An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals by Polly Toynbee - review by Robert Colls

Robert Colls

Aristocracy of Labour

An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals


Atlantic Books 448pp £22

It’s hard to know what this book is really about. Polly Toynbee or her family? Let’s do it her way and start with the family. She belongs to a family so famous she can research it by reading biographies of her relatives. Her great-great-uncle Arnold Toynbee (1852–83) was the young Oxford don who popularised the phrase ‘Industrial Revolution’. At the same time, he cut a saintly figure in London’s East End, striving for workers’ education, and may be seen as one of the founders of the reformist settlement movement. When he died, aged thirty, from ‘overwork’, Toynbee Hall was founded in Spitalfields in his memory. His brother, Harry Toynbee (1861–1941), Polly’s great-grandfather, was general secretary of the Charity Organisation Society, a body that invented social work. Harry’s son and Polly’s grandfather, another Arnold (1889–1975), was a world-famous historian who appeared on the cover of Time magazine, though nobody quite remembers why. Polly’s great-aunt Jocelyn Toynbee was a professor of archaeology at Cambridge; another great-aunt, Margaret Toynbee, was a fellow in history at St Hugh’s, Oxford. Arnold’s first wife, Rosalind Murray, a poisonous snob according to Polly, was the daughter of Gilbert Murray (1866–1957), Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, and Lady Mary Howard (1865–1956), daughter of the Earl of Carlisle. Somewhere up the line there was a big castle in Yorkshire.

Arnold and Rosalind had three boys. Philip, the middle one, was Polly’s father. It’s unlikely that he is remembered (in a good way) at the six prep schools that expelled him, or at Rugby School, or at Christ Church, Oxford, which admitted him. On the other hand, he might be remembered by older readers as a prominent Observer journalist. In other circles, he might be remembered for his work on behalf of the Communist Party: he was a drinking pal of Donald Maclean and a colleague of Kim Philby. To be fair, Polly doesn’t know quite what he did for them, and probably neither did he. Polly remembers him as an entertaining drunk not fit to be in charge of a pram.

Anne Powell, Polly’s mother, was the daughter of George Powell (Eton and the Grenadier Guards) and Barbara Pryor (from the Truman’s Brewery family). When Barbara was not pushing her debutante daughter round Parisian dress salons, she was a secret communist (or so she later claimed). Anne’s sister Elizabeth

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