Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Nowt so Queer as Folks

The Dictionary of National Biography 1971–1980


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THE OBITUARIST WORKS by two contrary principles: De mortuis nil nisi bunkum, and Voltaire’s saying that to the living we owe respect but to the dead we owe nothing but the truth. The former applies the more strongly the mo re recent is a subject’s death (though you might not know it sometimes from that Times speciality, the obitchery). The day after a man has died there are other considerations than historical truth. His widow’s grief will not be best assuaged by an accurate list of his meanness, treachery, heavy drinking and adultery. The second, Voltairean maxim applies to the long dead. Writing about Nelson or Parnell we can and should be objective about their ‘private’ lives which became all too public.

As the DNB was first assembled, noble product of Victorian energy and optimism, most of its subjects were historical figures in the full sense. Treatment of them might be qualified by the conventions of the day, but not by piety. It was when the Dictionary embarked on its supplementary, decennial volumes for the twentieth century that a problem arose. How to write about the recently deceased in a reference book which will be consulted for ever after: with bluntness, or evasion, or periphrasis? The editors have produced this latest catalogue of national worthies (not all so worthy) who died in the 1970s with commendable speed. Some of those here died scarcely more than six ago, and yet this is the book in which they will be looked up in future by enquirers after the truth and the whole truth.

Let me be less abstract. Until recently the subject that dared not speak its name was homosexuality. I think that the first subject of whom this was made clear was Norman Douglas (o b. 1952), and then in an elegant phrase: ‘an ardent lover of both sexes.’ Now the barriers are down and the inhibitions are gone, and it is up to the authors of individual notices whether or not they say that their subject was a bit of an old pouf, or words to that effect. Some do, some do not.

For example: when Philip Hope-Wallace died, I and another who was devoted to him, Mr Alan Watkins, wrote affectionate informal obituaries which both mentioned his homosexuality. His eulogy in church was delivered by Mr Paul Johnson who naturally did not allude to the subject there, who reproached Mr Watkins and myself for having done so in print, who here writes Philip’s notice, and who once again treats his sexuality with a complete ignoral (as George Brown would have said). Which is right? I am inclined to think that Mr Johnson’s reticence is as misguided in the DNB as it was proper in church.

Others are less reticent; Mr William Douglas-Home on Terence Rattigan, for example, or Mr Michael Denison on Noel Coward. Mr Donald Mitchell on Benjamin Britten prefers the oblique approach, though unambiguously: Britten and Pears ‘made their life together from 1937 onwards, an exemplary personal relationship … ‘ And Mr Gerard Irvine on Tom Driberg comes straight out with it, a career of homosexual seduction starting at the age of twelve.

For Tom’s fellow rough-trader James Pope-Hennessy, on the other hand, we revert to obliquity. He was murdered, Mr James Lees-Milne tells us, ‘by some ruffianly associates of the unscrupulous youths with whom he chose to consort.’ Pl ease, daddy, what’s ‘consort’? And irritating obscurity can be hetero also. In one of the ludicrous notices contributed by Edward Heath he says that Uffa Fox’s ‘traits were often attractive but sometimes lacking in taste’, and refers to the ‘well known and unpleasant complications in his domestic life.’ What complications, you bloody fool? They aren’t well known to me.

But enough of this sordidity. The question is more general than sex. Should a DNB essayist be a friend of his subject? In any case, should he attempt ruthless even-handedness? Should he be in any degree counsel for the defence, or devil’s advocate? Of course, in a book such as this it is too much to hope that those two glorious mountebanks Montgomery and Mountbatten should be taken at anything less than their own estimation, and they are not (though Mr Ziegler does concede that ‘Mountbatten was not markedly successful as a wartime destroyer captain. In surprisingly few months at sea he almost capsized in high seas, collided with another destroyer, and was mined once, torpedoed twice, and finally sunk by enemy aircraft … the consensus of professional opinion is that he lacked “sea-sense”, the quality that ensures a ship is doing the right thing in the right place at the right time.’) Nor are these two very different charlatans, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland.

The editor, Lord Blake, equally makes as good a case for Anthony Eden as he can in an excellent notice (containing one small and uncharacteristic slip: he appears to think that the Rifle Brigade and the King’s Royal Rifle Corps are, or were, the same thing rather than sister but separate regiments). But Mr Max Hastings shows that it is possible to combine decorum with harsh objectivity. Slessor ‘must share responsibility with his generation of airmen for the lamentable shortcomings of the RAF in close support of ground and naval forces and low-level bombing techniques.’

Ireland shows the problem in sharp form. The Ulster Unionist leader Brookeborough is done over good and proper – rightly in my view – by Mr P J Buckland, clearly no admirer: ‘a lazy man of limited ability’, he was a bigoted protestant who ‘helped perpetuate the long-standing and ultimately fatal divide in Northern Ireland … by refusing to support those liberal Unionists who sought accommodation with the Catholics. ‘

Turn then to de Valera. His memoralist is Lord Longford, already the author of an official biography which Mr A J P Taylor has called ‘appropriately evasive on many awkward topics.’ This notice stops a little short of unalloyed and honeyed praise, but it is still an encomium from which one would hardly guess that de Valera, though of course a far cleverer and subtler man, was Brookeborough’s antipole, who did quite as much harm to Ireland, and who was surely one of the least successful politicians of the century in terms of what he hoped for and what he achieved. But then, in the circumstances, the editors have got what they might reasonably have expected.

So with Mr Montgomery Hyde on Goddard the last great hanging judge – to say that ‘he was neither cruel nor vindictive’ and that his conduct of the trial of Craig and Bentley was ‘impeccable’ is arguable, at the least – and with the notice of Maurice Dobb. Dobb was a Cambridge economics don, a Marxist and lifelong Communist. He is generally supposed to have played a part in the Soviet cell at Cambridge which was adorned by Blunt, Burgess and Maclean, but this topic is not touched upon in his essay by Professor E J Hobsbawm, himself today about the only serious intellectual figure which the British Communist party can count among its membership. The right choice?

When all that is said, the DNB remains a wonderful book. In general and in small ways the decennial volumes have been improving steadily and this is one of the best of the last half dozen. Several of the essays are gems: Mr Mitchell on Britten, Mr Richard Griffiths on Mosley and Mr Anthony Howard on Crossman, to take a random trio from a large choice.

One of the masterpieces of the volume is Mr John Grigg on the Duke of Windsor. He does not dwell on the physiological facts widely held to be the secret of Miss Simpson’s ‘attraction, so far as it can be defined’, for the Prince-King-Duke, but leaves us with a vivid impression of the man. By contrast Mr Giles St Aubyn on the Duke of Gloucester does not do justice to that remarkable gentleman’s characteristics. Mr John Lehmann is apparently unaware that Cyril Connolly plagiarised the aphorism (which has never had me howling with laughter anyway) about the thin man inside the fat man. And I still wish I knew if it is true that Sir Charles Clore did time for fraud.

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