One of my many accomplishments is to lecture without notes and standing up. I began this practice when I was an Assistant Lecturer at Manchester University some half a century ago. I reflected that both I and my audience would find my lectures unendurably tedious if I had read them half a dozen times already. I also felt that it was more courteous to stand up when giving a lecture, rather than to sit at a table reading a text written out beforehand. I have stuck to these practices all my working life.
It took me a long time to arrive on the television screen as a lecturer. The high authorities of television insisted that lectures on television were out of the question, and those given without notes still more so. I cannot remember when I won the battle. I would guess some time in the Sixties. After that I had some misfortunes – especially that of being knocked down by a motor-car in Old Compton Street, which put me into hospital for two months or more, and provoked an outbreak of Parkinson’s Disease which refuses to leave me. It has taken my mind two or three years to work properly, and even longer for me to recover the ability to stand up with confidence before a camera.
Now I am running freely once more. I gave the first of six television lectures on ‘how wars end’ a few weeks ago.[*] The lectures seemed quite all right to me. And what do I find in the Observer? A television critic who writes that the old boy should be allowed to sit down. I do not need to sit down and can do much better standing up. Even if I was wheeled on stage in a bath-chair I should leap up when I began to lecture. However, I suppose I should show some gratitude for the critic’s solicitude about me. I shall still lecture standing up when my next turn comes in a week or so.
The cinema offers few clowns nowadays. I am the more grateful that the BBC is putting out a series of Buster Keaton at his best. We have already had two: Go west, which is about driving cattle across a continent, and Our Hospitality, which presents a hostile family pursuing Keaton across a countryside much given to waterfalls up which Keaton climbs with great ingenuity. We are promised more, and I could watch one every week. I look back to Keaton’s earlier works. The General is a historical film of great virtue – probably the best film made about the American Civil War. Even more remarkable is the film made at the request of the Canadian Pacific Railway when Keaton was approaching old age. He set out across the Canadian continent in an open wagon. The highest spot came when Keaton insisted on taking his breakfast when he was crossing a river on a high precarious bridge. At the climax he insisted on standing up in the open to read a newspaper, which blew open and encompassed him. The production crew were most alarmed, Keaton not at all. I suppose he is dead now, but his spirit certainly lives on. I used to think Chaplin greatest of them all. Now I am not so sure until I see a Chaplin again. And now I think about the matter the name of W.C. Fields comes into my head. However you look at it, the entertainment provided fifty years ago was on a much higher level than it is now. Moral: I never go to the cinema under any circumstances.
I suppose that Enver Hoxha was the last of the last-war heroes. He started by fighting the Germans and kept up a running conflict with everyone else. Albania, his state, is still in a state of war with Great Britain. He found no difficulty in standing up to Stalin. Indeed he stood up to most Communist states and ignored most non-Communist states. I know very little about the principles on which he ran Albania, or indeed anything. But he was a teacher in an elementary school, from which he rose to supreme power, which he held onto for over half a century. I wonder what, if anything, he did for Albania. I wonder what he was like. Did he have any conversation? Will he be remembered in the history of his country for time immemorial? Or are the Albanians dancing in the streets now that they have seen the last of him? Altogether a rather curious episode in world history.
Recently my reputation has been vindicated. Here is the story. In 1943 the British commanders in Italy had a fantasy that they soon would break into Hungary and penetrate the Axis position from behind. The Political Warfare Executive took upon itself the production of a handbook for the guidance of the occupying forces. I was instructed to write a short history of Hungary. I consulted Michael Karolyi, who was then living in London. He duly supplied a short history with a firm left-wing outlook, and with that my labours were finished – or so I thought. Any product of PWE had to be submitted to the Foreign Office, which was dominated by members who had an outlook on Hungary very different from mine. One was a former ambassador, Sir Owen O’Malley, who had served in Hungary and was devoted to Admiral Horthy. The other was Macartney, a pseudo-professor who was also devoted to Admiral Horthy. The two of them tore my handbook to pieces and submitted long passages of their own.
I forgot all this at the time. It disturbed me later when Hungarian researchers accused me of sharing the views of O’Malley and Macartney. When the Hungarians looked further, they discovered my version, much mauled, but still in existence. A curious way to be vindicated forty years afterwards but vindicated all the same. I reread the surviving passages of my handbook and found them rather good.
This was not my last affair with PWE. I was set to write another handbook dealing with the history of Weimar Germany. I was told that my product held out little hope for the establishment of a democratic Germany in the near future. My manuscript was returned to me. Still the episode was a stroke of luck all the same. I offered the manuscript to Hamish Hamilton as the beginning of a history of Germany. He accepted the draft at once and there was my first ambitious work of history. It became The Course of German History and is still selling. But my days with PWE were over – not that I regretted this.
[*] Hamish Hamilton, 128 pp., £10.95 and £6.95, 28 March, 0 241 11458 6.