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.’

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