Looking out an early edition of one of my novels this morning took me back to my first publisher for novels, Macmillan & Co. My first book, The Comforters, published by them in 1957, came out on the same day in February that Harold Macmillan, head of the firm, became prime minister.
It was not until 1963, after his resignation from the government, that I got to know him. He was at that time writing his memoirs and was then running the firm.
My own relations with Macmillan the publishers endured many ups and downs, but I always thoroughly enjoyed my meetings with Harold Macmillan himself. He was enormously intelligent and full of humour, even when he wryly referred to himself as ‘a fallen minister’.
I remember I once had to meet him somewhere in London and was holding the Evening Standard, which I had bought on the way. Harold pointed to the picture on the front page. It was of Nikita Khrushchev, now also out of office, casting his vote in one of their so-called elections. ‘Just look at him,’ said Harold. ‘How well they’ve turned him out. A smart coat, a good hat … My government never gave me a good hat.’
That day, Harold had been in the country at a sheep-count. ‘It really does send you to sleep,’ he said.
Once when he came to see me in Rome I gave him a party. It was at the height of the Nixon-Watergate scandals. We were all keen to hear Harold’s views. I asked him outright if he’d ever bugged anybody. He didn’t answer that one directly. He just gave his lovely smile and said: ‘Well at least I was never such a damn fool as to bug myself.’ Another time he told me that on a visit to Khrushchev while the latter was still in power, the Russian leader had sat back in his chair and said: ‘Harold, those swine at the KGB have undoubtedly, as you can guess, bugged this office. Let’s go out into the garden where we can talk freely.’ ‘We walked up and down the avenues of trees, talking,’ said Harold. ‘But I certainly didn’t talk freely. I knew the trees were bugged.’ (I used this incident in my Watergate satire novel, The Abbess of Crewe.)
Harold told me about a trip to Rome while he was prime minister. He was on a state visit to the Pope, John XXIII, and he told me with pleasure how impressive was the procession of cardinals and candles to escort him in to the Pontiff. Harold told me, also, how the Pope took him along the length of a hall, actually opening windows as he went, and he quoted Pope John: ‘I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.’
On this occasion Harold was delighted to meet an old university friend, now a cardinal. The two old friends were both at the top of their careers. ‘I wondered what he’d have to say to me in the spiritual line,’ Harold said. They sat next to each other at lunch. ‘Tell me, Harold,’ said the Cardinal, ‘do they pay you well? We here get rotten pay.’ And the churchman went on to mention one or two other of their Oxford friends who were now in the big time in business. As he told me this, Harold chuckled. ‘Vatican or not, he was still a practical Englishman. Something indomitable,’ he said.
In the hall of the Macmillan country house, Birch Grove, Macmillan kept, on a well-displayed and lovely writing desk, a silver writing set inscribed to him by John F Kennedy. In the gun room hung a moderately executed oil landscape, courtesy of Nikita Khrushchev, which was supposed to represent modern Russian art. ‘The sort of thing one of my aunts might have painted,’ was Macmillan’s comment.
There were two saintly niches in the outside wall of Birch Grove. They were unoccupied. Harold pointed them out. ‘Those are for the two authors of the algebra book which we publish,’ he said. These famous algebra money-spinners for Macmillan the publishers had gone round the world to countries wide and far for many years.
Harold Macmillan, who was nothing if not an upper-class politician, liked to describe himself, with relish, as ‘a middle-class tradesman’ .
Harold really did have a very charming smile. Just to see him smile I liked to make him laugh. I remember telling him a story I had picked up about how an English lord had been apprehended for offering a bribe to the ferryman who was to bear the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, to a Labour congress on the Isle of Wight. The ferryman was to assassinate Wilson and the bribe was five pounds. Macmillan laughed over that.