Noël Annan

Noël Annan, who died in 2000, was the author of Leslie Stephen and Our Age: Portrait of a Generation. He was provost of King’s College, Cambridge and then of UCL, and a trustee of the British Museum.

Singing the Blues

Noël Annan, 22 April 1993

Who better to be our guide to modern Cambridge than the Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History? Christopher Brooke was brought up in Cambridge, the son of the professor of medieval history and himself a post-war Apostle. He begins by whisking us round the colleges telling us what each was like in Victorian times and how the abolition of the religious Tests and the Royal Commission (1872) transformed Cambridge from being a provincial seminary and a federation of colleges into a university of faculties and departments where the dons could marry and no longer had to be clergymen. But on such a tour there is always a pest who asks questions. What, he wonders, are the colleges like today? Did Snow give an accurate account of Christ’s? What about the way Nevill Mott was treated as master of Caius that led to his resignation? What of the delectable days of Lord Dacre in the Lodge at Peterhouse? Surely space could have been found to praise the leadership Trinity gave to science by using her great wealth to found the Science Park and the Isaac Newton Institute, and make Cambridge a scientific city as well as a university.

Flights of the Enchanter

Noël Annan, 4 April 1991

At the end of the First World War a schoolboy at Eton had come to the conclusion that people could be divided into the stupids (the hearties) or the sillies (the clever trendies). Nor did his teachers escape censure. He thought them ill-informed, and one wrote wistfully in his end-of-term report: ‘I wish this boy were kinder to me.’ Steven Runciman was already beginning to see history in a different perspective from his mentors. In those days one was taught that during the Dark Ages the Catholic Church civilised each wave of barbarians and preserved the link with the ancient world through the Holy Roman Empire. It tried to deflect the kings and counts from their endless feudal warfare by inspiring them with the noble ideal of the Crusades. True, the Crusades failed to liberate the Middle East from the infidel, but the fall of Constantinople liberated those forces that led to the Renaissance and revived the learning of the ancient world.

Diary: On Ralph Dahrendorf

Noël Annan, 27 September 1990

I see that Ralph Dahrendorf has given us his reflections on the revolution in Eastern Europe. Burke wrote his on the French Revolution to ‘a very young gentleman in Paris’ in order to damp his enthusiasm and instil some doubts in his mind; Dahrendorf his to a considerably older gentleman in Warsaw to dispel some fashionable muddles about the future in our minds as well as in his. To compare the two books would be like matching a Rolls-Royce against a BMW. The BMW lacks elegance and comfort, all the money has gone into the engine. But it is a powerful engine and the bodywork is not encumbered with an escutcheon depicting a thousand swords leaping from their scabbards and other signs of the age of chivalry.

Poor Jack

Noël Annan, 5 December 1985

In the Berlin restaurant Baron Kuno von Pregnitz, ignoring Mr Norris, suddenly asked the young Englishman: ‘And, excuse me, how are the Horse Guards?’ ‘Still sitting there.’ ‘Yes? I am glad to hear this. Ho! Ho! Ho! … Excuse me, I can remember them very well.’ They had in fact been sitting there for longer perhaps than Christopher Isherwood knew. In June 1849 Edward Leeves, an elderly expatriate, driven out of Venice by the Austrian bombardment, made his way to London. There he met Jack Brand, a trooper in the Blues. A month later Leeves went to Scotland to stay with the Queensberrys having fixed with Jack a day to meet on his return. Jack never showed up. He had died that day of cholera. Leeves was shattered. He visited the grave to kiss the headstone and day after day recorded how long it was since Jack last mounted guard or had been buried. He longed only to lie in the grave with him, and his diary became an electuary of grief. By next summer he was back in Venice with his memories.

Dummy and Biffy

Noël Annan, 17 October 1985

No wonder people think of the secret services as farce or fiction. What is one to make of an organisation whose leaders have names like Dummy Oliver, Blinker Hall, Biffy Dunderdale, Lousy Payne, Buster Milmo, Pay Sykes, Tar Robertson, Barmy Russel and Quex Sinclair (not to be confused with his successor but one, Sinbad Sinclair)? It’s no good reassuring the reader that in the transition from Victorian days, when men called even their closest friends by their surnames, to the present time, when not to know the first name of a casual acquaintance makes it almost impossible to address him without appearing pompous or supercilious, nicknames like Stubby, Toby or Tubby came to be used as a gesture to informality, particularly in the Army and Navy. The reader is likely to think that such men are preposterous and what they do ludicrous. Even in fiction, the secret services are no longer heroic. Gone are the days when Sapper’s Jim Maitland would sun-bathe himself to a frazzle in order to pass in a burnous as an Arab in Tripoli or thwart the machinations of Baron Stockmar in the Sudan (‘It’s the game, Dick: The Great Game. The only game in the world worth playing’).

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...

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Our War

Nicholas Hiley, 7 March 1996

At first sight Changing Enemies is a welcome addition to the literature of modern Intelligence. The deliberate anonymity of the Official History of British Intelligence in the Second World War...

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Our Fault

Frank Kermode, 11 October 1990

The title of this large, attractive book needs explanation. It isn’t to be understood as a claim to deal with the times of all of us who are now alive. First, there is a chronological...

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Victorian Vocations

Frank Kermode, 6 December 1984

Frederic Harrison once climbed Mont Blanc and found Leslie Stephen on the top. Not an improbable location for the encounter of two eminent Victorians: and they might equally have met in George...

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