bat-shit crazy things like shutting myself in my tent with the Bible and a bottle of brandy for days at a time, refusing to issue orders to my troops.
So, by the time Gordon was sent to the Sudan to evacuate the country of Egyptian troops and civilians, he was pretty far down the zig-zag road to Crazyville. The British had absolutely no interest in holding onto the Sudan and directed Gordon to get out. Instead, he sat there for 9 months, slowly sending off all the foreign nationals down the Nile in little sinkable boats, carrying copies of his journal. The relief expedition luckily arrived two days too late to prevent Gordon from dying a martyr’s death.
But was that really his intention? According to Gordon’s views, this was god’s choice and indicative that the almighty was ready to dispense with his earthly services. I would argue that at the age of 51, with no family to speak of (save his faithful sisters), no money and a hatred of social contact, Jesus was probably Gordon’s one remaining friend. Perhaps he was lonely.
No one knows exactly how Gordon died. Victorians liked to paint it like this, but actually no one who saw the event lived to tell the tale, at least not in English.
It is said that Gordon’s head was cut off and the Mahdi had it stuck in the branches of a tree for children to throw stones at. His remains were never found.
Book review: General Gordon by Seton Churchill
This is not the most thoughtful or well researched book in the world and is thoroughly biased in favour of its subject. On the other hand, it is pricelessly entertaining for its stereotypical Victorian attitudes towards “heatherns”, “natives”, “uncivilised nations”, etc. I much enjoyed Churchill’s description of the Catholic Church as “that ecclesiastical survival of the dark middle ages” and the general assumption that the author is living through a halcyon age of English civilisation and moral hegemony. The extract below concerning the proper British attitude to war amply demonstrates the wonders to be enjoyed: