When I published my last LRB Diary in June, I half-expected that it would be not only reprinted but also spoofed by one or another of the broadsheets, as indeed it was. What I didn’t expect was that the Daily Telegraph would try to use it as party-political knocking copy when any reader could tell that behind its even-handed mistrust of all politicians was a genuine pleasure at the displacement of Major Ltd by Blair & Co. Nor did I expect to be reproved, however gently, for indiscretion by Simon Jenkins on the op-ed page of the Times – as if I hadn’t cleared what I proposed to print with anyone quoted directly who might have suffered in consequence, or would have dreamed of disclosing to LRB readers without Simon’s express permission what he had revealed at my dinner table about his tiny little earnings as a hugely well-paid journalist.
A surprising number of people have asked me why I published such a diary at all, to which the simple answer is that I hoped it would give the widespread amusement which it evidently has. There is, admittedly, an underlying theme about power, propaganda and patronage (of which more anon). But I have neither the ambition nor the talent to be a serious chronicler de nos jours. The only time in my life I tried to do a Boswell was after an evening on which Elias Canetti had unexpectedly invited himself to supper with us alone. But when, the following morning, I looked through the notes of his conversation which I’d made before going to bed, I found myself quite incapable of reconstructing it. All I could remember precisely was Canetti confirming the reason for which he refused to let a translation of his autobiographical account of his childhood be published in England. It had nothing to do with his supposed neglect at the hands of the London literary establishment, about which he was as loftily indifferent as a Nobel laureate can afford to be, but everything to do with the risk that one of his English cousins might read it. I said: ‘But Canetti, would you really mind if one of your cousins published reminiscences in which he was similarly critical, but no more so, of your father?’ To which Canetti, sitting very upright on one of our drawing-room chairs with both fists clenched on his knees, replied: ‘I would want to kill him.’
As for trusting one’s memory unaided: I was rung up some years ago by a researcher working on Hugh Dalton’s diaries to ask if I was the young person referred to in Dalton’s account of a Sunday lunch party at Harry Walston’s house at Newton in the early Fifties. Oh yes, I said brightly, and prattled on for several minutes about the pink champagne, the eclectic company (the unsinkable Woodrow Wyatt still Keeping Left in those days), Dalton’s booming political anecdotes, and so forth. There was a moment of embarrassed silence down the line before the researcher said: ‘That’s not what it says in the diary’. As I subsequently worked out, my memory had performed the classic feat of conflating two quite separate social occasions.
But I do believe, as Simon evidently does too, that diaries, whether grave or gay, are worth keeping for their immediacy as a record. My grandmother kept one before and during the early part of the Second World War, and before I deposited it with Newcastle University I read through it at a stretch. What was extraordinary was that I started to feel as if I really didn’t know what was going to happen next. Nazi-Soviet pact? Not nice, but perhaps it means we shan’t be having to fight an alliance of three Fascist powers, including Franco’s Spain. Churchill as prime minister? All very well, but some of us remember the Dardanelles – and besides, look at the people around him! To be sure, reading the newspapers of the time can have something of the same effect, as is well conveyed by Robert Kee’s The World We Left behind. But it’s not the same as a single person’s day-by-day account of – not, of course, wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, but – what it eigentlich felt like to that person.
The dilemma is whether publication should or shouldn’t be in the lifetime of people mentioned in any way disparagingly. If yes, offence may be caused. If no, they’ve lost the chance to answer back. But if they’re famous, oughtn’t they to be prepared to take it either way? I know that’s easy to say, and I remember Jonathan Miller once telling me, and convincingly so, that nobody to whom it hasn’t happened can know how peculiarly disagreeable it is to be lampooned in print. But as Goethe said, and I quoted to the famous Jonathan on another occasion: ‘If you don’t want to be mobbed by the crows, don’t climb to the top of the tower.’
So here is another modest instalment, censored at least as carefully as before.
4 June. Talk with Cambridge labour historian Alastair Reid about Scottish devolution. Alastair, a Clydesider born and bred, says he has always been conscious of how deeply and irreconcilably the Scots are divided among themselves – economically, religiously, politically, regionally and even linguistically. So the principal effect of Blair’s appeasement of nationalist sentiment will be to reunite them in their shared hostility to all things English – the Labour Party in Scotland now, by extension, included. Subsequently, in a similar conversation with the Oxford sociologist Gordon Marshall, Gordon (who is as authentically Scottish as Alastair) describes watching the 1966 World Cup Final on a flickering black and white TV in a pub in a West Highland village. He was one of perhaps a dozen out of forty or fifty blokes who didn’t cheer to the rafters each time Germany scored a goal.
8 June. Spot the typo, spare the blush. John Vincent writes from the University of Bristol: ‘In your memorable diaries you quote Disraeli’s view of May 1881, a month after his death. Would that other historians had access to such primary sources!’