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 C. P. Snow, however, knew that Philip would write this book ‘and welcomed it; his only stipulation was that it should not be published in his lifetime.’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’.

Philip refers to his brother throughout as ‘Charles’, and it is time to reveal that he was known at home as Percy, and Percy he remained for the first 45 years, ‘distant relatives’ so addressing him even after that. For the world in which he was rising ‘Snow’ was enough – surnames were, after all, then the common form of address. To call him ‘C.P.’, as some did even then, no doubt implied a special relationship. It was Pamela Hansford Johnson who put her foot down, when they were married in 1950, and who decided that he was to be called Charles; in relation to any earlier period the name is an innocent anachronism, which has the advantage of facilitating quotation from Philip. Charles (to adopt this form) went for his second school to Alderman Newton’s, ‘a grammar school of 18th-century foundation in a mid-Victorian building’ which was ‘known as a secondary school until after the Second World War’ – the appellation indicates, perhaps, that some of those rough boys who had been at the Board School also went there. The Snow family paid fees of £5 a term for their boys at a time when a labourer’s wage was £2.10s a week. Charles was certainly ‘years ahead of his age’ in worldliness for he joined the school cadet corps under the impression that ‘a few extra marks’ were to be got that way: a boy who could take that view in 1918 must have had a career inside him. And indeed he became ‘head prefect, captain of cricket, founder of the debating society, captain of chess and winner’ – as he surely deserved to be – ‘of the Chairman of Governors Prize’. The headmaster kept him on for two years after the age of 18 as a laboratory assistant: ‘C.P. Snow – the great Percy. Need we say more?’ as the school magazine asked.

In 1925 Leicester University College established its Chemistry and Physics Department and Charles went there. In this connection, his brother reveals another terrible secret. It is that Charles took science because that was the only way of going to college: ‘he would otherwise have transferred as early as he could’ to the Arts side. A special providence must have been watching over the Two Cultures, even in those days. But if Philip must be suspected of partiality when he asks rhetorically, ‘In how many subjects might he have achieved world mastery?’ the impression one gets from this book is that Charles could turn his mind to anything which required the swallowing, ordering and regurgitation of information. He was a computer before his time, but with the human trait of always selecting as his material whatever was most likely to serve his interests. Abilities of this kind are always useful and, in the degree in which he possessed them, uncommon if not exactly rare. Every sizeable institution, indeed, manages to collect a few such persons, usually in middling positions where they are best employed. Their value, after all, depends on how they are employed, and the Brains of Britain do not necessarily have the best ideas about that. Philip has some interesting remarks about his brother’s potentialities as a performer in broadcast quiz games. ‘His general knowledge was immense; he might have been weak in Greek mythology of which these games are very fond, but he would quickly have mastered that ... Charles would have excelled in programmes like Question Time or Any Questions that require statements rather than one-word answers, not through lack of celerity in the latter – he was cue-sharp – but because the former would have been the ideal form for his easy articulateness. He took most of the opportunities that offered to appear on television but I wish he had done more.’ These observations sum up the characteristics of his mind.

From Leicester Charles went on to Cambridge, at the age of 23 and armed with an external London MSc and a studentship of £200 a year – a handsome figure in 1928. Once there, ‘he lost no time in acquiring what was then a relatively exclusive status, that of PhD Cambridge.’ In 1930, when the first studentship ran out, he laid hands on another studentship, for another three years. ‘Eating was now of a standard and regularity that he had never experienced. He soon filled out.’ He was now a fellow of Christ’s: ‘no previous student had been elected in such a short space of time ... Charles enjoyed everything – the High Table with its excellent food, lovingly cherished wines, eclectic conversation and its God-given phrases for a novelist’s ear; the Senior Combination Room, reserved for fellows, with its aroma of centuries of wine and cigars.’ But Charles was at Cambridge for the sake of science, and lived in the ambience of Rutherford, J.J. Thompson, Cockcroft, Blackett, Dirac and others. He produced papers on this and that, as an up-and-coming young man should. Then he and a colleague in the Department of Physical Chemistry ‘believed that they had discovered how to produce Vitamin A by artificial means. They were so elated after making all possible tests that they communicated their research to Nature in May 1932.’ The national press reported this advance. The President of the Royal Society spoke encouraging words. But, alas, there had been a mistake in the calculations, and ‘a new method of producing Vitamin A artificially had not been found.’ That ‘put Charles off research irrevocably’. And so to other pastures. There was to be no physical move for some years: Charles remained at Christ’s, tutor to undergraduates reading science and medicine. But he now knew that he was to be a novelist and Death under Sail was published in the year of the researcher’s fiasco; the year after, he published New Lives for Old, anonymously, ‘by one of the cleverest of our younger scientists’, as the dust-cover said.

It was the war that took Snow out of Cambridge, though first of all only for two days a week as a member of a panel advising the Ministry of Labour on scientific manpower. His brother the memoirist had joined the Colonial Service in 1937, and had gone off to Fiji; it is because of this that we know so much of what Snow was saying about himself, and about the world at large, in the pre-war and wartime years: there are letters. First as to the world at large. Few, even in those confused times, can have emitted more imbecile judgments than Snow on the course of public events. In 1938, just after Munich, we have this (speaking of the Conservatives): ‘Unconsciously, they are better internationalists than the left, as we’ve often said: and, as well as the class-sympathy, there were other reasons which made it easy for them to let Hitler have his way – though, even if they had been differently placed, they would still have felt obscurely that he was right and given him his head in the end ... I don’t think there is now any chance of a major war in Europe for years.’ In May 1939, the week after the Germans moved into the Sudeten-land: ‘It’s morbidly amusing to find each new example of how Conservatives are ready to give everything to Hitler, including London.’ In August 1939, after the Russo-German pact: ‘it seems to me quite conceivable that working-class sympathy may drift to the German-Russian bloc.’ In April 1940, just before the German offensive in the west: ‘my first bet is on a number of years of indecision ... In a military sense,’ the French seem ‘as sturdy as ever’. As to himself: in May 1940, two days after the offensive began, he is saying: ‘if we lose, I shall try to get to America if they’ll let me.’ In 1938, when he thought it likely that Fascism would spread, ‘fairly quietly, over France and England’, he even affirmed that ‘Fascism has won ... It will last our lifetime’ He had already planned to ‘go across to California next summer and stay more or less by accident’. Who was he to say, in 1940, that he felt ‘the coldest and bitterest contempt for our fools who have brought us to this’?

Snow also keeps his brother in Fiji posted about his sexual affairs. In 1938: ‘met a Jewish refugee who attracted me enough to make me wonder whether I ought to pursue her (she is called Rachel N ... and I suspect is coolly self-centred like most women that I fall for).’ In 1939: ‘If I make any money in America ... then I may look round for a wife.’ In 1943: ‘In July 41, I met a girl called S ... Harry thought I might like her, & brought her to Cambridge one weekend ... She was pretty strong physically & distinctly broad about the beam. Theoretically she shouldn’t have been my physical cup of tea; in fact she was.’ In 1942: ‘In the course of all this hectic travelling and interviewing I came across another young woman called J ... , and I felt desperately in need of uncomplicated companionship ... J ... , who would have worked her fingers to the bone to make me successful, none the less had considerable doubt of my real powers.’ Good for J ... ! In 1947, on the birth of Philip’s daughter, the great man wrote: ‘One advantage of a girl is that you don’t have to bother about her education.’

After the war, Snow had a job with the Civil Service Commission, in charge of recruitment to the Scientific Civil Service. It was a part-time job, so he could get on with his novels, and he did. In the Suez crisis of 1956 he was making ‘emergency plans’ for himself: ‘It might be a useful precaution if you laid in a few days’ supply of tins of food.’ A month later he was revealing that he was to get a ‘K’ in the New Year’s Honours List. ‘These things are of course nothing but a nuisance to a writer.’ A more curious reflection was: ‘People who compare me with Trollope ought to realise that I’ve gone much further in the public service than he ever did.’ This is not only odd but misleading. It is difficult to compare Trollope’s Post Office with the vastly inflated Civil Service of the 1950s and 1960s, but Trollope was a serious contender: Snow was a marginal figure, there for his knowledge of university science departments, and he was given the sort of honour then thought appropriate to a half-outsider. No corridors of power for him, except in fiction, till much later under a Labour government, and then not very much power! In 1964 he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology and spokesman for that Department in the House of Lords, where he was supposed also to do odd jobs for Education and the Post Office. These are modest enough functions which somebody has to carry out. Harold Wilson no doubt saw that he could stop that small hole in his administration to the Government’s advantage, not taking anyone from the Commons and adding to his nominal role someone who brought with him an aura of science, all the more needed because the Minister of Technology, Frank Cousins, was not famous as a scientist. The prize was that life peerage. It was very tiresome. ‘A consolation for his loss of income was the allowance for attending daily at the House of Lords, which was tax-free, and also the low, presumably subsidised, cost of meals.’ But they were not all gentlemen there. One noble lord suggested that he should not have sent his son to Eton but to a comprehensive: he was astounded. He quickly became disillusioned with the ‘power’ he had written about from a distance. He ‘could not get a free hand to do much, if in fact there was anything to be done’. After 16 months he sent a letter of resignation to the Prime Minister, accompanied by a longer personal note which one imagines Harold Wilson did not waste much time over, even though Snow had said in it: ‘I am lost in admiration. You will be at No 10 long after I am dead.’ The reply was ‘belated’, Philip says. It came two months later, no doubt when it suited Wilson to make the change. It is clearly written by a private secretary.

The baron was now a writer again. ‘Charles was the least envious of men,’ says his brother at this point of the story. ‘He liked money but, disdaining material objects, he was oblivious of the trappings which money or positions of authority could provide.’ He was disdainful of many things, and would not lift a finger to move a bucket of coal if there was an old lady on hand to do it. But surely he should have had the OM? The brothers seem to have been agreed on this point. And the Nobel Prize for Literature? Snow ‘could not be blamed for hoping’. A year or two earlier Private Eye had scurrilously suggested that ‘Lord Snurd (previous allusions had been to “C.P. Snurd” or “Sir Charles Snurd”) had invited the whole Swedish Academy out to dinner to increase his chances.’ What about the Royal Society? Surely they should ‘elect him a fellow for his co-ordinating interpretive work for science’? They missed their cue. But Snow went frequently to America and Canada, bringing his score of honorary degrees to 30. At Fulton, where Churchill had given his famous address, Snow also made an important speech. ‘Its impact was less than he could have wished.’ But there had been that tribute, some years before, on his 60th birthday, from the rector of the Rostov-on-Don State University: ‘We are sure that our Honorary Doctor will always struggle for the peace and progress of mankind.’ And he was awarded ‘the highest Bulgarian cultural honour ... the International Dimitrov Prize’. ‘Most important of all, there were few languages into which his books had not been translated.’ What was it Milton said? ‘Fit audience find, and large’?