Big Fish

Frank Kermode

  • Tell Them I’m on my Way by Arnold Goodman
    Chapmans, 464 pp, £20.00, August 1993, ISBN 1 85592 636 9
  • Not an Englishman: Conversations with Lord Goodman by David Selbourne
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 237 pp, £17.99, August 1993, ISBN 1 85619 365 9

The portrait of Lord Goodman on the jacket of his memoirs is from a photograph; the one on David Selbourne’s book is from a portrait by Lucian Freud. In the first he looks severe but quizzical, a kind man but not a man to be put upon; in the second he looks quite desperately sad, as if he had done much to little or no avail, and might well have been put upon quite heavily. Neither quite matches the public image: the ebullient achiever, the man whom everybody in London, from prime ministers, important artists and rich businessmen, down to more ordinarily harassed mortals, regarded as the only present help in time of trouble.

At the height of his career Goodman justified this public idea of him. He even seemed to be exempt from the terrestrial constraints by which most people seek to explain their comparative inactivity, such as lack of time and an inability to be in two places at once. I was for a while among the crowd of people who for one reason or another had some dealings with him, admittedly of small or no importance; and like all but the mightiest of them, I spent a lot of time just waiting for him to arrive; so I suppose you could say that in a sense he bought his temporal freedom from others less privileged. It was enough that he was on his way.

Nevertheless he was even more richly endowed with time than such borrowings can explain. His memoirs name a great many ‘close friends’, and one conjectures that he was also exempt from the rule that the maintenance of even a few close friendships takes quite a lot of time. How to preserve a great many of them while troubleshooting for all and sundry, and at the same time holding, as he remarks, ‘almost every unpaid chairmanship in England’, and running a successful practice as a solicitor, is a secret Lord Goodman refrains from revealing.

Energy and physical strength (despite the obesity he makes several jokes about) were obvious preconditions of his style of life. A generous desire to help his suppliants, at the cost of his own peace, was another. Selbourne gets him to agree, with reservations, that he is ‘pure in heart’, which does not rule out prudence. He could have been tycoon-rich, but made himself just rich enough to be comfortable, mobile and helpful. He was not stiff in opinion, and if he was sometimes in the wrong he was, as a rule, genially so; and anyway he was more often in the right. He is better entitled than most powerful people to a contented old age. The sadness of that portrait may after all be no deeper than it is proper for any sensitive person of 80 to feel as he surveys what seems to have been an unprecedentedly greedy and uncivilised community.

This interesting autobiography is in the end, like most autobiographies, an unsatisfying work. Old men forget; moreover they may shun intimacy with themselves. They may not be the best judges of what their readers would wish to know. We learn that the Goodman family were Lithuanian Jews who settled in the East End and made the familiar move to Hampstead; that the young Goodman’s environment, though far from rich, was civilised, offering good food, good music, much kindness and a tolerance of learning. (These Jewish origins, and a continuing fidelity to the culture, are important, though David Selbourne, as his title suggests, harps on them beyond necessity, with some consequent distortion of his picture.) There is virtually nothing to explain how a schoolboy said to have lacked any extraordinary talents should in middle life, having eschewed all direct political connections, and lacking powerful friends, become an unexpectedly grand figure in the councils of the nation. A decent war, being articled to a particularly lively firm of solicitors, were developments that promised, on the face of it, a career offering many satisfactions, possibly even lunches at the Savoy Grill and a box at the opera, but not exactly fame.

The qualities which made fame accessible are very likely those that make it difficult to explain clearly how it came about. The quickness of wit, the benign rhetorical fluency that were so impressive in the long and extremely various series of crises presented to him for solution, may have imposed an involuntary censorship of opacity on the relation of intimate facts. Reviewing an earlier book of his over twenty years ago, I remarked on his habit of choosing one side of a particular issue, possibly the less plausible side, and ‘explaining with any amount of cogency and wit why the other was out of the question’. This skill is, of course, forensic; even though Goodman makes it plain that he would rather have been anything other than a barrister, his memoirs unavoidably take the colour of a plea on behalf of a particular cause: his own. Such pleas are likely to avoid material that might be useful to the opposition. They are not dishonest, but have on their side a skilled forgetfulness as well as deftness of exposition.

There are of course some memories that remain sharp, obscured by no reticence and no senescent haze, and they are often of people and causes he dislikes. Notoriously he does not share the view of some solicitors that the Bar has its place and that they should not usurp it. For a man who has spent so much time with them, he deplores lawyers almost as much as he does mandarin civil servants. Lord Denning is a particular target. Selbourne, in one of his interviews, reminded Goodman of Denning’s description of Leon Brittan as a ‘German Jew’ interfering with ‘English law’.

‘Lord Denning,’ G. replied, ‘is an unfortunate example of a man who built up a reputation on sand.’ ‘That could be actionable,’ said I. ‘I do not care if it is,’ G. roundly replied. ‘It is characteristic of the English legal profession that it should set a man like Lord Denning on a pedestal.’

Here, as elsewhere, a man is condemned with boisterous candour for holding opinions abhorrent to the speaker. Lord Eccles, who had the misfortune to assume Jenny Lee’s job, and Andrew Neil, an uncongenial newspaper editor, are also quite cheerfully attacked for what they did or do in their offices. Others are disliked on perhaps less explicable grounds. I was surprised to come upon a sustained and in my view immoderate onslaught on the late Eric Walter White, who, during Goodman’s chairmanship, was Literature Director at the Arts Council and its much admired organiser of festivals. I worked with White for some years, and he was certainly a strange and almost risibly affected man, but he was also kind, hospitable, minutely devoted to music and poetry and habitually generous to practitioners of these arts. In my view he was innocent of the charges that he directed Arts Council funds into the pockets of his cronies, and that ‘the claims of the young, the aspirant, the new and the experimental were to him repugnant.’ This latter remark might indeed be made more plausibly of the Chairman himself.

Here we may have an example of Lord Goodman’s way of quickly making up his mind, and then pleading expansively for the side of the question he thus finds himself on. One explanation for his prejudice in this case seems to be that White had unwisely favoured the appointment to a panel of a man who was on the editorial board of the International Times, a journal understandably remote from the Chairman’s taste. He felt a bitter and justified disgust for people who in any way promoted drug-taking; it surfaced again in relation to the journal Ambit, and on that occasion it was, I thought, impressive that the Council, full of tycoons for whom time was presumably lots of money, debated drugs and censorship for over an hour (the grant involved was about £30). On the IT matter White, who perhaps shouldn’t have got into the position of having to do so, opposed his chairman; and the Chairman, it emerges, couldn’t stand him anyway. However, the invective against White fades into a muffled tribute, rather more in the mode of the speech Goodman made at White’s retirement dinner, though of course on such occasions one is not on oath.

White’s successor was Charles Osborne, whose sins as assistant director Goodman here attributes to the influence of White, though I very much doubt if Osborne, who has always known how to look after himself, would agree. The unsuccessful candidate was the late George MacBeth. The Chairman admits he was uneasy about this appointment; indeed he uncharacteristically consulted me, as Chairman of the Literature Panel, although I was in America at the time. I cabled back ‘Better the devil you know,’ and Osborne began the career he describes with his customary panache in his memoir Giving it away. It is good to discover that he pleased the Chairman much more than his predecessor had done.

Goodman’s years on the Council coincided with his most hectic activity elsewhere, and were his happiest. (‘I would ten times rather have been Chairman of the Arts Council than a Lord Justice of Appeal.’) He had a valuably close relationship with Jenny Lee, who was responsible for the arts, though, with some reason, he greatly disliked her civil servants. He sometimes contrasts those times, when government fully accepted the arm’s-length principle of funding, with the nagging and penny-pinching that go on nowadays.

He had power – far beyond the offices at 105 Piccadilly – and was exuberant and generous in using it. Yet we who lack it may suspect that it can be difficult for people who have power to make accurate estimates of its scope. Once, on an occasion that is mentioned in the memoir, though the account of it is inaccurate in almost every detail (old men forget), he warned me that Cecil King, because I declined to do something he asked of me, would make sure I’d never find another job in London. In fact, as I rightly supposed, Mr King, if ever he had any such intention, which is very doubtful, simply had not the power to achieve it. In any case there was an element of illusion in his power also, as later events confirmed.

Still, a man might be wrong about such small issues and be right when much more was at stake. Goodman’s Rhodesian negotiations, conducted under dismally difficult conditions and with little informed help from the Foreign Office or anybody else, testified at least to his patience as a negotiator and to his powers of endurance. I recall a monthly Arts Council meeting which was being conducted by the Vice-Chairman, on the assumption that Goodman, on his weary way back from Salisbury, would have to miss it; but after a few minutes he arrived, direct from the airport, radiating good humour and spontaneously applauded by the startled councillors, whom he at once proceeded to hustle through an agenda he hadn’t even seen.

The Rhodesian efforts ceased, his assistance not having been sought by Mrs Thatcher, and no doubt they will be no more than a footnote to the later successes of others. He will be remembered at least as well for such cultural coups as the transfer of what is now the ENO from Sadler’s Wells to the Coliseum. This he got through against some opposition, including that of William Coldstream, his vice-chairman, who confided to me that although he saw the point of having the opera in a large house close to Covent Garden, he liked it better where it was, round the corner from where he lived in Islington.

This was understandably the sort of major operation Goodman enjoyed fixing. For the more menial concerns of the Council he had no taste. Indeed he is rather scathing about the Experimental Projects Committee, which had nominal powers to dispense tiny sums to popular forms of art. Michael Astor and I spent much time examining claims on these funds, mostly on behalf of projects the Chairman knew a priori to be rubbish. He was never to be found, as we were, along with Coldstream and Hugh Willatt, the Secretary-General, penetrating the recesses of, say, the Covent Garden Arts Lab, here mentioned with scorn. Understandably, he fried far bigger fish. He has had some hand in practically every important arrangement made for British theatre, cinema, opera, television and newspapers. He even knew about trade-union negotiations, including how to avoid the cheese sandwiches; he knew how to get Francis Bacon out of the hands of the police, and how to win the Bevan-Crossman libel action.

His memoir, though it has a tendency all our memoirs might share, of being gentle to its subject, is in some ways not quite worthy of it. He claims to enjoy writing, ‘putting sentences together’, but the book is not on the whole well written. He is a better talker, and talk has the advantage that the odd contradiction doesn’t matter. (On p. 223 we are told that the Rhodesian sanctions were ‘a total fraud’; on p. 227 that the white population was ‘anxious that sanctions should be lifted’.) His conversation as recorded by Selbourne demonstrates his qualities, having humour, candour and strong opinions forcibly expressed, especially on the law and the inferiority of the English system of precedent to the Napoleonic system of principle. Much of what he says about English law will appeal strongly to all who have found themselves beggared by its megalomaniac estimates of what it ought to cost; but his objections go beyond that consideration into more arcane areas of jurisprudence where he has made himself expert.

His talk also shows that he likes great people but can measure their faults. He has interesting things to say about Wilson and Heath, the two prime ministers he has known well, and about his old friend the eccentric George Wigg, for whose memoirs Goodman admits to having rashly written a preface without reading the book.

He has belonged to no political party, and has never married, claiming that neither abstention has caused him much regret. He denies the charge that he has a particular interest in libel actions, and claims to have taken the assaults of Private Eye in good part, as a wise man should try to do. He has a number of good stories: about the unique problems caused by Hore-Belisha’s requiring Sephardic burial, about the case of the Derby winner Relko, wrongly accused of having been drugged, and about the impresario Jack Hylton. He is a man who habitually resists temptations or, having fallen, rises the stronger, giving up cigarettes, alcohol, riches. He seems almost excessively moderate, as perhaps you have to be to accept disappointments as well as successes; even the best troubleshooters can’t win them all.

Saying so revives one more memory, of a dinner given at the Dorchester by some club of businessmen with South African connections. The custom of the club was to invite great men with their chosen supporters (they boasted of guests including American vice-presidents, English prime ministers, and so forth) and I found myself there in Goodman’s train. The barbarity of the occasion defied belief. We were asked why the Council supported such arts as ballet, a well-known haunt of poofters, and we were invited on luxurious tours of South Africa, where we would be shown that supporters of apartheid were the victims of a vile propaganda campaign. As the drink circulated these men began to direct gross personal insults at their principal guest. Finally he made his speech, as he had to; it was pained and cold, but polite. A little later Peter Hall, called upon to speak for the other guests, took a different line, telling them warmly that they were as disgusting a group as it had ever been his misfortune to encounter. It was an admirable and memorable speech. Whether or not it was more admirable than Goodman’s is a question. As we walked out of the hotel I asked him, expecting no answer but a snort, whether he had enjoyed himself. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘there was nothing else to enjoy.’