Frank Johnson

The day I had to pour soup over a fire in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s kitchen

The day I had to pour soup over a fire in Hugh Trevor-Roper's kitchen

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Hugh Trevor-Roper long refused to write his memoirs. Eventually, the firm of Weidenfeld persuaded him, if he was not going to write them, to speak them. The recipient of his reminiscences was to be a tape recorder and I.

He agreed to talk to me because - I speculate - I knew him, but not too well. Also, I was not an academic and would therefore not know too much about the donnish politics that consumed him almost as much as any other kind of politics. Furthermore, I made it obvious that I idolised him. This idolising began long before I ever met him, with The Last Days of Hitler and the first volume of essays. I did not much follow him into the 17th century, officially his speciality; perhaps another reason why, from his point of view, I was a suitable interlocutor.

Moreover, he liked the company of journalists and he liked journalism, no matter how often he deplored both. He was himself a journalist. I do not just mean a practitioner of the higher journalism of which many of his essays were originally a part. I suspected in him a journalist by nature. He would have made an excellent gossip columnist in the days when the broadsheets gossiped about the world of which he was a part.

'I enjoy conversation more than I enjoy writing,' I find him saying on one tape.

FJ: 'Gossip?'

HT-R: 'Gossip, as you say, yes.'

FJ: 'Academic gossip above all?'

HT-R: 'No, academic gossip can be rather boring.'

FJ: 'Political gossip? Who's up and who's down at Westminster?'

HT-R: 'Social gossip. I like a certain intellectual flavour to it, though.'

Every few weeks for a year or so I made the journey by car or train to Didcot with my tape recorder. He lived in the Old Rectory. One could have been in a house suitably set amid glorious acres. There was a lovely garden. But 100 yards away there was a council estate. At the bottom of the road there were the mighty cooling towers which stand sentinel over the Thames Valley. I could not work out whether he was prepared to endure all that because he could not afford a rectory in a grander setting, or whether he did not worry about the neighbourhood, in which case he was a lot less snobbish than his detractors said.

He had beautiful manners, at least towards this guest. He would insist on cooking me lunch. This was hazardous, since at the time he was going blind. Eventually, a miraculous operation restored much of his sight; only for cancer to seize him.

Every now and then the cooker would catch fire. 'Water! Water!' he would cry. 'The trouble is: I can't see.' But he did not say this with any air of panic; instead, his tone would be completely matter-of-fact as the flames rose. I would be much less calm. I would turn on the nearest tap, and search for a suitable receptacle. 'I've doused the blaze,' I once told him, 'though possibly with the soup.' He replied that that was all to the good, since it was not the wine. He would then spear the tablecloth several times with the corkscrew as he sought the cork, talking the while: 'Now remind me, what was your question? Do I see a comparison between Habsburg Spain, as the first modern superpower, and the contemporary United States. I think so.' Me: 'These lamb chops have turned out delicious. I like them a bit charred. I think we've done enough on the Habsburg comparison, don't you?'