The Great Percy

C.H. Sisson

  • Stranger and Brother: A Portrait of C.P. Snow by Philip Snow
    Macmillan, 206 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 333 32680 6

It is perhaps unkind to disturb the ashes of C. P. Snow. They have so recently been placed in the Fellows’ Garden at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he is commemorated beside John Milton. There is occasion to take a look at them, nonetheless, for we now have this account of the man by his brother, Philip Snow. ‘Brothers seldom write about each other,’ as the publisher says, and one may think that in general they are wise not to do so. C. P. Snow, however, knew that Philip would write this book ‘and welcomed it; his only stipulation was that it should not be published in his lifetime.’ There was ten years’ difference between the two men. C.P., who died in 1980, was born in 1905: Philip, who is still with us, in 1915. The portraitist says, rather oddly, that he cannot be said to have known his brother until he was about seven and his subject 17; as they were both living in the same house, with stable parents, he must mean that such knowledge could begin only with the age of reason. From then on, ‘the only prolonged period of separation was the war and its immediate aftermath.’ For those years he has drawn largely on correspondence, which makes this part of the book among the most illuminating. Philip regards C.P. as ‘the main influence’ in his life, and the admirer is as much in evidence as the brother.

For the early years, Philip is able to contribute material we could not have had from any other source. Both boys knew the semidetached house, with the ground-floor bay window and the attic, at 40 Richmond Road, Leicester, where William Edward Snow and his wife Ada Sophia brought up their family of four sons. Ada Sophia had a nose like that of the most distinguished of her sons, with a slight downward curve. She had ‘dignity of bearing’ – another resemblance to the future baron, for ‘he could bear down on someone he was meeting in the same way, slowly and impressively.’ Father was ‘a tiny man, only five feet two, with rather protruding light blue eyes, pale reddish hair, moustachioed but beardless’. He was a church organist, a clerk in a boot and shoe factory, and a music teacher. ‘There is no doubt,’ says Philip – rather sadly perhaps – ‘that we were lower middle class.’ It must have been an embarrassment to C.P. while he was making his way in the world, for though many people have these disgraceful connections the right thing is to be either posh or working-class. C.P. early regretted that he could not have gone to public school, which he rightly judged would have facilitated his progress. ‘We were also poor,’ says Philip, though he feels the need to qualify this. So he should for, in the circumstances of the time, the Snows were not what was called ‘poor’: they were simply not well-to-do. They even had a daily help, of whom we are told only so that we should know that Philip used to get her in bed with him. C.P. ‘was kept away from the primitive and, it has to be said, predominantly philistine Board schools which were the government’s non-fee-paying form of education. He went to a school with a side access exactly opposite the grim Board School in Lansdowne Road.’ He wore a blazer with a monogram and ‘was quickly recognised as years ahead of his age’.

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