Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Cruising Through The '30s With Harold And Vita

We keep getting rid of books- of which this house contains vast numbers- and every time I weed the shelves I pause at the three volumes of the Diaries of Harold Nicolson and think "So what about these?" and every time decide, "Well perhaps I'll read them some day"- and then I've dipped into them, as one does, and read something clever- and they have survived the cull. Yesterday I appraised them again...

Nicolson was diplomat, writer, politician, socialite, married to the very interesting Vita Sackville-West (he calls her Viti, she calls him Hadji) and, while not exactly a history-maker himself, knew just about everybody in Britain who was- from Lloyd George to Stephen Spender. He was highly intelligent, well read, affable, elitist- and a fine writer, and while never indiscreet about himself or others (with zero interest in who's shagging who) has perceptive and revealing things to say about people who still matter to us.

In Jan 1930 he has lunch with Rudyard Kipling of whom he notes, "(His) eyebrows are really very odd indeed . They curl up black and furious like the moustache of a Neapolitan tenor. He has a slightly Anglo-Indian voice, with notes of civil service precision in it, and his voice is twisted into phrases like his writing..."

He sees a lot of Churchill. Here's the great man's first appearance in the Diary- on the same page as Kipling- paying a business call on Lord Beaverbrook at the offices of the Daily Express. "(He) slouched in. Very changed from when I had last seen him. A great round white face like a blister. Incredibly aged... An elder statesman. His spirits also have declined and he sighs that he has lost his old fighting power."

And here's part of a description of James Joyce, whom Harold meets at the house of a London publisher on July 30, 1931. "(Like) some thin little bird, peeking, crooked, reserved, violent and timid. Little claw hands. So blind that he stares away from one at a tangent, like a very thin owl....He is not a rude man: he manages to hide his dislike of the English and the literary English in particular. But he is a difficult man to talk to. 'Joyce', as Desmond remarked afterwards, is not a very convenient guest at luncheon.'"

I've got as far as the summer of 1933. Harold and Vita are on a lecture tour of the States, criss-crossing the country like a rock band- living in hotels, sleeping on trains, despising their audiences. Vita is mightily impressed by Niagara Falls, Harold finds them "small and disappointing. A fine flow of water and much steam and spray. But a fraud really". He crosses into Canada, sees a Union Jack, gets a lump in his throat, and feels he is "no longer on foreign soil."

There is a lot in the Diaries about the day to day business of politics- its drifting loyalties and passing fads. For a while Harold marches in lockstep with Oswald Mosley, standing as a candidate for his "New Party"- a kind of UKIP of the 1930s- and editing a Mosleyite periodical that folds after a few months- but parts with him as Mosley drifts ever closer and closer to full-blown fascism. By the end of this first volume he will have got himself elected (rather to his own surprise) as the Labour member for Leicester West- but that's yet to come...

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