Dignity and Impudence
- A Variety of Lives: A Biography of Sir Hugh Greene by Michael Tracey
Bodley Head, 344 pp, £15.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 370 30026 2
Described as a biography, this is also a detective story. Repeatedly Hugh Greene’s BBC colleagues are quoted, anonymously, as being unsure as to what were or are his values, his principles, his philosophy. Occasionally someone doubts if there were or are any. Once, we are told, in an oblique attempt to find a clue to the elusive pattern of his motives, he was asked to say with whom in the English Civil War he could identify himself. Would a lover of liberty, women, wine and hard news have been a Cavalier or a Roundhead? I remember the occasion. The answer was as inconclusive as perhaps the question was misconceived. Nevertheless, the episode made me turn later to Buchan’s Life of Cromwell to refresh my memory of the character of Thomas, Lord Fairfax, who, like Greene, had friends in both political camps. Turning idly to the seemingly unpromising character of Cromwell himself, I could not help being struck by the aptness to Greene of phrase after phrase in Buchan’s final appraisal of the Lord Protector and regicide. ‘Few minds have had a more invincible candour.’ ‘He was never out of hearing of the common voices of life.’ ‘One talent he possessed in the highest degree, the power of recognising and appreciating facts.’ ‘He was first and foremost a man of crisis.’ ‘He believed in diversity of station ... as congenial to human nature and as giving stability to society.’ ‘His tolerance was based on the same principle.’ ‘His mind was wholly unspeculative, and he never felt the compulsion, which others have felt, to weave his views into a harmonious system of thought.’ The reader will find all these items in the identikit portrait which Michael Tracey constructs.
Vol. 5 No. 20 · 3 November 1983
SIR: Oliver Whitley, so he says in his review of Michael Tracey’s biography of Hugh Greene, doesn’t like references to ‘the establishment’, he finds the term ‘vague and portentous’, and suspects that ‘if it had to be defined it would fall out of use’ (LRB, 6 October). I learn from the biographical details you publish on page two that Mr Whitley used to work at the BBC, that he was once Managing Director of its External Services and before that Chief Assistant to Hugh Greene. This would explain how he came to make (or to receive) the mysterious phone call he sort of describes at the end of his review:
Incidentally, my phone went dead too, not long after Hugh Greene’s, when I felt bound to tell the other one that my colours were nailed to Greene’s mast and that this meant that I, too, thought there were human qualities more important than dignity. ‘Then there’s nothing more to be said,’ and the phone in the flat in Lambeth Palace banged down, ending a friendship of more than thirty years – or at any rate its outward manifestations.
To whom is he telling this story? Not to me – I can’t make head or tail of it. Would it be portentous – or merely vague – to suggest that it will only be intelligible to members of ‘the establishment’? I will concede to those who think I am being wrongheaded that ‘the other one’ refers to ‘the other BBC giant’ to whom Mr Whitley alluded in the preceding sentence. But who was he? Lord Reith perhaps? If so, why not mention his name? And how does the Archbishop of Canterbury come into it? Or did someone else live in Lambeth Palace? It could be said by those who are inclined to say that kind of thing that this is a vague and portentous mode of speech – and not uncharacteristic of the way members of the establishment talk to each other when they don’t want the rest of the world to know what’s going on. Or simply can’t be bothered to tell them.