Philip Ziegler

No Rose without a thorn

The waspish columnist was a well-informed snob, and quite capable of biting the noble hands that fed him material

Kenneth Rose was gossip columnist by appointment to the aristocracy and gentry. He was, of course, a snob — nobody could write a social column in the Sunday Telegraph for more than 50 years without some snobbish instincts — but he was an intelligent one, singularly well-informed, and capable from time to time of administering a sharp bite to the noble hands that fed him his material. It might reasonably be said that his contribution to social history is limited in its parameters, but it is a real contribution for all that. It is also great fun to read.

Certain themes recur constantly in the course of his narrative. One of these is Eton. Himself a Reptonian — an institution little mentioned in these chronicles — he dismisses Harrow with contempt: ‘Quite the ugliest school I have ever seen, and such parents!’

To the Eton library, on the other hand, he presented several volumes and urged the librarian to visit his flat to ‘choose some Etoniana and other works’. When Harold Macmillan was appointed prime minister, Rose observed that he was the first Etonian King’s Scholar since Walpole to attain that office.

Rose has a good eye for colourful detail. At Hughenden, Disraeli’s former house, he noted that a copy of Leaves From the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands contained an affectionate inscription from its author, Queen Victoria — ‘but pages uncut’. In the dining room one chair had an inch or so chopped from the bottom of each leg so that the diminutive queen could rest her feet on the ground while eating.

By instinct he was a strong Conservative — it is unlikely that he ever considered voting for another party — but his support wavered at the time of the Suez crisis.

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