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July 25, 2006

Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson - (Ed.) Richard Davenport-Hines

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson
edited by Richard Davenport-Hines
Pp. xlii+326. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006
Hardback, 20

I wonder if anyone writes letters like this anymore. Long letters packed with literary and intellectual references going on for page after page. Endless thought and time put in and only one recipient. In this egotistical age we prefer to write blogs instead. The writing style in this collection becomes increasingly outspoken as his friendship with his correspondent, Bernard Berenson, deepens over the years. There is a curiosity and amusement in this collection in seeing what he made of those in their early lives who went on to prominence in public life.

Tory politician and diarist Alan Clark dished out plenty of disobliging comments about his colleagues - but posthumously Clark's own reputation takes a bit of a biffing. In these letters on 29th February 1948 Hugh Trevor-Roper writes of Clark:

Though he likes intellectual company he will never make an intellectual effort, and suffers (in my opinion) from always - in consequence of his family background - having had it too cheaply. The clink of intellectual and aesthetic currency has always sounded easily in his ears, and he has effortlessly spent the small change of it as if he had earned it.

The young Keith Joseph was given a rather more encouraging assessment. In 1952 Trevor-Roper wrote:

He is a mercantile Jewish baronet. His father was Lord Mayor of London - hence the baronetcy - (an incidentally was famous for the stinginess of his City feats), & Keith, having been an alderman at 29, would inevitably, by the routine of that ancient institution, have been the youngest Lord Mayor in history; but illness determined him to abandon all civic activities. He is a lawyer, a Fellow of All Souls, very civilised, somewhat bien-pensant, and virtuously and self-consciously Jewish (so is his wife Helen, nee - I think - Guggenheim, and as rich as he is: they were married in a synagogue with immense Hebrew formalism and equally immense quantities of champagne). They are both gay and cultivated people and I think you will like them if you have an opportunity of seeing them.
Joseph may have missed out on being the youngest Lord Mayor of London but as the man who converted Thatcher to Thatcherism he did save the world. Still, one can't do everything.

Tony Blair seems incapable of taking a holiday without getting embroiled in some dubious association over the arrangements. But even Winston Churchill found himself open to question in this respect. Trevor-Roper, writes in 1948, of the role of Churchill's friend the painter Charles Montag. He is discussed as a dubious Mr Fix-it:

I have asked Lord Cherwell about him and Cherwell says that M is an exhibitionist who amuses or amused Winston and persuaded him that he (Montag) knew about pictures. There is no truth in the story that Montag shared the triumphal drive through Paris, or painted any of Winston's pictures: this is just part of the exhibitionism. Cherwell says that Montag has now gone too far and has fallen out of favour: he turned up uninvited at Aix-en-Provence and tried to force some unwanted Rumanian on to Winston. Of course one must remember that in a sense Cherwell and Montag are both competitive members of Winston's court, so no doubt the would belittle each other, but Cherwell is by far the grandest member of the court - in fact the Grand Vizier - so he ought to feel it unnecessary to damn Montag on those grounds.

I don't think it can be true that Montag fixed Winston's holiday in Morocco - Winston's dealings with Time & Life were handled by the Berrys & and he uses official agents and lawyers who are well known. It seems to me that Montag was a rogue who got a foothold in the court and wants to pretend the whole thing is managed by him.

Sometimes reading this one feels that society has the same characters and only the cast changes as the years go by. These days we have Father Michael Seed notching up an astonishing hit rate converting the powerful and glamorous to Roman Catholicism. In 1948, Trevor-Roper declared:
Alan Pryce-Jones, Editor of The Times Literary Supplement is credibly reported to have converted to Rome, and certainly to have attended the dinner given by all the converts, under the presidency of Frank Pakenham, to Father D'Arcy, - a pure Jesuit charlatan - who (so long as they are rich and fashionable) converts them all. So there is another good paper on the way downhill!
In some ways Trevor-Roper shows a liberal attitude which is ahead of its time. Here he is ruminating on homosexuality:
There is now in England a highly farcical witch-hunt against homosexuality: a phenomenon which, it appears, has just been discovered thanks to the arrest, on a charge of importuning (a charge only known, I think, in this puritan country), of Sir John Gielgud, Kt. (Noel Coward's chances of a knighthood have now slumped, of course, to nil.)
That was 1953. Coward did get a knighthood but not until 1970.

The final letter is written in 1960 and offers an animated account of Harold Macmillan's election as Chancellor of Oxford University:

But why, you might ask, is the election of any importance at all? What, in fact, does the Chancellor do? What indeed? The answer is, nothing. He sits infinitely, in purple or ermine-tinted clouds, from which on rare occasions he descends, in solemn and stately fashion wearing a golden robe valued in current prices a 1,000, in order to utter a few unintelligible blessings at purely ceremonial functions.
After this Trevor-Roper then goes on with page after breathless page about the exciting battle for the post:
The election itself was a splendid occasion. Balliol - not usually a convivial college - laid on luncheon for 150 people. Christ Church kept open house for visitors all day: the whole college seemed to groan under bottles and hams from dawn to dusk. So did our house. Queen's no doubt administered suitably frugal refreshments to the Franksites. But there were some troglodyte colleges which seemed to take no interest at all. Magdalen, for instance, sat buried in its hole, its fellows refused to come out on either side, and old Magdalen men who came to vote were given no food at all. (My stepson is in for a scholarship at Magdalen; we have now decided that even if he gets one, we shall refuse it and send him as a commoner to Christ Church.) St John's similarly remained sulky in grubby neutrality.
A very English account of a very English event.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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'There is a curiosity and amusement in this collection in seeing what he made of those in their early lives who went on to prominence in public life.' A nonsense sentence - a nonsense article. The author tells us (in very bad grammar) nothing about the Trevor-Roper, and just quotes great chunks of text. What a sloppy way of writing a book review.

Posted by: lucinda at July 26, 2006 08:30 AM
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