A Suez Affair

The public and the private are always swirling around, in a fluid, ever-changing relationship

Researching a book on Britain in the 1950s, I was recently at the BBC’s Written Archives Centre, a wonderful treasure-house based in Caversham. These treasures include microfilm transcripts of Any Questions? I looked with particular interest at the one for Friday November 2, 1956, at the height of the Suez crisis. As was usual then the programme came from the West Country (that week a factory in Wiltshire); as usual the chairman was Freddy Grisewood, and the panel included the most brilliant political journalist of the day, the mercurial, womanising spendthrift Henry Fairlie. He had recently left The Spectator, having effectively coined the term “the Establishment”, and was now at the Daily Mail.

It was a hoot. The BBC still complied with the ludicrous so-called “14-day rule”, by which no radio or television discussion was permitted about issues that Parliament was due to debate over the next fortnight. “Now, before we have the first question,” Grisewood accordingly announced, “I must point out that the question which very many of our audience have handed in to be discussed cannot be dealt with in this programme.” The panel was outraged and, inspired by Fairlie, proceeded to lead an increasingly exasperated Grisewood a merry dance, going to elaborate lengths to discuss the burning issue of the day. “We’re all under the illusion that Britain has invaded Egypt,” said Fairlie. “I want to talk about the other invasion which has been ignored, which is that Britain has invaded a country called Ruritania.” That directly led to the plug being pulled on the broadcast for a few minutes, and on its return Grisewood struggled through to the end as best he could.

Soon afterwards, something clicked in my mind, and I looked up Kingsley Amis’s Letters. There it was, on pp?489–490: a stern, completely unhumorous letter to Fairlie, telling him to lay off Amis’s wife Hilly and refusing Fairlie’s suggestion that they discuss the situation. “Even if you wanted Hilly twenty times more than I do, that would not make me any more inclined to let her go. So I don’t want to know how you feel about this business.” The letter is dated November 1, 1956, so presumably Fairlie received it on the Friday morning before setting off for Wiltshire.

Did it affect his mood for the programme? Maybe. My pleasure, though, in locating this conjunction of transcript and letter was less to do with historical “significance” than the way it so vividly illustrated how at any one time – even at a time of a world-important event like Suez – the public and the private are always swirling around, in a fluid, ever-changing relationship. It is on that interface between the public and the private that I try to work as a historian.

And as I do so, I am always mindful of Gladstone’s dictum that one might lose sleep over a private matter, but never over a public one.

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