At Home with the Letwins’ Salon

Bill and Shirley Letwin kept open house for open minds from Chicago to Cambridge and Hampstead

Kingsley Amis, A.J. Ayer, Keith Joseph, Friedrich von Hayek, Sybille Bedford, Peregrine Worsthorne, Elie Kedourie, John Gross, V.S. Pritchett, Frank Johnson, Irving Kristol, Maurice Cowling, Ferdinand Mount, Michael Oakeshott, Colin Welch and Daniel Bell were all people whom I met for the first time at 3, Kent Terrace, the house in Regent’s Park lived in (though not, to their regret, owned) by Bill and Shirley Letwin. With little money, excellent cooking (Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the Bible) and endless ingenuity, Shirley and Bill, two American academics in London, created something tremendous.

Other guests included Karl Popper, Iris Murdoch, Saul Bellow and Milton Friedman. Then there were some remarkable characters less known to fame, such as the unstoppably loquacious Irishman David Grene — half hunting farmer from County Monaghan, half professor of classics at Chicago — who always wore enormous boots and hairy tweed, or Krister Stendhal, the austerely charming Bishop of Stockholm, who said little and smoked a pipe (some deny the existence of this pipe: it may be a form of racism that I associate it with all male Swedes of that era), or the adorable Margot Walmesley, from Encounter, who called everyone “darling” due to her inability to remember names, or the beautiful actress Moyra Fraser. 

I first saw these people, in the early 1970s, with a teenager’s eye. I was a schoolfriend of the Letwins’ only child, Oliver (now the Cabinet Office minister in the coalition). He used to invite me and, later, our contemporary Noel Malcolm (now a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford) to meals there, or, since I did not live in London, to stay. As a country boy, I was much impressed by phenomena unknown to me, such as fitted carpets and entryphones, and by the complete tidiness, lightness and elegance of the Nash house. I was even more struck by the conversational style. When about 16, I was doing voluntary social work in the Old Kent Road in the school holidays, and I told Shirley that I was “working with deprived children”. “Who deprived them?” she asked me, and of course I had no idea. I had merely been repeating, without thinking, the usages of others. That was something Shirley never did. She challenged everything and everyone.

This could undoubtedly be alarming, as could the distinction of the company. I was equally embarrassed when I had not heard of a great dignitary — Hayek, for example, was a completely new one on me — and when I had. What, in either case, was I supposed to say to them? But what quickly became apparent was that Shirley, though combative, was also a natural egalitarian and that Bill, ever-courteous and genial, was the same. By this I mean that they set up no barriers in their minds between generations or rank. They were as open to their son’s gawky friends as they were to Nobel Prize winners, and so they were happy to sit one next to the other. They were truly honest and truly intellectual, and so they wanted the talk to go where it would, composed of as many disparate voices as the human ear can tolerate.

There are many specific things I remember learning at Kent Terrace. Bill was the first person to explain to me what interest rates were. Ken Minogue introduced me to Some Like It Hot, building me up for the film’s punchline without giving it away. Frank Johnson told me that being a leader writer at the Daily Telegraph was “the only occupation for a gentleman” since one didn’t have to start work till 3.45 (I hurried off to become one). Michael Oakeshott expounded why William Blake was England’s greatest lyric voice. But of course it was the overall character of the conversation which mattered most. Bill and Shirley’s dinners (there was always a meal, never just drinks) provided the stage for what Oakeshott, in a famous essay, calls “the conversation of mankind”: “Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions. Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present . . . It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.” It was fun placing preposterously large conversational bets.

For this reason, I found myself jibbing at the suggestion, made in some tributes when Bill died, aged 90, in February, that Shirley and he had run a “political salon”. It is perfectly true that many, though by no means all, of those present were conservatives. A few were even Conservatives. It is also true that the period at Kent Terrace which I knew — the Seventies and Eighties — coincided with the era of Margaret Thatcher. Several of those at the Letwins’ table admired her and some, in one way or another, helped her. Shirley herself wrote an excellent book, too little noticed because it came out in 1992, when interest in Mrs T had temporarily waned, about what Thatcherism really is. But a “political salon” is surely a place where plots are hatched, reputations puffed or trashed, and men with whisky on their breath talk loudly past the women about who’s in and who’s out. The Letwin set-up could not have been less like that.

It was not that the talk was relentlessly high-minded. There was plenty of laughter and gossip about academic life (Bill was a professor at the LSE and Shirley did some teaching at Cambridge), and about writers and journalists. There were occasional impractical plans, concocted by Shirley, to try to ride one of her hobby horses — such as her opposition to the new British Library — into political battle. But there was never worldly ambition in any of this, no secret training for some long march through the institutions, no talk about how “we” could win the next election, and never, ever, any tinkling of the glass for silence so that someone, probably from America, could hold forth about policy or politics. Like all proper conversation — as opposed to organised, directed talk — it had no ulterior motive.

As for the subject matter, well, that could be pretty much anything — history, philosophy, God, food, language, literature, love, money, art, even sport: tennis was a Letwin enthusiasm. (Shirley’s spirited attacks on the arts as seen on television were especially imaginative, given that she did not possess a set and rarely watched anyone else’s.) So when politics got a look-in, it was only in its rightful place — as part of a much wider interest in culture. Similarly, I now realise — I knew little about such things at the time — that about 40 per cent of the Letwins’ friends were, like them, Jewish. The atmosphere owed much to Jewish habits of disputation (few Gentiles would have so unselfconsciously embarked on talking about anything and everything). No one present, so far as I know, was one of those Jews who pretend not to be. Yet the bitter politics of the Middle East were little mentioned. Jewishness was a tradition gratefully drawn on rather than a badge of identity waved in anyone’s face. This was still the Cold War, and if there was one point of view which united almost everyone present, it was that Western civilisation was better than its enemies. Race, which is such an obsession today, seemed to matter little. Civilisation mattered a lot.

By some paradox, this coterie with so little self-conscious identity that it would never have thought of itself as such, did have wider effects. Who could ever count how many friendships were forged, or kept in good repair, by Bill and Shirley’s hospitality, how many books were conceived or altered, how many articles inspired by something understood in conversation under their roof? In Oxford or Cambridge, or the LSE, or Fleet Street, or the Institute of Economic Affairs, or even the House of Commons, something worth saying or thinking was often said or thought because of talk in 3, Kent Terrace. The cumulative effect of these words and thoughts was to refresh in England — which can be a very narrow place — a liberal openness to ideas and a conservative rigour about the claims made for them. Michael Oakeshott wrote that “to rescue the conversation from the bog into which it has fallen and to restore to it some of its lost freedom of movement would require a philosophy more profound than any I have to offer”. I am not so sure about that. I would say that Shirley and Bill, often helped by Michael’s twinkling presence, succeeded in that work of restoration round a well-supplied dinner table in London NW1. 

Now that both Bill and Shirley are dead, I ask myself, “Could anyone do today what they did then?” I fear not, at least not in the same way. It costs far too much to live in a nice house in the middle of London. The people with the money have neither the time nor the inclination. Fame has become a full-time job. Clever people have become too narrow (“focused”) to see the point of spending an evening talking, with no agenda, to people outside their field. Nowhere is this truer than politics, which has become an all-consuming pseudo-science of trying to guess what people want and then find ways of pretending to give it to them. The conversation of mankind has left home and gone viral, which has sometimes impaired its quality. And yet, although the form keeps altering, the need does not. Each age needs its Bills and Shirleys. It will always be a great service to provide open house for open minds.

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