3 OCTOBER 1981, Page 20


Remembering like anything

Christopher Booker

The Dictionary of National Biography 1961-70 eds. E. T. Williams and C. S. Nicholls (Oxford University Press pp. 1178, £40) The historical epicentre of the latest instalment of the DNB, which includes 745 people who died between 1961 and 1970, is the second world war. The volume is dominated by the first editor's own entry on Churchill, by far the longest (22 pages), flanked by many of the commanders who helped lead Britain to victory (Alexander, Alanbrooke, Dowding, Tedder, the Cunninghams). Most of those included were born between 1875 and 1910 and came to their peak of fame and achievement either during the war itself (Beveridge, Myra Hess) or in the decades on either side. (Another large group comprises many of the notables of the post-war Labour government, Attlee, Morrison, Dalton, Strachey, Chuter Ede). Ten years ago, shortly before I reviewed the last volume of the DNB in these columns, its co-editor Helen Palmer told me `if you wanted to get into the DNB the time to die was the Fifties. The Sixties volume will be much more crowded'. She was right. The present volume is packed with outstanding figures — Bertrand Russell, Beaverbrook, writers like Eliot, Maugham, E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, musicians such as Beecham, Barbirolli, Malcolm Sargent — the Fifties had little to touch them.

As usual, there are some astonishing links between our own time and the distant past. Bruce Ingram, who began editing the Illustrated London News at the age of 22 in the reign of Queen Victoria, was still at it in the reign of the Beatles. Margaret Murray, born within ten days of Lincoln's Gettysburg address in 1863, lived to within ten days of the assassination of President Kennedy. Bertrand Russell, brought up in childhood by the man who moved the Great Reform Bill in the House of Commons (his grandfather Lord John, born in 1792), lived to write in the Times about the first men to land on the moon in 1969. Charlotte Couper, who became a national figure in 1895 with the first of five Wimbledon singles victories, was able to attend the Champions Lunch in 1961 (her 'morale excellent', though she had gone deaf in 1896). The Rev. William Keble Martin, who had begun painting wild flowers in 1900, remained in total obscurity for another 65 years, until when he was 88 his Concise Flora raced to the top of the best seller list. Such leaps over the decades make the later corners, such as those two politicians cut off in their prime, Hugh Gaitskell and lain Macleod, seem of a different world — let alone the two youngest entrants, Joe Orton, born in 1933 and battered to death by his homosexual lover, and racing driver Jim Clark, born in 1936, who died in a crash in 1968.

But in essence the world that is conjured up in this volume lies between these chronological extremes — Britain as it was between the Twenties and the Fifties, the England of Waugh and the Sitwells and Howard Spring, of Beaverbrook's Daily Express, Kingsley Martin's New Statesman, King-Hall's Newsletter, of Barbirolli's Halle, Sargent at the Proms, the latest Tommy Beecham joke, of cartoons by Low and Bateman, of centuries by Hobbs and Hammond, of George Formby and Jack Hylton's Dance Orchestra, the England ol Gollancz's Left Book Club and 'the Red Dean', when the Liberal Party (under Samuel and Sinclair and Clement Davies) was always in decline — up into the late Fifties world of Vicky and Tony Hancock and Richard Dimbleby.

We are still just in the twilight of 'Empire' and that splendid vein of British idiosyncracy laced with heroism which gave such nostalgic charm to the last volume. Of an eye surgeon we read that 'in the remoter parts of Baluchistan his name became a legend', of that adventurer-diplomatist Miles Lampson (Lord Killearn) that `to the Chinese he was the man-mountain unmoved by a hundred cups of rice wine'. We read of Bruce-Lockhart befriending the leaders of the Russian Revolution as a 'British agent', and a merchant banker, Sir Reginald Benson, escaping the Russians by canoe through the Polish lakes, with £10,000 hidden in his socks (and later playing with the Savoy Orpheans). We meet Sir Thomas Merton, the Old Etonian who had 'probably the last private physical laboratory in Britain', made a discovery vital to the success of radar in 1940, and late in life (after his son won the Eton drawing prize) became an expert in Florentine painting of the period 1450-1520. We read of the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello's 'lifelong passion' for Eton Fives, of Nehru's unhappy time at Harrow, of two other young Harrovians, Alexander and Monckton, who played in 'Fowler's Match' at Lords in 1910, and more than 40 years later became successive Presidents of the MCC as Earl Alexander of Tunis and Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. William Henry Pratt, born in Camberwell in 1887, the son of a member of the Indian Salt Revenue Service, educated at Uppingham, retired to Sussex in 1959 'to watch cricket' after a successful career in the films under the name Boris Karloff. We read of Richard Winstedt, the son of a Swedish tailor, being appointed 'district officer in Kuala Pilah, an interesting district which contained the court of the Yangdipertuan Besar of the Negri Sembilan and also five little states which followed the local version of the Minang Kabau matrilineal law'. We also read of Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, head of the Foreign Office, who 'had no respect for foreigners'.

Also vividly conjured up is that preand post-war era when Britain still led the world in ships and flying machines. The architects of the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, the R.100 and the R.101 airships are here, as are Sydney Camm, — designer of the Hurricane and the Hunter, — de Havilland, Handley-Page, and Short of Sunderland fame. One aero-engineer 'baked his own bread', another spent the last 40 years of his life making clocks — but strangest of all was Edward Petter, the scholarly designer of the Lysander, the Canberra and the Lightning, who retired at 51 'in search of a life of contemplation' and ended with a faith-healing order in France.

Inevitably, when one reads through these 1100-odd pages in a series of sittings, it is the curiosities which stand out, such as little George Formby, born blind, recovering his sight at the age of two by sneezing on a Mersey ferry (and inheriting the stage name his father had taken from a railway truck in Wigan station). Jelly d'Aranyi, the Hungarian violinist, was put on the track of the 'lost' Schumann violin concerto by a ouija board, the military theorist Basil Liddell-Hart was also an expert on women's dress through the ages, a biochemist named Hughes bred greyhounds and was known on the track as 'the Prof.', the Manchester Guardian pronounced in 1935 'this is hardly more than an interim appointment' when Clement Attlee embarked on the longest tenure of any Party leader this century.

In 1931 William Morris's new Morris Minor promised '100 miles an hour and 100 miles to the gallon' (why don't they bring it back?), while Clarence Hatry, on his fraudulent career, once actually bought Leyland Motors for £350,000 and sold it next day for almost twice the sum. Several figures may only have got in by virtue of one episode which changed their lives. When power cuts closed down the BBC for ten days in 1947, Stephen Potter used the time to write a little book called Gamesmanship. In 1941 William Beveridge burst into tears when told he had been 'hived off' into chairing an obscure enquiry into the 'co-ordination of the social services' — Reith-like, he had hoped to be put in supreme charge of civilian manpower and military recruitment — but two years later it led to the Beveridge Report. Tragedy intrudes — Norman Ebbutt, a month after being thrown out of Germany in 1939 for his fearless despatches to the Times, collapsed and spent the next 30 years paralysed; much the same happened to Helen Waddell, after two 'doodlebugs' had wrecked her house and health. Almost the reverse happened to Augustus John, who arrived at the Slade 'neat, timid and unremarkable', but hitting his head on a rock when he dived into the sea off Pembrokeshire so transformed him, both as a personality and an artist, that he never looked back.

Perhaps the most powerful cumulative impression one gains from these hundreds of entries, however, is how each of the different professions emerges with its own collective 'profile'. The mass of politicians, with the exception of Churchill and Attlee, seem disappointed men. Journalists (Christiansen, Swaffer, Cudlipp) come across as noisily hollow (despite the mysterious claim made for Cassandra that 'Arnold's "Dover Beach" was never far from his thoughts'). Booksellers such as William Foyle (a charming memoir by his daughter Christina) and Wilson, the founder of Bumpus, emerge as rather more modest, lovable and book-loving than publishers (Unwin, Faber, Gollancz). The prolific producers of children's books (Arthur Ransome, W. E. Johns) stand out much more clearly in these pages than the more serious writers, if only because of their obsessive pursuit of their trade — Charles Hamilton (alias Frank Richards) sat in a black skull cap, dressing gown and bicycle clips in his bungalow near Broadstairs churning out one-and-a-half million words a year, while for Enid Blyton 'ten thousand words a day was a good cruising speed', and almost her only topics of conversation were 'children, her books for and about them and the publishers who helped introduce the former to the latter'.

Collectively, undoubtedly the dullest entries are made by civil servants and scientists (far too many of both in this volume) — despite the civil servant who collected Dtirer woodcuts, was 'a fine judge of a Moselle' and was known to walk about Manchester with a book of Greek poems in his pocket (his finest hour was as 'director of civilian clothing' during the war). Of the scientists, it seems almost impossible to write in such a way as to arouse general interest (e.g. 'he explained the occurence of optical isomerism in biphenyl derivatives substituted in 2-, 2' -, 6' and 6 ' positions as being due to restricted rotation about the internuclear bond'). There is also a curious excess of geologists — 15 at my count — whose entries only rarely break into the Poetry of that on Sir Edward Bailey, whose geological map of Mull, 'one of the most complex and beautiful produced by the Ordnance Survey . . . depicts the results of two great cauldron subsidences and of gravitational differentiation of Tertiary magma; also there are crater lakes, pillow lavas and ring dykes'.

But there is no doubt which group comes out best from these pages, in terms of exuberance, breadth of interest and the general fullness with which they lived life — the senior soldiers of the second world war: 'Tiny' Freyberg, large-minded, lionhearted, magnanimous and great of soul', 'Bimbo' Dempsey, 'Freddie' Morgan, McCreery Ca man for whom nothing was too much trouble — everybody — family, friends and regiment, soldiers, gardeners, servants or nannies — received his consideration and kindness'), Paget ('without fear, either physical or moral, deeply religious, completely selfless') and Earl Alexander himself, who formed a boyhood ambition, after reading Reynolds's Discourses, to become President of the Royal Academy, `learned Urdu' when stationed on the North-West frontier 'as rapidly as he had learned Russian and German', was a superb strategist, administrator and diplomat, and seems to have been loved and revered by all who knew him. Of the other services, only Admiral Andrew Cunningham comes out so superlatively well (his 'rosy, weather-beaten countenance' and 'steely blue eyes' twinkling 'with humour and optimism') and the account of his Mediterranean naval war is a model.

It may be that I am becoming harder to please, but the general standard of this volume seems to be lower than before. The entries on sportsmen are improved (particularly M. M. Reese on Hobbs, Hammond and S. F. Barnes). But there are far too many weak, uninteresting entries, particularly on some of the major figures (the entry on Churchill is good on the war years, but tails off badly afterwards).Too many worthies do not seem to merit inclusion. There are one or two startling omissions (e.g. Guy Burgess and Stephen Ward, both figures of historical interest who should certainly have taken precedence over a good many civil servants and minor scientists). It is a sign of the times that the editor makes play with this volume's new frankness over homosexuality, though in most cases contributors have fallen back on fairly elaborate circumlocution — e.g. Somerset Maugham 'stepped off his pedestal' with a young American, E. M. Forster 'in no way resembled Oscar Wilde . . . he only longed for a stable and loving relationship with someone not of his own class', while for Harold Nicolson, when his wife went off with Violet Trefusis, this was 'a problem not unfamiliar to himself'.

In short, the volume is redeemed more by the unusual interest of so many of its subjects than by the way they are treated. I can only end by quoting what I said about the last supplement in 1971, when I regretted that 'the price of this volume, three or four times that of any of its predecessors, will put it out of reach of any but the most determined maintainers of a reference library'. The price on that occasion was £9.50. This time it is £40. In ten years time, if the trend is maintained, it will be £170.