What once seemed certain is now an open question
- 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.
[*] Oxford, 348 pp., £14.99, 25 March 1999, 0 19 820780 8.
Vol. 22 No. 10 · 18 May 2000
I am sorry that so interesting and well-written an article as Mary Beard's (LRB, 27 April) should convey so bitterly one-sided an impression of my book on A.L. Rowse. His encouragement of fellow writers, his practical kindness and hospitality towards them, certainly bulked larger in my mind when I was writing it than the splenetic egocentricity that led him into all too well publicised excesses.
It is humiliating for any author to have failed so signally in what he set out to do. I am reminded of Congreve's witticism that bad portraitists are obliged to write the name of their sitters at the bottom. So may I, likewise, ask LRB readers to accept that my view of Rowse is emphatically not that presented by Mary Beard.
I was cheered to see in the contributors’ notes that Mary Beard will soon publish a book about Jane Harrison, but my spirits were duly dashed when reading her piece about Noel Annan and A.L. Rowse: 42 sets of brackets is the stuff of a first draft rather than a polished, pleasant read.
Vol. 22 No. 13 · 6 July 2000
I hope readers will not be deceived by Mary Beard's suggestion (LRB, 27 April) that the demands of audit and economy have done away with the distinctions between the lives of academics at Oxbridge and other universities. She may choose to dine at home (where else do the rest of us get to dine?), but the material and emotional effect of government audits on family mealtimes is more severe away from Oxford and Cambridge.
University of Birmingham