Most years I make occasional lecture tours for the Historical Association. This year I thought I had done wisely to plan a trip to the West Country in late March. Nothing could have been more mistaken. There was no benign spring: there was either driving rain or cold winds near to freezing. Apart from an inspection of Plymouth harbour, we never went near the sea, which I am told is the main purpose of such a visit. The foray increased my dislike of motorways if that were possible. Common sense advises journey by train, but then how are my wife and I to stagger along with suitcases? I suppose the answer is to stay at home.
Devon and Cornwall were almost unknown country to me, which is slightly shame-making. Plymouth has an attractive position and a character all its own, provided by centuries of the Navy, which still dominates Plymouth though it has now few ships. Dominant personality is still Lady Astor, with Isaac Foot as runner-up. The television series on Lady Astor is not widely applauded in Plymouth and I, too, do not much like visiting-card television: historical characters dragged in for the sake of their names. Crossing the border into Cornwall is the real thing: different country, different people, though, alas, not different language. Or is the Cornish nationality all a pretence? Truro is a delightful city. Its cathedral is, I think, the best work of 13th-century Gothic architecture built in the 19th century, far better than anything Viollet-le-Duc could do. There is also an admirable County Museum, rich in Cornish gold and tin as sought by the Carthaginians.
Cultural note: there is no demand in Truro for either the Times or the Guardian. At least, copies of both journals are virtually unobtainable. And what did I lecture about in Plymouth and Truro? I cannot remember and would not tell if I could. At any rate, the audiences liked it and queued for me to sign my books afterwards.
Further cultural note. At this time of year the local hotels are largely occupied by commercial travellers – ‘reps’, as they are now called – reminiscent of the novels of Balzac. It surely must be a dangerous profession: eating heavy hotel food night after night and year after year. Speaking of food reminds me that the only acceptable form of ‘pub grub’ is Ploughman’s Lunch: an admirable combination of bread, cheese and pickled onions, but offering far too much of all three. No genuine ploughman ever ate a lunch of such quantities. I usually wrap up half my Ploughman’s Lunch and take it home for lunch next day.
The end of our tour brought us to Barnstaple, an interesting historic town now being destroyed for the sake of a bypass. Some miles outside Barnstaple down a very muddy lane live my friends Charles and Pamela Gott. Charles and I have been friends for almost sixty years. Indeed, he is almost my only surviving Oxford friend, as distinct from acquaintance. Our mutual affection has remained un-dimmed since the time when we first met at Oxford and long may it so continue. I was much moved and deeply grateful that such a thing could have happened to me.
I am not so grateful that Thursday, 25 March, was my 76th birthday. I used not to notice Time’s Winged Chariot drawing near. Now I notice it at every turn. I get along all right but like a treasured motor-car my body shows signs of rust and the sparking plugs do not always fire in the right order. I learnt from Charles Gott that, like me, he suffers from nominal amnesia – an inability to remember the names of people and places. Maybe nominal amnesia is often a blessing in disguise. Certainly there are some people whose names I would sooner forget. I can also offer some consolation to the sufferer. Nominal amnesia does not last. The missing name comes back suddenly five or ten minutes later, just when you are glad to be without it. Many activities are all right so long as you keep in practice. Always eat heartily and drink too, in moderation – that is, half a bottle of wine every day. Always walk your accustomed distance each day, even if not at your accustomed rate. I notice a slight shortage of breath when going up Parliament Hill but this passes if I go faster. I don’t expect to manage Coniston Old Man again but I hope Loughrigg Fell will not be beyond me, and of course Tennyson Down is still easy territory. Though I walk more slowly, I read as fast as ever, whch is an essential qualification in my trade.
There are consolations in growing older, principally in the form of recollections. I cannot always remember what happened last week, still less last year, but I am sound on events of up to almost seventy years ago. I can’t remember what happened to me in 1912, but I know what happened to me in 1913: I went with my mother to Alassio and had an electric torch, then a great novelty, for my birthday. From here on I reminisce by decades. In 1922 I paid my first visit to Mont St Michel and stayed at the Hotel of Mère Poulard. The beating of omelettes went on ceaselessly – not that I approve of omelettes with their whites stiffened. There was draught cider on the tables – free, of course – and we could run wild over the Mount when the day-trippers had gone away. In 1932 I attended the Salzburg Festival, where the crowds had not yet arrived and the prices had not gone sky high. Afterwards we visited Germany for pleasure – never again. We chased after the altars of Riemenschneider. When I got back to Manchester I announced, ‘There is a war coming,’ and put off the setting of examination papers as long as I could in the belief or hope that the outbreak of war would make them unnecessary. As a matter of fact, when war came, much later than I had expected, the setting of examination papers continued without interruption. In 1942 I remember all sorts of things, but there is nothing more tedious than wartime anecdotes, so I had better break off. Besides, again like most wartime anecdotes, mine have acquired a fictitious character from having been told so often.
However, there is one recollection from the pre-war years that comes back into my mind. I am quite sure that in the Thirties the Labour Party intended to abolish the House of Lords without delay if it ever came into power, and that this applied to the moderates as well as to the radicals in the Party. When Ramsay MacDonald offered a peerage to R.H. Tawney, greatest of the moderates, Tawney replied: ‘What harm have I ever done the Labour Party?’ Labour men who accepted peerages were regarded as renegades, unless they did it as Lord Stansgate, Tony Benn’s father, did in the call of duty. To go back further, before the First World War even most Liberals wanted to curb the powers of the House of Lords, if not to abolish it altogether. And now where are we? The House of Lords has more influence than it used to have. Labour Life Peers are devoted to the House and prouder of their titles than any earl or marquis of ancient lineage. This may be a desirable outcome, though I do not think so. But it is a bit hard that youngsters who remain faithful to the Labour outlook of fifty years ago and whom Keir Hardie would not have been ashamed to greet as comrades are now hounded from the Labour Party under the invidious name of Trotskyites. Why, the most extreme Militant is no more than a Menshevik, and Trotsky did not like the Mensheviks at all.
The monarchy is a different matter. Republicanism used to be highly respectable. Bradlaugh was a republican. So was Joseph Chamberlain. And, to invoke the sacred name again, so of course was Keir Hardie. My impression is that republicanism went out with the Second World War, when the Left was even more passionately patriotic than the Right. Now I see no reason to stir up trouble over the monarchy when it is a harmless, even a useful political institution. The British monarchy has an honourable record throughout this century of co-operation as much with Labour as with Conservative governments. On the other hand, there is no point in threatening with expulsion Young Socialists anxious to be as republican as their forebears. In my opinion, it ill becomes the Labour Party to persecute heretics and rebels. A Labour Party that aspires to become respectable is a Labour Party doomed to decay.
That is enough about politics, indeed too much. Instead, a warm welcome for a new book by that indefatigable tramper Hunter Davies. This one is A Walk along the Tracks,[*] an exploration of the disused railway lines which have now accumulated to 8,000 miles, with no doubt more to come. Some of these lines have been taken over by enlightened local authorities and turned into agreeable rural walks. Some have merely fallen into decay or been obliterated altogether. Hunter Davies has explored ten of the most attractive, some genuinely on foot, others with the aid of mechanical transport. He throws in a generous measure of railway history, which is now a booming subject. His choices range from a line in North London, which I have walked, to remote lines in Scotland and Cumberland, which I am sorry to see Hunter calls Cumbria. He has passed over the Ashbourne to Parsley Hay line in Derbyshire, now called the Tissington Trail. Its death throes were characteristic. The local inhabitants and the devoted hikers were promised a bus service to replace the closed line, even to improve on it. The line was duly closed. The buses ran for a year or two. Then they, too, were abolished, and now the area has no public transport at all. Moral: everyone should travel by private car. In transport as in everything else, public enterprise is to be deplored.
I am sorry Michael Howard feels that I have misrepresented him in regard to nuclear weapons (LRB, Vol. 4, No 6). I understood that he, as also Lord Carver, were firmly against their ‘first strike’ use, but believed that they should be retained as ‘the ultimate deterrent’. In my opinion, if nuclear weapons for first or last strike are in stock they will ‘ultimately’ be used. As in the past, the ultimate deterrent will be the cause of war. Michael Howard also complains that my historical opinions are not the same as they were twenty years ago. I should hope not.
[*] Weidenfield, 196 pp., £7.95, 25 March, 0 297 78042 5.