They never married

Ian Hamilton

  • The Dictionary of National Biography: 1981-1985 edited by Lord Blake and C.S. Nicholls
    Oxford, 518 pp, £40.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 19 865210 0

On the dust-jacket of the latest supplement to the Dictionary of National Biography there are photographs of David Niven, Diana Dors, Eric Morecambe, John Betjeman and William Walton. Dors has a leering ‘Come up and read me sometime’ expression on her face and Niven wears his yacht-club greeter’s smile. Morecambe seems to be laughing at one of his own jokes. Amiable images, devised no doubt to lure us into a placidly elegiac mood: death can’t be all that bad if it gets you an entry in the DNB. But what’s the matter with Betjeman and Walton? They look glum and sulky, as if they’ve been put in the wrong graveyard by mistake.

At a glance, the new supplement (covering the years 1981-5) does seem to be offering itself as something other than librarians have learned to expect, perhaps taking too literally its first editor’s charitable dictum: ‘It is not upon the lives of great men that the book really depends. It is the second-rate people that provide the really useful reading.’ OUP’s colourful packaging hints at a sexy, debonair new mix, with tits and brylcreem replacing the dog-collar and flared sideburns of bygone days. But dust-jackets rarely gather dust and when you throw away the wrapping, all is actually well: the DNB’s dignity has not been seriously interfered with. Bishops are still preferred to businessmen, cricketers are still posher than footballers, and lengthy military service rates more highly than the sort of thing Dors and Niven used to do. The book still means to satisfy the nation’s ‘commemorative instinct’ but it also wishes to promote along the way some image of the ideal Briton: he who combines self-reliance with a sense of public service.

Of course, in order to prove that your self-reliance is genuinely tough-fibred and that your sense of public service is not just some youthfully liberal flash in the pan, you have to live to a great age. Fifty-year-olds with blood-pressure difficulties might scan the DNB’s roll-call of eminents with divided feelings: although it is cheering to note that for most of the dictionary’s entrants, the age of 50 marks Stage Two in a nobly-envisaged Five Stage master-plan, it is depressing to be taught how long, how very long, you have to live in order to rack up these near-superman CVs.

In the 40-60 age group, there is but a handful of entrants and these have mostly earned their place by compiling points in relatively vulgar, early-burn-out professions like publishing or pop singing. And even the 60-70 grouping carries a faintly sleazy air: poets, comedians, psychiatrists and the like. It is only when we pass the age of 70 that the entrants begin to look as if they’ve earned their keep. For one thing, they’ve been in the war. Even if they didn’t fight, they performed wonders of crypto-analysis at Bletchley or they blue-printed some devastating weapon. And if they then went into politics, or returned to the diplomatic, they had bags of time in which to serve with exemplary facelessness as second secretaries, or under-secretaries or Ministers of State. At moments, their chief achievement can seem to have been that they somehow got out of being dead. There are as many 90-100’s in the DNB as there are 60-70’s, and although 70-80 is by far the largest grouping, the 80-90’s run it a fair second.

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