Glued, all week, to Diaries and Letters 1930 – 39 by Harold Nicolson (Collins, 1966) and now, having finished them, his Diaries and Letters 1939 – 45 (1967), all edited by Nicolson’s second son Nigel. I read them with a mix of fascination and revulsion, fascination with the intimate glimpse into an enthralling historical epoch, and revulsion at the mindboggling snobbery and crass stupidity of the ruling classes.
There is a difficulty about editing a diary for public consumption. How much explanation do you append, to references to people, places and events, without which the diary will be indecipherable, and where do you put such information? In a bulky appendix, or, page by page, in footnotes? If the latter, the page offers a busy aspect, and batting your eye up and down can be a wearisome and dislocating experience, easy to lampoon:
DIARY 27th January 1930
Lunch at the Charcuterie* with Fruity**, Shakes***, Milton Babcock-deBrunswick****, the Axminsters***** and the Count Alborado del Grazioso*****. Winston came in…
*Exclusive west end eatery run by the renowned gastronome René Descartes
**Fruity Beaconhurst, equerry to King George V
***Simon “Shakes” Mildew, owner of the Clarion-Despatch
****American industrialist and bootlegger
*****Jack Axminster, Conservative MP for Surbiton East, and his wife Angelique, a great society beauty
******the opera impresario and voluptuary
It could all be tedious in the extreme, but for the fact that Harold Nicolson kept the company of Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, the Prince of Wales, Max Beaverbrook, Joe Kennedy, and so on. A diplomat, born in Tehran, son of a diplomat, educated at Wellington and then Balliol, he was born to move in such circles. He left the diplomatic service at the end of 1929, started a career in journalism, and opened his diary on January 1st 1930. The career in journalism didn’t last, but the diary did, and he wrote it up daily until October 1964. He entered politics and won a seat at Westminster in 1935, which he held for ten years. He carried on writing. He was briefly in government during the war. So he was in a position to give first-hand accounts of meetings of political and historic importance. These descriptions are what give the diaries their power; so too the letters, largely written to and from his wife the author Vita Sackville-West. Theirs seems to have been a happy and successful marriage, even if described as “open”.
Nigel Nicolson once asked his father why he kept a diary, and he got a suitably offhand and typically Anglo-Saxon reply, like a shrug of the shoulders. It wasn’t for publication; it wasn’t for the benefit of friends or family; and Harold Nicolson, having typed out his daily entry, seldom revisited it. That makes it sound like a futile undertaking, yet I suspect I know what his purpose was. I know, because for a long time I kept a diary myself. I started it during my last year at school and I ended it – and shredded it – about five years ago, not long after I became a published author and started publishing a weekly blog. For me, it was a form of therapy. Writing a diary is like having an imaginary friend. I stopped because I realised that I no longer needed it, and it was far better to talk to somebody else than to talk to oneself. So the blog took over where the diary left off. Like Harold Nicolson, I seldom looked back at the entries I had made over the years, so that made it easy to put it through the shredder. I haven’t regretted it.
But I recognise the tone of the passages of introspection that occur in Nicolson’s entries. While there is a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunities that allowed him to experience so much, for the richness of his immense social circle, and most of all for the enduring happiness of his family life, he also conveys a sense of personal failure to fulfil all his potential in public life and in literature. But I’m not sure he really means it. If he did, I think he would have ditched the diary and become politically more ambitious and more assertive. On the whole, I’m glad he didn’t do that. Temperamentally, he was an observer. Had he been otherwise, we wouldn’t have had these vignettes of the big political figures of the 30s, in informal talks, recorded verbatim. Winston is everywhere, and as I read further (I’m currently deeply immersed in 1941), increasingly so.
So much for what is fascinating. What is repulsive? It is something that Nicolson recognises in himself, and struggles to define or articulate. It as an attitude of mind made up of loftiness, hypercriticism, disdain, detestation, and hatred. Actually it’s snobbery. But he can’t see that that is what it is, because his whole social milieu is a class-ridden construct of snobbery. Actually Harold’s not that bad. Vita is far worse.
But it strikes me that nothing much has changed in Great Britain over the past 100 years. Our Prime Ministers still go to public school and Oxford, where they study “Greats”, or, if they are really trendy, “PPE”. I don’t think it was much of a preparation for life back in the 30s, even less so now. I’m fascinated by the 30s, and by the way the Great Powers were incapable of stopping a descent into barbarism, even when some of them, perhaps most of them, had the best of intentions.
If faced with similar challenges, would we do any better now? Perhaps we are faced with them, only we fail to recognise what the challenges are. The trouble with living in the present is that we don’t have the benefit of hindsight. It is difficult to tell the difference between an opportunity and a threat. For example, this Friday, January 31st, either you will raise a glass to the Palace of Westminster and invoke a few “bongs” from the Queen Elizabeth Tower; or perhaps you would rather invoke the words of a previous Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey. “The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”