In the days of my youth I kept a diary – not occasional reflections set down at the instruction of an editor but systematic jottings recording the events of each day. The diary became a slavery. Not a day passed without my sitting down to write in it. I imposed events on myself so that I should have something to write about. Passages were inserted in order to please or sometimes to offend my friends and relations. In fact, there came a time when the diary existed more than I did. When I reached man’s estate I ceased to write in my diary and destroyed all the previous volumes. I have never regretted this decision. All that remains of my diary-keeping is a reading-list in which I have recorded the titles of all the books I have read from 1926 to the present day. This comes in useful to remind me of books I had quite forgotten. It also fills me with shame to discover the amount of time I wasted on books not worth reading. But this is a habit that still persists.
And now I am back with a diary: no longer a record of events but a commentary on them. What on earth has happened since I last contributed to this column? That sensation of the year, the Falklands war, has ended with complete victory for British arms and we are left with the problem, by no means an easy one, of what to do with the Falkland Islands now we have recovered them. This is a problem which I do not propose to consider, let alone solve. I only remark that I am now ashamed of the patriotic enthusiasm which the Argentinian aggression provoked in me. Posterity will marvel that there was once such a fuss over such remote and trivial possessions.
The events in the Lebanon I refrain from discussing for a different reason. Years of experience have taught me that one should never venture an opinion, favourable or unfavourable, on events concerned in any way with Israel or the Jews. Any attempt at a detached view opens the way for letters, telegrams, personal expostulations and, above all, telephone calls – what the late Sir Lewis Namier called ‘the terror by telephone’. He was himself a skilled operator of this weapon and claimed to have reduced more than one critic of Zionism to a nervous breakdown. The only safe course is never, never, never to have any opinion about the Middle East. This is the course I propose to follow.
Now what am I left with? I blench at the thought of the Party Conferences. They have been particularly farcical this year. I refrain from any comment on the Alliance, which I had thought to be some sort of temperance organisation. It must have changed its name and its nature at the same time. The TUC ran true to form, as did the Labour conference. Both bodies displayed their usual feature of being unable to run their voting system efficiently or even, I suspect, honestly. As long as I can remember, the balloting for the most modest posts has been either chaotic or rigged: it does not matter which, the results are much the same. It is an interesting reflection that the nearer a system gets to democracy the more crooked it becomes. There was another odd feature. The greater the decline in Labour membership the stronger the zest for expulsion of members. One day only two members will be left and one will expel the other. I cannot remember whether I was ever expelled. It is rather discreditable to have escaped it.
I had better return to my own affairs. I have finished my autobiography, or rather, I have stopped writing it. Strictly, I cannot finish it until I am dead and then it will be too late. My autobiography runs from the General Election of 1906 more or less to the present day and the more I work on it the slighter it becomes. I will reveal no more for fear of spoiling the sales which I count on to support me in my last years. But the coming economic disaster will ensure that that does not happen.
I had better think of some more routine activities. I have sunbathed often on Hampstead Heath and less often on Norton Beach, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight. I have read a number of ponderous biographies, some of them very good, and all of which I reviewed favourably. Above all, I have been out of England. This sounds more impressive than it was, but quite impressive all the same. I did not realise at first how far away it was. I had supposed not much further than the Home Counties. Actually, St David’s, my objective, is further than Coniston in the Lake District, and the road a good deal harder into the bargain. Indeed, it was further than I should have driven a car in a day at my age. However, we made it without much difficulty.
Wales is taking on the appearance of a foreign country. The road signs and place-names are in a strange language which most of the inhabitants do not understand. The schoolchildren, for instance, do not talk Welsh on their way home, even when their instruction is in Welsh. I did not hear any Welsh in the bars or cafés until the customers noticed a stranger, when they would sometimes play the role of devoted Welsh nationalists. Of course, it is unfair to judge the language situation from St David’s, which is in Pembrokeshire – Little England beyond Wales. Or rather, it used to be in Pembrokeshire: Wales has been as much the victim of bureaucratic fiddling with the counties as England has been. I could not even discover whether St David’s was in a ‘dry’ county or not. At any rate, the pubs were all selling liquor on Sundays.
St David’s Cathedral has the most perfect situation of any in England and Wales. It is one of the very few not in the centre of a racetrack. Imagine a cathedral that is reached by a footpath and not threatened with collapse as a result of the surrounding whirlpool of traffic. No doubt the local planners are even now preparing a highway to pass the West Door and soon thereafter to encompass the rest of the Cathedral. I can actually remember a time when it was possible to walk without hazard to the South Door of York Minster, though in all honesty I must admit that there was a hazard from bicycles. Even more attractive than St David’s Cathedral is the Bishop’s Palace, just ruined enough to be romantic and preserved enough to make sense. I spent much of my time at St David’s merely sitting within the Bishop’s Palace and admiring its remoteness from the world.
Somehow the return drive to London seemed longer than the drive out. Perhaps this was because I was foolish enough to return mainly by motorway. The motorways are a striking instance of the modern world: hailed as an enlightened advance, they have become a curse. On the first warning of a coming motorway, the local inhabitants band together in protest or flee the country. Nothing can stave off their approach. The most experienced motorists seek out routes immune from the motorway curse. Even I, less enterprising nowadays, know how to reach the North of England, either east or west, without using a motorway at all. Such routes are not only quieter and more agreeable: they are faster, or at least they used to be. Now many of them are artificially obstructed so as to force motorists back on the juggernaut tracks.
Next March I shall have been driving a car for 60 years. Once I used to enjoy this. Now I am embarrassed at having taken part in the rush of Gadarene vehicles. However, I am learning wisdom. My next commitment out of London after St David’s was to Shrewsbury, and there I went by train. The electrified route is a delight. There ought to be far more of them. Shrewsbury was once a great railway junction. Now it is a modest station half-way along the rural line to Aberystwyth. I fear I shall never complete this journey. There should always be some places that one Yarrows (joke patented by Hesketh Pearson and, I think, Hugh Kingsmill).
Shrewsbury School reminds me that Charles Darwin has again become a centre of controversy. The argument is far above my head and in any case does not stir my passion. On reflection, it seems to me unlikely that an entire system of animal development could be worked out after a single voyage on the Beagle. This is too subversive a thought for me to pursue. I am, however, very disappointed that those who are now questioning the Darwinian structure have not resurrected Samuel Butler – the author of Erewhon, not of Hudibras. Butler devoted much of his life to a futile campaign against Darwin’s idea. Darwin was not harassed by this, but Butler felt unjustly treated when Darwin made no reply to his criticism. Inspired by some casual remarks of Bernard Shaw’s, I struggled through Butler’s polemics. No use. I never grasped the argument. Now I have another chance. Maybe I should do better by reviving Butler’s other cause and inquire whether the Odyssey was written by a woman.
I have followed Butler’s guidance to the Italian Alps and to the Sagra di San Michele. Unfortunately, Butler never wrote about his hunt through Sicily in pursuit of the authoress of the Odyssey. I would welcome his guidance if I venture to Sicily, a part of Italy I have hardly visited. Palermo especially I should like to revisit with more time and more patience. Its mosaics are an extraordinary combination of Byzantine civilisation and Norman barbarism. Palermo also displays memories of Garibaldi and the Thousand – memories fascinating to the historian, though dead to the inhabitants, who are now concerned with the Mafia. I have already recorded my more distant ambitions: Mistra and Ohrid. Mistra I shall never see: I can’t go there without going through ancient Greece. But the resurrected frescoes of Ohrid are never far from my mind. Meanwhile I must be contented with achievements nearer home. For instance, I have just visited St Martin’s Gardens, Pratt Street, Camden Town for the first time. Charles Dibdin is buried there – an appropriate memory in the year of the Falklands war.
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