What once seemed certain is now an open question

Mary Beard

  • The Dons by Noël Annan
    HarperCollins, 357 pp, £17.99, November 1999, ISBN 0 00 257074 2
  • A Man of Contradictions: A Life of A.L.Rowse by Richard Ollard
    Allen Lane, 368 pp, £20.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9353 7

Noel Annan will be best remembered for Our Age, his grand, confident and sometimes very funny memoir written in the late 1980s, looking back at that generation of the British élite which came of age between the two world wars and so (as the book’s subtitle claimed) ‘made postwar Britain’. Here he reflected on their social connections, their shifting political and intellectual priorities, their sexual preferences, and their apparently glittering careers. Annan’s own achievements within this group have been rehearsed in the many obituaries which followed his death in February this year: Provost of King’s College, Cambridge at the age of 39, Provost of University College London, first full-time Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, author of the ‘Annan Report’ on the future of broadcasting, Chairman of the Trustees of the National Gallery, Director of Covent Garden and so on; ‘a fine exemplar of the civilisation he portrays’, as Roy Jenkins wrote in a review of author and book together.

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[*] Oxford, 348 pp., £14.99, 25 March 1999, 0 19 820780 8.