An elegant arabesque AUTUMN BOOKS
ROBERT RHODES JAMES
On 4 May 1937 Lady Colefax gave a dinner party. The Winston Churchills, the Duff Coopers, Noel Coward, Henry and Lady Honor Channon and Harold Nicolson were among the guests. Both Nicolson and Henry (`Chips') Channon kept diaries, and each wrote of the occasion. Let us first contemplate Harold Nicolson's account: 'Winston asks me whether I have heard anything about getting a job. I tell him that if I were offered the Foreign Office, I would take it, but that I would be alarmed at taking any other job in view of the resentment that might be aroused. He answers, "Don't be a fool. There will be no resentment. Everybody in the House knows that you are entitled to the job on merits."'
Then, Chips Channon: 'Harold Nicolson was on one side of Honor, and he was in a fussy mood. . . . All even- ing, Harold succeeded in irritating Winston, who snubbed him repeatedly, but I doubt whether Harold, who is so good-natured, was aware of the antagonism.'
This tiny incident may illustrate, not merely the many-sidedness of truth, but the caution with which all diaries must be approached. When I reviewed in these columns last year the first volume of Nigel Nicolson's edition of his father's diaries and letters I emphasised the unique contribution of the diarist. Although daily diaries are often inaccurate on points of fact—and particularly when describing con- temporary events on the basis of hearsay or newspaper reports—the re-creation of atmo- sphere is the diarist's most important contribu- tion to our knowledge of him and his times. But, as this example shows, however sincere and intelligent the diarist may be, there are occasions when his understanding of an atmosphere is not infallible.
Mr Nicolson's second volume, Harold Nicol- son : Diaries and Letters, 1939-45 (Collins 45s), covers the war years, when his father was still a Member of Parliament, was for a time Duff Cooper's Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Information, and was subsequently a Governor of the BBC. His relationship with the most important French emigres to London gave him further significance. His 'Marginal Comment' articles in the SPECTATOR retained their very high quality. Indeed he was, as his son comments, 'by nature an observer, a marginal commentator.' Yet, for all this, be was not really in the mainstream. As his son remarks, 'his information about the course
of military operations was inevitably second- or third-hand, and even the succession of Churchill came to him as a surprise. . . . The fact that many of Harold Nicolson's closest friends were now members of the Government
paradoxically dried up his sources of informa- tion. Political discretion and military security dropped a curtain between him and them: The dominant impression of this second volume—even when Harold Nicolson was junior minister—is that of an outsider; a-witty,
sometimes shrewd, and always interesting out- sider, but an outsider none the less—a specta- tor, as his son puts it, 'from the middle distance.' Those sections in the first volume dealing with the early Mosleyite movement, Nicolson's entry into Parliament, and the Eden Group meetings in 1938-39, were of very real interest and of some historical significance. There is, unfortunately, little in this second volume that matches up to this.
The difficulty of editing diaries of this length is inadequately appreciated by those who have never undertaken the task. The first step, and a very difficult one, is to reduce an enormous typescript to manageable proportions. The editor, even after he has eliminated trivia, still has a lengthy and often agonising series of decisions. Above all, he must endeavour to retain the character of the original, even after drastically reducing its size. Then there are the problems of tact and taste, even more acute when the diarist—like Harold Nicolson—is often threading a living crowd. Indeed, there is a great temptation to leave in sharp com- ments on dead or discredited (preferably both) individuals, and to delete gracefully similar observations on the living and the eminent. One of the few really unpleasant remarks in the whole of this volume concerns Sir John Simon: 'God, what a toad and a worm Simon is!' Would this have been included if Simon were still alive? Would it have been included if the phrase had been used, say, of Churchill?
One thing is evident. Mr Nicolson may have gone to great trouble to avoid hurting others, but he seems to have been as frank so far as his father was concerned as he was in his first volume. The many errors of fact (including an astonishingly—and absurdly—inaccurate account of the execution of King Charles I and its aftermath) are not glossed over. Mr Nicolson is absolutely right when he says that 'the diary is of importance for its very errors of fact and judgment. Events which now appear to us so clear emerge as dim shapes looming through a fog.' The diarist comes out even more clearly from this volume than he did from the first—which is as it should be. Mr Nicolson, as we know, is an admirable, careful, sensitive and conscientious editor. My only complaint —and a very mild one—is that his running commentaries on the war situation are often too long and too detailed.
It would not be difficult to consider this volume as something of an anti-climax after
the first. In a sense, this is so. In spite of the war and his many activities, Harold licolson was involved in less interesting work in much less interesting surroundings. But it has two outstanding features, which make it a valuable and absorbing successor to the 1930-39 volume. In the first place, it affords us further examination of the complex and touching relationship between Harold Nicol- son and Vita Sackville-West. 'During those six years,' as Nigel Nicolson comments, 'they had found in themselves reserves of strength which neither had known to exist.' I really feel that I can do some good, and I am embauled. I did not know that I possessed such combative instincts. Darling, why is it that I should feel so gay? Is it, as you said, that I am pleased at discovering in myself forces of manliness which I did not suspect? I feel such contempt for the cowards. And such joy that you and I should so naturally and without effort find ourselves on the side of the brave.' (To Sackville-West, 12 June 1940.)
And then there is the quality of the writing. Thus, Harold Nicolson on Churchill in the House of Commons, 26 September 1939: 'During the whole speech Winston Churchill had sat hunched beside him [Chamberlain] looking like the Chinese god of plenty, suffer- ing from acute indigestion. He just sits there, lowering, hunched and circular.'
There have been many descriptions of Churchill's oratory; I am not sure that Harold Nicolson's—The combination of great flights of oratory with sudden swoops into the inti- mate and conversational'—is not the best.
Or, on the visit of Dominions representatives to the House to hear Chamberlain make a statement in November 1939: 'They had come expecting to find the Mother of Parliaments, armed like Britannia. They merely saw an old lady dozing over her knitting, while her hus- band read the evening paper aloud.'
Then there is a diary extract on London, written at the height of the Blitz, that opens: `Dear London! So vast and unexpectant, so ugly and so strong!' and which ends: 'Our pride is permanent, obscure and dark. It has the nature of infinity.'
Or, after a meeting with Churchill in Novem- ber 1940: 'He seems in better health than he has ever seemed. That pale and globular look about his cheeks has gone. He is more solid about the face and thinner. But there is something odd about his eyes. The lids are not in the least weary, nor are there any pouches or black lines. But the eyes themselves are glaucous, vigilant, angry, combative, visionary and tragic. In a way they are the eyes of a man who is much preoccupied and is unable to rivet his attention on minor things (such as me). But in another sense they are the eyes of a man faced by an ordeal or tragedy, and combining vision, truculence, resolution and great un- happiness.'
To those who know and admire Harold Nicolson, the question of why he never really succeeded outstandingly in any particular field is one on which they often ponder. He himself has written that 'I confess that it has often puzzled me why a person of my ability, know- ledge, experience, industry and integrity should sot somehow make a certain effect.'
Some of the clues are contained in the diaries, both these and in the preceding volume. ']Lack of self-assertiveness,' he wrote on one occasion, 'has always been my main disability.' This was, no doubt, true enough, but was it the whole reason? He had always, he wrote, 'believed in the principle of aristocracy.' The only England he really knew, his son has com- mented, 'was the world of weekend parties, exclusive luncheons, Bloomsbury and the, Travellers' Club.' (There is a characteristic reference to the Travellers' having become 'a battered caravanserai' inhabited only by `the scum of the lower London clubs.' That will not be well taken in Pratt's, White's, or Boodle's!) Then there is his implacable de- testation of Jews—`Although I loathe anti- semitism, I do dislike Jews'—which is unconcealed, but which is not pleasant to find in a man who prides himself with such satis- faction on being civilised. Then, on a lower level, there was his notorious incapacity to recognise people, a highly disconcerting feature which often led to misunderstandings.
For an examination of his political failure, his attitude towards his constituents emerges clearly enough: `My attitude towards my con- stituents in West Leicester has been that of a kindly doctor. I go and see them. I write them letters. I try to help them in their unhappiness and bewilderment, but always with the quiet, comforting (and, I dare say, slightly superior) manner of the doctor visiting his patients. Now I have to enter whole wards of patients, clap- ping my hands together and being hearty and comradely. Well, I just won't do it. I know that I am a good Member and that my family doctor attitude is not only sincere but anthem. tic in me. Any other attitude is not authentic: it is sham, histrionic and fatuous.'
He had, as he knew, much to offer. But he was not prepared to hawk his wares in the market-place. Perhaps he was right, but, as Nigel Nicolson remarked in his introduction to the first volume, 'he was politically rather soft, or, as a friend put it, "too fastidious and too critical to have the essential faculty of `belief in democracy."' Might one add, too ignorant of it as well? His world was really an exceptionally limited, and perhaps somewhat precious, one.
All this comes out clearly in this second volume. So also does his profound admiration for, and gratitude to, Winston Churchill, amounting almost to idolatry, and in marked contrast with several comments on Churchill in the 1930-39 volume. The development of his attitude towards de Gaulle is especially in- teresting. His accounts of his own life, in the diaries and in his letters to his wife and sons, are full of vitality and wit. A lengthy account of a typical day—printed complete—is par- ticularly good. His spirits soar with the challenge of the hour, and his faith in ultimate victory never dims.
'You never realise,' a close friend once told him, 'that you are a national figure —of the second degree.' That is one estimate. Perhaps a better one is Harold Nicol- son's own, at the end of a passage lamenting the decline of his world: 'Yet, is it any more than an elegant arabesque upon the corridors of history?' Elegance is a rapidly fading quality, and Harold Nicolson is right to place it highly in his estimation. Elegance—even the over- contrived and elaborately displayed variety—is elegance still. For that, for these absorbing diaries and letters, for Harold Nicolson and his son, much thanks.