Noël Annan

Noël Annan was until recently Vice-Chancellor of the University of London. His books include Leslie Stephen and The Curious Strength of Positivism in English Political Thought.

Singing the Blues

Noël Annan, 22 April 1993

Who better to be our guide to modern Cambridge than the Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History? Christopher Brooke was brought up in Cambridge, the son of the professor of medieval history and himself a post-war Apostle. He begins by whisking us round the colleges telling us what each was like in Victorian times and how the abolition of the religious Tests and the Royal Commission (1872) transformed Cambridge from being a provincial seminary and a federation of colleges into a university of faculties and departments where the dons could marry and no longer had to be clergymen. But on such a tour there is always a pest who asks questions. What, he wonders, are the colleges like today? Did Snow give an accurate account of Christ’s? What about the way Nevill Mott was treated as master of Caius that led to his resignation? What of the delectable days of Lord Dacre in the Lodge at Peterhouse? Surely space could have been found to praise the leadership Trinity gave to science by using her great wealth to found the Science Park and the Isaac Newton Institute, and make Cambridge a scientific city as well as a university.

Flights of the Enchanter

Noël Annan, 4 April 1991

At the end of the First World War a schoolboy at Eton had come to the conclusion that people could be divided into the stupids (the hearties) or the sillies (the clever trendies). Nor did his teachers escape censure. He thought them ill-informed, and one wrote wistfully in his end-of-term report: ‘I wish this boy were kinder to me.’ Steven Runciman was already beginning to see history in a different perspective from his mentors. In those days one was taught that during the Dark Ages the Catholic Church civilised each wave of barbarians and preserved the link with the ancient world through the Holy Roman Empire. It tried to deflect the kings and counts from their endless feudal warfare by inspiring them with the noble ideal of the Crusades. True, the Crusades failed to liberate the Middle East from the infidel, but the fall of Constantinople liberated those forces that led to the Renaissance and revived the learning of the ancient world.

Diary: On Ralph Dahrendorf

Noël Annan, 27 September 1990

I see that Ralph Dahrendorf has given us his reflections on the revolution in Eastern Europe. Burke wrote his on the French Revolution to ‘a very young gentleman in Paris’ in order to damp his enthusiasm and instil some doubts in his mind; Dahrendorf his to a considerably older gentleman in Warsaw to dispel some fashionable muddles about the future in our minds as well as in his. To compare the two books would be like matching a Rolls-Royce against a BMW. The BMW lacks elegance and comfort, all the money has gone into the engine. But it is a powerful engine and the bodywork is not encumbered with an escutcheon depicting a thousand swords leaping from their scabbards and other signs of the age of chivalry.

Poor Jack

Noël Annan, 5 December 1985

In the Berlin restaurant Baron Kuno von Pregnitz, ignoring Mr Norris, suddenly asked the young Englishman: ‘And, excuse me, how are the Horse Guards?’ ‘Still sitting there.’ ‘Yes? I am glad to hear this. Ho! Ho! Ho! … Excuse me, I can remember them very well.’ They had in fact been sitting there for longer perhaps than Christopher Isherwood knew. In June 1849 Edward Leeves, an elderly expatriate, driven out of Venice by the Austrian bombardment, made his way to London. There he met Jack Brand, a trooper in the Blues. A month later Leeves went to Scotland to stay with the Queensberrys having fixed with Jack a day to meet on his return. Jack never showed up. He had died that day of cholera. Leeves was shattered. He visited the grave to kiss the headstone and day after day recorded how long it was since Jack last mounted guard or had been buried. He longed only to lie in the grave with him, and his diary became an electuary of grief. By next summer he was back in Venice with his memories.

Dummy and Biffy

Noël Annan, 17 October 1985

No wonder people think of the secret services as farce or fiction. What is one to make of an organisation whose leaders have names like Dummy Oliver, Blinker Hall, Biffy Dunderdale, Lousy Payne, Buster Milmo, Pay Sykes, Tar Robertson, Barmy Russel and Quex Sinclair (not to be confused with his successor but one, Sinbad Sinclair)? It’s no good reassuring the reader that in the transition from Victorian days, when men called even their closest friends by their surnames, to the present time, when not to know the first name of a casual acquaintance makes it almost impossible to address him without appearing pompous or supercilious, nicknames like Stubby, Toby or Tubby came to be used as a gesture to informality, particularly in the Army and Navy. The reader is likely to think that such men are preposterous and what they do ludicrous. Even in fiction, the secret services are no longer heroic. Gone are the days when Sapper’s Jim Maitland would sun-bathe himself to a frazzle in order to pass in a burnous as an Arab in Tripoli or thwart the machinations of Baron Stockmar in the Sudan (‘It’s the game, Dick: The Great Game. The only game in the world worth playing’).

Hinsley’s History

Noël Annan, 1 August 1985

There are at least three books at present being written on Anthony Blunt and the Cambridge Spies. Already the sleuths are nosing out the Fifth Man – the master control, an older don who must have recruited them. In 1977 the Times proclaimed to a sceptical public that he was Donald Beves, the delightful tutor of King’s known to generations of undergraduates who performed on stage in the ADC, the Marlowe or the Musical Society, and whose interest in politics or indeed in ideas was negligible: clearly his bonhomie disguised an Iago. When that identification proved too absurd, the hunt shifted to economists, to Gramsci’s friend Piero Sraffa or – a masterstroke of ingenuity – to another Kingsman, the pre-1914 welfare economist A.C. Pigou, whose lack of interest in ideology and keen interest in young mountaineers was supposedly deliberate cover enabling him to suborn those politically committed to the left. (As will be seen, King’s has a tradition of involvement with the Secret Service: Sir Francis Walsingham ran it for Elizabeth I.) Today the hounds are in pursuit of Andrew Gow, the Classical scholar and art collector who was Blunt’s mentor at Trinity. Gow, who had taught at Eton, devoted part of his life to editing Nicander, a didactic Greek poet who wrote poems on snake-bites, poisons and their remedies – there is surely a whiff here of Bulgarians and umbrellas. Furthermore, did not C.A. Alington, the headmaster of Eton, write of him:’

It should now be generally agreed except possibly in the Fens that Evelyn Waugh was the greatest English novelist of his generation. Certainly Graham Greene, Henry Green and Angus Wilson thought so, although they and not he won the worldly honours Waugh would dearly have loved. On the other hand, that redoubtable holder of the Order of Merit, J.B. Priestley, did not think so. But then whom would he have nominated? Orwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Ivy Compton-Burnett? Or conceivably … himself? Waugh has even proved exportable to America: Brides-head Revisited was the most popular series ever shown on American public-service television. Still, his former admirer Edmund Wilson was revolted by that book, and American intellectuals have never put him beside Faulkner, Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald. And on the Continent there is no translation of Waugh as audacious as Avanti Jeeves.

The Art of Self-Defeat

Noël Annan, 19 July 1984

Although I was Philip Toynbee’s exact contemporary, I did not know him all that well: but I was always struck by the quite exceptional devotion of those who did. They found him lovable; and when he and Ben Nicolson founded a luncheon club they flocked to it. He was affectionate and generous, marvellously funny but convinced that the world in which he lived was insufferable and that he must do what he could to save it. One or two of his close friends may have wondered whether a memoir should be written; and then put the idea from their minds, remembering those touching and boring notices in the Times which read: ‘NM writes: Colonel Jocelyn Lethbridge – always known to his friends as “Stubby” – will be long remembered and sadly missed not only by them but by the regiment and at the club. Always one for a joke, Stubby combined unswerving loyalty with a lovable talent for organising others, etc, etc.’–

Benson’s Pleasure

Noël Annan, 4 March 1982

Benson resembles a large tabby which stalks round the house switching its tail, delicately sniffing this, softly circling round that; every so often a paw is extended to pluck gently at a human being who has crossed its path – as if to explore what kind of a creature this intruder might be and whether he likes cats. Then suddenly the claws show, the paw strikes and the claws retract leaving beads of blood on the skin. As the years passed and the cat got even larger and more contented, the claws were bared less often. These extracts, chosen by Benson’s splendid biographer, David Newsome, from among the four million words of the diaries Benson left as his memorial, are taken from a period in Benson’s life when he was uncertain and hypersensitive, so the claws are out. It was at the turn of the century, and Benson, having been commissioned to edit the Queen’s letters, decided to quit teaching at Eton and move to Cambridge. King’s showed no desire to elect him a fellow – and still less, as he hoped when Austen-Leigh died, to elect him Provost. When his old friend Stuart Donaldson used his influence as Master of Magdalene to offer Benson a fellowship there, kind friends took as much of the pleasure out of it as they could by congratulating him on the skill with which Donaldson had done a classic job. It was a time when he slept badly, was nervous and irritable. His self-confidence was shaken.


Noël Annan, 15 October 1981

Investigative journalism has many triumphs to its credit. It toppled a President of the United States. It has exposed, through the hard leg-work of tiny teams of sleuths, the evasions of corporations, ministries, crooks in local government, and the common shysters whose trickery Esther Rantzen mocks in tones of cloying surprise. The press are right to blow fanfares in their own praise because investigative journalism is precisely the sort of activity which those who sneer at the free press want to muzzle in the interest of ‘objectivity’ and ‘responsible’ journalism.


A Day at the Races

20 December 1990

Perry Anderson (LRB, 20 December 1990) called me Isaiah Berlin’s panegyrist, and in one respect his critique pleased me. Characteristic of his prodigious industry, he has read virtually everything Berlin has written or said in ephemeral interviews; and he is serious – not one snide personal remark. Yet Berlin has long been a thorn in his flesh. More than twenty years ago Anderson wrote...
SIR: Although I have hacked my way through the thickets of Raymond Williams’s prose (LRB, 7 July) I am far from sure that I have hit the trail. I thought one was meant to conclude that English studies would benefit if the study of literature as art was abandoned and the Tripos turned into a study of theories about literature and language, so that undergraduates will knit their brows no longer...
Noël Annan writes: It wasn’t odd that homosexuality became a cult at the end of the 19th century in England. Proust’s Paris, Freud’s Vienna, Wilhelm II’s Berlin, where the Kaiser’s friend, von Eulenberg, was forced out of public life, were the contemporaries of Wilde’s London. But what was odd about homosexuality in England was the emergence of a cult which...


15 October 1981

Noël Annan writes: It is a little difficult to reply to a scream and a sneer, but let me try. First the scream. If Mr Raphael refuses ever to speak to another German, it would be impertinent of me to reproach him. To stand in Yad ve-Shem is to feel grief and shame that one was a European at the time of the holocaust. But to translate rage into political action is another matter. Mr Raphael frankly...

Noel Annan will be best remembered for Our Age, his grand, confident and sometimes very funny memoir written in the late 1980s, looking back at that generation of the British élite which...

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Our War

Nicholas Hiley, 7 March 1996

At first sight Changing Enemies is a welcome addition to the literature of modern Intelligence. The deliberate anonymity of the Official History of British Intelligence in the Second World War...

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Our Fault

Frank Kermode, 11 October 1990

The title of this large, attractive book needs explanation. It isn’t to be understood as a claim to deal with the times of all of us who are now alive. First, there is a chronological...

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Victorian Vocations

Frank Kermode, 6 December 1984

Frederic Harrison once climbed Mont Blanc and found Leslie Stephen on the top. Not an improbable location for the encounter of two eminent Victorians: and they might equally have met in George...

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