Ambitions

Robert Blake

  • Harold Nicolson: A Biography: Vol. 1, 1886-1929 by James Lees-Milne
    Chatto, 429 pp, £15.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2520 9
  • Harold Nicolson Diaries 1930-1964 by Stanley Olson
    Collins, 436 pp, £9.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 00 216304 7

Harold Nicolson was a diarist of genius who would have loved to make a success of public life or literature. He was an able but not outstanding diplomat who retired at 43, a journalist and broadcaster of talent, an MP for ten years and a junior minister in 1940-41. His literary achievements were voluminous, but few of his forty-odd books have lasted, apart from his study of Curzon, his lives of King George V and of Tennyson, and his Byron, The Last Phase. A word, too, should be said for his life of his father, Lord Carnock, which he regarded as his best achievement. He wrote with care and in an elegant, limpid style: but there are times when one is reminded of Balfour’s remark about Asquith, whose clarity of speech, he observed, was a positive disadvantage when he had nothing to say. Nicolson’s diaries and letters make spendid reading, but he was neither a great littérateur nor a man of action. It was a tragi-comic delusion that, converted from National Labour to ‘real’ Labour, he supposed himself to be a possible Ambassador in Paris under Attlee’s government, and even at times dreamed of being Foreign Secretary.

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