Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

The study of English political history has suffered a grievous loss with the death of Stephen Koss in New York on 25 October last. Though only 44, hardly more than half my age, Stephen had already established himself as an authority of the first rank on British political history in the 19th and 20th centuries. He wrote outstanding biographies of such Liberal leaders as Asquith, John Morley and Haldane, concluding with A.G. Gardiner, long-time editor of the Daily News. He then gave up political biography and wrote an enormous two-volume work on The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain. It is difficult enough to write the history of a single newspaper: Koss handled them without strain by the dozen. He was devoted to England, which he visited for a considerable period nearly every year. Indeed he aspired to an academic post somewhere in England or Scotland, and it is to be much regretted that Stephen’s ambition was never fulfilled. As it was, he was warmly welcomed in English historical communities wherever he went. Many English historians turned to Stephen Koss for guidance and information. I can think of no historian whom I respected more or who guided me better on difficult topics.

Stephen Koss was just approaching maturity as an historian, and had a great future before him. Now an operation on his heart has carried him away. The news of his death has brought sorrow to many English historians who had felt warm affection for him. They send deep sympathy to his wife Elaine and his two children. It will be a long time before we encounter an historian of equal ability and charm.

The winter season of chamber music has started both at the Wigmore Hall and with the City Music Society. The Wigmore Hall has inaugurated a season of concerts on a Sunday morning which conclude with a glass of sherry for free. One Sunday recently I heard a Beethoven string septet which was new to me and very acceptable. The City Music Society causes me more difficulties. The Society concerts are given at the Bishopsgate Institute on a Tuesday morning. I am the President of the Society and ought, I suppose, to turn up often. The Bishopsgate Institute is directly opposite Liverpool Street Station and until recently I could reach this station easily by the suburban line from Richmond. Recently British Rail tore up a final stretch of this line, which condemns me to a half-hour walk, which these days is beyond me. The buses are also pretty useless for me. However, there are still evening concerts at the Goldsmiths’ Hall – a perfect place, as far as I’m concerned. As long as these delightful concerts are held I shall strive to remain President of the Society.

Not long ago I received the present of a book called The English Companion by Godfrey Smith.[*] This is described on the dust-cover as ‘An Idiosyncratic A to Z of England and Englishness’. Godfrey Smith’s taste is wide: towns, shops, sports, epochs, writers, eatables. Public Schools come next to Pubs, and Sex next to Shakespeare, both of which are appropriate neighbours. P.G. Wodehouse comes in often, which is also appropriate. This book gave me great entertainment as I worked steadily through it. I got a surprise when I reached T. There was my own name. Examining more carefully, I found I was the only historian in this compendium and quite right too. I have finished writing works of history now, but I have not done badly – 30 works of history, two more than Godfrey Smith credits me with. Writing these books has brought me great pleasure, almost as much as appearing on television.

That reminds me that, on a couple of occasions recently, I was to appear again on television. One idea was that I should discuss the Yalta Conference of 1945. The other was that I should discuss ‘Coal’, or rather write an essay about it. I replied that I never use a script on television and that to write an ‘essay’ would therefore be pointless. Besides, there is no problem: those who get out the coal should decide what they should be paid for it. That killed the invitation, as I expected. Incidentally, a funny story. A publisher is launching a ‘New History of England’. Volume Ten will be War and Welfare 1914-1945 and will be written by Max Beloff.

For some years I occupied a house next door to the artist William, commonly known as Bobby, Roberts. Bobby Roberts was the most taciturn person I have ever known. I had been his neighbour for twenty years before he would occasionally acknowledge my existence as we passed each other, and even then no sound escaped from him. Though his production of paintings was pretty copious, he spent most of his days walking round London, especially in the finer weather. I would see him leaving his house at eight o’clock in the morning. Two hours later I would encounter him walking down Knightsbridge, and another two hours later he would be pushing up towards Hampstead. He would not return home until the late afternoon. In his later years he went to a cinema with his wife Sarah two or three afternoons a week. Sarah usually took a bus home, while Bobby walked back unless it was raining. He disliked being observed, however remotely. He had a high fence so that I could not look over into his garden and the back windows of his house were heavily curtained.

He was a considerable artist, usually with Sarah as his subject. He occasionally painted his son John, but there was not much love lost between them, the more so as John ran a string band in Spain during the summer months. Few words passed between father and son. Bobby Roberts also had outstanding literary gifts. He wrote an account of his experiences in the Great War entitled 4.5 Howitzer Gunner RFA 1916-1918, otherwise Memories of the War to End War 1914-1918. It only has 38 pages, with another 11 pages of letters to Sarah. This little book is by way of being one of the finest war books I have ever read. Bobby’s only other venture into prose was a three-page pamphlet called ‘In Defence of English Cubists’ – mainly an attack on Wyndham Lewis. This leaves me far out of my depth.

Bobby Roberts exhibited a few pictures each year at Burlington House. His style never changed. Perhaps it grew stronger. After Bobby’s death, John turned some of their house in St Mark’s Crescent into a permanent show of his father’s work. There were many portraits of Sarah and some of John. They were remarkable achievements. Looking back, I recall the artist for ever on the tramp in remote areas of London. I am glad I exchanged a few words with him before he died.

I have had an unexpected experience. I was asked to give a lecture on the First World War at the National Film Theatre. I published a book about this war some twenty years ago. I went through this old book, made some notes from it and then found I could not read them. However, I got on all right, until I drew towards the end. Then I realised that I was running dry of ideas. Fortunately I recollected how I had finished my valedictory lecture at Oxford twenty years ago. I arrested my exit, drew myself up and cried as I had done twenty years ago: ‘Oh! Oh! Oh, what a lovely war!’ I doubt whether most of the audience recognised the allusion, but it gave me my exit line. How I wish that Joan Littlewood would produce Oh, what a lovely war again. But I fear it has vanished. I am glad to think that my copy of ‘Oh, what a lovely war’ is the best preserved of my gramophone records. I look forward to playing it in ten, perhaps even in twenty years’ time. I fear this is unlikely, but never mind.

Penguin Books have launched a series of revived diaries, most of them with some political interest. I started with a literary man who got near having a military career in the Second World War. This was Julian Maclaren-Ross, predominantly a novelist, if I remember right. Now he has sunk without trace. The interest of his diary lies in the other figures mentioned in it even though some of them have become as obscure as Maclaren-Ross himself. Chief of them is Cyril Connolly, once the centre of what was called Bohemia. I wonder whether anyone still remembers him. Cyril wrote The Rock Pool, a novel highly praised: but I doubt whether a conscientious historian anxious to recapture something of the Second World War now reads The Rock Pool. Cyril Connolly also edited Horizon, a magazine which was a dominating feature during the war. Now this, too, has vanished from existence. George Orwell was a recruit for it. I never thought much of Orwell, who has, I think, faded away again now that we have got safely through 1984, or nearly so.

Maclaren-Ross has a special interest for me. He haunted the public houses of Soho just when I did the same. Most of these are still in existence, though they have lost their bohemian character. This was also the period when the White Tower ranked high among London restaurants. One of my acquaintances became a partner in the White Tower, only to become a professional diplomat when the war ended.

I find other forgotten names in Maclaren-Ross’s book. One of them is Gerald Wilde, known as the Mad Painter. The description was fully deserved. At one time he frequented the public houses of Oxford, and this had a curious consequence for me. I remember my colleagues at Magdalen had an outburst of culture, presumably as a result of the war. They raised a picture fund and entrusted me with the spending of it. I was persuaded against my judgment that Wilde was the best artist on offer. He produced a picture inspired by Magdalen College and called The Gargoyles. It has now vanished, or perhaps has been removed to some obscure corner of the college. I was not asked to purchase another picture for the fund. Wilde became the inspiration for Gully Jimson, then vanished also.

I am now struggling with the diary of a quite different character. This is Lord Hervey, a prominent figure from the Court of King George II. Hervey does not make an exciting writer. There are some curiosities in his record all the same. The most remarkable is the number of regular mistresses kept by the King and by nearly all the members of the Court. The Queen did not lag behind. The King went off every year for a long summer holiday in Hanover, where he kept a second regular mistress. Hervey presents himself as one of the rare courtiers who did not keep a mistress, but this is hard to believe. He is alleged to have been a wit. I am afraid that his wit does not come down through the ages.

Next I was occupied with the diaries of Sir Henry Channon, in earlier times called Chips. Chips was undoubtedly an entertaining diarist. The great significance of his diaries is their representation of Neville Chamberlain and his crew. Reading the diaries again makes one wonder in bewilderment how we ever stood up to the Germans, let alone how we defeated them. What is even more curious is that many of the Appeasers effortlessly moved over to the other side without causing any trouble for themselves or for anyone else. Look at Lord Halifax. Poor Chamberlain became the fall-guy of the Establishment when the need arose.

That brings me to Arnold Bennett, whom I have been impatient to read throughout the summer. Now I intend to take Bennett’s diaries with me when I go to Budapest for Christmas. I cannot speak a word of Hungarian and therefore have to spend many hours in withdrawal from society. Bennett will see me through. He improves every time you read him, whether it is his diary or his novels. I reread Riceyman’s Steps recently and felt that there could be no more satisfactory novel. Some people still read H.G. Wells but I am not one of them. Still less am I interested in Wells’s sex life, now, I see, on the boom. Of course Wells cannot help being funny, even on himself. He was my hero when I was young because he was bringing The Outline out in weekly or was it fortnightly parts. It still has high merit. But his novels do not run very far.

[*] Joseph, 256 pp., £9. 95, 15 October, 0 9075 1643 2.