Vol. 19 No. 17 · 4 September 1997

K.B. McFarlane is remembered by Alan Bennett, his former student, and the life of a Forties Oxford don is evoked in two of his letters

Alan Bennett

6256 words

K.B. McFarlane was one of the most influential medieval historians of postwar Britain, but his name is unknown outside academic circles. This would have pleased him. He grew up in Dulwich, the son of a civil servant in the Admiralty. A day boy at Dulwich College, he won an open scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford and then a senior demyship at Magdalen where in 1928 he became a fellow and spent the rest of his life.

In terms of published output his career might not seem to amount to much; there was a small book on Wycliffe and a handful of scholarly articles in historical periodicals, with most of his work, notably the Ford Lectures on The Nobility of Later Medieval England published after his death. However, through his teaching and lecturing and the supervision of a large number of graduate students who then went on to greater things, he was undoubtedly the leading medieval historian of his time. A perfectionist in both his research and writing he shunned popularity and publicity and was feared for his acerbic and deflating comments. But those who broke through his reserve knew him as a gentle and compassionate man and an incomparable friend.

I first met him late in Michaelmas term 1957. I had read history at Exeter College and in Final Schools the previous term rather to my own surprise (and very much to the surprise of my college) had just scraped into the first class. So instead of being thrust out into the world as I had expected I was offered the chance of putting Life off a little longer by staying on, as I thought vaguely ‘to do research’, though into what I had no idea. In quest of a supervisor and also a subject I paid a disastrous visit to Beryl Smalley at St Hilda’s, thinking I might do something on the Franciscans. There had been a torrential thunderstorm and forgetting to wipe my feet I trailed wet footsteps all across her white carpet, thus putting paid to any hope of research into the friars, barefoot or otherwise. I then went to see K. B. McFarlane.

My special subject in Schools was Richard II so I had been to McFarlane’s lectures on the Lollard Knights; I also had a copy of some notes on his 1953 Ford Lectures that was passed down from year to year in Exeter. I knew of his austere reputation and of his reluctance to publish from David Marquand, who was at Magdalen and who told me how he had been scared out of his wits one dark night in the cloisters when Bruce had swept past him in his Spanish cloak.

I must have written to him and been told to come down to Magdalen, though I remember nothing of that first meeting except that Bruce was sitting in his armchair, possibly with a cat on his knee, and that I marched awkwardly into the room, stood on the hearthrug and said ‘I’m Bennett’, at which he laughed. And the laughter and the angle of his head and the smile that was so often in his eyes is how I recall him now. Freesias bring him back, too, as there were always some in a glass scenting the whole room, with its collection of keys hung on the plain plaster wall, the bleached oak, the Thirties paintings and bits of brocade. But as one came in, the last smell was always the fish that was put out in the vestibule for the cats.

We settled on the royal retinue of Richard II 1388-99 as my research subject and there-after I used to go down and see him pretty regularly, though not in my recollection talking much about work; these visits, very often around teatime, gradually became less tutorial and more social. I’d generally take with me a cake from Fullers or some establishment in the covered market, cakes that can have done him no good but which he ate with relish, meringues particularly.

I had never come up against as strong a personality as this before and I found without any conscious effort that my handwriting now began to resemble his. He always wrote ‘Esq.’ with the superscription ‘re’ and I found myself doing that too. It’s rare enough nowadays to write Esq. at all but I still write it Esqre and note that others of his former pupils do the same.

Bruce was very set in his ways, though perhaps no more than I am now. At Stonor once I was helping him change some sheets and had put the bottom sheet on with the crease folding down, not up ... the fact that I find my mistake hard to describe indicates how finicky I found it. Bruce reproved me, explaining that the creases should always go the other way. I thought this pedantic and probably said so but I have always observed his method ever since.

Stonor, his pied-à-terre in the country, was hardly the cottage I had thought but a sizeable house with an extensive garden tended largely by Helena Wright, the pioneer of birth control with whom he shared the house, who was often knelt there working, planting out the beds, with her radio (a source of irritation to Bruce) always beside her. Brudenell House at Quainton, to which he subsequently moved, was more imposing, but I never stayed there. Food was fairly simple with lots of soups and salads, the soup in the evening always drunk with a set of 16th-century silver apostle spoons. In those more expansive days one took elaborate table silver for granted, undergraduates at my own college regularly drinking beer in Hall from 17th and 18th-century silver tankards. The spoons, though, I knew were in a different class and indeed they had to be deposited in the bank between visits. Bruce enjoyed food and was quite funny and snobbish about it. Dining once with him at the Randolph (a more intimidating experience then than it is now) I chose scampi, which I’d never eaten. Bruce sniffed: ‘Commercial traveller’s food.’

McFarlane has figured in accounts of the period chiefly as the colleague and opponent of A.J.P. Taylor with whom he shared the history teaching at Magdalen. Taylor achieved the kind of fame Bruce wanted none of, but, unlike Taylor, Bruce managed without effort to acquire a body of pupils who were both friends and disciples and who carried on his work and cherish his memory. Anyone though who did research supervised by McFarlane must have been aware that they had a long way to travel before they reached the frontier of his own knowledge and there was very little any of his students could tell him that he didn’t already know, though this didn’t stop one trying. Having come under his spell I wanted very much to please him, even though it gradually became apparent to me that I was pretty hopeless at research and not much better as a teacher. Still he steered a number of his surplus pupils my way which financially was a great help, finally getting me appointed a junior lecturer in history at Magdalen.

He did too much teaching himself and grumbled about it but never treated it as a chore; what takes me by surprise in these letters is how much his happiness and wellbeing was bound up with the progress and responsiveness of his pupils – and not just the cleverest ones either. A good tutorial even with an average pupil put him in a good mood and was thought worth mentioning in a letter. This dedication to teaching, though, could make him intolerant of what he saw as laziness and he was harsh with pupils who, it seemed to him, were performing below their capacity. Although his zeal was tempered by his relish for oddity and his interest in the personalities of those whom he taught, it could make him seem unfeeling. One of his pupils, who was briefly a pupil of mine, was Adam Roberts, now Professor of International Relations at Oxford. Adam was a demy at Magdalen and was thought likely to get a first but didn’t; he was understandably a little mortified but his self-reproach can’t have been helped when he received a note from McFarlane saying, ‘Here are your marks and pretty miserable they are, too.’ Others of his year with less resilience than Adam received similar notes and I find this hard to understand, let alone sympathise with. It wasn’t that he measured intellectual worth by success in examinations, though he did believe that one had to play the system and that if a good degree bought you time or opened doors and gave you the opportunity to do what you wanted you were a fool not to take examinations seriously. I had used stratagems myself to get through Finals and felt a bit shabby for doing so, though mine were probably cruder (artful quotations, a selection of facts learned by rote) than anything Bruce would have advocated. Still they did the trick, but Karl Leyser having been one of my examiners, Bruce would have known that it was a close-run thing, so I always felt intellectually I was on very thin ice.

I knew, though, that Bruce was fond of me but did not let on that I knew, flattered that he should be glad of my company but embarrassed when he gave any hint of it. I’ve always regretted this, reproaching myself for not acknowledging his affection and managing things better.

I ended up quarrelling, as I’m reassured, reading his letters, to find that several of his friends and pupils did, though I’m glad I made it up with him before he died. I called to see him one afternoon at Quainton and we sat in the garden talking. Suddenly he said, apropos of nothing, ‘I think I’m going to retire.’ I thought he meant into the house and so stood up abruptly and this made him laugh. I’m happy to think that our friendship both began and ended with his laughing.

To Karl Leyser*
Magdalen College, 1 June 1944

Since I finished my lectures last Thursday I have been leading a life of quiet pleasure. Most days I’ve sat on the lawn reading the Block Prince’s Register and other sources for the reign of Edward III. On Tuesday I took a complete holiday. Taking sandwiches I left college at 8.40 a.m., called for Rowse at All Souls, and walked through the early morning sunshine to the station. There we took the train to South Leigh. It was ten by the time we arrived there.

We walked across the fields past a fine Tudor farmhouse (half-timbered but richly covered with pinkish roughcast) under an ancient ilex and surrounded by bright pop-pies, irises and great drifts of catmint, to the quiet church. The vicar – an ex-missionary from China – had hung a bamboo string curtain over the door to keep out the birds, and the wind was playing gently on the strings. Inside the angels were blowing the last trumpet above the chancel arch, the dead rising from their tombs in their shrouds; on the left St Peter welcomed the saved into what seemed a rather overcrowded heavenly city; on the right crowned and mitred souls were being dragged in chains to the mouth of hell. On the south wall the archangel Gabriel was weighing a soul in a huge pair of scales; a devil was seated on the weight side, while the Virgin interceded with a merciful gesture. By the altar stood the angel of the Annunciation with a lily branch in his hand; and by a north aisle window stood a canonised Pope with an anchor by his side and beside another a much decayed Tree of Jesse. Do you remember the frescoes?

Thence across the fields beneath murmuring poplars to the main road between Eyn-sham and Witney. Crossing this we plunged up the drive of Eynsham Hall, a huge Victorian Tudor house in a few square miles of park. An American sentry said ‘sure’ when I asked him whether we could go through; we passed by many hundreds of lorries and tents, the white troops in one camp, the black in another. An old woman in the village said that they preferred the black; they were quieter and more polite. Is it not an irony that the English countryman prefers the ‘black trash’ to the ‘lords of creation’? We emerged from the park at North Leigh village perched on a ridge above the Evenlode valley looking across to Stonesfield (where the stone slates are quarried) and the back of Blenheim Park. Here Rowse began collecting notes for a poem so I pointed out a great rosemary bush in flower to him and told him it was marjoram. I look forward to the published error.

At North Leigh we saw Mr Hevesi gardening and hurried by (we hope) unseen. The Jacobean-Caroline rectory was beautiful with honeysuckle, clematis and lupins. The church is particularly interesting. A Saxon-Norman central tower has become a west tower with the disappearance of the original nave. Now a small Norman nave runs east of the tower on the site of the first chancel. There is a fine fresco above the chancel arch – a judgment, as at South Leigh, but much more refined and beautiful (that at South Leigh was repainted in the 19th century). To the north of the chancel is the Wilcote chapel, a fan-vaulted two-bayed chantry of exquisite perfection. In it lies Sir William Wilcote, MP for Oxfordshire under Richard II and Henry IV, who died in 1411. He is shown in alabaster armour, with a collar of SS (the Lancastrian badge), his eagle coat of arms on his jupon and a chaplet round his helm. Beside him his wife with a rich head-dress. A noble tomb. His son John was also many times MP. As Sir William sat as fellow MP for Oxford with Thomas Chaucer, I was naturally on familiar terms with him and startled even Rowse by giving his alabaster cheek a great smacking kiss. To the north of the north aisle of the short nave is a Palladian chapel built to house the family pew of the Perrots, and their heirs the Musgraves, the 18th-century baronets and bigwigs of the neighbourhood.

From the church we crossed the fields to East End and then plunged down to the Roman villa beside the Evenlode stream. Looking down on the bushy mounds of earth which mark the site of a Roman-Briton’s country house, and with the boys of the village bathing and shouting in the stream beyond, we ate our lunch. It was a magnificent hot, sunny day with a heat haze over the beech and oak woods, the cornfields still freshly green and the river gleaming among the willows. The Evenlode valley rivals the Windrush for first place in Oxfordshire’s beloved countryside. It was at its best, before the summer has scorched its green fields and dulled the burnish of its woods!

After lunch we turned west, climbed the hill again through the hedges of wild rose, past gardens scented with mock-orange, stocks and lilacs – the scents were heavily intoxicating everywhere – and then dropped down through the woods to another Evenlode reach and an old stone bridge where the cattle stood up to their knees in the water and Italian prisoners waved to us from the ploughed fields.

Then we mounted the long hill to Wilcote. Here a huge Victorian-Elizabethan house and park is girt by beech woods on the right, and on the ridge to the left stands the ancient manor house of the Wilcotes. A medieval hall is revealed by the Gothic buttresses to the back range. A floor divides the hall into two storeys and a homely Queen Anne front with apricot stucco and dark green-blue paint looks out on the lawns and shrubberies. I lost my heart to this history-stored house and long to know the succession of its owners ...

From Wilcotes we descended to Finstock, which begins at the bottom of a narrow gulley and rises to the crest of the opposite hill. At the far end of the village, looking east and north across the Evenlode valley, is a fine 17th-century manor house with oval windows in its three gables and crown glass in its panes. A path runs through the farmyard and across the fields to a wicket gate leading to Cornbury Park. This is a part of ancient Wychwood forest, Henry II’s hunting ground from Woodstock. Wychwood used to stretch from Woodstock to Burford but now only Blenheim and Cornbury remain. Charles I gave Cornbury to Clarendon and the palatial house was built by the minister after the Restoration. The park is full of army lorries now, but the golden-stoned house looking down on the string of lakes is visible through the medieval oaks, We walked right across the park and into Charlbury, a tiny market town on the far side of the Even-lode. The heat was tropical and we sought shade in the rather ugly perpendicular church until teatime. This we took at the British Restaurant for 6d – an excellent working-class tea served by a tyrannical dame with a harsh English businesslike voice – perhaps the vicar’s wife. The 4.15 train brought us back to Oxford. Two glasses of orangeade at All Souls and two of lime juice at Magdalen were necessary preliminaries to a cold bath and a delicious bottle of Chambertin with my roast pork at dinner.

I have been busy on the Audleys recently; an interesting family, first important in the 13th century. In the 12th century they were mesne tenants holding of the Norman house of Verdon in Staffordshire. At the beginning of John’s reign, Henry Audley appears as a follower first of the earls of Ulster and then of the earls of Chester, and finally of the King. He was a royalist captain I215-16 and rewarded by John with lands. Under Henry III he continued to prosper and became a baron. His son James (c.1220-77) was a royalist too in the Barons’ Wars and became Justiciar of Ireland in 1270. Two of his sons had descendants, the elder was the ancestor of the baronial family of Audeley of Heleigh Castle, Staffordshire and Red Castle, Salop which died out in the male line in 1390 (in the female it went on into the 17th century as Lords Audley, earls of Castlehaven). The younger line is more interesting. Hugh, James Audley’s youngest son, was settled in Oxfordshire at Stratton Audley. He lived until 1326 and married a sister of Margaret, sister and co-heiress of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and granddaughter of Edward I. He was a rival therefore of Despenser for the Clare inheritance in Glamorgan and was very active against Despenser in 1322-6. His father indeed was attainted in 1325. In 1337 he succeeded to the earldom of Gloucester but died in 1347 leaving a single daughter who carried all his lands to the earls of Stafford. His elder brother fell in love with a cousin’s widow and being unable to get a Papal dispensation to marry her lived in sin with her and produced a family. His younger son, Sir James Audley, was the great captain, the hero of Poitiers, Froissart’s idol and the Black Prince’s friend. He died childless and (I think) unmarried. Meanwhile you’re reeling with fatigue at this long boring letter.

To Karl Leyser
Magdalen College, 26 August 1945, 6.5 P.M.

I had meant to tell you how I spent the two VJ days, Wednesday and Thursday, the 15th and 16th August; and I must do it before the details become dim. Not that they were noteworthy in themselves but because they mixed the ordinary and the extraordinary they were of some biographical and social interest; so keep this letter to smile over fifty years hence when I shall be ninety or dust.

Wednesday was an unsettled day, meteorologically speaking, rain and sun and suppressed thunder in the afternoon, clear and warm as night came. From 10 until 6.30 (barring of course meals) I traced the fortunes of those who were Gaunt’s retainers in 1373 and not so ten years later (when a list was made by his clerks). I suppose that I got through five or six that day, perhaps one or two more. If they had died well and good; but if they were alive and no longer his retainers then the life-term of their contracts meant less than it said. As I expected some were still alive and no longer retainers; sometimes the retainers of someone else and one indeed of Gaunt’s enemy Bishop Henry De-spenser whose ‘crusade’ of 1383 caused such a row. So I left the library on Wednesday evening with a mind wholly at peace. Then a quick change into a dinner jacket and a gin-and-lime before going to the victory feast in Hall. Put on at the last moment, it was not well attended and John Young had invited half a dozen representatives of the lower tables to swell our party ... Roast duck and mulberry tart were the chief dishes and there was champagne. My place was third from the oriel window on the west side of the table between Holmes and Simopoulos whose host, Alan Taylor, had the end seat ...

In SCR I was at the opposite end of the horseshoe to the Vice-president, the only consequence of which was that the melon gave out before it reached me. But there were peaches, nectarines, grapes, apples, oranges, dates and biscuits. To drink there was port, madeira and claret. Having had three glasses of fizz in Hall I drank water for the rest of the evening. Holmes showed no such abstinence; nor anyone else that I noticed! By the end of common room when I had taken round the snuff it was nearly dark and by the time that we had drunk our coffee and lighted our cigars it was quite so; but the floodlights had been placed so as to light up the Great Tower and the west front of the chapel and so I organised a game of bowls for the lawn under the President’s windows ... A huge crowd pressed against the railings to watch. As the Oxford Mail put it next day, ‘the chief attraction in Oxford was at Magdalen where a group of men in evening dress played a solemn game of bowls.’

Some of us then decided to climb the Tower, the Bursar, his Harrovian son, his wife and sister-in-law, William Holmes and I. The view from the top was fine, the pinnacles lit from below, a youngish moon setting amid wisps of cloud over Boar’s Hill, Merton tower floodlit, and the glow of many bonfires between Chilterns and Cotswold. Next I satisfied an ancient longing and rang the College’s ten bells helped by Bursar minor and Holmes; by rushing from rope to rope and sometimes soaring towards the ceiling on them, we managed to get them all going for a quarter of an hour. Descending and losing my companions I found [C.S.] Lewis alone in the smoking room and chattered with him until 1.30 a.m. ... Then I made for bed only to find Longwall Quad lit up by a bonfire composed of the Naafi canteen. I watched this for a bit and went to bed as Cleverly and the staff were putting it out with a hose. In bed I read Maurice Baring on Sarah Bernhardt in his Puppet Show of Memory until I fell asleep.

I was called at seven on Thursday by telephone (the bell interrupted a fantastic and vivid dream about fire-bombs in London). The programme for the day had nothing to do with victory, but was to carry out a long-meditated expedition to Kelmscott, the Jacobean home of William Morris ‘the poetic upholsterer’. Taken by him and Gabriel Rossetti in 1871, it became his sole property and permanent home later. In 1938 his daughter May left it to the University on certain conditions, but her wills were a mess and in the end the University let it furnished on condition that it should be open to members of the University and Morris-students. I had never been there; it is near Lechlade on the Upper Thames further down the little railway line on which we once returned from South Leigh (do you remember the icy-cold dark station waiting-room?); and when Alan Taylor told me that he and Margaret had bicycled through the village this spring it was decided that we should go and see it together properly some time. At the beginning of this month we began to plan the expedition and Alan suggested that we should ask Berners (who lives at Faringdon House, about eight miles away by road) to give us lunch afterwards. Berners was willing; but two days before our expedition decided to join us with a female from London staying with him. So it was arranged that we should meet them at Kelmscott at 11.30 a.m.

I joined Alan at the station for the 9.35 train which stopping everywhere took more than an hour to Kelmscott and Langford station, two miles from our destination. It was an outstanding day, brilliant sunshine with small, white high clouds, far horizons and a pearly quality in the light. The train was fairly empty but with many airmen asleep in the corners after all night in London and the milk train to Oxford. St George’s flags streamed from all the village church towers – the Saxon one at Langford clearly visible across the fields as we arrived at our station. I clutched my Times and watched the countryside while Alan conned a Russian primer. August is a dull time in the hedgerows, but harvest had begun and the cornfields and stooks were tawny with a glowing fruitfulness.

Here I must stop and dress for another dinner. Anon!

10.7 p.m. To continue: The walk from the station to the village is a dull one. The road between grassy sides with low hedges makes two right-angled turns down a gentle sloping ledge towards the Thames. The ‘Bush’ and the foothills of the Cotswolds are behind you and beyond the Thames the ground rises immediately to the little hills which divided the river from the Vale of White Horse. The grass was browning last week and the haws on the thorns ripening. Few wild flowers remained in flower, knapweed, scabious, codlins-and-cream, with here and there an ancient meadowsweet and a tattered St John’s wort; for the amateur botanist an uninteresting time. Alan and I talked about Namier’s work on 1848 and the badness of Wood-ward’s volume in the Oxford series; bat our conversation was as usual rather forced and uneasy; strange man!

First we came to Kelmscott village, straggling southwards from the church to the manor house. The church is only slightly ‘scraped’, pleasant, unpretentious, and without striking features; only an amusing monument to an 18th-century mariner. The cottages are stone built and roofed in Cotswold style; at least one with some claims to notice architecturally. At the end of the road which here becomes a farm track we reached the high wall of the manor house’s garden at 11.25 a.m. An empty car was standing in the farmyard and in a pen a huge brown bull. No sign of the Faringdon party, so Alan and I scouted round the house. It is a house of two periods, shaped like a squat L. Facing east and west is a lowish early 17th-century farmhouse with no remarkable features, gabled and with square hoodmoulds above the windows. On the north end, projecting eastwards towards the road, they had added later in the 17th century a higher, more ambitious wing of three tall storeys with gables and an attractive ‘Renaissance’ frame to each of the gable windows.

Berners now appeared and introduced Mrs Montagu; they had arrived early in the car and had walked down to the river which is one meadow away to the south, hidden from the house by the farm buildings and some tall trees (poplars and willows I think). Berners was dressed in a grey suit, tartan socks and black-and-white shoes; he is stoutish, ugly, bald and 63. He wears dark glasses always. Mrs Montagu was not one of his usual blondes but a contemporary with blue-white hair covered by a red handkerchief and rather a bohemian manner. We now advanced in single file up the stone path to the door. Spying someone in a gap in the hedge to the north Berners darted though and we could hear him talking to a man in the vegetable garden. Then the front door opened and an angry young woman in a picturesque blue dress and freckled arms emerged and said sharply: ‘You can’t come in here.’ We hesitated and signed in the direction of Berners who now returned and said that it was all right. The young woman – Mrs Scott-Snell, the wife of the tenant in the garden – did not give way but repeated the caveat. Berners merely slipped past her into the house and we followed. It was an absurd and very embarrassing adventure. We marched through the house to a stream of protests and ‘No, you cannot go in there”s ludicrously mingled with guide’s patter by Mrs S.S., Mrs M. and I did our best to smooth her down by apologies and polite enquiries, exclamations of admiration etc. I was the knowledgeable one about Morris’s life, Mrs M. could talk about chintzes and needlework. But I was in such a state of embarrassment and confusion that I really haven’t a clear idea of what I saw.

Much of Morris’s furniture, curtains, chaircovers, tapestries and the like are still there. But we were swept through so rapidly that the geography of the house is far from clear to me. We saw only about half a dozen rooms. The Scott-Snells are artists, dreadful artists. They paint mermaids, nymphs, knights in armour in stained-glass attitudes in disagreeable colours; and these hideous watercolours were hung on top of Morris hangings and tapestries. There ore also some old Mortlake tapestries similarly disfigured. How the ghost of Rossetti (who believed in ghosts) would hate it. The Morris chintzes have faded and been washed out; the Webb furniture is mostly clumsy but there was one nice table with ringed legs and a plain scrubbed oak top. The whole impression was drab. It is extraordinary now to remember that the Pre-Raphaelites were rebelling against the muddy colours of the Victorians: we have gone so much farther in the use of pure colours. Of course all these had faded and there was one pair of curtains of a lovely blue.

However, the whole experience was an unfortunate one and we emerged on the road in less than ten minutes battered and giggling; only Berners was unperturbed; even the brassy Alan was shaken and unhappy. He and I then set out across country for Faringdon while the other two returned by car. We crossed the Thames by a wooden footbridge and walked along the bank downstream for something like a mile and then struck south along hedges and through coppices to reach the park boundary of Berners’s house. We arrived hot and thirsty at 1.45. Faringdon House is a Palladian building set high above terraces looking north down towards the Thames. It has a magnificent view of the distant slopes of Cotswold with the elmy ‘Bush’ between. The front looks south across lawns to Faringdon church. The town, though near, is invisible. There are signs even outside of Berners’s Victorian tastes: huge urns of geraniums, lobelias and daisies. Inside richly but rather incongruously furnished. Masses of pictures including one of B.’s own messy efforts ...

(28 August 1945 – 9.50 p.m. Sorry I was interrupted and have been slow to resume.) The Berners ménage consists of B. himself, who has lived mostly in Oxford during the war, and a strange rather animal young man called Robert Heber-Percy. The latter is like some pleasant kind of animal; on the whole a pony or a stag. He manages the home farm and gardens – and possibly the house. A butler was the only servant visible and we helped ourselves to an excellent lunch – roast chicken, green peas, marrow and small potatoes, all obviously home-grown. The dining-room has a large round table and I sat between Mrs Montagu who for some reason was in a quarrelsome temper – with Berners and not with me, I’m glad to say – and Heber-Percy. Alan Taylor was opposite between Berners and Gavin Faringdon, a neighbour who was very much at home there. The conversation was general and what would be called ‘amusing’. We had had an excellent iced cocktail in the sitting-room to help us to chatter. Alan got rather loud and dictatorial. Berners wears queer little hats indoors and during lunch had a grey woolly jockey’s cap on his bald head. Gavin Faringdon was an extremely young 45 and looked about thirty with all the aristocratic delicacy of feature and figure that you often find in the third generation parvenu. He is a Labour peer and was strikingly got up in a sort of grey uniform, trousers and wind-jacket and shirt. He and I rather hit it off. Some would say he was rather cissy; certainly not clever, but cultivated and animated. He denounced and I defended Rowse, and Berners having contributed a number of catty remarks said ‘Well, I won’t hear a word against him’ and then proceeded to be even more critical. After lunch – which ended with a cheese soufflé and masses of fruit (wild strawberries and cream, grapes and plums) – we drank coffee on the terrace and discussed modern novelists before the satisfying view.

At 3.15 I said I wanted to see the church (Sir Robert Shottesbroke, one of Henry V’s captains and the husband of Isobel Will-icotes has a chantry there) and it was arranged that we should return for our taxi at four, after saying farewell to the host. Alan and I therefore set off down the drive. At the gate we were caught up by Gavin F. in his ancient family Rolls-Royce. He said that we must come and see his house and that we could ring up from there and tell Berners to cancel the taxi, since he should drive us into Oxford himself. He and Alan didn’t like each other and there was an embarrassing pause before I accepted. So off we went to Buscot Park. F. inherited it half a dozen years or more ago from a grandfather who built many railways in Spain and South America – the first peer. But it was built by some other family in 1780 and only bought by the Henderson (Faringdon’s name) family in this century. F. doesn’t live there now but alone in the keeper’s lodge at the gate while a girls’ school has been there all the war and just gone. It is in a huge park and has the same views as Faringdon House, although altogether a larger affair, with a private theatre and squash courts in one pavilion and garages in the other. The chief attraction was its pictures, one room of Panninis, another of Gainsboroughs, another of Dutch 17th-century masters (two Rembrandts, a Rubens, a Vos etc) and another of Burne-Jones. On the stairs a Sickert portrait of Gavin F. nine feet high and about two and a half broad. We trooped admiringly round – it was a quite beautiful house – and then drove down to the lodge beside the lake to see where F. actually lived, alone with three or four charming cats and a collection of modern pictures – Duncan Grants chiefly. And after he had changed into Fire Guard uniform we set off in the Rolls to Oxford.

Alan and I sat behind and we had one of those difficult conversations in which one of the party has his back to the other two. Alan was awfully bored by F.’s views on international affairs and by his inability to hold forth himself. As he said afterwards, he thought F. a ‘very stupid man and so boring’, and the thought was quite obvious throughout. But I, as I said, liked him. He was sympathetic to me – and we parted with every intention expressed of meeting again. I hope we do; I don’t feel the same about Berners. His music and pictures repel me and most of his books are silly. His autobiography (First Childhood and Distant Prospect) I do like. Both volumes are charmingly written, entertaining, and while superficial and not strikingly original, nevertheless attractive. I have them both. But his selfishness and silliness are too much in evidence in real life. He may have a kind heart and he is independent to the point of an amusing eccentricity, but there is no – how shall I say it – chime between us. He is too much of a dabbler. He has little in common with his ancestor, the translator of Froissart; at least he has no interest in the 14th century.

Well, there, that is my VJ holiday. The letter is already too long and I fear too boring to allow of any additions. You needn’t keep it fifty years after all!

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