Magazine article The Spectator

His Finest Moment

Magazine article The Spectator

His Finest Moment

Article excerpt

His finest moment John Grigg LONG LIFE

by Nigel Nicolson Weidenfeld, 20, pp. 295

The author of this book of memoirs had most unusual parents, Harold Nicolson and Victoria ('Vita') Sackville-West - both eminent writers, and both prevalently homosexual. His upbringing must, one feels, have been more difficult than he lets on. Harold was clearly the better parent of the two, taking a lot of trouble with his sons, Nigel and his elder brother, Ben (later long-time editor of the Burlington Magazine), reading aloud to them when they were children and writing to them regularly when they were at school. Yet when Nigel was serving on the Italian front during the second world war, Harold wrote in his famous Spectator column, `Marginal Comment', that he would rather his son were killed than that the monastery on Monte Cassino were destroyed. Fortunately for the son and for us, his readers, this strange wish was not granted.

Nigel Nicolson writes extremely well, with deceptive ease, and now, at 80, has produced a book which is certainly among his best. As a record of his life it is written thematically rather than in chronological sequence. For instance, the first chapter, `The Son', discusses his relationship with his parents after their deaths as well as while they were alive, ending with an account of his controversial book about them, Portrait of a Marriage, published in 1973. He then reverts to other aspects of his early years.

Was he justified in writing Portrait, with its revelation of the farcical affair between Vita and Violet Trefusis? He argues convincingly that his mother wanted the story to come out, but is equally sure that his father would have hated it, and so admits to a feeling of 'betrayal'. He seems, also, to have made little effort to control the contents of a dramatisation of Portrait on BBC television, which he authorised. When he wrote a long article complaining about the balance of the series, and particularly its nude scenes, he was accused of trying to have his cake and eat it; and he can only comment now: `It was perfectly true that I had accepted a large slice of cake.'

Nicolson tells us that he `drifted into politics'. After two unsuccessful attempts he was returned, in 1952, for the (then) safe Conservative seat of Bournemouth East and Christchurch. Soon he was in trouble with local Tory activists over his opposition to capital punishment. But far worse followed when he carried his disgust at the Eden government's collusive attack on Egypt to the point of abstaining in the Commons vote on 8 November 1956. …

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