Alan Bell

Alan Bell is an Assistant Keeper at the National Library of Scotland and Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. His biography of Sydney Smith will be published in the autumn.

Tony, Ray and the Duchess

Alan Bell, 21 May 1981

James Pope-Hennessy, who was murdered in 1974 when he was 58, will be remembered for several of his books, among them London Fabric, an architectural study made in the nick of time in 1939, a young man’s book which has worn well; the two volumes of his life of Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton; Verandah of 1964, with its autobiographical element added to family and colonial history; and the excellent Queen Mary (1959), an unusually sympathetic study. Several diaries and autobiographies have already recalled his charm, his amber good looks (ancestrally part-Malaysian) and his bright and entertaining manner. But the tributes are nearly always tinged with regret that his financial incompetence, his drinking habits, and the penchant for rough-trade homosexuality that was ultimately his undoing, made him a difficult and often an impossible friend. Even in 1942 James Lees-Milne was to write of him as ‘becoming spoilt and too reliant upon his youthful charm’.

Bored Hero

Alan Bell, 22 January 1981

When Raymond Asquith died in the Battle of the Somme, Winston Churchill grieved for ‘the loss of my brilliant hero-friend’, and the Prime Minister’s son became a symbol of the talent of a whole generation. He is mentioned in countless memoirs, but until the publication of this volume Asquith has never possessed any definite literary personality to give documentary substance to the legend of tragically sacrificed brilliance. He was 38 when he was killed, no mere promising BA sent straight from Oxford to the trenches: the achievement of a fuller lifetime was beginning to form by the time of his death. Recollection of promise has until now been all that remained, along with fragrant but sincere declarations from adoring disciples such as Lady Diana Cooper, who ‘loved Raymond hopelessly’ but could scarcely bear to write about him in her autobiography.

Finding out about things

Alan Bell, 18 December 1980

Montague Rhodes James is secure in his reputation as a ghost-story writer of almost unparalleled quality. Even general readers of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary will immediately be aware of their strong autobiographical element, the authentic circumstantial detail about the natural that makes the supernatural all the more convincing. The firm command of technicalities, whether of libraries, manuscripts or misericords, the institutional background peopled by characters like the Sadduccean Professor of Ophiology and college fellows spending their long vacations in decayed cathedral towns, help to provide a persuasive background against which the author can deploy his menacing figures and evil presences (which are more convincing hinted at than described). The explicit and the implicit become easily blended, and one might be pardoned for thinking that the author himself had known such experiences, that it might well have been he who, crablike,

Astrid, Clio and Julia

Alan Bell, 17 July 1980

The Wanton Chase follows on all too directly from The Marble Foot, published four years ago, a volume which took the author through his first 33 years and his first two marriages, covering a worthy parental background and a period of poetical precocity and undergraduate literary acclaim at Balliol, followed by a Japanese literary professorship and a spell at the copywriting desk of an advertising agency. Mr Quennell fitted easily, marital tensions notwithstanding, into the London literary scene which he has long adorned. The second volume of his memoirs opens in 1939, with the author, not uncharacteristically, on a French holiday with a girlfriend and Cyril Connolly, in the course of which Mr Quennell and his nameless companion were stoned in a small provincial town for their immodesty. It was to be the last such excursion for many years, the onset of war soon finding Mr Quennell, confessedly slothful and sedentary by habit, working in the Ministry of Information as a press censor, suppressing facts with the skill that in his advertising days he had devoted to enlarging them.

Burke and Smith

Karl Miller, 16 October 1980

Sydney Smith and William Burke lived at the same time and in the same country: but at opposite ends of the spectrum of class, ends which rarely met, except in court. Such people were strangers to...

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Lord Eskgrove’s Indecent Nose

Rosalind Mitchison, 24 January 1980

Henry Cockburn’s writings make him a vital historical source for the study of Scotland in what he called ‘the last purely Scotch age’. They cover the spread of the new...

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