Unmuscular Legs

E.S. Turner

  • The Dictionary of National Biography 1986-1990 edited by C.S. Nicholls
    Oxford, 607 pp, £50.00, June 1996, ISBN 0 19 865212 7

If it does nothing else, this volume should change people’s perceptions of lieutenant-colonels. One of them, a Dunkirk veteran who joined Eisenhower’s staff, wrote books with titles like Salome Dear, Not in the Fridge! and became a jolly television games-player (yes, Arthur Marshall); another, who served in Intelligence, took to wearing bangles and a large diamond in one ear, and was barred from Wimbledon for designing too-saucy dresses for tennis women (Teddy Tinling); a third, who rose from private in the Honourable Artillery Company, was a devout Christian who launched the Hammer House of Horror (Sir James Carreras). All demonstrated that a spell in uniform, as the sovereign’s trusty and well-beloved, never cramped a creative talent, and perhaps that a creative talent never cramped a military one. The singularity of their careers has earned them a place with ‘the last legitimate male Plantagenet’ and the builder of 5747 Sopwith Camels in the last quinquennial round-up of the Dictionary of National Biography. This is also the last of five volumes to which C.S. Nicholls has devoted her editorial talents. There will now be something of a hiatus, until the first volumes of the New Dictionary of National Biography, under Colin Matthew, begin to appear early next century, with all lives revised and the text sprinkled with ten thousand pictures.

A DNB newsletter issued to mark this transition lists some of the odder occupations, or claims to distinction, recorded in earlier volumes. The distinctions include cowardice, sottishness, corpulence, self-identification with the deity and a failure to rise from the dead after an undertaking to do so. The individuals thus branded will still apparently figure in the new edition, along with old favourites like buffoon, quack, martyr, poisoner, pretender, pedestrian, visitor of the monasteries, betrayer of the ‘gunpowder plot’ and literary impostor (a category not yet extinct). In the latest volume John Stone-house appears as politician and confidence trickster, but Harold Philby is dubbed Soviet agent rather than traitor and Klaus Fuchs gets by as theoretical physicist. Other less controversial occupations include entrepreneur, man of letters, geologist and bishop, smooth muscle physiologist, inventor of the safari park, inventor of whimsical machines, ethnomusicologist, authority on animal behaviour, magnate in the fishing industry, and, unexpected but welcome, stockbroker.

The years 1986-1990 saw a notable culling of trade-union leaders, secret servicemen and those hardy medical specialists who devote their lives to exploring our drainage-cum-reproductive systems (one dedicated urologist, after retirement, had to be given ‘very firm encouragement’ to stop operating). As Leslie Stephen, first editor, once said, much of the value of the DNB lies in the light it sheds on the lives of the second-rate, meaning second-rank, about whom it is not easy to find information elsewhere. If we do not need it for Lord Blake’s long piece on Harold Macmillan, we certainly need it for the life of a lesser prime minister, Lord O’ Neill of Northern Ireland. This is the man, we are reminded, who on retirement said: ‘It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house, they will live like Protestants … they will refuse to have 18 children on National Assistance … in spite of the authoritative nature of their church.’

The second longest entry is on Henry Moore, that £1 million-a-year taxpayer whose sculpture was (and perhaps still is) prominently displayed in fifty cities and two hundred museums. Wisely, he retrained from philosophising and left the interpretation of his work to others. He was ‘the maker … driven by some creative force that he could not and perhaps did not want to understand’. How much better if the Scots artist William Scott had not tried to explain the force which impelled him to introduce frying pans and kitchen objects into his works. Their ‘multivalent symbolic significance’ at first reflected the ‘elemental life of the simple poor’ and then became ‘the components of obscure sexual encounters in what Scott referred to as “the secret of the picture” ’.

The self-evaluation of works by contemporary artists, and the interpretations by their more reckless admirers, will increasingly call for firm handling. For Professor Colin Matthew a more difficult task may be to find contributors who can write accessibly about the work of geneticists, crystallographers and the adepts of quantum mechanics. Reviewers tend to quote the more boggling passages and then pass on, perhaps, to the more intelligible subject of Resistentialism (les choses sont contre nous) as expounded by Paul Jennings. Experts are entitled to have their specialities appraised by experts, but the layman venturing into what look like no-go areas gets the feeling that he is being offhandedly, if not wantonly, blinded with science. Perhaps one of the medical entries is worth singling out as an example in clarification. The physician Sir Graham Bull, we learn, saved ‘countless lives’ by preventing over-enthusiastic attempts to flush out the kidneys. He argued from the simple analogy of a blocked lavatory: ‘One’s natural reaction was to pull the chain so that more water flowed into the basin, which then overflowed; it would be better to leave things as they were until the blockage was relieved.’ The layman will surely go along with Charles Rycroft on the psychiatrist R.D. Laing, when he says: ‘It is difficult to take seriously the idea that we are all traumatised by separation from “our intra-uterine twin, lover, rival, double”, the placenta.’

The judiciary is a profession whose members traditionally correct and rebuke each other in public, so there is no reason why they should hold back in reference books. Writing on Lord Russell of Killowen, Lord Templeman says this firm believer in certainty and precedent ‘did not approve of the purposive construction of statutes and did not admire the intellectual flexibility which enabled Lord Denning to his own satisfaction to temper the wind to the shorn lamb’. A drink-driving conviction delayed for 15 years Russell’s appointment as a lord of appeal, which must be deemed sufficient reason for putting it on record. Lord Denning also sustains a passing bruise in Lord Archer of Sand-well’s entry on Lord Silkin. Sir Melford Stevenson was famous for stiff sentences, but according to Lord Roskill, ‘those who sat in the Court of Appeal in the Seventies might sometimes find in the appeal papers a letter from Stevenson to the court suggesting that he might have been too severe and that the sentences which he passed should be reviewed.’

The secret agents are an astonishing batch. Among them is Reginald Teague-Jones, who received two obituaries in the Times, the first under his later name of Ronald Sinclair. The reason for the change of name was that he was falsely accused of a war crime in Transcaspia in 1918 when a clutch of Leninist commissars were taken from custody by counter-revolutionaries and massacred. He appeared in the honours list under each of his names and lived to the age of 99. Another who tangled with Bolsheviks, defeating a plot to seize a White Russian submarine and kill its officers, including himself, was Wilfred Dunderdale, better known for his part in smuggling the Enigma encoding machine from Poland in Hitler’s war. In later years, since he disliked the Whitehall atmosphere of MI6, this Buchanesque operator was allowed to set up his own office nearby, furnished according to John Bruce Lockhart with ‘lovely Oriental carpets, portraits of the queen and tsar, a whiff of incense and a fine model of a Russian destroyer of 1912’. There is a withering account by Sir David Hunt of the reputed master-spy Sir William Stephenson, who encouraged the writing of best-selling works of fantasy about himself, in the best tradition of Buffalo Bill.

Earlier volumes of the DNB tell of disreputable divines in George Ill’s time who abandoned parish work to conduct scandal-sheets in Grub Street. How different the motivation of the Rev Marcus Moms, who left his Lancashire parish to start up that healthy paper for boys, Eagle. Some years later, he launched the less virginal organ, Cosmopolitan. Chad Varah tells us that Morris dressed as a parson only for Eagle Club carol services, but does not explain how the Church came to allow him to shoulder such ‘wordly cares’ as becoming vice-chairman of a London-based Hearst corporation. A home missionary posting, perhaps?

The old DNB had its reticences, which were far from contemptible. The writer of the entry on Charles Churchill, John Wilkes’s libertine friend, would not tell us what his poem ‘The Times’ was about, merely saying that the subject was a ‘revolting’ one. It was in fact an over-the-top denunciation of London as an out-station of Sodom. How that clerical bruiser would have enjoyed skimming the volume under review. Here he would find homosexuals of all degree – flamboyant, unhappy, misogynist and woman-friendly; one of them had been ‘trying to reform’; one went to gaol and another moved to a safer country; an editor feared that his ‘homosexually libidinous’ novel would lose him his friends (it didn’t); a photographer rose to become ‘an elder statesman of the burgeoning and culturally progressive international gay community’. The Island Race, Churchill would note, is now rich in men and women of ardent amorous energies, unwilling to bear the restraints of matrimony, obsessed by sex, tormented by strong and even gargantuan appetites, exceptionally promiscuous, prone to taking lovers of both sexes. Yet all is not licence. Exceptional self-control was displayed by a medical scientist who, after an unhappy experience in America, stopped having love affairs in 1947. A noble philosopher made it plain to his wife that their mutually agreed freedom to have affairs with other people did not entitle her to have another man’s child. A hard-up nutritionist sold off the rump of the library, which contained much erotica, ‘the basis of his wide knowledge of sado-masochism’, for £70,000 and devoted this to the dietary cause for which he had already shown himself ready to sacrifice home and wardrobe. It is still possible to find what used to be called a confirmed bachelor like the cricket administrator who ‘never allowed himself to be talked into marriage, though he always enjoyed female company’.

One question: do we need half a column listing the five wives of a cricketer? Does posterity need to know that the first was a typist, the last a hairdresser? If this sounds like vile snobbery, so be it. Again, in these days of serial marriage, are the occupations of spouses’ parents worth enumerating? There is marginal interest in knowing that a biochemist’s wife was the daughter of the owner of a Northampton rope-walk which made ropes for the local hangman (what, did Northampton have its own hangman?), but is it important to know that the father of a symphonist’s third wife was a Sunbeam Motors salesman?

Contributors to this volume have responded bravely, if not always imaginatively, to the request for a physical description of their subject. Some have given statistics of height, in old-fashioned feet and inches, as for police records. Moira Shearer had rich material to go on in Sir Robert Helpmann, with his ‘bulging forehead and wide protruding eyes’, narrow shoulders, large diaphragm and ‘thin unmuscular legs’; fine for balletic and dramatic roles, but ‘in modern dress he seemed too fantastic to be believable’. Lord David Cecil, says Rachel Trickett, was ‘elegant and at the same time spontaneously gauche’ (and wasn’t he the last man to wear spats on television?) John Braine had ‘a perpetual look of being out of condition’, according to Sir Kingsley Amis, always the acme of fitness. Some of the liveliest tributes come at second hand. John Lehmann had eyes ‘like forget-me-nots within a skull’, says David Hughes, quoting William Plomer; Hermione Gingold’s voice was ‘like powdered glass in deep syrup’, says Ned Sherrin, quoting J.C. Trewin. Scruffiness attracts comment: Tom Sargant, of Justice, was a shabby eagle.

As always, there are many with whom one would not wish to share a dinner table, never mind a urinal: loud-talking, non-talking, ever-talking, relentlessly questioning; all those dons impatient with inadequacy, astringent towards the incompetent, abrasive foes of sloppy thinking, and – yes – unable to suffer fools gladly. One possessor of exquisite manners was the Plantagenet survivor already mentioned, the 15th Earl of Huntingdon, but, says Woodrow Wyatt, he was ‘politely resolute in avoiding inconvenience to himself’. When his second wile proposed that her father should live with them he said nothing but quietly packed his bags ready to move out. This was the man of multiple talents who painted a mural depicting dentistry for the Chicago World Fair ‘to accompany a display of George Washington’s teeth’.

It is always of interest to see how the more literary contributors will adapt their entries to the DNB requirements. Will they pull in their horns, or flash their thighs? Will the veterans of Private Eye, Ingrams, Waugh and Wells, remember where they are? (They are no trouble at all, handling Muggeridge, Christopher Sykes and Douglas Cleverdon with tact and perspicacity.) Alan Bennett still smoulders over the tabloid oafs who pursued Russell Harty. He disdains to specify ‘the gravestone vulgarity’ from which Harty ‘never entirely managed to break free’; in contrast Mark Amory does not hesitate to quote the blasphemous lines which caused Mark Boxer to be sent down from Cambridge. Well-matched to their subjects are Patrick Leigh Fermor on Lawrence Durrell (‘He put new oxygen into the air; nothing seemed impossible’) and James Lees-Milne on the last of the Sitwell gang of three (who else but Sir Sacheverell has ever been made freeman of Lima?) Swimming against the current of the times, Philip Ziegler forbears to speculate on the precise nature of Wallis Simpson’s appeal to her monarch.

There is little doubt that if the subjects of this volume had had to wait to be considered for a decennial harvesting, as used to be the way, quite a number of them – minor media figures, chiefly – would have been winnowed out. All potential candidates for the British Pantheon who have died since 1990 will have to take their chance in the next millennium. Those of us still around to greet the New DNB may have to use force to prevent librarians from relegating the corpus to the basement to make room for the electronic equipment. Already the volumes up to 1985 are available on compact disc.