Christopher Hitchens

In Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion novel sequence, we are introduced to the hopeless young charmer Fielding Gray. His father is remote and sourly reactionary; his mother develops ominous signs of chippiness and puritanism. Young Fielding gets through most of the right hoops but usually in the wrong way. His public school, in other words, is slightly too minor. He is cheated of the joys of Cambridge only to taste them later on. His regiment is raffish rather than distinguished. His career as a gentleman-scribbler is a ropey one, very much circumscribed by the simultaneous eclipse of the British Empire and of the idea of the leisured man of letters. Nor are matters helped by such vulgar difficulties as the need to pay tradesmen, the need to keep up an appearance of sexual continence and the need to maintain a steady flow of copy.

In the Raven world, yin and yang consist of a permanent opposition between aesthetes and hearties, or between the dutiful bores, prefects and ‘officer material’ types, and the dashing, irresponsible slackers and heartbreakers whom the gods are supposed to favour in the short term. Harried by tax inspectors, family solicitors and moral tutors of all stripes – generally found to be practising the politics of envy – young Gray is repeatedly rescued from his difficulties with girls (and boys), and from his own indigence, by wised-up élitists who know how to play the game of life. There’s usually a cynical boyhood friend who has connections at the right college or regiment or publisher, or who (having slavered with the best of them over the early flowering of Jones minor) is now a sleek and rotund editor of something like the Times or the Spectator.

Peregrine Worsthorne, in this rather idle but charming book,[*] strives to come across as a sort of Catholic version of Gray. His father was a member of that Belgian ruling class on whose behalf we used to be told we fought the First World War, and seems to have suffered from a near-terminal vagueness and languor. Mama, in bold contrast, possessed a sense of noblesse oblige that the Koch de Gooreynds had allowed to lapse, and is presented here without undue sickliness or affection as a cross between a Fabian, a bluestocking and a suffragette. Her sense of debt and duty, social as well as personal, seems to have powerfully conditioned the boy Peregrine in the opposite and selfish direction. (There’s no point in asking him, ‘Don’t You Know There’s A War On?’ unless the war in question is a class war.) Despite his mother’s rectitude and parsimony, she did contrive to make a ‘good’ marriage with Montagu Norman, the man who treated the Bank of England’s reserves as if they were his own, and his own as if they were the Bank of England’s. We are afforded the odd glimpse of this old fiscal reactionary, and of some other Thirties dinosaurs like Sir Samuel Hoare. Of the latter Worsthorne reports ‘the personal antipathy everybody felt, including his wife, Lady Maude, to this cold and unattractive statesman’, but adds that at the age of five he himself could see the good-egg side of the man. He misses the chance to quote Constant Lambert’s limerick, especially composed for the nuptial night of Sir Samuel and his lady:

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[*] Tricks of Memory (Weidenfeld.290 pp., £18.99,7 October, 0297 81186 X).