The Fatal Dogberry Tendency

By Wilson, A. N. | The Spectator, March 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Fatal Dogberry Tendency


Wilson, A. N., The Spectator


THE DIARIES OF A. L. ROWSE edited by Richard Ollard Allen Lane, 25, pp. 462 ISBN 0713995726

Every Easter is rendered vexatious by people who will get over the hedge or unbar the gate and make a deadset at the primroses. It is always the bitches who do it, never a man -- this is their idea of loving flowers - destroying them ... I hate it more as one more indication of human idiocy - that they will, must destroy flowers. Not if I can stop them!

It goes without saying that `no one of a decent class would do such a thing'. Yet human idiocy is by no means limited to the ranks of the `Idiot People', as he called them. At a Buckingham Palace garden party, 'I watched the mob, top-hatted, tail-- coated, well-conducted, less idiotic than most mobs, but still idiotic'.

He does not describe the Queen as a bitch. (Indeed, Malcolm Muggeridge, who wrote a notorious article critical of the monarchy, was, in the opinion of Rowse, a 'cad' who should have been `horsewhipped'). Her Majesty escapes unscathed in this episode, though, unfortunately for her, she was something even worse than a bitch. Making his way out through the Palace, the Cornish poet was disgusted by the `Germanity of it all: Duchesses of Hohenloe-Langenburg, of Mecklenburg-- Strelitz, Wurtemburgs, Coburgs everywhere.' Of the royal family in general he observed, `How German the background is! - the one thing the Germans have been successful at, exporting royalties all over Europe.'

This is not the diary of a Cornish taxidriver. It is the diary of a historian who prides himself on his exquisite taste, his love of poetry, his ear for music, his eye for great art and, incidentally, his fluency in German. (As a young man he planned a complete translation of Marx to rival Jowett's Plato). How can he, even in a throwaway line, write something so unintelligent about the Germans? `The one thing they have been successful at . . . .' In rather Rowse-like rage I scrawled in the margin: `Apart from music, theology, philosophy, science, architecture, engineering and, at least in certain periods of history, military conquest'.

In our long drives through Cornwall, Rowse would of course often exhibit this coarse side to his nature, his hatred of Germans and women, his chippiness about failure to be elected as Warden of All Souls, his loathing of fellow-historians, especially A. J. P. Taylor. But these outbursts were like unfortunate moments of flatulence in otherwise pleasant afternoons, when he was much of the time on `good behaviour', discoursing of books, showing me old churches and houses, or introducing me to their owners.

How often he used to speak of these diaries as the summit of his literary achievement. They were, he believed, worth speaking about in the same breath as Proust. The funny, puckish, clever man I knew is hardly apparent at all in these pages, which seem to have been written by a latter-day Dogberry: 'I am an ass! But, masters, remember that I am an ass! O that I had been writ down an ass!'

Do the diaries, unpleasant as they are, contain any clue as to the reasons for this Dogberry tendency, this desire to make himself seem coarser and stupider than he was? Not that the persona of the diarist sees himself as coarse and stupid. Far from it. The pique which led him to spend half the year in America after All Souls failed to elect him Warden is compared to Newman leaving Oxford after all the dons united to condemn Tract 90. …

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