Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

My dear friend Gerald, Lord Berners, died in 1950. I thought that not more than half a dozen people remembered him. But the centenary of his birth has brought him back into attention. There have been concerts of his music, performances of his ballets and an exhibition devoted to his life on the fifth floor of the Festival Hall. His two best books have been reprinted in paperback: First Childhood, the first part of his autobiography, and Far from the Madding War, the best novel written about the Second World War, at any rate in Oxford. This last contains that inspired feature, Emmeline’s war work. Emmeline, niece of the head of an Oxford college, had been told that war meant destruction. She bought a priceless 15th-century tapestry, set it up on a frame and unpicked a piece of it every day – the only rational piece of war work ever undertaken.

Gerald had a minor but very good talent, best as a composer but a good writer as well. He also painted on a high level and perhaps best of all he understood the art of living. He had a beautiful house at Faringdon, which he kept modestly open throughout the war. During the week he, too, did war work like Emmeline: he catalogued donations of blood in the basement of the Bodleian Library. At the weekends he had modest parties and superlative food at Faringdon. The coloured pigeons were no longer there, but one could look across the valley to a church tower protruding through the trees. The tower was the last folly in England, built by Berners to improve the view. There was no church and the entrance door was bricked up to avoid the payment of rates imposed by an indignant local council. A retired admiral also wrote to protest, saying that he had been surveying the neighbourhood through his telescope for the last thirty years and that the tower interfered with his view. Gerald wrote back: ‘My dear Admiral, If you have been surveying the neighbourhood for thirty years, you must have seen many things that you ought not to have seen.’

Mention of Gerald recalls to my mind that he regularly visited Brixton Prison when Sir Oswald Mosley was interned there as a dangerous Fascist and pro-Hitlerite. When an officious friend warned Gerald that visiting Brixton would bring him, too, under suspicion, Gerald replied, ‘It is when a friend is under suspicion that he needs friends most,’ and went on visiting Brixton. The treatment of the Mosleys was indeed a scandal. Mosley and Diana made no secret of the fact that they thought British participation in the war against Germany a mistake. This is a view they were entitled to hold. The Government was justified in interning them in the short period when there was a danger, somewhat imaginary, of a German invasion. Even then there was no justification to treat them as common criminals. They were confined in separate prisons – Brixton and Holloway. Each of them was locked up in a dark cell from 4 p.m. to 9 a.m., and this continued long after all danger of invasion had past. Diana Mosley was feeding a four-month-old child. She refused to take the baby to prison and on the way there stopped at a chemist’s to buy a breast pump to get rid of her milk, which was ample. In the panic period everything could perhaps be excused, the treatment of the Mosleys as much as that of the Germans, Jews and Socialists, interned in the Isle of Man.

When the panic passed the internees were gradually released. The Mosleys, though now united at Holloway, were kept in prison until 1943. Gerald used to lunch with them each week. He learnt the recipe of an omelette from Diana and served it regularly at Faringdon House as Omelette Holloway. Gerald could get fun out of everything, a good man and a good friend. I still miss him and treasure his memory. I and Isaiah Berlin were the only members of Oxford University who attended his cremation.

All this seems long ago. I am, however, delighted to read that the Mosley affair is causing embarrassment to the Government. After Mosley was arrested he was interrogated at length by Sir Norman Birkett, a high-grade barrister who specialised in political inquiries. Birkett was by way of being a left-winger. At any rate, he has a Lake District Fell named after him to commemorate his defence of public access to parts of the Lake District. Clearly he was the man to interrogate Sir Oswald Mosley. But something seems to have gone wrong: and the Home Office is to lock up the records for an indefinite period. Mosley was no mean antagonist. According to the account with which he entertained his friends, the charge that Birkett pressed against Mosley was that he was opposed to the war against Germany. What was wrong with that? Mosley asked. And Mosley then recited the names of those in high places who were opposed to the war. Little did Mosley know how justified his case was.

For instance, on 28 May 1940 the War Cabinet discussed the question whether the British should appeal to Mussolini as an intermediary with Hitler. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, was keen on this or as keen as he could be on anything. Neville Chamberlain, until recently Prime Minister, supported Halifax. Arthur Greenwood, a recent Labour addition, dismissed the idea, as Clement Attlee did more cautiously. Churchill, the Prime Minister, said the idea would not work. There was more discussion in the following days until Mussolini entered the war. The British people and to some extent the British Government set their teeth and prepared to resist the Gerrman invasion that never came. But what difference was there between Lord Halifax and Sir Oswald Mosley, except that one was in Brixton Prison and the other was in the War Cabinet? As to R.A. Butler, Deputy Foreign Secretary, who was trying to enlist Sweden as an intermediary with Germany until the late summer, he, too, was a candidate for Brixton or should have been.

There is also criticism about the way the Second World War ended. Eisenhower is condemned for concentrating on southern Germany instead of marching on Berlin. At the very least he should have sent Montgomery marching on the Berlin road. If only this strategy had been followed the Russians would not have reached Berlin and there would have been no partition of Germany. These are wild ideas. There was tough fighting on the way to Berlin, fighting that Eisenhower preferred to avoid. What is more, Berlin had lost all significance as the capital of Germany. By the time the Russians reached it there was no German government in Berlin or anywhere else. No doubt Sir Oswald Mosley favoured a Western occupation of Berlin. Indeed I do not understand why he was not appointed Foreign Secretary instead of being locked up in Brixton or Holloway. It seems most unfair.

My autobiography has now reached America. It has had some odd reviews. A writer in the New York Review of Books has condemned me sharply for never having visited the United States and what is more for not intending ever to do so. Very odd. I can think of no reason for my ever going to the United States. I visit foreign countries either for the buildings or for the food. Neither of these reasons would justify a visit to the United States. There are plenty of other countries that I have not visited and that I regret not having been to. China obviously and Turkey-in-Asia; the Inca areas of Peru; Iceland. Nowadays I prefer to stay at home. But even if I felt an urge to travel it would not be to the United States. Another feature of this same reviewer is that he makes wild statements about me. For instance, he says all my six children were at public schools. The correct figure is: one. It is true that the school was Westminster, which perhaps counts for six.

I suppose that I should make some comments on public affairs since my last appearance. We have had four party conferences, which seems too much. I doubt whether they interest anybody except those who attend them. Maybe the SDP will die before next time; there seem to be quite enough parties without it. I suppose that Dr David Owen now regrets going over to the SDP. If he had remained in the Labour Party he would now be its leader. The Liberals put on a spirited performance to as little effect as ever. The Labour Party Conference was overshadowed by the question of who was to become leader. I understood that the question was settled from the start and it seems a great waste of time to make delegates come from all over the country merely to decide what had been decided already. At all events, no other decision of any moment was made. In the old days a leader of the Labour Party took years to mature. This time the Conference had a leader imposed on it of whom I at any rate had never heard.

The Labour Conference also put on its usual performance of giving an evasive answer to the question of nuclear weapons. Unilateral abandonment of nuclear weapons is the only policy that makes any sense and should be applied at once. It is also a policy that will never win a majority at a general election. This is a sad conclusion. I have a record as a champion for CND that goes back over twenty years. I dare say I could deliver as powerful a speech now as I did in those days of long ago: no one would take the slightest notice. CND has just had its greatest demonstration ever, both here and on the Continent. Nothing is going to happen. Indeed new consignments of the most malignant weapons are due to arrive any day. There will be more demonstrations and the weapons will be installed. Every day that passes brings nuclear war nearer, though no one can say how much nearer. I am beginning to think that I shall beat the race for nuclear war and die before the weapons go off. At any rate I have closed my mind to the problem.

That leaves me with the Conservative Conference. This is not a topic for serious consideration. It was a run of knockabout comedy. I have not known any Conference which spent its time on such futility. But perhaps this is the best way to run a Conference. No subject of any moment was debated. No decision of any moment was reached. Yet the Conservatives have gone home joyful. There seems some chance that the Thatcher Government may run into trouble, but this is taking too cheerful a view of contemporary affairs. If the bombs do not blow us up economic chaos will bring ruin upon us. One way or another we must take cover.