OXFORD TIMES Thursday, November 22, 2018
Lots to learn and enjoy about past heavyweights
recalls some old titans thanks to a new book
It has been fairly said that viewed in their generality the heads of Oxford colleges these days scarcely compare in terms of intellectual gravitas – and in the fame thereby earned – with the titans of the past. How revealing it is to measure the minnows of the moment – media types somewhat to the fore – with the heads of houses in my early years of work here in the 1970s.
Figures like Lord Franks – civil servant, diplomat, banker and consummate committee man – the theologian Henry Chadwick and spy chief Daphne Park graced the lodgings of, respectively, Worcester College, Christ Church and Somerville.
There was, for a time, a highly distinguished crop of historian heads of houses. These included Asa Briggs, an expert on Victorian Britain at Worcester (after Franks), Christopher Hill, acclaimed chronicler of the English Civil War, at Balliol, Adolf Hitler’s first and best British biographer, Alan Bullock, at St Catherine’s, and thenoted authority on Spain, Raymond Carr, at St Antony’s. More famous than any of them – certainly in Conservative circles –was Robert Blake, Provost of The Queen’s College.
The biographer of Earl Haig, Bonar Law and – most brilliantly – Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Blake also wrote the classic history of the Conservative Party, which he served on Oxford City Council and later in the House of Lords. This great man is one of 49 subjects to figure in a hugely entertaining – and, at 823 pages, immensely heavy – new book by the writer and publisher Naim Attallah. His gallery of characters also includes – of Oxford interest –
the lawyer Lord Goodman, a respected Master of University College, the Regius Professor of History Hugh Trevor-Roper and crime writer P.D. James, who was born and lived in the city.
No Longer With Us (Quartet Books, £30) features the long, in-depth interviews – running to a good few thousand words each – that Attallah conducted during the 1990s for The Oldie magazine. This was his quid pro quo –mutually beneficial – for bankrolling the nascent magazine. Its editor Richard Ingrams allowed him a free hand. As Ingrams explains in an introduction to the book, the aim was to give the interviewer equal prominence to the subject and to “probe for personal disclosures of intimate and hopefully sexual secrets”.
None such were to be extracted, I am relieved to say, from the ultra-respectable Lord Blake, though I did wonder what might be coming when the name of Edmund White entered the conversation. The US writer, who all but invented gay fiction with his 1982 novel A Boy’s Own Story, was mentioned in the context of his views as a biographer(of Jean Genet). Was biography, as White had asked, “a way which allows little men to take revenge on giants”?
“I hope not in my case,” replied Blake. “There are biographers who are simply in the business of debunking, finding out something discreditable, making the person concerned have feet of clay. “I deplore that kind of biography and it’s certainly not one I have ever engaged in myself . . . It is possible, however, to have a balanced biography, even of detested figures in modern history.” He cited the aforementioned Lord Bullock and “his very good book about Hitler”.
In the matter of “finding out something discreditable”, one such biography is alluded to in Ingrams’s introduction. This was the boo Storyteller (2002) in which J.D.F. Jones revealed much to the detriment of Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles’s mate (and Prince William’s godfather) Sir Laurens Van Der Post. Years before this came out, Attallah had bravely put to him the accusation that many people thought him a charlatan. “This is quite absurd,” he thundered.
“These are idiots talking.” Jones later proved that Van Der Post’s long sojourn with the African Bushmen had been largely fantasy.
Worse for his posthumous reputation was the fact that the South African mystic had seduced a 14-year-old girl placed in his charge by her parents on a voyage from the Cape, fathering a child by her and then setting her up as his mistress on arrival in London.
Such a fine moral mentor for an heir to the British throne . . .