Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

Here is a story with a warning. For years past, as I drove from King’s Cross to the Angel, I have noticed St James’s Church, Pentonville, at the top of the hill and have promised myself that one day I would pay it a visit. I was in too much of a hurry or the traffic was too dense or it was beginning to rain – there was always some excuse for pushing by. On the one occasion I actually stopped, the church was locked, which is for ever happening with churches nowadays. I was confident that St James’s would always be there. It was a small church and its upkeep could not cost much. It was by way of being a church of some fame: Grimaldi was buried there and the theatrical profession could surely be counted on to maintain it. Above all, it was an adornment to an otherwise undistinguished site.

Now what do I learn? The custodians of the church – whether the local authorities or the Church authorities I am not sure – have so neglected the church that it has become a slum and must be pulled down. The truth is that neither the local authorities nor the Church can be trusted with buildings of any past or character. Local authorities hate any buildings put up before yesterday. Now the Church authorities, once the guardians of tradition, are equally destructive. Look at their treatment of something far more sacred than St James’s Church, Pentonville: the Authorised Version of the Bible. This is the most treasured work in all English literature. It is the foundation of our culture. And what has the Established Church done with it? The Authorised Version has been practically obliterated. It is rarely read in church; it is never used in schools, particularly not in Church schools. None of my grandchildren, all now passing through state schools, has ever opened an Authorised Version of the Bible. They are not aware that it exists. Such is the way in which the Established Church has discharged its trust. The culminating irony of the situation is that the New English Bible, having superseded the Authorised Version, has not taken its place. The New Bible is so dreary and flat that no one reads it. Children nowadays are offered fairy stories that have some vague connection with the Bible. Adults do not read the Bible at all. As to St James’s Church, Pentonville, the moral of that story is that one should never put off visiting a church of interest. Otherwise it will disappear before you get around to it.

I was recently invited to celebrate one of the most significant days or, to be exact, evenings of my life. Twenty-five years ago, on 17 February 1958, the original Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament held its inaugural meeting in the Central Hall, Westminster. I offered to speak, and my offer was accepted, though rather casually: I was put at the bottom of the list when all the great figures such as Bertrand Russell and Michael Foot had gone home: However, for some reason I put the audience in a frenzy. After I had finished and gone home, the audience swarmed out and laid siege to No 10 Downing Street. It was a very satisfactory start to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

For the next two years there was rarely a week when I did not speak at one or more mass meetings. I estimate that I have spoken in more public halls than either Gladstone or John Bright did, if only because some of the halls were not built in their day. After about two years I ran out of cities or great towns to visit, and I also ran out of steam as to what to say. I was delighted at the prospect of celebrating the beginning of my career with CND. My delight did not last long. I was a few minutes late at the gathering. Evidently the celebration was already over or perhaps it had never taken place. At all events, no one mentioned the events, now far distant, at the Central Hall. No one remarked to me that I had played some part in the original meeting. Like the meeting, I was forgotten. I observed that CND is now feminist in spirit and composition. After that, I left abruptly, an unsuccessful mission.

Actually, I had some slight conversation. One young man, not even born when the meeting of 1958 had taken place, asked what answer I had to Mrs Thatcher’s remark that if Hitler had had an atomic bomb he would have used it. What had CND to say to that? To judge from Hitler’s usual behaviour, Hitler would certainly have used the atomic bomb if the Germans had possessed it. He would not have been deterred by the threat of British retaliation, even if the British had also possessed the secret. Hitler used the rockets, which were troublesome enough. He was not deterred by the Allied bombing of Dresden, which was quite as catastrophic as a 1945-style atomic bomb. This merely goes to show that if an antagonist possesses nuclear bombs and determines to use them he will not be deterred by any threat of retaliation. It is usually thought that the Japanese were driven to sue for peace by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, the Japanese had already decided to sue for peace. The bombs were not dropped to end the war – that was already under way. They were dropped on the insistence of nuclear scientists, in order to demonstrate to Congress that the money spent on developing the bombs had not been wasted. There is only one remedy for nuclear weapons: don’t have them. The result cannot be worse than the possession of them will be.

I have a celebration to chronicle far more memorable than any CND meeting. February 23 marked the 350th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Pepys. Something more. By a happy chance, the occasion marks also the completion of the publication of Pepys’s Diary by Robert Latham. Strictly speaking, publication of the actual Diary was completed with Volume 9 in 1976. What now crowns the work is Volume 10, the Companion, composed of miscellaneous though relevant essays, and Volume 11, the Index.[*] In my opinion, Pepys’s Diary, as now published, is the finest work of English scholarship in our lifetime. It is complete, as no previous edition of the Diary has been: it is a perfect transcription, which is also new, and its editing, especially the notes, adds to its value. I read the volumes as they came out from 1970 to 1976, and am now looking forward to the Companion. I say without hesitation that the Diary is the most attractive work in the English language. If I were ever fool enough to go to a desert island it is undoubtedly the work I should take with me. As it is, I hope to read the Diary all through once again before I die.

Pepys’s Diary has a special character. Pepys was a competent civil servant who devoted his life to the service of the Admiralty Board. He wrote his Diary in his spare time. He showed it to no one. Indeed, so far as I can tell, he never reopened it himself. The Diary was a whim, a hobby. He wrote it conscientiously almost every day for nine years. Then he gave it up on a sudden alarm that he was losing his sight. The alarm turned out to be false, but he never returned to his Diary and never wrote any more. He served in the Admiralty for another twenty years. Then, having remained faithful to James II, he was ousted by the Glorious Revolution and spent the rest of his life in contented retirement.

Pepys produces some impressive set-pieces, such as the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 or the great Fire of London in 1666. Most of the Diary chronicles the events of everyday life: social occasions, visits to the theatre, domestic cares and amorous adventures, not very serious. He was often called to order by his somewhat overbearing wife, which he accepted as one of the inevitable events in his life. Pepys gives a first impression of being a very ordinary man, a conscientious public servant doing all the normal things. On further reflection, Pepys stands out as a unique figure. No one has ever produced a Diary like his, and no one ever will. I have lived long enough to have a perfect text of the Diary provided for me. How grateful I am to Robert Latham and William Matthews.

I have happy domestic news to report. My wife is safely back from hospital. Her malady has passed over, even though the doctors are not sure what was the cause of it. I do not like leading a solitary existence in an otherwise empty house. I do not like preparing my solitary dinners or drinking my solitary wine. With my wife’s return I have some special enjoyments. For the first week after her return she stayed in bed for breakfast. There is nothing I like more than taking up my wife’s breakfast. And none of those Continental breakfasts which are hardly worth preparing. I produce every day a traditional English breakfast. I take up half a grapefruit straight away, properly segmented, to keep my wife busy while I prepare what is to follow. I grind the coffee and drip it through a cafetière. I grill rashers of bacon, accompanied each day by variations of tomato, mushrooms or eggs. Every now and then, I interrupt the routine with half a grilled kipper each – I think my favourite breakfast. I rarely stray to finnan haddock, though I like that too. On Sunday mornings we have the special treat of real porridge as a preliminary, simmered for half an hour or more the night before and then heated up again the following morning. Of course, I get the same joy in making the breakfast when my wife comes down for it, but it gives special enjoyment to rush each course upstairs while it is hot.

Breakfast is my prime achievement of the day. Lunch means biscuits and cheese, which even the most inexperienced amateur can turn out. Tea means only a crumpet with Gentleman’s Relish. We eat this every day, though it is rather greedy to do so. Soon the period of crumpets will come to an end: I think immediately before Easter when hot cross buns take its place. As to dinner, I am afraid I run upstairs, get detailed instructions and then run downstairs again. I apply this technique to every course, and ultimately dinner is produced, though not up to my wife’s standard. The essential thing is that she is back with me and my life is once more an uninterrupted round of happiness.

[*] Bell and Hyman, 626pp. and 344pp. respectively, £19.50 each, 23 February, 0 7135 1993 2 and 0 7135 1994 0.