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September 2008

The Trevor-Roper diaries, extracts of which appeared in the July and August issues of Standpoint, brought back many memories. I first met Hugh when I went up to Christ Church, Oxford, where he was the (modern) history don, in 1951. Although I was not reading history, I had occasion to get to know him because he was also, at that time, the college’s Senior Censor, whose duties included the allocation of rooms to undergraduates. I was interested, after a year of sharing, in securing what I considered the best set of rooms in the college, which he kindly arranged.

But although the origins of my friendship with Hugh may have been somewhat self-­serving, that was only part of it. He was, at 37, a glittering (if far from universally popular) ornament of the college, perhaps the first celebrity don, having recently secured fame and fortune by the publication of his book The Last Days of Hitler, a success that he flaunted by parking prominently in Tom Quad the large Bentley it had enabled him to acquire.

He did this not so much to show off as to annoy the stuffier among his fellow dons, who resented his worldly success (and could afford only much more modest cars), and in particular the Canons of Christ Church, whom he would refer to as “the black front”.

We walked and talked together quite frequently in those days, when he would dilate on his latest enthusiasms. Most of them I now forget, but two I remember were the idea of tracing the geographical movement of political power from the history of the art market – from the Medicis of 15th?century Florence to the contemporary United States – and a campaign to secure the Nobel Peace Prize for Himmler’s masseur, Felix Kersten, who Hugh insisted had bravely exercised a benign influence on the Reichsführer.

He greatly enjoyed campaigning against the odds. His great success, of course, was to defeat the bien pensant establishment’s candidate for the Chancellorship of Oxford University, Oliver Franks, who had been considered a shoo-in for the post, by putting up the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, against him. Other campaigns, like that for Kersten, were less successful.

When I became editor of The Spectator in 1966 I naturally hoped for an opportunity for him to appear in its columns. But I seem to recall that he had a well-paid exclusive contract with the Times group, and in any event The Spectator’s fees were derisory at that time. The breakthrough came with the arrival, for review, of a biography of a somewhat notorious and eccentric, but otherwise insignificant, former Christ Church don, Robin Dundas.

I remembered Dundas well, from my own days as an undergraduate. He had appointed himself the college’s moral tutor (a post that did not exist), in which capacity he would invite every member of each year’s new intake to see him, individually, in his rooms in Tom Quad. The purpose, of course, was to assess the talent (Christ Church was an all-male college in those days). I suspect this might be frowned on nowadays.

In any event, John Thompson, then my deputy editor, had the excellent idea of offering the book to Hugh, by that time Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, for review. He accepted, and turned in a piece on Dundas, broadly in the 17th?century style of one of Aubrey’s Brief Lives, which needless to say would have been libellous had Dundas still been alive, and which I ran as lead review one week in June 1967 under the byline “John Aubrey FRS”.

It attracted little attention, but established Hugh’s command of waspish Aubreyesque pastiche. The following year, 1968, the widely reported radical student movement swept the Western world, including Oxford. The more seriously the radicals took themselves — and they took themselves very seriously indeed — the more absurd they became. I asked Hugh if he would do a piece on the goings-on at Oxford. He agreed, and sent me, in November of that year, the first of his brilliantly perceptive and irreverent “letters” from “Mercurius Oxoniensis”, written in the same style as the “Brief Life”, but more so, and better.

They continued to appear from time to time for the rest of my period as editor, and caused a considerable stir, and much speculation as to their authorship, which was never revealed during Hugh’s lifetime. Security was absolute. Apart from one occasion when I collected a “letter” from him in his Scottish home, they were posted to me personally, written in his neat and very legible hand, and returned to me for safe-keeping after publication.

The Letters of Mercurius are well worth reading today; and this is fortunately possible, as a collected edition was published by John Murray in 1970. It was then still owned and run by Hugh’s friend Jock Murray, an ageing and impish dandy, and an excellent publisher, who still believed in the old tradition of producing, for selected works, alongside the regular edition, a limited edition printed on special paper and with special boards and binding for the author to present to his friends.

One of my most treasured possessions is one of these, personally inscribed and signed (with a quill pen) by Mercurius Oxoniensis in his own authentic 17th?century hand.

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