Magazine article The Spectator

Playing the Game

Magazine article The Spectator

Playing the Game

Article excerpt

A MAN OF CONTRADICTIONS: A LIFE OF A. L. ROWSE by Richard Ollard Allen Lane, L (English pound)20, pp. 367

There was an artless, if spirited article recently in one of the popular papers with some such headline as 'WHY I LOVE A DONNISH FEUD!T. A. L. Rowse appeared to have inspired our young woman's pen (a Girton grad, I guessed), though her views of Oxford seemed largely to have been inspired by watching Inspector Morse on telly.

It is true that Rowse was a man of passionate likes and dislikes, but he was never exactly your archetypical don (if such a figure exists). The first, obvious thing to say about this Fellow of All Souls, who wrote ten marvellous books, 20 which were rather more slapdash, and in addition churned out some absolute tosh, is that for many of his 90-odd years of life he was not in Oxford at all.

As Richard Ollard, the biographer of Pepys, records in this punctilious and sensible life, Rowse from the early 1950s to the 1970s was a figure not on the British but on the American scene. He was regarded very seriously by the Americans, taken up by high society in Washington. 'His friendship with Caspar Weinberger ... opened many doors. Nixon gave a small dinner for him at his house in New York, Jacqueline Onassis an even more intimate lunch to which only two other guests were invited.' And so on.

The Morse characters, the jealous dons at home who found Rowse tiresome, reading that sentence, would say 'only two guests could stand the idea of having lunch with him'. But that would be completely to misunderstand Rowse. He was an American star. They loved him, he loved them. 'He kept up', says Ollard, 'with the Aldriches, the Bruces and the Annenbergs whom he had known in their days at the London embassy.'

Rowse was far from being a bogus figure but he was a play-actor and he gave to audiences what he thought they would enjoy. In the case of America, he very largely got this right, both in his preparedness to make his deep learning available to a wide general audience and to 'play up' some of the prejudices which he had perhaps only in an incipient form before American stardom got going.

So, though he was one of the most famous 'Oxford dons' in the world, you weren't very likely to meet him in Oxford for at least three-quarters of the year, unless, like me, you were lucky enough to be taken up by him. He felt sore at not having been asked to be the history don at Christ Church, his old college. He minded not being asked to lecture in the history faculty - and he was a brilliant lecturer. He was passed over for the wardenship of All Souls and for the various history Chairs.

Yawn, yawn. Ollard takes us through these various disappointments and he is admirably fair about them, seeing them, as Rowse did himself in his saner moments, as liberating him for his work as a writer and as a figure on a wider scene than the university parish pump.

But the life of being an American star is lonely:

Oh, God! Here I am in London airport once more [September 1965] on the conveyor-belt to America, which I won't be off until back here at the end of March. What a fool I have been, uprooting myself from Oxford, where I like being best, from my rooms, august and lovable; and from Trenarren [his house in Cornwall] where I have never felt happier or more fulfilled than this summer. …

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