When the journalist and author Kenneth Rose died aged eighty-nine in 2014, he left 350 boxes containing six million words of his journals. He had kept a journal for seventy years. Rose was keenly aware of the historical importance of the diaries, and before he died he appointed D R Thorpe as their editor – the last in a long line of candidates he had considered for the job. From the shedload of material that Rose bequeathed to the Bodleian Library, Thorpe has now produced the first of two volumes, covering thirty-five years.
Rose is no Pepys. He tells us very little about himself. There’s nothing about money or what he had for breakfast, and certainly nothing about sex, oh my goodness no. Rose was a bachelor, and it seems impertinent to even wonder about his domestic arrangements. Not until page 376 do we learn that his London flat was in Connaught Place. Rose is almost an invisible man in his own diaries.
Born in 1924 in Bradford to a Jewish surgeon named Dr Rosenwige, Rose was educated at Repton and won a scholarship to read history at New College. He served during the war in the Welsh Guards, where he was bullied on account of his Jewishness (he was rescued by my uncle Matthew Ridley). The boy from Bradford very soon reinvented himself as an insider by becoming the chronicler of the Establishment.
In his diaries Rose writes a lot about Oxford politics and characters such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, A L Rowse and John Sparrow. Oxford was then an outpost of the Establishment, and Eton was almost as important. Rose taught there briefly after the war. It meant far more to him than Repton, and even after leaving he frequently visited his friend the beak Giles St Aubyn, who acted as a hotline of gossip.
In 1952 Rose was hired by the Daily Telegraph to work on the Peterborough diary column. He was so good at this that in 1961 he was given his own column in the newly launched Sunday Telegraph. He named it Albany at Large, proudly noting the royal and ducal connections of the name. At thirty-seven he had arrived. Albany was a success: everyone read it. Never mind that the column toadied to the grand and powerful. It gave Rose the access that he craved: he was invited everywhere and what he couldn’t print in the paper he wrote in his diaries.
The Beefsteak Club was Rose’s honeypot. Here he might find himself sitting next to the likes of Harold Macmillan, who enjoyed playing the role of a very old man (Rose was quick to spot that this was an act). Beefsteak rules forbade conversations to be repeated outside the club, but there was nothing to stop Rose scribbling them down in his diaries.
The journals from the 1950s are mainly political. Rose writes perceptively about the era of Suez and Anthony Eden, with his film star teeth. The ageing giant Winston Churchill makes increasingly unsteady appearances in the diaries. Rose was too good at his job to allow his political views to get in the way of a good story; he made friends with Attlee and skilfully cultivated Wilson, noting the latter’s admiration for that other great opportunist Disraeli.
Rose declined to criticise the royal family in his column, claiming in lordly fashion that ‘it would be embarrassing to write familiarly of people whose hospitality one has enjoyed’. He was a lifelong friend of the Duke of Kent, and he taught Antony Armstrong-Jones at Eton. There are some delightful plums involving the Queen Mother. At Kempton races someone turned on a television to watch a football match, at which the national anthem was played. ‘Oh do turn it off,’ said the Queen Mother, ‘it is so embarrassing unless one is there – like hearing the Lord’s Prayer when playing canasta.’ She offered her private secretary Oliver Dawnay a grace and favour house in Windsor Great Park. Dawnay and his wife went to see it. ‘It was a huge barracks of a place, so they came back and told the Queen Mother they did not think it would be quite suitable. “Yes,” she replied, “I knew it would be too small.”’
Rose was a gifted biographer. Many of his books concentrated on the Edwardian Establishment. They sparkle with anecdotes, many of them gleaned from interviews, duly recorded in his diaries, with characters such as ‘Bobbety’ Salisbury or Macmillan. His best book was probably his life of George V, which won both the Wolfson Prize and the Whitbread Award (unimaginable for a royal biography today) and is still the most authoritative biography.
Rose disliked intellectuals and bohemians. Bloomsbury was anathema to him. He walked out of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, and he thought that Nancy Mitford’s notion of U and non-U was ‘dated and vulgar’. He doubted the wisdom of legalising homosexuality, regardless of the fact that many of his friends were gay or bisexual, notably his staunch supporter Harold Nicolson and his fellow royal biographers Giles St Aubyn and James Pope-Hennessy.
In spite of his love of gossip, Rose was oddly prudish about people’s private lives. He refused to serialise James Lees-Milne’s Ancestral Voices in the Sunday Telegraph because he was shocked by the obsession with sex, mostly homosexual. ‘It is a malicious chronicle of selfishness and intrigue, sparing nobody, including the late Duke of Kent,’ he wrote. To modern readers, Rose’s reticence on matters of sex and homosexuality will seem unnaturally prim.
As a history of the Establishment in the second half of the 20th century, these journals will become indispensable and definitive. They are the equivalent for that period of the journals of Harold Nicolson and Chips Channon for the first half, combining sharp observation and anecdote with political and social insights. They are also extremely entertaining. Rose was right to think that they were his most important and lasting contribution. D R Thorpe has done a great job of editing them. He has a light touch. In spite of being an authority on the period, having written great biographies of Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, he makes no attempt to fill the page with footnotes, but allows Rose to speak directly to the reader.