I have written as I rode
- ‘Brief Lives’ with ‘An Apparatus for the Lives of Our English Mathematical Writers’ by John Aubrey, edited by Kate Bennett
Oxford, 1968 pp, £250.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 968953 8
- John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr
Chatto, 518 pp, £25.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 7011 7907 6
A friend who teaches in New York told me that the historian Peter Lake told him that J.G.A. Pocock told him that Conrad Russell told him that Bertrand Russell told him that Lord John Russell told him that his father the sixth Duke of Bedford told him that he had heard William Pitt the Younger speak in Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars, and that Pitt had this curious way of talking, a particular mannerism that the sixth Duke of Bedford had imitated to Lord John Russell who imitated it to Bertrand Russell who imitated it to Conrad Russell who imitated it to J.G.A. Pocock, who could not imitate it to Peter Lake and so my friend never heard it. But all the way down to Pocock was a chain of people who in some sense had actually heard William Pitt the Younger’s voice.
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Vol. 37 No. 21 · 5 November 2015
Adam Smyth’s piece on John Aubrey reminded me of sharing, many years ago, a hotel dinner table with the late Conrad Russell (LRB, 8 October). We were talking about Harold Wilson, then lately prime minister, and Conrad began to tell me of a conversation he had had with his father, Bertrand Russell, about Wilson’s personality. However, he said, Bertie was then very old, and Conrad came to realise that they were no longer talking about Wilson, but about what Bertie remembered his grandfather Lord John remembered his grandfather the duke telling him about the personality of the Younger Pitt. I do not remember the latter’s way of speaking being mentioned in our conversation.
I decided, then or thereafter, that there are some stories it would be churlish to disbelieve, and I have several times repeated this reminiscence since Conrad’s death. I am now 91 and memory is unreliable, in what it says you have forgotten no less than in what it says you remember. However, since I seem to be a key figure in the chain of transmitters Adam Smyth has rehearsed, I would like to limit my contribution to what I wish to say now and believe is all I have ever said or claimed to remember. Specifically, I do not remember being told anything about William Pitt’s way of speaking.
I have an example of ‘cross-generational vaulting’ to compare with Adam Smyth’s. My uncle, Philip Bell, studied at Queen’s College, Oxford just before the First World War. At that time the president of Queen’s was a very old man who had been brought up in Ireland. A very old man had looked after the orchard on his parents’ property. He had fought at Waterloo. I asked my uncle: ‘What did he say about Waterloo?’ My uncle replied that he had posed the same question to the president of Queen’s, who had replied that even as a young boy he knew of Waterloo, and had asked the same question of the old man in the orchard. His reply was: ‘The drums, the drums.’
To Adam Smyth’s team of cross-generational gymnasts could be added Roland Barthes, whose meditation on photography, Camera Lucida, begins with the dizziness of looking history in the face. Barthes is describing his amazement at seeing a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme, taken in 1852: ‘Je vois les yeux qui ont vu l’empereur.’
Vol. 37 No. 23 · 3 December 2015
May I add another evocative example (Letters, 5 November)? Maurice Bowra, the legendary warden of Wadham College, records in his Memories (1966) meeting an old Wadham man, Frederic Harrison, then aged 92. Harrison had gone to Oxford in 1849 and remembered the accession of Queen Victoria when he was seven years old. As an undergraduate, he had met Dr Routh, long in office as president of Magdalen (and reputedly the last man in Oxford to wear a wig), who died in his hundredth year soon afterwards. Routh in turn had met in his boyhood an old lady who when she was young had seen Charles II exercising his spaniels in Magdalen College gardens.