Magazine article The Spectator

Precious Little Warmth

Magazine article The Spectator

Precious Little Warmth

Article excerpt

The Macmillan Diaries, Volume II: Prime Minister and After, 1957-1966

edited by Peter Catterall

Macmillan, £40, pp. 796,

ISBN 9781405047210

There's something wrong with these diaries. This is not to disparage the scholarly efforts of their editor, Dr Catterall, nor the skill with which he seems to have pruned the original papers (twice the length) into the greatest coherence achievable, nor his helpful contextualisation and calmly rational explanatory notes. Nor is it to question the importance for modern historians of the whole painstaking enterprise, to observe that the general reader will plough onward from summit, to cabinet, to dinner party, to pheasant shoot, to bilateral meeting, with a half-formed question growing in his mind. Who was Harold Macmillan writing all this for?

For himself? For friends and family? For history? To answer questions? To settle scores? To win the approval of later generations?

Voracious reader and professional publisher that he was, Macmillan must surely have known that no writer should so much as pick up his pen without first having formed a mental picture, however hazy, of his intended audience. It can be yourself alone, a 'Dear Diary' diary. Sometimes these papers suggest as much: the selfpity (aches, pains, general exhaustion and protestations that he is feeling 'shattered' punctuate the narrative) and Macmillan's incipient gloom:

6 Sept 1958: Last night there was a tropical storm . . . The harvest in East Anglia and the South will now be finally ruined, I fear. What is almost worse is that the potato crop is beginning to go mouldy. We are certainly not having much luck in my period of office. When I think of all the troubles since 1956, I feel we have had almost more than our share - and now the weather . . . keeps intruding.

But only in its pessimism could you call much of this confessional. Even space travel is talked down:

[The Russian astronaut] seems to have gone round the world 17 times. It is a wonderful feat of science and technology, altho' I should have thought it rather dull for the man . . .

But there is otherwise little here that is really intimate, except foreboding. We learn nothing about his loves, nothing about his (rumoured) bisexuality, little about his feelings (or lack of them) for his wife, Dorothy, or her affair with Bob Boothby, or his son Maurice's problems.

Self-absorbed though they often are, these diaries are not really addressed to himself or those close to him, still less to future psycho-biographers.

For history then: to answer questions and explain? But this diarist seems oblivious to such unspoken questions as 'why, really, did you do that?' 'How did you feel?' and only fitfully does he offer any insight into his tactics and strategies.

Whole chapters of history - huge world events - seem to slip by with barely a mention; and then all at once he's obsessing on how to save the First Lord of the Admiralty.

As for his dreams and ambitions - let alone political philosophy - their absence is obtrusive. One finishes these accounts with no better idea of what sort of a Conservative Macmillan was, although the types who irritated him are a persistent theme: Quentin Hogg's vulgarity; R.A. Butler's indecision; Selwyn Lloyd's inactivity - and recalcitrant and reactionary Tories are a running sore. …

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