Where else would you possibly find George Painter, Jackie Pallo and Sir Eduardo Paolozzi in immediate successive proximity? The incunabulist of the British Museum who emerged from scholarly obscurity with his biography of Proust, the curly-blond wrestler in kinky trunks, and the son of an Edinburgh-Italian confectioner who became an avant-garde sculptor, have nothing whatever in common except that they died within the same four-year period, and they have all been accounted British worthies, deserving places in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
In September 2004, I wrote here about the astonishing new Oxford DNB, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison and published in 50 magnificent volumes for which not many private readers had the shelf space, or the money, but which was available online, and I told its own story. The original DNB was one of the great achievements of Victorian England and of its editors, Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, coming to its terminus appropriately with the death of the Queen-Empress in 1901. It was thereafter supplemented for a century by decennial volumes of very varying quality. Then it passed into the care of the Oxford University Press, who planned, with a noble ambition matching the founding fathers’, that new edition. It has been supplemented in turn by volumes covering persons who died in 2001-2004 and now 2005-2008, both admirably edited by Lawrence Goldman.
Several problems face the editor. Who goes in? Once chosen, what length essay does someone deserve? And how candid should their treatment be? The new volume covers four years and 865 people, in more than 1,200 pages, an extreme contrast to the skimpy old volume covering 1912 to 1920 in only 600 pages, which contained some dismally cursory entries.
Many of those in the new book choose themselves: James Callaghan as prime minister; John Profumo, Ian Gilmour and John Biffen as cabinet ministers, though with very different stories. All those three essays are written even-handedly by Simon Heffer, even if he has a sly dig at the patrician Wet Gilmour by quoting the plebeian Dry Enoch Powell on that ‘fine survivor of the species Low Tory, alternatively classifiable as High Whig’. As Heffer says, the most controversial — some would say deplorable — action in the life of that decent and likable man Biffen was to waive a referral of Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of Times Newspapers to the Monopolies Commission. This followed the calamitous lock-out of the Times and Sunday Times, which Fred Emery describes very well in the essay on Marmaduke Hussey. William Rees-Mogg later complacently called the lock-out their Dunkirk to the D-Day which came with Murdoch’s Wapping putsch. I had a quite close view at the time of events in Gray’s Inn Road from The Spectator round the corner in Doughty Street, and I’d call it more a Gallipoli or Dieppe than a Dunkirk.
At the other end are people like Isabella Blow, the eccentric fashionista, and indeed Pallo, who might or might not have made the cut, though both are worth it. So is, among other sportsmen, John Spencer, in a remarkably good essay by his fellow snooker player Clive Everton. He reminds us that in 1979 Spencer was the first player to make a 147 maximum break in competition, but unseen by the viewers since ‘Thames TV, anxious to avoid overtime payments, had awarded the crew a lunch break.’ And he tells the bleak story of how Spencer’s life was blighted by myasthenia gravis, causing deterioration of the eye muscles and plunging him into suicidal manic-depression.
As to length, without having carried out an exact count of different volumes, I am fairly sure that the essays in this supplement are in general or on average longer than they would once have been. I was about to write that in what could have seemed a critical manner until I noticed that one of the fuller pieces is nearly four pages on Conor Cruise O’Brien, by myself. He is included, by the way, since although he spent most of his life as a citizen of the Irish republic he was born a British subject in Dublin in 1917.
The Cuban-born novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante is in because, a refugee from the tyrannies of both Castro and Franco, he became a British citizen at the age of 50, and the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is in because she married an Englishman. It’s confusing to say in her essay that her family ‘moved from Silesia to Prussia’ — Silesia was part of Prussia at the time — but by compensation we have the admirably laconic line that ‘she was made a DBE, a rare honour for a former member of the Nazi party’.
There are occasional omissions. The essay by Anthony Howard (now the late himself, alas) on Sir Charles Wheeler, the BBC journalist, might have mentioned that his daughter Marina married Boris Johnson, although now that I look it up I see that the mayor himself doesn’t mention his eminent father-in-law in his Who’s Who entry. Maybe having things to hide becomes a habit. On the other hand, phrases like ‘His homosexuality was evident but never an issue’ might seem needlessly genteel nowadays.
And indeed my one reservation about this splendid book is the tone of voice in some essays. The scholarly clergyman Canon Alfred Granger, who worked on the original DNB, said that its principle should be ‘No flowers by request,’ and Leslie Stephen abhorred ‘sentimental eulogy instead of unembroidered fact’. Sometimes the floral tributes are avoided. Charles Moore’s essay on Frank Johnson, one Spectator editor on another, reminds of his scintillating wit in his heyday as a parliamentary sketchwriter, but candidly admits that, during his time as associate editor of the Times he ‘was at war — as was quite often the case in his career — with his editor’ — and that his editorship of this magazine was not a success: ‘His lack of organisational power was marked.’
As to the entry for that strange creature Sir Alfred Sherman, it reminds us that he was undone by ‘his lack of tact, his vanity, and his divisiveness’, even if he holds some sort of prize for having successively served the Communist party, Mrs Thatcher and Radovan Karadžic. Then again, the long essay on Maurice Cowling is written with almost uncritical admiration, presenting him as a historian of the first rank, which is a point of view but not the only one. (Is it really the case that Peterhouse became under his inspiration ‘the most intellectually serious’ college in Cambridge?) Likewise, to say that someone was ‘a man of courtesy and charm whose wry sense of humour and fund of anecdotes made him an amusing companion’ is the sort of thing one expects at a memorial service or ‘A friend writes’ after the main obituary, rather than in a reference book for posterity.
And as a final quibble, when is the dear old OUP ever going to get its act straight about capitalisation? Whereas he ‘had joined the Inns of Courts Regiment, and … was commissioned in the Royal Tank Regiment’ would seem obviously correct, while ‘inns of courts regiment … the royal tank regiment’ would be absurd but at least consistent, ‘the inns of courts regiment … the Royal Tank regiment’, which is what we find on p. 1046, is simply baffling.