We all have our childhood heroes. Some people spend their adolescence admiring athletes or film stars. Some dream of growing up to be the next Austen or Hemingway. In my case, I spent my teen years slightly obsessed with 20th Century diplomats and politicians. At some point, my intentions to purse a diplomatic career waned (probably when I realised I lacked both the tact necessary to succeed in that field and the bilingualism that is a prerequisite for any kind of government post) but my fascination with the diaries of those whose lives were devoted to civil service has never faltered. I suspect Charles Ritchie will always be my favourite diary-keeping diplomat but after reading The Harold Nicolson Diaries edited by Nigel Nicolson earlier this year, I must say that Ritchie finally has a rival for my affections.
For years, I have been reading history books about wartime Britain where Nicolson’s diaries were heavily quoted. His career during that period I was familiar with: a diplomat turned writer turned politician, Nicolson was among a small number of MPs who spent the years preceding WWII believing and arguing that fascism needed to be confronted and defeated rather than ignored or appeased in an effort to ensure peace. He was never a brilliant politician but he was intimate with those in power and his diaries offer a fascinating glimpse of the government in wartime.
To some of my readers, I suspect Nicolson is better known as the husband of the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West. The two had a famously unconventional partnership, with both Nicolson and Sackville-West conducting homosexual affairs outside of their marriage, but if there is one thing that is clear from this book (and from their son Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage) it is how devoted they were to one another over the almost fifty years they spent together. Though the book is titled The Harold Nicolson Diaries, it is actually a collection of both diaries and letters and most of the letters were written to Vita. For a man who had, when very young, dreamed of “a little cuddly wife who wouldn’t talk”, Vita was an extraordinary choice for a partner but not one Nicolson ever seemed to regret. His adoration of her is clear in his diaries, his letters to his sons and his parents, and very much in his letters to her:
I do not think that, except for Winston [Churchill], I admire anyone as much as I admire you.
I remember your saying (years ago) that you had never established a complete relationship with anyone. I don’t think you ever could – since yours is a vertical and not horizontal nature, and two-thirds of you will always be submerged. But you have established, with your sons and me, a relationship of absolute trust and complete love. I don’t think that these things would be so fundamental to the four of us were it not that each one of the four is a private person underneath.
I have often wondered what makes the perfect family. I think it is just our compound of intimacy and aloofness. Each of us has a room of his own. Each of us knows that there is a common-room where we meet on the basis of perfect understanding.
Though edited by his son, these diaries are not presented to entirely flatter Nicolson. The less appealing parts of his character are there: he can be snobbish and unrepentantly racist. He sulks like a child after defeats and hungers for at times undeserved admiration. He sometimes makes bad decisions, he allies himself with the wrong people, and he flip-flops on major issues. He is easily flattered and easily insulted. He is, in short, very, very human and more aware of his failings than most. At the end of each year, he takes stock of his life and those entries show a man fully aware of what the world thinks of him and resolved, always, to do better:
I am thought trashy and a little mad. I have been reckless and arrogant. I have been silly. I must recapture my reputation. I must be cautious and more serious. I must not try to do so much, and must endeavour to what I do with greater depth and application. I must avoid the superficial.
Yet in spite of all this – what fun life is! (31 December 1931)
Yet despite the off-putting moods of self pity, Nicolson is for the most part charmingly aware of limitations and contradictory ways. He knows his strength, however much he may like to dream of being dashing and a man of action, lies in solid, conservative competence:
We have a meeting of the sub-committee of the London Library to consider who is to be President. We decide to separate the posts of President and Chairman and to choose for the latter, not a man of eminence, but a man who will attend meetings. They therefore choose me. (25 October 1951)
And he is able to observe, delightfully, the workings of his own easily-flattered mind:
The Spectator this week suggests that I should be sent as Ambassador to Washington. It amuses me to observe my own reactions to such a suggestion. My first fear is that it will expose me to ridicule, since all we Nicolsons are morbidly sensitive to being placed in a false position. My second impulse is to realise how much Vita would hate it. My third is to feel how much I should loathe the pomp and publicity of an Embassy. My fourth is to agree with the Spectator that I might do the job rather well. But it will not occur. (21 April 1939)
But it is the family-minded side of him that is the most appealing. Whether he is writing to welcome a new daughter-in-law into the family (“You will find us shy, eccentric, untidy, but most benevolent”) or advising his young son on how best to get his mother’s approval for the kind of dangerous adventures that are the stuff of every mother’s nightmares (“she is not in any way a narrow-minded woman”), he is perfection. The book covers his life from 1907 (when he was just twenty) to 1964 and so we get to see not just the relationship he had with his wife but the ones he had with both his parents (his chatty letters to them show what a close, friendly relationship they had), his two sons, and, eventually, his grandchildren. For all the other things he was in his life and for all the varying level of success he had, he was a wonderful family man. I defy anyone to read this letter Nicolson wrote in 1954 to his freshly christened granddaughter and not think what delightful grandfather he would have made (his granddaughter certainly thought so):
Now that you have been admitted into the Church and had a paragraph all to yourself in the Daily Telegraph, you should be able, if not to read, then at least take in, private letters.
I thought it noble of you to remain quiescent while your godfather and godmother promised such glum things on your behalf. But I did not think it noble of you to sneak when I gave you a silver spoon and you went and bashed your own eye and forehead with it. It is foolish, in any case, to bash oneself with spoons. But it is evil for a girl about to be blessed by a bishop to sneak about her grandfather. You did not see the look your mother gave me. You did not realise the deep suspicion with which your nurse thereafter regarded me. (What an ass that woman was, flattering you like that; and how weak of you to respond with a grin to her blandishments.)
And will you tell your mother that I really believe that you will have large eyes as lovely as she has and a character as sweet as hers, and that I really will not spoil you when you reach the age of 2, since I detest spoiled children. And even if I do spoil you, I shall do so surreptitiously in order to avoid a look from her like the spoon-look.
I am so happy to have made the acquaintance of Nicolson the family man after having known for so many years only Nicolson the political observer. He is wonderful in both roles but so much more interesting to me now that I have a clearer, more complete idea of his character. Each page of this book was a delight; it is, without a doubt, one of the best books I have read this year and one of the best diaries I have ever read. Nicolson has certainly earned his place alongside Ritchie on my bookshelf.