Landscapes, lines of verse, the horizons of the imagination, Hitler and our times

Written By: Edward Pearce
Published: February 25, 2012 Last modified: February 25, 2012

Consider two passages on facing pages of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s wartime memoirs: “My imagination loves to haunt great wastes and twilit spaces, and there are human characters, quite unsympathetic to me in the narrower sense, who yet fascinate me by their baroque minds or strange mental pilgrimages – St Augustine, Dante, John Donne, Blake, El Greco and Sir Thomas Browne. These bewitch me by their remote grandeur, like life at the bottom of the sea, or visionary habitations in the moon.”

And under his editor’s title of The Secret Service: “How can I describe it? A colony of coots in an unventilated backwater of bureaucracy? A bunch of dependent bumsuckers held together by neglect, like a cluster of bats in an unswept barn.”

What we have here, over 300 pages, are the various notes, most of them illegal and long hidden, jotted down by a young academic historian. Not just Oxford but Christ Church, also a recruited officer of RSS, otherwise MI8, you could easily dislike him: fanatical huntsman, cheerful elitist, marker of cards, remarking how learned he has become, offshoot of (fairly dowdy) Northumberland gentry, knowing the great houses and families as he knows the great art galleries, all the potential for a toweringly intolerable snob – social, intellectual, artistic – name your adjective.

Except that he isn’t. He marks his own card, the restless enquiring mind runs an excited, contestable argument through everything. And at landscapes, lines of verse, the horizons of imagination, he continually marvels. Going back north, he hitches lifts from friendly lorry drivers, sees Newcastle at dawn from Scotswood Bridge, fishes the Till by day and the Aln at night, and contemplates Horace in rural retreat as his model. Then the mocker takes over, recalling Wordsworth who did all that and “for lack of society and intellectual stimulus, became a dowdy, platitudinous, egotistical moralising bore”.

A decade after his death, friends and editors have just about finished putting between covers the unpublished essays, studies and grand fragments of a historian pointlessly sniffed at for not producing “a great book”. Gathered here, with his own sharp, bright footnotes, by Richard Davenport-Hines, The Wartime Journals should quite simply join the great diaries. Observations vie in fascination with the observer. A gallery of characters known, forgotten, never heard of, spring up or stroll on in a cameo dazzle. Some are cut down: “Did I say that I had once admired [AL] Rowse? Incredible!”

Sydney Owen, classicist and drunkard, “a selfish, greedy, bigoted and conceited old man who believed that a classical Student [Fellow] of Christ Church was entitled from his narrow eminence freely and stupidly to insult the world”. Colin Dillwyn, a young history tutor (killed at Dunkirk), contemplates shoving him in the river. Owen lived to call his servant: “I think the whisky decanter is nearly empty – you might order another couple of bottles. Then he closed his eyes and died.”

Father Leslie Beck, unadmired Hegelian and defecting Jesuit, married and became a spy, functionary of something called the Political War Executive. A young academic, name of Ayer, directed there, “was taken under guard from ante-room to ante-room and kept in play by secretaries and assistants and finally, when the word was given, a silent valvular door was opened, and he was led into a large, comfortable room, where, at a polished table, sat the regenerate Fr Beck, controlling, from the centre of that spider’s web, incalculable forces throughout the world.”

In the way of great diaries, The Wartime Journals call up the absurdity of detail. One of the editor’s straight-faced footnotes picks up on Bill Lowndes, a hard-up hunting friend of Trevor-Roper. “William Selby Lowndes 1836-1920 of Whaddon Hall, Stony Stratford and his eldest son, William Selby Lowndes 1871-1951. The latter was a Buckinghamshire magistrate, chairman of the Country Gentlemen’s Association and the Grimsby Seine Fishing Company. The family had little money but were entitled to quarter the arms of Plantagenet, Pole and Neville.”

The dangerous way of exalted dons in pronouncing, dismissing and purifying the intellect can get into the diary even of a keen admirer. Gilbert Ryle, top icicle of Oxford philosophy, accredited tiger of abstract thought, is regularly quoted here in rather spiteful, off-witty epigrams and finally pushes masterly superiority to self-destruction. “Art to him is a racket, poetry is a racket, even the moon has, at times, been pronounced a racket. Music is so many centuries of misdirected energy. Personal relations have no importance to him, he never corresponds…”

Beyond endless vivid gossip and ­character-sketching, this historian will start an argument. Famously, Trevor-Roper had a down on Catholics, but that wants ­refining. He likes old, traditional Catholic communities in corners of England, loathes the sly revisionists and propagandists. Wasn’t the Church socially compassionate, even teeny-weenily left-wing? No, it wasn’t. “The equation of the policy of the Roman Church with opposition to capitalist abuses, the thesis of [Hilaire] Belloc & co, corresponds with no facts and was never made until the end of the 19th century, when it was indirectly and dishonestly derived from Marxist discoveries”. As for Newman and his circle, “the Rome to which all these revivalists appealed was the socially irresponsible Rome of Gregory XVI and Pius IX”. Official religion he cannot take, but has hankerings. If nymphs and dryads appeared in the Cheviots “I already half-assume their presence there… But if God spoke to me through the mouth of a clergyman, then indeed I would begin to ask questions”.

Not for a second is this man a moraliser – unlike some historians. Macaulay rolls histrionic period about unnatural vice. Frederick the Great “was accused of vices from which history averts her eyes, and which even satire blushes to name”. T-R explodes and nails the Victorians, all of them. “An enclave in the midst of our history, they are more remote from us than the Red Indians, or the Triobriand Islanders or the bushmen of Australia”. What was Macaulay thinking of? He was an educated man. He had read the Greeks, hadn’t he?

It is dangerous to make sweeping statements about another nation. One patronises and is damned. But consider the allied Americans in Britain in 1943, “shoulder to shoulder with us”, according to Tony Blair, since 1939. Herbert Hart, Oxford lawyer, Brasenose and New College, Regius ­Professor, compares them, not very ­originally, to second century Romans, looking on us “as the Romans looked upon the Greeks, miserable people, scratching about subtleties and upsetting the peace of the world”. Trevor-Roper, who had been reading Mommsen, damning Prussian authority on those Romans abroad, agrees: ‘a fresh, loud, frothy, heedless tidal wave deluging the brilliant but atomised republics…and burying their splendid past in universal banality”. One shouldn’t say that sort of thing, really one shouldn’t, absolutely not.

A final section concerns Germany at the end of the war. He is in uniform, an interrogator, linked to an authority he avoids in gathering material for The Last Days of Hitler which would so improbably follow Archbishop Laud on his CV. He interviews Eugen Dollmann, SS Oberführer, Hitler’s direct link to Mussolini, later an agent for anybody, and successful enough blackmailer to later establish, in Munich, the Hotel Dollmann Splendide. Dollmann ­reports Hitler, hours after Claus von Stauffenberg’s bomb, “in a fit of frenzy”, saying “he would be revenged on all traitors, that Providence had just shown him once more that he had been chosen to make world history and shouting about terrible punishments for women and children; all of them would have to be put inside concentration camps… it was awful and went on for about half an hour”. Fascinating, but readers may prefer the bitching dons.

About Edward Pearce

Edward Pearce is a political journalist and author