The Dictionary of National Biography: 1981-1985 
edited by Lord Blake and C.S. Nicholls.
Oxford, 518 pp., £40, March 1990, 0 19 865210 0
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On the dust-jacket of the latest supplement to the Dictionary of National Biography there are photographs of David Niven, Diana Dors, Eric Morecambe, John Betjeman and William Walton. Dors has a leering ‘Come up and read me sometime’ expression on her face and Niven wears his yacht-club greeter’s smile. Morecambe seems to be laughing at one of his own jokes. Amiable images, devised no doubt to lure us into a placidly elegiac mood: death can’t be all that bad if it gets you an entry in the DNB. But what’s the matter with Betjeman and Walton? They look glum and sulky, as if they’ve been put in the wrong graveyard by mistake.

At a glance, the new supplement (covering the years 1981-5) does seem to be offering itself as something other than librarians have learned to expect, perhaps taking too literally its first editor’s charitable dictum: ‘It is not upon the lives of great men that the book really depends. It is the second-rate people that provide the really useful reading.’ OUP’s colourful packaging hints at a sexy, debonair new mix, with tits and brylcreem replacing the dog-collar and flared sideburns of bygone days. But dust-jackets rarely gather dust and when you throw away the wrapping, all is actually well: the DNB’s dignity has not been seriously interfered with. Bishops are still preferred to businessmen, cricketers are still posher than footballers, and lengthy military service rates more highly than the sort of thing Dors and Niven used to do. The book still means to satisfy the nation’s ‘commemorative instinct’ but it also wishes to promote along the way some image of the ideal Briton: he who combines self-reliance with a sense of public service.

Of course, in order to prove that your self-reliance is genuinely tough-fibred and that your sense of public service is not just some youthfully liberal flash in the pan, you have to live to a great age. Fifty-year-olds with blood-pressure difficulties might scan the DNB’s roll-call of eminents with divided feelings: although it is cheering to note that for most of the dictionary’s entrants, the age of 50 marks Stage Two in a nobly-envisaged Five Stage master-plan, it is depressing to be taught how long, how very long, you have to live in order to rack up these near-superman CVs.

In the 40-60 age group, there is but a handful of entrants and these have mostly earned their place by compiling points in relatively vulgar, early-burn-out professions like publishing or pop singing. And even the 60-70 grouping carries a faintly sleazy air: poets, comedians, psychiatrists and the like. It is only when we pass the age of 70 that the entrants begin to look as if they’ve earned their keep. For one thing, they’ve been in the war. Even if they didn’t fight, they performed wonders of crypto-analysis at Bletchley or they blue-printed some devastating weapon. And if they then went into politics, or returned to the diplomatic, they had bags of time in which to serve with exemplary facelessness as second secretaries, or under-secretaries or Ministers of State. At moments, their chief achievement can seem to have been that they somehow got out of being dead. There are as many 90-100’s in the DNB as there are 60-70’s, and although 70-80 is by far the largest grouping, the 80-90’s run it a fair second.

It has been complained in the past that the DNB, for all its love of private enterprise, has been niggardly in its homage to non-establishment achievers, and maybe the Dors-Niven ploy is meant to be seen as an egalitarian riposte. In this latest supplement (the first to cover a five-year instead of the customary ten-year span), scientists comfortably outnumber politicians and parsons; businessmen are neck and neck with civil servants. The ‘media’ are (is?) now beginning to offer up a few candidates and we find as many entrants from Film/TV/Radio as from the armed services: in ten years’ time, admirals will almost certainly have been replaced by anchormen. As it is, fashion designers are close to outstripping the doctors and lawyers. And it is presumably significant that only one entrant owns enough land to be described simply as ‘landowner’. And, sure enough, the attitude to showbiz triumph is surprisingly relaxed: even Billy Fury, whose sole gift was that he looked a bit like Elvis Presley, rates a respectful (if lamely written) entry – perhaps in his case an early death worked in his favour.

Women still seem to be getting a raw deal, with only about 10 per cent of the entries, but this percentage is up on previous supplements and although one talks idly of raw deals it is hard to think of a woman who has been wrongly overlooked. I’m sure someone will be able to. The women who do get in tend to be from the arts or from the newish social sciences – ‘educationist’ is a formulation that’s used more than once.

Another routine complaint against the DNB is that its editors seem to encourage a blandness or stuffiness in their contributors, and that this tendency is helped along by their clinging to old formulas – like insisting on naming a chap’s wife’s father’s job: ‘Jackson was married first in 1956 to Sheila Mannion. She was the daughter of John Henry Mannion, unskilled employee of the Gas Board.’ It does seem a bit rough on John Henry that he should for ever be remembered as ‘unskilled’. We learn of John le Mesurier’s three wives that they were daughters of, respectively, a theatre manager, a test pilot and the manager of ‘a Ramsgate funfair’. Why does Ramsgate get a mention? We might brood on such details in the hope of discovering some deep obsessive pattern, or the secretly down-turning graph of a career, but we know that data of this sort is thoroughly superfluous – a relic, presumably, of the days when a man’s shrewdness could be measured by the calibre of his wife’s family. For some, the practice adds to the book’s charm. For others, it’s an irritating affectation. (John le Mesurier, incidentally, appears to have sustained his marvellously mock-lugubrious demeanour to the end: on the day of his death an announcement appeared in the Times: ‘John le Mesurier wishes it to be known that he conked out on November 15th. He sadly misses family and friends.’)

A good test of the DNB’s supposed stuffiness is to check out its attitude to wickedness. There used to be a policy of excluding ‘sinners’ from the ‘biographic fold’ but, needless to say, it has not been enforced with any rigour. With luck, the entrant will have done a bit of non-sinning in his time, so that when we are given the whole picture, he can be judged to have gone off the rails. In the present volume, however, it is hard to believe that John Bodkin Adams would have won a slot as a medical practitioner. Indeed, the Adams entry is something of a puzzle. He was acquitted of the murders he is famous for having been accused of, but his DNB biographer evidently believes that he was lucky to get off: ‘The seams of the Crown’s case had started to come apart, and worse was to follow ... The defence, perhaps wisely, decided not to put the talkative Adams into the witness box.’ Is this trial by DNB, or do we now know for certain that Adams was guilty? And if we don’t, why does he get an entry?

Wickedness, in the case of Anthony Blunt, actually pays off rather handsomely. He gets a four-column entry against the average two, and it is unlikely that this would have been his lot had he been listed merely as ‘art historian’ and not also as ‘a communist spy’. (Donald MacLean, we note, gets less space but is made to sound a little more respectable: his profession is described as ‘Soviet spy’.) As it turns out, Blunt’s biographer so admires the art historian that he wishes to deal kindly with the spy. Thus much of the space that was surely earned by Blunt’s espionage is devoted to praising his work as director of the Courtauld Institute ‘a superb director ... natural authority ... infectious enthusiasm ... winning way with students ... inspired those around him’ etc. The spy business was unfortunate, but surely a lot of the agitation against Blunt after his unmasking was prompted by ‘class hatred’. The DNB’s compassionate and superficial (or compassionately superficial) summing-up of Bunt’s delinquency might be thought of as his final triumph: ‘More immediately, his career can perhaps best be explained by the fatal conjunction in him of his own outstanding gifts and his desire to be at once part of the establishment and against it; or, as an acquaintance put it, “The real trouble with Anthony was that he wanted both to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.” ’

In the case of both Blunt and MacLean, there is no mincing of words on the question of their homosexuality. On Blunt, it is conjectured that ‘at a time when homosexual acts were still illegal in Britain, he seems to have relished the resulting atmosphere of secrecy and intrigue.’ Of MacLean we learn that, when head of Chancery in Cairo in the late Forties, he was ‘subjected to psychiatric examination for his homosexuality and alcoholism’. It was only when the Foreign Office believed ‘he had recovered’ (from both ailments?) that they sent him off to his new job in America – where he was better placed to pick up secrets than he would have been in Cairo. This career move is almost as hard to fathom as the one arranged for Beverley Nichols: ‘While attached to the War Office, his unconventional and indiscreet sex life caused consternation and he was hastily transferred to Cambridge to instruct officer cadets in military strategy.’ In the case of Nichols (‘He was unmarried’) we are allowed some scope for speculation on the matter of his sexual bias and thus there is scope also for some old-style innuendo. When Nichols arrived in Cambridge, we learn that ‘here he was befriended by (Sir) A.E. Shipley (q.v.), vice-chancellor of the university, and was seconded to him as aide-de-camp when he headed the Universities Mission which toured America for the last three months of 1918. Nichols, strikingly handsome in uniforms of his own design, was hailed as a war hero and acted the part with aplomb and charm. Such was his success that he extended his stay in New York for two weeks to cope with social engagements.’

This sort of cattiness, if such it is, does not show through too often in the DNB. Most contributors are anxious to say the best that can be said. As a result there is a fair amount of automatic writing: so-and-so’s ‘deep personal integrity was founded upon his staunch Presbyterianism’ and someone else was ‘a very private person with a profound belief in Christian values and the family as the basis of civilised life’. But this is not to say that there is any general reluctance to tick off the dead. Dick Emery was ‘a talent sadly unfulfilled’, George Brown’s career was ‘hampered’ by ‘his explosive temperament, often aggravated by alcohol’, Enid Bagnold was ‘too fond of the great and the grand to be taken seriously by the literary establishment’. According to Enoch Powell, Nigel Birch deserves to be ‘remembered for his insistence on retaining the trees in Park Lane when it was widened’.

Sometimes the choice of contributors can seem cosier than it might have been: Ned Sherrin on Caryl Brahms, for example, or Hugh Johnson on his publisher, James Mitchell: ‘The World Atlas of Wines,’ Johnson writes, ‘became the most discussed and most imitated reference book of the Seventies among rival publishers. By the end of the decade it had sold one million copies.’ It is also noticeable that ordinarily quite lively writers are not at their most sparky when working for the DNB: Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Shiva Naipaul, for instance, or Richard Ingrams on Claud Cockburn (although Ingrams has taken the trouble, it seems, to check through the Times’s files in search of that famous Cockburn headline: ‘Small Earthquake in Chile. Not Many Dead’. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t there.) Strange that these Private Eye types should be hired by the fact-revering DNB – and yet not so strange: after all, the DNB’s idea of Englishness is in some aspects perfectly in line with Private Eye’s. And it is not quite true to say that the DNB has muzzled the young buffers. Auberon Waugh’s piece on his uncle Alec has at least one genuinely comic paragraph: ‘After this success, in the opinion of his brother Evelyn, Alec Waugh never drew another sober breath, but this was an exaggeration. He lived for much of the year in Tangier, Morocco, where an old age pension from the State of New York enabled him to equip a house with cook, butler and houseboy; at other times, he lived austerely as writer-in-residence at a Mid-Western university, eating his meals from divided, plastic plates in a room above the students’ canteen, and emerging from time to time to entertain his friends in London at elegant dinner parties, where he wore immaculately tailored but increasingly eccentric suits.’

The comedy here is in what is left unsaid, or unexplained. In this sense the paragraph typifies what is perhaps the DNB’s chief pleasure: it leaves us to divine the ‘real story’ that may or may not lurk behind its polite graveside presentations. With the best-known entrants, we will very likely have – or soon be getting – some other, more unbuttoned narrative. For most, though, the DNB’s biography may well be the last word. We are thus left to fill out our own versions of the journalist who ‘alleviated’ his sleepless nights by ‘naming an XI of left-handed clergy in first-class cricket’, or the ‘devout’ Roman Catholic Medievalist whose ‘first marriage to an Oxford pupil was annulled in 1949’, or the cathedral organist who discovers that he may be going blind:

playing some difficult Bach at the end of the service, he suddenly found himself unable to see the printed page. Immediately he decided to retire from the great position he had held so long. He also had such an attachment to W.R. Matthews, with whom he had collaborated for 31 years, that he did not want to continue after Matthews’s retirement from the deanery. He took a flat near Westminster Abbey which he attended regularly. Weak sight robbed him of the earlier pleasure of reading Victorian novels, and railway timetables, on which he was remarkably expert. (He loved to plan imaginary cross-country journeys with Bradshaw.)

And, it might be added, he lived on for another 15 years. Surely there is somewhere a neo-Victorian novelist who can imagine for us the ‘whole truth’ about Sir John Dykes Bower. Or is it already written, in the DNB?

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