Modest House in the Judengasse

C.H. Sisson

  • Random Variables by Lord Rothschild
    Collins, 238 pp, £12.50, May 1984, ISBN 0 00 217334 4

It is delightful and unexpected to open a book by a public Eminence to find the blue wings of Morpho cypris spread out before one. Then a few pages later there is the green and orange of Ornithoptera paradisea. This is, however, not a work of lepidopterology, except in the sense that it records that the author was ‘born into a family in which lepidopterology was a ruling passion’. Other illustrations suggest other interests: there is a black-and-white drawing of the fuse of an underwater sabotage bomb and a coloured ‘hydrodynamic model of gambling in Britain’ which can only be described as a trifle baroque. Then there are representations, in various genres, of members of the Rothschild family beginning with Gutle who was born in 1753, the daughter of Baruch Schnapper, a Frankfurt tradesman. A glance at the contents shows an even greater variety of subject-matters, in chunks varying from seven or eight lines to 50 pages. One might say this is not the sort of miscellany that every publisher would think of publishing and no doubt the fame of the author makes a special licence possible.

Lord Rothschild’s greatest notoriety in recent years has been as head of the Government’s Think Tank – a designation which has assured success in the media if not necessarily in its inquiries, in a way that the official ‘Central Policy Review Staff’ could never have done. When he first undertook the appointment in 1970 Lord Rothschild already had several distinguished careers behind him, including one as a zoologist at Cambridge, a varied and considerably decorated career in military intelligence during the war, and a variety of senior posts in industry. This summary, which might itself have provided reasonable qualifications for the job in the Think Tank, hardly begins to enumerate the Director-General’s varied vocations and avocations. One can understand the shadow of irritation which momentarily passed over what must ordinarily be a serene brow when, at the annual dinner of HM Customs and Excise, he was accused of being a banker, which he has never been. The mistake, however, is understandable if not pardonable, for Lord Rothschild is no miserable life peer but the 3rd Baron in the direct line of the English branch of the banking family and despite the universal intelligence of which this miscellany presents such vivid evidence, something of his phenomenal circulation and the variety of uses found for him must be owing to a name decisively established before he began.

If one knew nothing of the author, Random Variables – the title is a Cambridge man’s joke, one must suppose – would soon astonish not only by the variety of its subject-matters but by the elegance and wit with which they are presented. The variables, as he justly says himself, include quality as well as size and subject and even the best of after-dinner speeches do not necessarily make more than moderately interesting reading-matter. Quite different are the short pieces on this and that which are there only because the author has something to say and whose real distinction is precisely that they do not go on longer than is needed in order to say it. The first gives us a snatch of talk, so to speak, about the lepidoptera. The second is an anecdote about Professor Stanley Gardiner and Inspector David of the Cambridge Police. The third records a moment in 1944 when Rothschild just happened to be the senior British officer in Paris and had a delicate passage with the Préfet and our ambassador Duff Cooper about the latter’s relations with Madame Louise de Vilmorin. The fourth pays tribute to Bertrand Russell, a great Whig lord like himself and like him a monster of intelligence. In the fifth we are with the Agricultural Research Council, only to be told of an unusual and simple cure for eczema practised on the Secretary of that body. Then we have a bibliophile’s note on Swift’s Directions to Servants before we enter on the long piece which contains so many pages of cross-examination justifying the title, ‘Caveat emptor’ – again in the realms of bibliophily. A mind, one has begun to think, sharp in a very rare degree but which could hardly be more unlike that of his favourite Swift, who was so un-Whiggish and so rooted in things common and local. There follows a section called ‘A Good Investment?’ in which the author calculates how much more profitable it would have been to buy Royal Dutch shares than 18th-century books and manuscripts.

The short notes which make up the earlier part of the book are among the most entertaining things in it. Nihil tetigit quod non ornavit. These miscellanea surely give the temper of the author better than anything. They illustrate his versatility, his familiar passage among the great in several fields, his joyful scepticism. There is a section on IQ tests in which he records that his score in the American Army tests was such as to arouse the suspicion of the American general concerned that he had done some preparatory work on the papers. The score was as high as any that had ever been achieved and the only other person who ever did as well was Dr Schacht, Hitler’s Finance Minister then in internment. There might be something in the banking strain after all. Rothschild does not fail to add that Dirac scored zero in a test in the Psychology Laboratory at Cambridge, and surely there are other eminent forms of intelligence which the tests do not begin to record.

If there was to be a Think Tank in Whitehall, it would have to be for the sort of minds for which such scoring is designed. The closer administration approaches the preconceived manipulations of the computer the more such minds take over. In real life, of course, these operations are a subordinate part of public affairs. A great deal of information floats around without getting into decisions, and many decisions – perhaps all the major ones – are taken for reasons which emerge rather from the ordinary political and personal chaos, much as such decisions always have emerged. It comes as no surprise that the ministers with whom Rothschild discussed the purposes of the Think Tank had only the vaguest ideas as to what they might be. Indeed Whitehall is a place for action rather than for thought, though there was a fashion, a few years ago, for pretending that more thinking, preferably of a vaguely mathematical or technological character, was what was most needed. There was something to be said for planting so unbureaucratic a mind as Rothschild’s as a hunter in this jungle. He must have itched – as who would not? – at the limitations of his brief, but that is not to say that it would have caused anything but further confusion if he had been invited to shoot anything in sight. The business of government has its own necessities, not all quantifiable, and there is much to be said for Whitehall concentrating on keeping in touch with the requirements of the outside world rather than on developing a brain of its own. Rothschild himself says in another context: ‘We need administration; but it must not suffocate us with its own opinions and procedures.’ Precisely; and it is inevitable that a body, however grandly named in order to impress the media, which is lodged in the Cabinet Office should represent rather faintly the wealth of salutary notions available in the country at large. In fact, the chapters in this book which deal with the Think Tank are disappointing, which cannot be entirely due to the fact that the longest of them is an address to the Press Club.

It may seem extraordinary that the most solid sections of this volume are devoted, not to the rarified intellectual concerns among which the author moves so easily, but to matters of family history – certainly, in the case of such a family, of more than private interest. The essay on Gutle broods lovingly over the circumstances in which this ancestor lived in Frankfurt long after her sons had established themselves as financiers, one in Frankfurt itself, others in London, Paris, Vienna and Naples. Heine spoke of the ‘mother of so many financial wizards, the family of moneylenders’, who ‘in spite of her sons’ world-famous reputations and wealth, does not want to leave her tiny family stronghold in the Judengasse’. The portrait has an air as much of the 16th century as of the 18th or 19th, though no doubt a fashion expert would not say so. One has the impression of being back with a historic stock, powerful, energetic; it is the face of someone with no time for the fripperies and frivolities of the moment. One can understand the author’s pride in her. With Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the founder of the English branch of the family, one is on more assailable ground. A ‘great man’ certainly, as his descendant calls him, in so far as an impeccable eye to the main chance can deserve that designation. ‘A great deal of boldness, and a great deal of caution’ are no doubt, as he said himself, needed to make a great fortune and ‘when you have got it’, one can well believe, ‘it requires ten times as much wit to keep.’ Nathan Mayer had all these qualities in abundance. The essay is primarily concerned with ‘one episode which clings like a burr to his reputation: how and when news of the Battle of Waterloo reached London, and to what extent NM may have taken advantage of it’. The analysis is lucid, as one would expect, the hypotheses are fascinating, and the exoneration appears to be as complete as the author is evidently anxious that it should be. ‘Some attention is also paid to the financing of the Duke of Wellington’s campaigns and of Britain’s Allies: one of the many services he rendered to his adopted country.’ Once again, the story is fascinating and one can be glad that NM was there to provide the services he did, without perhaps warming to the account as much as the author himself does. It can hardly be the best of solutions for the payment of the army to be dependent on the operations of a private moneylender. Another story told at some length in this volume is that of the purchase of the Suez Canal shares, which turned on the relations of a Rothschild of another generation – the author’s grandfather, Baron Lionel – with the variously estimated Disraeli. That the two between them brought off a brilliant coup is not in question and if the shares of Her Majesty’s Government were sold in 1979 for ‘some £22 million, a little over £3 million in terms of 1875 money’, as against a purchase price of £4 million, it must be admitted that in the interval successive governments had extracted from the ownership a number of advantages which do not appear on the balance sheet. Once again, the author is understandably anxious to exonerate his ancestor from the innuendo inseparable from such a transaction and it is certainly not for the nonexpert to carp at the amount of the commission or at other technical points of the deal. But a financier can never have his full due, in terms of popular admiration; he has, after all, his profit to console him, and Baron Lionel’s seems to have been respectable. Nor does one necessarily share the author’s complacency about ‘the power Disraeli had over the Cabinet and Queen Victoria, and the global power of the Rothschilds in the world of finance’. And can one be entirely reassured by the sentence: ‘As usual, however, unity of family feeling overcame any unfavourable reaction that Alphonse, the French patriot, might have towards the English deal’?

One of the more recent pieces in the book is an address the author gave at the Rothschild Prizes ceremony in Israel in 1981. This tells us something about the Rothschild family’s association with that country and in particular about Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s work ‘to create a base for the future claim of a Jewish homeland’. This story goes back to 1882, and Ben Gurion is reported as saying that ‘no single individual has contributed so much to the creation of the State as Baron Edmond.’ What would Gutle have said to this and more recent history? She would have been proud no doubt, but it is a far cry from the modest house in the Judengasse.

The extracts from the author’s commonplace book with which the volume concludes are prefaced by a short paragraph which ends: ‘From time to time people say that [such books] shed some light on the character of their originator. Perhaps that will not be easy to decide from the contents of this chapter.’ One would not presume to try. This man of so many accomplishments must be supposed to be able to conceal as well as to reveal himself. The entries in these last nine pages are of varying quality. The most quoted sage is Aubrey Eban – six entries, one a mere pastiche of Churchillian rhetoric. Churchill himself gets three, Queen Elizabeth I three. Auberon Waugh gets a place, next to Art Buchwald who gets one for the quip ‘Old soldiers never die – they just write their memoirs.’ A 16th-century Grand Inquisitor, in a different vein of seriousness, is in for: ‘When a man speaks the truth he teaches me nothing. But let me listen to enough of his falsehoods and I will show you the dark places of his soul.’ Machiavelli is there, but so are F.P. Ramsay, Poincaré, Bertrand Russell, Henry Kissinger, La Rochefoucauld. One might almost say that poetry has no place; there is a quotation from Shakespeare, apparently there for the sake of the crack ‘Hotspur about a Welsh Nationalist’. Wordsworth appears, but also for a superficial application, to scientists: ‘One who would peep and botanise/Upon his mother’s grave’. The repertoire is that of an intelligent man of affairs; the atmosphere might almost be that of a slightly old-fashioned Royal Commission over their sherry and sandwiches. Superficially there is much that is conventional about Rothschild’s mind; there are moments when one could shrink him to the curious and ambiguous interworld between the universities and Whitehall; he has the weakness of imagining that good ideas might work. But his mind has ranged more widely; he has a world of connections; he has done everything, one might say, except the ordinary things.

This book is thoroughly to be recommended as the perfect entertainment for anyone whose interests are not circumscribed by a subject or an occupation, and who has some acquaintance with the world of affairs as well as with academic or scientific enclaves. It may not leave one feeling that more than a fitful light has been thrown on the author, who may well, like an iceberg, have far more under water than shows: but what it does reveal is a mind of immense vivacity made pliable and sinuous by a quite extraordinary variety of exercises and experience.