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:
That’s enough now, said Lady Maude Hoare
We’re not doing that any more.
You’re covered in sweat,
And I haven’t come yet –
And just look at the time – half past four!
Dimly aware of the fact that the grown-up world had some intriguing secrets, young Worsthorne was sent by turns to the wrong public school (he thinks it should have been Eton rather than Stowe), to the wrong college (he had intended Kings instead of Peterhouse, and was rusticated) and to the wrong regiment (the Guards had been preferred to the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry). He went through a longish epicene period, about which he is alternately coy and blunt. He reproduces a painting of himself, executed when he was at Stowe, which makes Lord Dismiss Us or The Loom of Youth look positively stodgy. And after some backing and filling, he more or less owns up to having been ravished by George Melly at school and to have been both ravisher and ravishee until his early days in uniform. The remainder of the narrative of this period is punctuated by things like beagling with Father Gilbey or passing weekends in great houses with private Tridentine facilities; the whole Farm Street, Arundel and Lady Priesthole side of upper-crust identity. At about this time, too, there started to be girls and there have been ever since.
I used to see Worsthorne around the place, most usually in El Vino’s either at the close of Fleet Street’s daily business or (much more important to the ethos of the joint) about halfway through it. Here is where he had chummed up with Henry Fairlie, Paul Johnson, George Gale, Kingsley Amis and many of his other life-long boon companions, whose tales of debauch and dun and infidelity are the salt of the book. He had nice manners, and a generous style which he probably didn’t think of as democratic. He was aware of always being obliged to say the unsayable, but the pose didn’t seem too strenuous to keep up. Anyway, it often wasn’t a pose, as I came to appreciate when we spent some time in Rhodesia during the closing years of the Smith-run settler dictatorship. Worsthorne was hanging out with real white trash like P.K. Van der Byl, Smith’s kinkily sadistic deputy, and Richard Cecil, the brave but dim-bulbed scion of the Salisburys. We met in Meikles bar and had a very frank chat, in the course of which Worsthorne said that while he could easily look on, say, Asians, as equals, he found it very tough to extend the same indulgence to the natives of the Dark Continent. When I told him I was off to interview Sir Roy Welensky, once a Daily Telegraph hero for his stand in favour of the Central African Federation, Worsthorne asked if he could come too. What could be more agreeable? We waited on the leathery Sir Roy in his garden, where a huge turtle from the Seychelles was grinding slowly about the place, and Perry did a fair bit of talking until Sir Roy interposed with his own reason for detesting Smith: ‘It’s always simmed perfickly simple to me, Mr Worse-horn. If you don’t like blick min, don’t come and live in Ifrica.’
Worsthorne seemed to grasp this elementary point at the time, and later paid me back handsomely with a superb introduction to Margaret Thatcher, so I was depressed to find great tranches of his memoir taken up with pseudo-nostalgic poppycock about the virtues of white supremacy in Africa and elsewhere. The problem with his ridiculous and often hateful opinions – on Suez, on Vietnam, on McCarthyism and on apartheid – is not their moral and political obtuseness. It is Worsthorne’s habit of conflating them with two other claims he makes for himself – the claim of being or having been ‘against the stream’ and the claim of being a gentleman.
In upholding McCarthyism while he was in Washington, for example, he may well have had to meet objections from his superiors at the Times, but he can hardly be said to have occupied a position of signal isolation or courage. Yet he writes as if his prejudice took nerve. Similarly, he describes making a scene at the house of Brian Urquhart in New York, because a British UN official like Urquhart should not – whatever the merits of the case – have criticised the Eden invasion of Egypt in front of foreigners. This comes ill from a man who sneered ruthlessly at his own country while giving aid and comfort to Ian Smith’s gang of traitors and mutineers.
The vulgarity of the politics also compromises, I find, the impression of the gentleman. When Worsthorne writes of being taken up by Irving Kristol at Encounter in the mid-Fifties, his self-deprecation deserts him as he recalls the lift this gave to his clubland standing:
Unquestionably the value of my shares on the stock exchange of journalistic reputations had begun to catch up with Henry’s and John’s [Fairlie and Raymond] if not overtake them. I even got a fan letter from Bernhard Berenson, than which there could be no more reliable guide to the way the wind of fashion was about to blow, and an invitation – never taken up, alas – to go and stay with the Duke of Windsor.
Golly. This is too close for comfort to the way that Kristol’s pal Norman Podhoretz wrote about his own precocity in Making It. And look what happened to him.
There’s also a pointlessly cheap and nasty passage which occurs when Worsthorne, stuck in Ireland for a long weekend with the young Andrew Knight, suggested ‘that we propose ourselves for the night to the Claud Cockburns in Youghal’. Having invited himself, and having taken the Cockburns’ bread and salt, Worsthorne takes leave to depict his host as ‘an obviously sad and drunken burnt-out fraud’. Apart from the fact that I can remember Patricia Cockburn once fretting about an impending Worsthorne self-invitation (‘he’ll probably want his own dressing room’) to which he coarsely didn’t even turn up, I don’t think that a decent person can possibly land himself and Andrew Knight on a couple, let alone a couple as riotously amusing and sweetly welcoming as the Cockburns and then abuse them in print, and then come on as a gent. (Andrew Knight’s later betrayal of Worsthorne’s trust is related with altogether more feeling about the proprieties, which goes to make the same point in a different way.)
Actually, Worsthorne is much more convincing when he portrays himself as a cad. He wrecks the property of an elderly retired couple who had found him plausible as a tenant; he turns away a wounded German officer who finds him in bed with his wife, herself suborned by Worsthorne’s access to forbidden food rations. He is as much Harry Flashman as Fielding Gray when the odds are in his favour, which he is good enough to confess they mostly have been.
There are a couple of good political points in the book, both of them rather whiskered but both of them rather well-made. He summarises the style of his guru Michael Oakeshott, who he met as a brother officer in the course of a fairly undemanding war. Worsthorne seems to have intuited all or most of Oakeshott’s elegant resignation about politics and action from his view (derived allegedly from the Iron Duke) that ‘dandies make the best soldiers,’ and that summary could well be apt. Odd, though, that the same Tories who believe in Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism should also be so keen on Iron Dukes.
The second point, and the more Ravenesque, concerns the torrent of bullshit and redtape into which Labourism has intermittently plunged the country. In the case of post-1945 Austerity: ‘Everything about the class system was left intact except its raison d’être. To demoralise a ruling class without dispossessing it gave post-war British society the worst of both worlds: those aspects of a ruling class which provoke envy and resentment and none of those which inspire awe and admiration.’
This rogue element in Worsthorne – his impatience with hypocrisy and his dislike for time-servers and placemen and office politicians – is the one that a generous foe ought to concede. Would that he had more to show for it. He once said ‘fuck’ on the BBC and was vilely treated as a result by the bores and conformists who served the Berry family. He occasionally said boo to an Establishment goose. But in general, as he himself attests, he acted as a proud bearer of titbits from Establishment tables to the Street of Shame. Everything that he cites as having originated from the Pamela Berry salon, for instance, reads now as the most self-serving disinformation. And here is his later definition of editorial courage on being (briefly) allowed to hold a chair:
My first act on becoming editor was to refuse to join my new peers in demanding a reform of the Official Secrets Act, on the grounds that the most harmful things said and done in contemporary Britain were not plotted secretly behind closed doors in the corridors of power but openly propagated in most schools and universities, preached from most pulpits and asininely echoed in every television studio in the land.
If only the cliché-laden element in that credo were the worst part of it. Here’s an editor, admittedly a Conrad Black editor but nonetheless a national editor, openly saying that nothing was wrong with the BCCI/Westland/Peter Wright/Guinness/Lloyds of London period that could not be corrected by attacks on trend-crazed clergymen. Populism isn’t gentlemanly either. Perhaps it is this influence that has allowed so many klutzy passages to pass muster (‘being rather more cynical myself it did not take long to notice’; ‘fathers, even when there was one, played no part’).
Finally Worsthorne lapses into mere sentimentality, recording the moment when a Miss Simper called from Downing Street to offer him a knighthood, and also the moment when he saw his benefactress forced to quit the official residence while Carol, her daughter, was bearing ‘a string bag with a cold chicken in it for her mother’s supper. Seldom have I witnessed a sadder scene.’ I can, without trying at all hard, think of sadder ones not a mile from that same address. At least Fielding Gray spent some quality time among the whores and the losers and the ones who would pass up a chance if it didn’t square with their principles. For all his banter about being an iconoclast and a bit of a rebel, Peregrine Worsthorne has always gnawed his bone in the company of the overdogs and, by George, it shows.
[*] Tricks of Memory (Weidenfeld.290 pp., £18.99,7 October, 0297 81186 X).