I recently celebrated my 77th birthday. I don’t know why I should describe myself as celebrating it. Celebrations of my birthday seem long ago now. I have a photograph of myself on my 13th, wearing a new Eton jacket and a starched collar. I am looking pleased enough, but appearances are misleading I vaguely recollect that I did not like the Eton jacket and doubt whether I ever wore it again. My mother intended that I should go to juvenile balls. I never learnt to dance and therefore never accepted invitations. The Eton jacket languished unworn.
I remember a very enjoyable dinner in Oxford on the occasion of my 21st birthday. The guests included Norman Cameron and Tom Driberg, now both dead, and ‘Michael Innes’, still alive. We had dinner in a private room at the George restaurant, now also dead. Halfway through dinner the waiter asked to speaks to me in private. Then he said: ‘I am a respectable married man and if that gentleman comes out again I shall go home.’ I expostulated with Tom, who restrained his curiosity for the rest of the evening: I reminded Tom of this episode shortly before he died; He remembered the waiter perfectly and said: ‘Why did he say he was a respectable married man? I wonder what that had to do with it.’
I remember also a dinner party some years later when I was living in Vienna. We had another private room, this time at Sacher’s, – much grander than the George and also much cheaper. There were some English friends; whom I had got to know in Vienna and also my girlfriend, Else. Soon alter this dinner my innocent friendship with Else came to an end. Her family discovered that I was taking her to a restaurant when she made out that we were going to a cinema. Apparently it was wicked for an unmarried girl to dine alone with a man, and Else was forbidden ever to see me again. We resumed our friendship just the other day. Touching.
On my 70th birthday I was given a lunch at the LSE by some of my younger friends: The party was graced by the presence of Michael Foot and Lord Blake. Soon afterwards Robert Blake struck me off his visiting-list because I had opposed the witch-hunt at the British Academy against Anthony Blunt. I am glad to record that Blake has now forgiven me, or perhaps he thinks I have purged my offence. At any rate, I am now restored to favour.
Of course, I am pleased to provide an occasion when other people enjoy themselves – it is a bit hard to expect me to join in the rejoicings:
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.
No, that is not quite right. I am not worried at all about the approach of death. It is becoming for me the order of release. I hope I shall have a painless death. But there is nothing to be apprehensive about in death itself. What begins to trouble me is the approach of old age. This has come upon me quite recently. When I was 70 I was as fit as when I was 21. I last went up Coniston Old Man when I was 72. I consoled myself with the recollection of James Tait, that great historian, who last went up Scafell when he was 84. Now my body is beginning to let me down. I used to be able to walk from the local bus terminal to Kenwood House without difficulty at a smart pace. Now it talks me all afternoon to get up Parliament Hill. I walk slowly. I easily become unsteady. I feel dizzy and have to sit down. In a bus or Underground a youngster occasionally gives me a seat – very rarely, I must say. I am inclined to fall asleep in the afternoon. Alternatively, I wake up at four or five in the morning and cannot go to sleep again.
I have many consolations. I drive a car as efficiently as I did sixty years ago, which is when I started to drive. But I don’t enjoy it much. My sight is undimmed, except that I have to use different glasses for reading. My appetite is excellent and so is my digestion. I drink half a bottle of wine every day and plenty of beer as well. And that reminds me of a serious problem. For many years I bought each year a few cases of claret which I deposited with Avery’s in Bristol. Now I have started to drink this stock. But how fast should I go? I should look a damned fool if I ran through my reserve before I died. But I should look even more foolish if I died with some of my reserve untapped. There is no easy answer.
I cannot complain that much of old age as yet. For most of the day I do not notice old age at all. But then it comes upon me: pains in the back, hesitation on the feet. It is all sure to get worse. How well Arthur Koestler arranged things: just my age and then passed peacefully away. I too should like to indent for a death pill. If all other claims fail I could justify an issue of death pills as a precaution against nuclear warfare, which is rapidly approaching. I am afraid it is hopeless. I look at my wife across the dinner table. She needs me. She loves me. For her sake I suppose I must endure life as long as I can. Still, it is a great nuisance.
People used to wish me many happy returns, which is acceptable enough, though it is becoming rather pointless. But now total strangers accompany their good wishes, with appeals to my charity: requests for a contribution to some more or less worthy purpose, quite often straightforward requests for money and, most tiresome of all, requests for copies of my books. It does not occur to these peole that I have no more spare copies of my books than they have. None of them gets a book, or, for that matter, any money. They ought to be sending money to me.
I must confess that I have recently, had much to make my life enjoyable Pre-eminent was Heartbreak House, which I saw at the Haymarket. I have little doubt that it is Shaw’s best play, certainly better than that overrated work Man and Superman. Who cares whether Ann Whitefield marries Jack Tanner or not? Heartbreak House has real people behaving as real people should. Critics have expressed some dissatisfaction with Rex Harrison as Captain Shotover. I thought he was perfect. A further merit about Heartbreak House is that it has no message. All Shaw’s plays are full of talk, but usually it has relevance to something. In Heartbreak House they just talk. The flaw in the play is the episode of the Zeppelin raid, which Shaw stuck in at the end to show he had written the play during the war – which he hadn’t. It is clear that he had no idea what a real air-raid was like. The play confirmed my opinion that Shaw is our greatest playwright since Shakespeare. No, perhaps that is wrong. Shakespeare is irrelevant to Shaw. He was our greatest playwright since Ben Johnson. People will be listening to Shaw’s plays when we are living for two or is it three hundred years – vide Back to Methuselah. What a dreadful prospect, by the way.
I cannot let the centenary of Karl Marx’s death pass without notice. He is by no means forgotten. The Communist Manifesto sells more copies than it did in his lifetime, particularly in the United States. I know. I wrote an introduction to the Penguin edition of the Manifesto in 1967 and this has brought me a handsome payment of royalties ever since. The Manifesto deserves its success, or rather the first two chapters do. The concluding two are a hasty botch, never finished because Marx left to take part in the German revolution of 1848. Marx never returned to the Manifesto: he did not even bother to correct the proofs of the German edition, which still circulates as it came out in 1848. In fact, Marx attached no importance to his most famous work.
What else is left of his reputation? No doubt it is still well-known that he wrote a ponderous book on the workings of the capitalist system. But how many people read it? Some may struggle through the first volume, which Marx more or less completed. It contains some lively passages on the horrors of capitalism, but the demonstration of how the worker is robbed at the point of production no longer carries conviction. Volumes Two and Three were left in a chaos on Marx’s death. Apparently Marx had been busy collecting material for a study of Balzac and did no work on Capital in his declining years. Engels tried to make some sense of the confusion. He was not very successful. I read all three volumes some sixty years ago: very wisely, I have never returned to them and do not propose to do so now. I wonder if the directors of Soviet economic policy use the three volumes of Capital as their daily handbook. I rather think not.
Marx’s historical writings still make good reading, which is more than can be said of his economic writing. This is particularly true of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and The Civil War in France, about the Paris Commune of 1871, both of them brilliant historical pamphlets. This does not necessarily imply that the history in them is reliable. There is also merit in Marx’s journalistic writing on foreign affairs, especially on the Crimean War when Marx was passionately on the side of Turkey against Russia. He even accused Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, of being a Russian agent. This was not the last time that such accusations were made.
As to Marx’s philosophical writings, I find them unreadable. I wonder whether even Comrade Andropov has read The Poverty of Philosophy, to say nothing of The German Ideology. Perhaps no other man has owed his reputation to books which nobody reads or has ever heard of. It is also curious that before Marx died he had ceased to be a Communist and was a warm patron of the German Social Democratic Party.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.