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Portrait of a singular man

The posthumous publication of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s wartime diaries continues the restoration of his reputation, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft

17 December 2011

9:00 PM

17 December 2011

9:00 PM

The Wartime Journals Hugh Trevor-Roper edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

I. B. Tauris, pp.336, 25

The posthumous publication of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s wartime diaries continues the restoration of his reputation, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Nothing is more elusive than reputation. A writer’s standing goes up and down like a share price, during his life and after, for no obvious or objective reason, as D. J. Taylor observed in a recent perceptive essay in the TLS on the fall from favour of Angus Wilson, although I still read his novels if no one else does. Then again, others recover. Terence Rattigan’s stock was very low when he died in 1977, long sneered at as the epitome of middlebrow, middle-class West End

theatre. But lo, there has been a startling Rattigan renaissance. The admirable Michael Billington of the Guardian (whose incorrigible left-wing prejudice doesn’t cloud his literary judgment) led the way in recognising Rattigan’s intense, repressed emotional depth, all culminating in this, his centennial year, with more revivals, and Terence Davies’s movie of The Deep Blue Sea.

Likewise, when Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper, or Lord Dacre of Glanton as he capriciously called himself when elevated to the peerage under Mrs Thatcher, died nine years ago in sad old age, his stock had fallen a long way from the days when he was Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and something like a national figure. It had seemingly never recovered from the crash 20 years earlier, his disastrous and humiliating brainstorm over the forged ‘Hitler diaries’, and some of the first reviewers of Adam Sisman’s excellent biography in the summer of last year said that this fiasco was all that Trevor-Roper would be remembered for.

Just how untrue that was would be shown by subsequent and ever more appreciative reviews, by Neal Ascherson, Noel Malcolm and Anthony Grafton, writers quite diverse except for their love of history — and their admiration for Trevor-Roper. All of them hailed him for what he was, one of the most learned scholars of his time, an urbane cosmopolitan historian with far wider sympathies than his haughty persona sometimes suggested — he secured an Oxford honorary doctorate for Fernand Braudel — and an historical essayist with ‘no rival’, in the words of A. J. P. Taylor, his public sparring partner but private friend, who added that ‘When I read one of Trevor-Roper’s essays tears of envy stand in my eyes.’ And in mine too.


Spurring the revival is a posthumous flow of books compiled from work he left behind, on Theodore de Mayerne and on Scotland, essays on the Enlightenment and letters to Bernard Berenson, and now these newly discovered and riveting Wartime Journals, the most intimate self-portrait we have of this singular man. They take us from Oxford common rooms to the heart of the Secret Intelligence Service, from blitzed London to Trevor-Roper’s beloved Cheviot moors, from dining with Malcolm Muggeridge (‘like picnicking on a volcano’) to the Bicester, with whom he hunted as often as he could.

Born in 1914, the son of a Northumberland country doctor, Trevor-Roper resented the dowdy philistinism of Charterhouse, where he was sent to school. Most of his friends at Christ Church were Etonians, and much of his time as an undergraduate seems to have been spent drinking and hunting. He also managed to ‘win, without much effort, a regular series of academic prizes’, and this book will not necessarily convert those who found him arrogant, or contemptuous (he is drawn to Ireland, that ‘poor half-witted, gypsy … a dirty and melodious little gutter-snipe singing a tragi-comical ditty’, even after a bizarre episode when he is beaten up in Dublin by policemen tipped off by Frank Pakenham).

Having embarked on a don’s career with his acerbic life of Archbishop Laud, Trevor-Roper was in uniform by the time it was published in 1940, briefly in the Life Guards, but then recruited into the SIS. His skill in interpreting decrypted radio traffic would make him a leading authority on the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, grudgingly admired by superiors who found him insubordinate.

In defiance of military regulations, he also began to write a journal. After the first two years of war, he destroyed the diaries he had kept so far, nervous about their indiscretions, but he then resumed a record which is more about books, and his friends, and country sport, and himself, than the secrets of Bletchley, though they too are mentioned. Disdain from above was reciprocated. Trevor-Roper found SIS a ‘nest of timid and corrupt incompetents … a bunch of dependent bumsuckers held together by neglect like a cluster of bats in an unswept barn’. And he agreed with his colleague Stuart Hampshire that SIS valued information in proportion to its secrecy, not its accuracy: they would prefer some nonsense  ‘smuggled out of Sofia in the fly-butttons of a vagabond Rumanian pimp’ to what they could learn ‘from a prudent reading of the foreign press’.

He forms a friendship with that curious figure Logan Pearsall Smith, he reads ceaselessly in Greek, Latin, French and German as well as English, he speculates about himself. He claims to enjoy ‘ordinary sexual pleasures’, but is ‘slightly homosexual’ (as his charming brother Patrick, a brilliant ophthalmologist and aesthete, was entirely), and ‘women repel me’. And as the war progresses, he laments the death in action of so many friends, the best of prewar Oxford, ‘a gay, sceptical, tolerant, enquiring, unshockable world, enjoying experience for its own sake, and unimpressed by proprieties and slogans’.

Two men have led the Trevor-Roper revival: his literary executor Blair Worden, and Richard Davenport-Hines. That inexhaustibly prolific editor and chronicler has edited these journals meticulously, almost to a fault. Unlike Cyril Connnolly in The Unquiet Grave (which he reads), Trevor-Roper can’t be accused of showing off, since his flow of apt quotation in half a dozen languages was for his own eyes alone. But in an age when, sad to say, only a minority even of civilised Spectator readers know Greek, to correct a private journal with a footnote saying that an accent had been wrongly placed on epsilon rather than iota is needlessly pedantic, especially when the ‘corrected’ Greek word contains another misprint.

By 1943 Trevor-Roper is disdainful of ‘these callow, touchy, boastful, flatulent invaders’, which is to say the Americans. One of them is Stuart Preston, a rich Bostonian who enjoyed an astonishing social success in wartime London, and who Trevor-Roper liked at first before coming to see him as a fraud.

Davenport-Hines makes a rare slip here, saying that Preston was ‘immortalised by Evelyn Waugh’s character “The Sarge” ’. But that was the actual nickname at the time of Sergeant Preston, US Army; with no great effort at disguise, Waugh promotes him to subaltern as ‘the Loot’.

At the end of the war Trevor-Roper was given the task of establishing the truth about The Last Days of Hitler, as he called his subsequent best-selling book. But there is an excruciating historical irony when ‘the ghost of Hitler called me back to Germany’, with the news that his will had been found. ‘Was it genuine?’ he wonders. If only Trevor-Roper had asked himself the same question harder still a lifetime later. 


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