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‘Oh no! I’m keeping it for an officer,’ said a girl called Irma when the 17-year-old Alistair Horne made his first determined moves.

8 October 2011

4:00 PM

8 October 2011

4:00 PM

But What Do You Actually Do? Alistair Horne

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp.398, 25

‘Oh no! I’m keeping it for an officer,’ said a girl called Irma when the 17-year-old Alistair Horne made his first determined moves.

‘Oh no! I’m keeping it for an officer,’ said a girl called Irma when the 17-year-old Alistair Horne made his first determined moves. A little later Horne was being trained as a Guards officer at Pirbright camp, under a troop sergeant with terrifying powers of verbal demolition, well on his way into the pants of girls. One of Horne’s fellow cadets —heir to a dukedom — went to an Oxford cinema where he ‘partially lost his virtue’ to the ruthlessly roaming hands of ‘two beefy Land Girls who molested him from either side’ during a showing of Mrs Miniver. The ducal sprig was distressed by the experience, and under-performed. ‘I kept thinking about Sergeant Brown, and all that stuff about “conduct unbecoming”,’ he told Horne.

These two anecdotes encapsulate the red-blooded gusto of these roistering, stylish memoirs: there is stirring enthusiasm for pretty women combined with a sense of personal rules about what is unbecoming. But What Do You Actually Do? is a memoir of the Old Guard, free of self-advertisement (it would never occur to Horne that he needs to boom himself), and a thumping pleasure to read.


After the war Horne was transferred into the Intelligence Corps, and attended a training-school in Surrey with a papier-mâché elm at the entrance with eyes peering out. As a subaltern of 21 he was based in Cairo monitoring Soviet satellite powers in the Balkans. He learnt his skills as an intelligence analyst from the spymaster Maurice Oldfield, whose mental discipline and sense of fun inspired his working life as a historian. Envious outsiders would say that the Intelligence Corps badge depicted a ‘pansy resting on its laurels’. Horne was conspicuously relaxed about homosexuality, and deplored the ‘positive vetting’ introduced after the defection of Burgess and Maclean to identify and exclude homosexuals. It caused, he writes, ‘a loss of talent to the secret services comparable to Louis XIV’s ill-conceived expulsion of the Huguenots from France’.

Horne read English literature at Cambridge after leaving the Guards. He relished Shakespeare for showing ‘the vital interplay of character with historic destiny’, which provides a recurrent theme of his finest historical books. Horne returned briefly to spying in Tito’s Yugoslavia. As the Daily Telegraph correspondent in Berlin and Bonn he obliged SIS by running three agents who were West German officials, but declined Oldfield’s solicitations to join MI6.

Horne quotes Camus —‘the journalist is the historian of the moment.’ His first book, Back in Power: A Report on the New Germany, was published in 1955 to rave reviews from Hugh Trevor-Roper and other authorities. Horne, who says that he gets ‘a great big lump in my throat’ every time he revisits the USA, next wrote The Land is the Bright, intended to repair Anglo-American understanding after Suez. He found his pace and played to his strongest gifts by writing his masterpiece on the battle of Verdun, The Price of Glory (published in 1962). This was followed by his vivid account of the calamity of 1870, The Fall of Paris. After consulting Oldfield, by then deputy head of MI6, he visited Allende’s Chile with his lifelong friend William F. Buckley in 1971, and wrote Small Earthquake in Chile. Then, at the suggestion of Harold Macmillan, he began the long, tricky research for his tour de force on the Algerian civil war. The mastery of sources and clarification of intricate themes in A Savage War of Peace (1977) convinced Macmillan to recruit Horne as his official biographer. He spent ten years writing his immense biography of Supermac. There have been other books since, including Kissinger,1973.  ‘If I rest, I rust,’ he writes at the age of 85.

Horne has been an inveterate traveller, and there are longueurs in his travel reminiscences. There are glimpses, too, of a demanding man who can be ruthless in ensuring that his wishes prevail. But What Do You Actually Do? is the memoir of a lucky man who made his own luck. Horne quotes Macmillan as once saying to him, ‘It’s very important not to have a rigid distinction between what’s flippant and what is serious.’ The pleasure and interest of his memoirs lies in their exemplification of this maxim.


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