- A Sparrow’s Flight: Memoirs by Lord Hailsham
Collins, 463 pp, £17.50, July 1990, ISBN 0 00 215545 1
Two images of Quintin Hogg suggest themselves. Perched upon the horsehair seat known as the Woolsack is the Lord Chancellor, hands clasped at the top of his walking-stick, tricorn hat sitting on his full-bottomed wig. On such a formal occasion he looked totally a man of the 18th century, so much did the face and manner fit the rigout. Most modern men in fancy dress look distressingly like modern men in fancy dress – witness Archbishop Runcie. Hailsham could have been a difficult colleague of Walpole. The other, less flattering image comes from the gathering in the Queen’s Gallery to hear Richard von Weisaecker make an address. The President of West Germany, speaking a crystalline, virtually unaccented English, spoke for about half an hour with restraint, wisdom and the quiet earnest of a man gravely engaged upon serious things. He had been welcomed by Lord Chancellor Hailsham cavorting, playing to the gallery, quoting Latin tags and unwisely launching into German culture to compliment and patronise his guest. We should not forget ‘the contributions made to European civilisation by Can’t and Mendelzone’.
Perhaps it was the old, lazy, upper-class way with Continental culture (Christ Church rather than Balliol speaking); perhaps it was Hailsham’s own insistence upon drawing attention to himself. The thin and rhetorical passages to be found here in Lord Hailsham’s memoirs about the infinite superiority of monarchies as against republics, with their elderly, dull politician presidents, look very silly when one compares the German head of state with the Queen’s champion. The impression left by their representatives that morning was of German professional competence and decent seriousness and British self-love and exhibitionism. Not everyone has admired Lord Hailsham as he unquestionably admires himself.
The tone is beautifully echoed in Hailsham’s account of his meeting with Khrushchev. ‘Khrushchev was a countryman to his fingertips. The only man I have met at all like him was Millington, my own farm foreman...’ It would be quite easy to construct an annihilatory account of Hailsham well supported by such vain, self-oblivious little utterances. A Sparrow’s Flight is indeed, emblematically for Lord Hailsham, a thin thick book. Its many pages are sustained by wide margins and in terms of new information it affords us very little. He treats major events like the Profumo affair and Harold Macmillan’s bloodstained reshuffle of 1963, the Night of the Long Knives (contrasted with Mrs Thatcher’s ten-year extravenous drip), with an airy flap of the wrist and one and a quarter pages. Such matters are unworthy, not to be bothered with. Like German culture, they rate a shrug and a giggle.
But there are elements in this unsatisfactory book which are deeply moving, and one’s feelings for the author fluctuate throughout a reading between irritation, affection, warmth and more irritation. He is a filial man and a devoted husband. The account of that remote and not instantly attractive figure, Douglas Hogg, first Viscount Hailsham, Attorney-General and later Lord Chancellor in the Baldwin era, is impressive for what it tells us both about the parent, a model of old, Scottish-shaped Protestant rectitude, and about the son who without affectation loved his father. The account of his second wife Mary is the finest thing in the book. Again the real feelings are out. He loved and was loved by his wife, and in a cruel accident she died. He quotes C.S. Lewis very aptly: ‘Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolation of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.’ There is also this:
Throughout the long journey home there was always a steward with me. I talked incessantly, always of Mary, my love for her, our children, her constancy and love, our last days together. Mary returned in the hold of the aircraft in her coffin. Her death was by far the most horrible thing that has happened to me.
Finally there is this (his wife’s things had been packed up by their host in Australia, then left in a room in his London home): ‘By chance her little dog came into the room in which they had been, much more than a year after the event. She had neither pined nor complained when I came back without her mistress. But when she smelt those suitcases with the familiar scents, little Mini, the Jack Russell bitch, nearly went mad with joy and had almost forcibly to be removed from the room.’
Hailsham the private man, son, husband, even father of the egregious Douglas, is very lovable, so much so that the Hogg of the two peerages, scholar, gentleman, showboat, public pronouncer and communicative Christian, can be seen in a longer, kinder perspective.
His family were originally Scottish by way of Ulster, Quakers or Presbyterians amending to Anglicanism as they rose by professional achievement from the middle classes to a confluence with the upper. The school, university and Army pages – Eton, Christ Church and the Rifle Brigade – are littered with characters, or at any rate names, from a Waugh novel: ‘Sligger’ Urquhart and Harold Freese-Penefather ‘with his companion a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Norway’.
There is an odd ambiguity dividing Hailsham’s pride in academic achievement and in things done for himself by himself and the glow of famous people’s attention and the gentle thwack of name against floor. The wearing person of Lord Mountbatten gets, across the memoir, its full share of Dickie-ing. All half-decent memoirs, however, have some redeeming anecdotes and even legal anecdotes can be arresting. Hailsham met in his youth and liked one elder of his profession, Wilfred Greene (to many, the finest English lawyer of the century), and reports Greene’s account of how to win a case on appeal with two points, both bad, one worse than the other. The worst point should be put first with everything the advocate has got, fighting his corner and taking up time until reluctantly persuaded by their lordships that it won’t stand. The better point should then be argued slightly less well, leaving a loophole for an appeal judge to point out. ‘You will raise your eyes to the ceiling. And in an awestruck voice you will say: “Oh yes my Lord, I do believe...” and then you will be at least half-way to winning your case.’
Hogg the soldier is endearing in his way. The account of how he disposed of a bomb, poking about with a bayonet before dismantling it and shouting the details as he went, describes something as half-comic which was also downright heroic. And here, where it matters, Hogg the grandstander and show-off disappear. There is also an account of a four-day trip with a tame but unco-operative donkey called George through the mountains of Lebanon, which has a great future as an anthologised prose piece. The scholar takes over for a bit, telling us of Arab references to Iflatun (Plato) and about the pronunciation of Aphaca as Afa’a for the hideous reason that modern Arabic has dropped the Koph or letter ‘Q’. How did they dare? He visits the shrine of Astarte (Venus) and meets the men who discreetly sell water bottled from her spring to infertile women, while hanging up supposed subsequent baby clothes on a tree in tribute. The meandering Hailsham, anecdotal and parenthetically learned, is a delight.
Hogg/Hailsham the Tory politician should be as interesting as the lawyer and soldier and knocker-about. But alas, a nimbus of responsibility with a full dose of cavalier insouciance largely takes over. He won’t tell us about that Night of the Long Knives. And the implication is that gossip about great ones is a low concern. It isn’t for us to bother our pretty little heads with such things.
There is a mandarin, professional-classes-plus-Eton tone here which fits oddly with his American sympathies and links (like Churchill and Macmillan, he had an American mother). His later indignation, given much ventilation, at an elected dictatorship turns out mainly to be with a Labour Party dictatorship. The various acts of long-armed pre-emption made by Mrs Thatcher – the Zircon raid, the Secrets Bill, the Tisdall and Ponting trials and the Westland affair – are ignored. The depressing aspect of Hailsham is that he is not a philosopher or profound thinker but a partisan politician of a narrow and trumpeting sort.
With a couple of exceptions, Elwyn Jones for one, his comments about opponents are not particularly generous – Hugh Gaitskell is ‘harem-bred’ and ‘tearful’ while Hailsham’s own political tears are recorded as proof of sincere passion. Attlee, rightly cynical about his first essay at peerage-disclaiming, is ‘a mean-minded, rather waspish man’. On the other hand his instinct for the rottenness of-Richard Crossman is surely dead right. Sentimental affection for that uncomplicated scoundrel is foolish. The Hogg view of his Tory colleagues may not be backed by much detail, but we get the message. Maudling was a lightweight, Macleod a first-rater, Edward Boyle is rightly adored, Margaret Thatcher did right by Quintin and so, despite differences, should be seen as a good thing.
There are aperçus, however, despite the concern not to let noses poking through the railings sniff too much. Esteem for Rab Butler slipped away after he failed to fight for the leadership: ‘Ferdinand the Bull was content to sniff the flowers rather than take what would have been his if he had wished it.’ Harold Macmillan is coolly seen as a capricious, secretive, not altogether trustworthy person; and one suspects that the next twenty years are going to be rough for Supermac now that the froth of Alistair Home is chilled by the uncharity of memorialists.
What one forgets about Hailsham himself is the fitful nature of his political involvement. He was an MP from 1938 and the Oxford by-election onwards: ‘Bobby Bourne the Deputy Speaker coming out from Church had suddenly felt tired, sat down on a rock, and died.’ But much of his time had been taken up with war service and after the war he had been rather more of a lawyer than a politician. For six years, from 1950, after this uneven start, he had been a non-optional hereditary peer and much more yet of a working lawyer, taking silk and getting trade in that tighter market.
His return in 1956 was a re-launch, and evidently the doing of the third Marquess of Salisbury, the busy and ferreting Bobbety. At Oxford he demonstrates, as between two full-time Christians, himself and Frank Pakenham, a taste for low motives which is engaging. The great anti-war Popular Front candidacy of Sandy Lindsay owed much, he reckons, to the shrewd instinct of Pakenham to be rid of a professional candidate, Patrick Gordon-Walker, who would inherit favourable boundary changes to come, and stick in a single-issue, one-off candidate to keep that improving seat warm for himself. Such Renaissance thinking among the godly is fun. The tactic, he hints, was followed again by Edward Heath in the promoting of Lord Home.
The oddness of Hailsham he both denies and uses. The showmanship which brought him in flippers and bathing costume one early morning in Brighton before journalists and photographers he had alerted, the ‘little clorth cap’ worn in Newcastle to the mirthless derision of the chippy natives, the bringing up to Blackpool of his wife and their late last baby for a photo opportunity he stubbornly denies intending – all speak for this quirkiness, useful in orthodox political life but seen by the ascending dullards as divertimento.
He is an old-fashioned academic, a Classicist who laments that the entire culture in which he was reared might never have been, a lover of the Prayer Book (the real one), the melancholy custodian of an unwanted culture (the allusion in his title to Bede’s sparrow in the mead hall would not be recognised today by one politician in twenty), and a rather public Christian who talks too much about it. Item for item, he was a quite sensible and constructive minister (more roads for the North-East, more emphasis on polytechnics at Education, his work on the partial test ban treaty), and by no means illiberal in his views. He was ready to resign over Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech if Heath hadn’t sacked him, and was very cool privately about Suez.
In some ways, he is a more worthwhile politician than most, not
A slight unmeritable man
Meet to be sent on erands.
And yet the poseur in him stresses elements which recall the Peters Sellers sketch: ‘My father, who at the time was Chancellor of the Exchequer ...’ He has, in the way of that sketch, fed us with nourishing scraps: ‘Judge Farrant, the only county court judge, I believe, who actually rode in and finished a Grand National, and in addition a fine judge of port and cheese ...’ Even so, the peasants, though far from well fed on this uneven book, will retain their kindly view of the man. The Hailsham of the personal relationships, and Hailsham the scholar, outlive the party slugger and the chandelier-swinger.