Brief Lives by Alan Watkins - review by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

A Small World

Brief Lives


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In his introduction to this salad of contemporaries and friends, Alan Watkins claims that its disparate politicians, polemicists and academics have a kind of unity. He then goes on:

There is also, I think, a unity of place. My entire working life has been spent in the quadrilateral enclosed by the Euston Road to the North, the Thames to the South, Goswell Road to the East, and Whitehall and the Charing Cross Road to the West. It comprehends Lincoln’s Inn, the London School of Economics, the Sunday Express, the Spectator (both its past and its present offices), the New Statesman, the Observer, the House of Commons, El Vino’s public house (as Beaverbrook used to call it) and the Garrick Club. This may be limiting but there it is and there we are and it cannot be helped.

If had been set that paragraph as an unseen, I should have answered without hesitation that it was written by Alan Watkins. This is no disparagement to his sense of scope or scale (though a close observer might insist that he include Peterhouse, Cambridge in his ‘quad’). It is more like the old argument about the novels of Anthony Powell. Some boring critics say, as some boring critics even say of Wodehouse, that the range of life and people is too small. Others say that Powell, like Wodehouse, has made a vibrant world within a small compass. The world described by Watkins is a real world and the characters are not (or not exactly) of his own devising. The question then becomes – can he bring a real world to life?

I think that he can. It doesn’t matter much that he is often mistaken on points of fact, as he is famously in his essay on Kingsley Amis. Nor does it matter that he often makes his subjects seem dull and one dimensional. He has caught the torpid world of

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