July 2012

My July reading was dominated by several volumes of memoirs, predominantly of the inter-war years. First was Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s The Way the Wind Blows, in which I was interested, primarily, in order to fill out my picture of the Prime Minister’s view of his education at Christ Church. Next was an item that had been highly recommended in some periodical or book – but I can’t for the life of me recall where! – Ronald Fraser’s In Search of a Past, subtitled The Rearing of an English Gentleman 1933-1945, an attempt, via both psychoanalysis, and recording of oral recollections, by an alienated adult to come to grips with his family and pampered background. The third was Goronwy Rees’s A Chapter of Accidents, focusing on the author’s acquaintance with Guy Burgess. I wanted to go back to the source to discover more clearly how Burgess was allowed to get away with his errant behaviour, and what Rees’s stance on Communism and espionage, and his relationship with Burgess, was. I picked up in a second-hand bookshop Frances Donaldson’s A Twentieth-Century Life; I felt it was a name I should know (biographer of Edward VIII and P. G. Wodehouse), but wouldn’t have been able to place her as a farmer who taught herself to write. Lastly was the extraordinary Snows of Yesteryear, by Gregor von Rezzori. Von Rezzori had dazzled me with his ironic Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and I at last got round to buying this volume (the local public library’s copy is missing).

Each was pleasurable, but in different ways. Douglas-Home’s boyhood showed not a trace of the angst that dominates the others, but his largely anecdotal account of his political life reflects a wisdom to which his overall reputation does not do justice. Fraser’s account of his mother’s behavior, and the attitudes of the servants whom he engaged to invoke the past, is moving, but a little self-indulgent. Rees’s memoir is somewhat windy, but reveals a number of telling events and observations that deserve re-inspection after all this time, such as the friends he semi-identifies at Burgess’s wild parties. There was little of significance in the Donaldson book, although the claims of Donaldson and her husband for being socialists when they complain about having to hire servants, cheerfully exploit the Stock Market during the Abdication, sluice around the world at the taxpayer’s expense, and then buy a second house in a prime South Downs location, were a bit hard to swallow. (They did claim also that the Healeys were their friends – a relationship that Denis acknowledges, at least concerning Donaldson’s husband: see TheFriendsofDenisHealey).

The von Rezzori volume, however, is a classic work of recollection and imagination, primarily of his childhood in the Bukovina (part of Austro-Hungary ceded to Romania in 1918),  one dominated by another manipulative and neurotic mother, and influenced by a father who is a kind of Transylvanian Farve Mitford. It is beautifully written (and superbly translated from the German by H. F. Broch de Rothermann), and highly evocative. All five books bear the shadow of the Thirties in them, and the nervous wondering whether the twin monsters of Nazism and Communism might devour them all, on which perils each makes its unique commentary. I also read Erik Larson’s In the Garden of the Beasts, a very clever reconstruction of the life of the American ambassador’s family in Berlin during Hitler’s dictatorship. I have selected key passages from all these in myCommonplaceBook.

On June 23rd, the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, the Times published a Listener crossword puzzle by me, titled ‘SUM’, which celebrated him and the logical machine to which he gave his name.                                                                                                                                                                                (July 31, 2012)

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