Poor Harold

C.H. Sisson

  • Harold Nicolson: A Biography. Vo. II: 1930-1968 by James Lees-Milne
    Chatto, 403 pp, £15.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 7011 2602 7

In 1930, Harold Nicolson gave a series of broadcasts on ‘The New Spirit in Modern Literature’. The pamphlet which the BBC published to accompany the series gave me my first sight of the work of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and I believe James Joyce, though I learn from the volume before me that Sir John Reith, reigning at the BBC, forbade Nicolson to mention Ulysses, then banned. Little encounters of that kind were to be expected in those days, and Nicolson seems not to have attempted to reason with the great man on this occasion. Such high matters were outside my sphere. For me, the speaker was one of those benign and knowledgeable spirits sent by an élitist BBC to enlighten such provincials as I. I know now that Nicolson would have been pleased with me as a listener for I learn from James Lees-Milne that, though ‘uneasy and unsympathetic towards the uneducated classes, he nevertheless wanted them to have the opportunities of becoming as educated as he was himself.’ That was generous of him, I suppose one must say, even if not altogether reassuring as to his attitude to himself and to the world at large.

Poor Harold, as we all now know, was a snob, to an extent which was positively disabling. It cannot have mattered much – it may even have been an advantage – in the career which, about the time with which this volume opens, he had just thrown up. For diplomatic services are not exactly the antennae of the race, when it comes to social relationships. What more proper, over half a century ago, than for a diplomat to feel that ‘the idea of a gentleman of birth and education sleeping with a guardsman’ was ‘repugnant’? Nicolson ‘was only attracted by younger, intellectual men of his own class’, though he seems to have had ‘some commerce’ in Berlin ‘with what he called the lower orders’. But in the second part of his career, in journalism and politics, the narrowness of his social sympathies mast have brought some penalties. He seems to have been hardly aware of this, for even at the North Croydon by-election of 1948, when he, stood as a Labour candidate, he could say: ‘I have no hesitation about penetrating into working-class houses, and they are so grateful and loyal.’ They were not so grateful and loyal as to elect him, on that occasion, even though ‘he would not wear his fur-lined coat lest the electorate should think him “posh”.’ In journalism the drawbacks of his narrowness were not so clear-cut. It is true that he fancied that what he claimed was his ‘anti-vulgarisation complex’ made him unsuitable for writing for the press, but a vulgariser was exactly what he was and in 1930-32 a touch of condescension was not out of place. It was the BBC, however, which gave him his great opportunity. At this stage of that institution’s stately progress to really vulgar vulgarisation, what St John Irvine called ‘the sleepy insolence of his style’ was just what was wanted. ‘An intimate, cosy, hesitant, but authoritative manner came quite naturally to him.’ Listeners felt they were receiving messages from a world infinitely cultivated and informed which they had not been fortunate enough to inhabit themselves, but which they still believed existed somewhere. ‘The truth was,’ Nicolson’s biographer justly says, ‘that he had suddenly leapt into the forefront of popularity with the middle-brow British listeners.’ In spite of all his airs, and not a little because of them, it was to this public that Nicolson, like his consort Vita Sackville-West, was really attuned, and the Thirties were the great age of the middlebrow.

If James Lees-Milne has a fault as Nicolson’s biographer, it is one which is understandable in a friend of his subject’s and of the family – that of being too sympathetic. From a more distant point of view, much that is recorded in this second volume is uproariously funny. No sooner had this monster of intelligence turned his mind towards cutting a figure in politics than he fell flat on his face. ‘Conscious as he was of belonging to a privileged caste, he did not approve of privileged castes.’ So he not merely flirted with Sir Oswald Mosley’s New Party – at a time when Harold Macmillan, J.M. Keynes and Leonard Woolf, all with much greater caution and good sense, were doing the same – but accepted Mosley’s invitation to edit Action. The lowbrow Beaverbrook told him that he was mad to support the New Party and that it would make no appeal either to the working class or to the aristocracy, but Harold was dreaming of being Foreign Secretary. On leaving the offices of the Evening Standard, where he had found a home, he recorded that he felt that it was ‘very soiling to live among people so extremely empirical, quotidian, shallow and mean’. How different was Mosley, by whom Harold ‘was fascinated, almost to a masochistic degree’. The association with the New Party, from which of course he had to extricate himself, did not spoil his further career in politics. In October 1935 he was invited to stand as National Labour Party candidate for West Leicester, the invitation coming from Lord De La Warr, the Chairman of the Party, who was a cousin of Vita’s. It was thus that Harold became a member of the House of Commons.

A comic episode Nicolson was less equipped to handle was provided, in 1931, by Roy Campbell, who attacked him, together with a number of other writers in the swim at the time, in his satire The Georgiad. One need have no exaggerated regard for Campbell’s work to feel the unfairness of Lees-Milne’s suggestion that the references to the Nicolsons were inspired ‘actually’ by ‘jealousy’ of their ‘style of living’. Whatever the personal relationships between the Campbells and the Nicolsons – and on the biographer’s own showing, they were complicated – the purely literary attack was surely as near the truth as such things need be:

How Nicolson who in his weekly crack
Will slap the meanest scribbler on the back,
Who praises every Gertie, Bess or Nelly
That ever farrowed novels from her belly,
At the mere thought of Lewis goes quite blue
And to a cackle turns his weekly coo.

Nicolson had become, certainly, one of those great, non-serious figures who dominated the more prominent reviewing in the Thirties. The more personal attack on Harold and Vita was no doubt more offensive. Campbell returned to it later in Light on a Dark Horse (1951), and whether or not Nicolson’s explanation, proffered to Professor Gardner of Bloemfontein after Campbell’s death, was really the ‘master-piece of candour’ Lees-Milne makes it out to be, it was, as he says, ‘an ingenious exculpation of Vita’s conduct in attributing to her a sense of shame whereas in fact there seems to have been only amusement’.

Whatever the merit of such books as Byron: The Last Journey and whatever the fluency of most of Nicolson’s writing, there is something wrong in the perspectives of a biographer who can recount his subject’s meeting with James Joyce and speak without irony or other differentiation of ‘the two men of letters’. It is certainly rather shocking too to find Lees-Milne speaking of Nicolson as ‘among the greatest masters of prose of his generation’. It is true that this opinion is backed by that of the Poet Laureate, but it has to be remembered that he is also an authority on Victorian architecture; he was anyhow speaking at a Guildhall dinner where, perhaps, the bluntest truths are hardly to be expected. Nicolson’s real gifts were surely neither as a writer or a politician but as a publicist, and he had all the fame that belongs to such a role – with Vernon Bartlett, who is here counted among the great. His political career rumbled on for a while, attaining its modest zenith as Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Information during the war: alas, ‘Churchill did not really care for Harold,’ though Harold adored Churchill. Even after this failure, as he recognised it to be, Nicolson could still imagine that he was conferring a favour on the Labour Party by joining it when it was, as he saw it, ‘in a bad way’. He had already proposed himself as a peer, and been ‘turned down for not being Labour; and when he found he could not get’ a peerage ‘as an Independent he was ready to change his party coat.’ As if this were not enough nonsense about his station in life, Nicolson was deeply vexed when he was offered a KCVO (which he finally look) for his biography of George V, the objection being that knighthoods were so middle-class.

As a publicist, Nicolson was polished, and since this is a profession in which one cannot go far out of the drift of opinion and still hold one’s audience, it is perhaps as unfair as it is pointless, at this time of day, to fault any particular pronouncements. ‘In February [1936] Eden told Harold that he was prepared to make great concessions to German appetites provided Germany would sign a disarmament treaty and join the League of Nations. Harold associated himself wholeheartedly with Eden’s attitude.’ Whether Eden’s words meant very much, in the year in which Germany was to re-occupy the Rhineland, is a matter of judgment, but surely whatever gestures were made after that fatal event were merely so many frolics on the way to war. Nicolson was one of those who believed that ‘the rule of law and the principles of the League of Nations’ could achieve more than such things in fact do; he seems even to have thought that the United Kingdom’s record in Europe from 1814-1914 was all due to ‘the superlative technique of her diplomatic service and its irreproachable standards of honour’. Well, there were other factors. The course of events leading up to 1939 showed the ineptitude of middle-class liberalism – to which tradition Harold, in spite of his protests, belonged – in the face of embattled autocracies. Harold shared to the full the widespread silliness of the Thirties about Russia. ‘Harold was able to have perfectly frank discussions with Maisky, who found him safe as well as sympathetic.’ He felt ‘stricken to the dust’ by the Russo-German pact of 1939, sharing the astonishment with many innocent leftists. Several years later he could still write: ‘Not that I have the slightest objection to Russian Communism.’ He was a close friend of Guy Burgess, even continuing to write to him after the latter had gone to Moscow. Yet Nicolson was loyal: only innocence and folly lay behind those judicious talks on foreign affairs.

No doubt the life of Nicolson was worth writing, as a contribution to the history of the social decline of his class and the political decline of the United Kingdom. Nothing here for the future, not even Nicolson’s vision of a BBC which alone could ‘teach the public to think correctly, feel nobly, to enjoy themselves intelligently and to have some conception of what is meant by the good life’. Not even his notion that we should convince the Russians ‘by the example of our immense moral power’.