Magazine article The Spectator

Amazing Scenes When Bald-Pated Left-Wing Lords Got Steamed Up

Magazine article The Spectator

Amazing Scenes When Bald-Pated Left-Wing Lords Got Steamed Up

Article excerpt

The late Noel Annan was an intellectual grandee. He was a clever man and a skilful writer and, in my view, he should have written books. Instead he became an academic administrator on a prodigious scale. In fact, at the beginning of his career he did write a book, a life of Leslie Stephen, proto-progenitor of the Bloomsbury Group, to whose feebly writhing coda Annan belonged. Stephen will go down in history not so much as the father of the gruesome Virginia Woolf as the author of a shrewd saying, summing up his two decades as editor of the DNB: 'No really good story is ever quite true.' Having had a good war and done Stephen, Annan settled down to a university career, including running King's, Cambridge, and the vast University College, London, and all that goes with such splendours: a peerage, membership of top committees, in and out of No. 10, honorary degrees, dispensing patronage, getting jobs for friends (he was an Apostle) and other kinds of power-broking. He was a lifelong leftie but, far from being an identikit one, often disconcerted his chums by spouting right-wing views, even patriotism. But so did Keynes, of whom Annan was a later, and inferior, version. Then, having taken the academic top spots, Annan produced another book, which turned out to be a retread life of Stephen. It is true that he later wrote two more books, one on his contemporaries, the second on dons: but these were anecdotage.

The most striking thing about Annan was his head: pink, bald and rather nobly structured. He might have been a Roman emperor. Though not capable of apotheosis, he did something equally remarkable. On a clear day, when he was suitably roused to righteous anger on behalf of a liberal cause, steam could be distinctly seen rising out of his bald patch. With one exception, whom I will come to later, he was the only person I have known who could do this. I do not mean intentionally; he may have been unaware of the phenomenon. It never failed to fill me with admiration. He not only worked for the Left, he steamed for it. You may say I imagined it. If so, I was not the only one. Lady Pamela Berry noticed it too. She joked, 'Do you think the clouds coming out of No@,I's dome are cumulus or alto-cirrus?' We agreed to provoke him unmercifully the next time he attended one of her lunch parties and study the results. There was even an abortive scheme to take a photo, rather as the Society for Psychical Research snapped ectoplasm. But nothing came of it. On the appointed day, Annan was unrufflable blandness. Despite all our efforts 'Paul, do you think Nixon will go down as America's greatest president?' 'No, darling, not quite as great as Coolidge' - Vesuvius proved inactive, or extinct. Annan was a sharp old bird and may have noticed he was being watched by two hostile ornithologists, and refused to perform. Or maybe he had lost the knack. Certainly, he never again 'got up steam' in my presence.

These great pink billiard-ball combustion engines of the Left, as remarkable as anything else to emerge from the industrial revolution, were once by no means uncommon in the upper echelons of the liberal establishment. Mr Gladstone himself is not recorded as emitting steam, though quite capable of it, even though his bald pate was window-dressed by a few hairs dexterously arranged by Mrs G. His trick was to emit spectral lightning from his terrifying eyes, fierce enough to strike dumb any Commons orator who offended him. I have the original of a drawing, by Harry Furniss, which shows him in action. Did Lloyd George steam in wrath? …

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