Like many inward-looking children, I always doodled stories and poems. Knowing one wanted to be a writer is a different matter altogether. That moment came when I read Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria. I was sitting in the Temple Reading Room at Rugby. The final paragraph, in which Strachey imagined the dying Victoria at Osborne House, sinking out of consciousness as the scenes of her past life flitted through her brain, struck me as one of the best pieces of writing I had ever encountered. Fifty years on, an unworthy successor, I am about to publish my own life of Victoria. Mine is not hagiography but, like Strachey, and like almost everyone since who has ever written about this utterly distinctive woman, I fell under her spell. Cold turkey has set in. It feels so odd not to be trawling round the archives looking for the Queen’s unpublished letters, of which I have read literally thousands.
We have just come back from Finland, a country which really grows on me. Clean, beautiful Helsinki! Lovely fish meals smothered in dill. The best Arts and Crafts architecture anywhere, including New York or Bedford Park. Visiting parts of Europe which the Romans never reached has some of the excitement of exploring parts of England as yet uncolonised by Waitrose. The opening lines of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman picture Peter the Great staring at the archipelago on which he is about to build his great capital city. The desolate water is dotted with a little skiff, and a few huts, the shelter of the poor Finn. The archipelago surrounding Helsinki, at the other end of the Gulf of Finland, still has some of this quality. Of course, Helsinkians come out on the ferry-boats with their bathing togs, but not in such numbers that it is impossible to escape. Just the three of us, almost alone on the little inlets, gazing out upon the melancholy fascination of ‘northern-ness’.
BBC Bristol have kindly sent me a DVD of myself presenting a programme about John Betjeman, to be shown on 1 September. As on the few previous occasions when I’ve watched myself on telly, conceited excitement quickly turns to embarrassment. But I am looking forward to their reshowing of Betjeman’s own immortal Metroland immediately after my effort. (My prog also has plentiful footage of the great man, and the camera work, of Cornwall, Berkshire, etc is a dream). Milton said that ‘he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem’ and that’s what Betjeman was. He elevated the medium of television to art because he was a true poem. Very few people have ever come close to his genius as a broadcaster, to say nothing of his originality as a poet.
As a grandfather, I love my own descendants. Of course. Today, however, nowhere in London is deemed unsuitable for young children. Yesterday evening, Ruth and I went to a pub she likes near Parliament Hill. There aren’t quite spittoons, but the atmosphere is as good as you get in an unwrecked boozer, with a good crowd of mixed ages and classes, ranging from real ale bores to locals who enjoy being able to have a decent drink and a slice of pork pie. It is plainly not a place for babies. Yet, of course, the whole of the small saloon was blocked by one of those enormous chariots in which toddlers are nowadays pushed around. Only a cantankerous old git would not pretend to coo at the sweet little thing as it yelled and spewed but I’m sorry, toddlers have turned me into a cantankerous old git. They are bloody everywhere, skating round the parquet floor of all the great galleries, shouting their heads off in restaurants.
Nursing these old git meditations last Saturday morning, I escaped to the Rare Books and Music room of the British Library, usually a place of calm at weekends. Sure enough, the reading room was all but empty, the only sounds being the occasional turning of a page, the quiet susurrations of a famous royal biographer at my table asleep over a volume of Hippolyte Taine. Little by little, however, the readers became aware of raised voices outside the reading-room doors. It was not just one insensitive pair holding too loud a conversation. It sounded like a crowd. Had the distinguished, slumbering, historian been awake, his thoughts would have turned in alarm to the moment when the mob swarmed through the Gardens of the Tuileries and into the Royal Palace, to find Louis XVI in the Salon de l’Oeuil de Boeuf. By the time I’d finished my work, the noise outside had reached Jacobin levels. Emerging on to the landing, I found a ‘Cartoon Festival’ in full swing. There were dozens, no, hundreds, of kiddiz rampaging everywhere, and strolling among them, the sinister giant figure of Mickey Mouse in person. Just as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette knew that the game was up for the monarchy, we quiet scholars were confronted with the ugly fact that kiddie power was now triumphant.