Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

The late Professor Tate of Manchester University, I have been told, made his last ascent of Scafell pike at the age of 93. I made my last ascent of Pillar at the age of little more than seventy. I used to go abroad at least once a year and often twice. Now I have put all that behind me and have been content for a long time with Yarmouth mill in the Isle of Wight. Last summer I went to Swanage and spent my time in the lavish surroundings of the Grosvenor Hotel.

Swanage is unique, having little in common with Lytham or Folkestone except the sea, and even that is restrained. The sea at Swanage is not designed to swim in or to boat in. Its function is for you to sit by in a deck chair. When that palls you can escape to a hall equipped with slot machines, which do not furnish a profitable return, at any rate not for me. The inns are many, and unlike most inns they provide more food than drink. I would not claim that the inn food is exceptional, but the Grosvenor Hotel has a high standard, which it keeps to throughout the summer. It also has the sensible arrangement of charging wine by the bottle as you drink it.

The surrounding country has some good churches and other attractions. Corfe Castle is said to have been designed by William the Conqueror. I do not warm to it. The most fascinating feature of the entire neighbourhood is the Cerne Giant. He is an ancient turf-cut figure, holding a knobbed club in his hand. Full justice is done to his male parts. The girls of the village strive to establish intimacy with him, and the more enterprising remove their knickers before approaching him. Certainly the Cerne Giant merits a visit.

I have been holding out against visits to the cinema, but have recently given way. My first experiment was with The Package Tour, which shows the charabancs of Hungarians sent to the murder camps established by German Nazis during the Second World War. Most of those murdered were Jews. Now those who visit the murder camps are Jews also. I suppose it it usual to visit the cemeteries of relatives, and that the camps are much the same sort of thing. And of course those who survived are entitled to do what they want in this respect. But the camps have become accepted as a suitable spot for picnics, and perhaps German Nazis will soon be asked to join in by those they wanted to torture and kill. It seems strange to me. Then I went to see A Letter to Brezhnev, the story of a Liverpool girl who had a love affair with a passing Soviet sailor. They get on well till it is time for the sailor to leave. The girl resolutely decides to follow him and to marry him in Russia. A civil servant from the British Foreign Office warns her that the sailor will cheat her when she is there. But she writes to Brezhnev and gets invited to Russia. An easy, gentle, sentimental film – of a sort that does no harm.

Of the great film artists who have recently died, Orson Welles, I suppose, led the field for a long time; Citizen Kane had no rival. It sounded as if it were really true, and perhaps it was. I was once asked to share a film with Welles. I wisely refused.

Greta Garbo reached the same high level. I can think of no film which surpasses Ninochka. It is beautifully natural and at the same time imaginary. Without doubt Garbo was the most beautiful of all film stars: and yet she seemed not to be setting herself a standard beyond that of other film stars. The revival of Ninochka on television the other evening was for me a boon beyond imagination. I often wonder what the high figures of the Soviet Union make of Ninochka – if they have ever heard of it. To the list of great films which I press upon my readers from time to time I must add Closely Observed Trains and Buster Keaton’s railway film, The General.

Every day one is asked to sign something or other – pleas to champion good causes, proposals to form new joint actions. To sign protests or hail gallant leaders. In general, I never sign, still less do I contribute money. But a couple of days ago I signed without hesitation in a good cause. This was to resist the destruction of the Round Reading-Room in the British Museum. It staggers me beyond comprehension that anyone should plan to detroy this great monument. For over a century scholars from all countries have used this reading-room as their work-place and refuge. Karl Marx himself occupied seat G38. That alone should rally in protection of the Reading-Room. But there is a more concrete reason for defending it. It is the best place in England in which to read. And yet high-grade architects are shouting to tear the Reading-Room down at once. I am delighted to note that there is a flourishing organisation to prevent this. Here is a cause to which everyone who believes in civilisation should give his signature, and it would do no harm to send some money as well. I am even prepared to speak in defence of the Reading-Room if it comes to a public meeting.

I have recently enjoyed the society of an Indian boy, the son of our postmaster, who is preparing to take O levels. He is preparing for Russian and especially Soviet history, which is a strange world for him. What, he asked, did Lenin write on the train. What did Kiev write? And who was Kamenev? This last question rather caught me out as I had quite forgotten about Kamenev. The session showed what nonsense it is to teach Russian history even to boys who are quick-witted. I laughed so much that we both enjoyed our researches. I am glad to record that he is to come again next week. I am looking forward to his enquiries about Germany or perhaps even the United States. It all goes to show that the study of history is a great strengthener of character.