Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

I buy coffee about once a month. This involves an elaborate pilgrimage. First I take a bus almost to Piccadilly Circus, a pilgrimage in itself. Then I find my way by back streets to the head of Old Compton Street, pausing at an excellent fishmonger who has the best kippers in London. My objective is I. Camisa, the best Italian grocer in the area. The history of this goes back a long way. In 1931, when I first married, I began to buy No 5 coffee from Legrain’s in Gerrard Street. This was the best coffee I ever found. The shop was kept by two elderly French ladies, who also kept a French café next door.

After about five years the two elderly ladies sold out to two rather casual young men who kept the name of Legrain and the No 5 coffee. This kept me going until the war, when the two young men first closed the café and then closed the shop. They found a home for the coffee in I. Camisa, who have been selling it ever since. I doubt whether anyone has remained as steadfastly loyal to Legrain’s No 5 as I have. On this fine January morning I followed my usual routine: bus to Piccadilly Circus, walk to I. Camisa and then across Old Compton Street, where I bought chicory at the Algerian coffee shop. After that I recrossed Old Compton Street, I cannot remember why. I was half-way across when I received a tremendous blow on my left thigh and found myself sprawled in great pain on the road. The car which knocked me out was driven by a Mr Shah, from whom I never received a word of regret.

I remember no more until I found myself in the Middlesex Hospital. There I was told at first that I had received only a superficial wound and that I should be out of hospital in a couple of days. Gradually my injury got worse and worse. Now I have a fractured pelvis and no sign so far of any improvement. I walk with crutches and in great pain. I struggle on my crutches only when I need to go to the lavatory, and these are agonising pilgrimages. At first I had a room to myself in the hospital. Then I had to make way for an elderly man of 91 who maintained an uproar of complaint and boasting day and night. The ward, though agreeable, was very noisy. The television was kept on until late at night, and radio still played when television was turned off. I slept but little. We had three cooked meals, substantial though commonplace. I put on considerable weight while I was there.

After three weeks I was sent home and here I have been for a further week and more. I still rely on crutches. My left leg is agonisingly painful when I try to use it. This is my first attempt to work. My typewriting tends to be inaccurate. My mind does not work very well. Twice a day I walk about ten yards along the road, first up and then down. Even ten yards are a painful struggle. Most of the time I sit reading. The most difficult time is when I have to struggle up or down stairs. It is not so bad when I can use the banisters, but these do not extend the whole way. Occasionally I reflect moodily on the ghastly fate that has befallen me. Visitors call and say how much better I am looking. I am not impressed. It seems to me that my condition has not changed at all. Altogether this is the worst catastrophe that has befallen me in all my life. I am approaching eighty and on my way out. I could well have done without this last mishap.

I have read a great deal, though I have written nothing until now. Penguin sent me some books from their recent series of diaries and letters.[*] Byron, I am afraid, meant little. Harold Nicolson’s diary gave me some pleasure, though I had read it often before. What has really delighted me is The Daughters of Karl Marx, their family correspondence between 1866 and 1898. Their letters are full of hardship but also of gaiety. From afar, Karl Marx seems a formidable figure. He is transformed into something quite different when we read his correspondence with his daughters. For one thing, the Marx family were fertile in nicknames. Marx himself became Challey, Moor, Nicky, Old Nick and Steam-Engine. Jenny and Laura married Frenchmen. Jenny, Marx’s favourite, became Emperor or Empereur de Chine. Laura became Kakadou or Lolo. Eleanor, who married disastrously only at the end of her life, was Hottentot, Quo-Quo or Tussy, a later modification of Pussy.

For a later generation, Eleanor or Tussy is the most interesting of the lot. She was much the youngest and lived in closest contact with Challey. She was also the most active politically. She was a rigorous supporter of the Social Democratic Party, which Marx had founded in England as much as in Germany. Eleanor feuded with William Morris and almost drove him into being an Anarchist. At one time she was in love with Lissagaray, a leading French Socialist, author of the History of the Commune. Marx disapproved of Lissagaray, perhaps because he himself had written a history of the Commune. At any rate, he did not allow Eleanor to marry him. Eleanor, as a dutiful daughter, gave way.

There was another sexual cause of estrangement between Marx and his youngest daughter. Helen Demuth was the faithful friend or housekeeper of the Marx family. One year when Mrs Marx was in Germany, Helen Demuth had a son, Freddy, who became a close friend of Eleanor’s. Freddy’s father was unknown. When Engels was dying, Eleanor asked him: ‘Who is Freddy’s father?’ Engels, who had already lost the power of speech, took a pencil and wrote: ‘KM is FD’s father.’ Eleanor was distressed beyond measure. However, when Freddy died he was buried in the Marx family grave.

Eleanor’s ending was sad. She became infatuated with a Socialist rogue called Edward Aveling. He set up house with Eleanor and became her husband in all but name. This continued for some years. In June 1897 Aveling married Eva Frye, an actress of 22. He continued to live with Eleanor until August, when he spent a few days with his wife. In September he was back with Eleanor again, maybe to get money from her. In March 1898 Eleanor committed suicide. Aveling died a natural death in August. It was a strange end for the most brilliant of Marx’s daughters. Bernard Shaw took Aveling as his model for the artist Dubedat in The Doctor’s Dilemma.

Mrs Thatcher has visited Hungary, her first visit behind what is laughably called the Iron Curtain. She does not seem to have provoked the indignation which overwhelms me whenever I pay a visit to Hungary. Maybe it now will be generally accepted that Hungary is a normal civilised country, very like the more industrial parts of England. I can find little difference between the two countries in either their buildings, their social life or the excess of motor-cars in the streets. Academics are treated with greater respect in Hungary, but perhaps this is because they have better academics and more of them. Their newspapers are not as good, but at least they appear regularly, which is more than can be said for the Times. It is strange how my life has changed so far as reading newspapers is concerned. Once upon a time – say, before the Second World War – I regarded the Times the most wicked of newspapers and would sooner read the Daily Express. Now I read the Times every day when I can get it, and read no other paper. I do not regard the Times as admirable, but it seems to have lost its wickedness. What I really need are the obits. It always gives me pleasure to see how my contemporaries are dropping off. Unless I am careful, this will soon be a pleasure that I shall give to others.

What have I learnt from my recent experience? Primarily that pain does not go away or even get less. Instead, it becomes a habit, something you live with. Despite the pain, I increasingly appreciate the Health Service. The younger generation take it for granted. Mrs Thatcher’s determination to diminish the Health Service is the greatest folly of my lifetime. Somehow I have managed to produce a full-length diary. I wonder whether I shall write any more.

[*] Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals, edited by Peter Gunn. 448 pp., £4.95, 0 14 057007 1. Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters 1930-1964, edited by Stanley Olson. 448 pp., £4.95, 0 14 057005 5. The Daughters of Karl Marx: Family Correspondence 1866-1898, edited by Olga Meier, translated by Faith Evans, introduced by Sheila Rowbotham. 384 pp., £4.95, 0 14 057004 7. These titles are reissued by Penguin as part of their ‘Lives and Letters’ series, launched on 23 February.