Don’t Mention the War

Book review of The Wartime Journals by Hugh Trevor-Roper; edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

Academia Books History
Secret scribe: Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1940

Hugh Trevor-Roper had a remarkably Good War, though it cannot have seemed very good to begin with. Recruited into a minor branch of military intelligence, he found himself working in a poky commandeered cell in Wormwood Scrubs, combing intercepted radio signals for evidence of German spies in England. This, in itself, was a complete waste of time; but it led him to the radio transmissions of the Abwehr (the German secret service), whose codes he managed to break.

Gradually, against the wishes of hidebound and resentful superior officers, Trevor-Roper extended the scope of his work. He was joined by two brilliant friends from Oxford, the philosophers Gilbert Ryle and Stuart Hampshire, plus the historian Charles Stuart, and before long they were producing not only valuable intelligence briefings but also policy recommendations — for which, again, their superiors slapped them down. By appealing directly, and privately, to Churchill’s advisers over the heads of his commanding officers, Trevor-Roper committed what should have been career suicide. And yet he survived, thanks to a combination of principled stubbornness and sheer undeniable talent. He entered the last part of the war a major, in charge of a section increasingly vital to the war effort (deception operations surrounding D-Day depended on it). On the strength of his undoubted expertise he was asked, four months after the end of the war in Europe, to investigate the last days of Hitler: fame and fortune swiftly followed.

Secret service officers were strictly forbidden to keep diaries. In this, as in other matters, Trevor-Roper was insubordinate, but he tried to respect the spirit of the law by keeping the contents of his wartime journals permanently secret. Indeed, their existence was not even suspected by any of his friends or family during his lifetime. Into these notebooks he had transcribed some material that was derived directly from his work: over several pages, for example, he summarised the transcripts of secretly recorded conversations between two captured German generals, discussing the kitsch country palace of Hermann Göring and the stolen treasures it contained. For this alone he could have been cashiered.

Other entries related to his work more generally, but in a way that might have earned him even less mercy from his superiors, had they enjoyed the pleasure of reading them. “There are only two classes of men in the British Secret Service”, he wrote in June 1942: “those who protect their incompetence by neurotic secrecy, and those who screen it with bombastic advertisement.” And again, in another entry headed “S.I.S.”: “I am sick to death of them, that nest of timid and corrupt incompetents, without ideals or standards, concerned only with the security of their own discreditable existence, bum-sucking under the backstairs of bureaucracy. Weak men on the defensive, who will do and say anything through fear, they dread improvement, for improvement means change, and change may mean the shaking of a few old somnolent moths out of long undisturbed curtains.”

But although the publishers have — understandably enough — filled the jacket-flap blurb with references to the Second World War and Hitler, matters of military intelligence play only a small part in these journals. Even the word “journals” may be misleading here; for these were not daily records of events. Rather, they were notebooks into which Trevor-Roper transcribed his distinctly polished versions of a great variety of things: observations, anecdotes, his friends’ bons mots, his own self-examinations, notes on reading and literary musings, as well as occasional narratives of experiences and events. He was engaged in a kind of private literary exercise, and some years later (perhaps when bed-bound in 1948, having broken his back while hunting) he amused himself by compiling a detailed index, which is also reproduced in this edition.

There were two main literary models here: The Note-books of the late-Victorian sceptical moralist Samuel Butler and the series of Trivia volumes published by the American littérateur (and long-term English resident) Logan Pearsall Smith. Trevor-Roper had been captivated by Smith’s writings, and when Smith invited him to tea in 1940 (having been impressed by the young historian’s newly published biography of Archbishop Laud), he was duly captivated by the man himself. The pleasure, it seems, was mutual; Smith liked to have clever and attentive young male admirers, with whom to share his aperçus and his mildly malicious gossip.

For a while the elderly American became almost — to use a word Trevor-Roper would employ, in later years, with intense disapproval — a “guru” to the younger man. What he offered was not so much a philosophy or a theory as an attitude to life. Trevor-Roper himself summed it up as follows: “That humanity is ridiculous, but that there is a pleasure in observing its antics, and that it is redeemed from utter meaninglessness by its ideals, though many even of these are very odd; and that style is an ideal too.” For Logan Pearsall Smith, style was the only absolute, the only thing for which no expenditure of effort was to be regretted.

On that point at least, he found in the young Trevor-Roper a willing pupil. One of the journal entries declares: “Style is the true elixir of life. Thoughts and theories and systems of knowledge die.” St Thomas Aquinas, Trevor-Roper observed, was now “as obsolete as the mastodon”, for the simple reason that “the poor old boy had no style”. Whereas “the Hebrew prophets, the Caroline divines, perhaps even Bossuet (though I find him unreadable myself), though they have outlived their significance, still have a compelling lustre. And so they float into our uncomprehending world, meaningless but majestic fragments of the past, like icebergs, detached from the frozen Pole, that drift into temperate seas.” As that passage itself shows, Trevor-Roper’s own mastery of English prose style was advancing nicely; and that, at one level, seems to have been the very raison d’être of these journals. 

To the modern reader, a little Logan Pearsall Smith goes a very long way indeed. Arch, feline and stylistically oh-so-self-conscious, his polished observations seem frequently empty and almost always precious. How, one wonders, could the incisive intellect of Hugh Trevor-Roper have fallen for all of this? Part of the answer must surely be: he was young. Reading these pages, with their pre-echoes of the lofty, Olympian style of the late Trevor-Roper, you sometimes have to remind yourself that these are the words of a writer in his late twenties.

More importantly, the Smith doctrine — or attitude — was perhaps ideally suited to someone who had lost his religious faith (if he ever had it), had decided that all metaphysical questions were pointless and was disillusioned with political programmes and ideologies, but whose character retained two active springs: an intense curiosity about human behaviour, and a powerful aesthetic sense. The obvious comparison here is with the mental world of Bloomsbury (with which Smith was directly connected, but Trevor-Roper was not). Here is a telling passage from a “self-appreciation” penned by Trevor-Roper in 1941:

For elementary justice and intellectual freedom (or perhaps I should say, against their opposites), and for my friends, I will fight with relish and abandon. But morals, — I mean the systems people make out of their repressions — I can’t do with. Social and sexual conventions, religion, and all the apparatus of God and Sin, — these make an interesting psychological study; but when people attach importance to them, I don’t argue, I flee.

On the surface, there is enough evidence here to enrol him as an honorary Bloomsburyite. But there are differences too. Trevor-Roper could feel no connection between these attitudes and leftist political causes. (“I am”, he wrote in the same self-appreciation, “instinctively a British whig … I admire … the 18th century, with its elevated self-assurance, its complete and orderly world.”) And his aestheticism was broader and much more traditional. Modernism had few charms for him: Proust and Joyce had merely “embalmed and buried” the corpse of a dead genre (the novel), and he dismissed the former’s masterwork as “that great haystack of introverted snobbery”. Instead, he spent the war years re-reading Homer, Pindar, Thucydides, Lucretius, Horace, Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, Gibbon, Keats and Tennyson. His engagement with these authors was intense, and intensely pleasurable; one wonders how many intelligence officers — or Oxford academics — today would sit down to read, in the original, the fragments of the Greek poet Alcaeus for sheer enjoyment of the word-pictures they painted.

But even these pleasures seem sometimes to have paled in comparison with those of the English landscape, and, above all, those to be derived from cantering through that landscape after a pack of hounds. For a notoriously myopic man, Hugh Trevor-Roper had a surprisingly observant and painterly eye. Hunting on a September afternoon on the high moors of coastal Northumberland, he “marvelled to see that whole long stretch of countryside coloured and variegated by the cloud-broken autumn sunlight, as it picked out and enhanced, through that bright, transparent air, the purple, the green, the yellow-grey, and the blue.” And in an entry simply called “Happiness” he recalled a day with the Bicester hunt: “the grey, melancholy winter landskip, with floods lying in the hollow fields, and then the death, at twilight, in the corner of a flooded meadow off the main road at Blackthorn, amid a small circle of steaming horses, and the doleful music of the horn — most magical and solemn of noises when hounds are blown home on a grey winter’s evening.”

These passages — so personal, and, whether despite or because of all the prose-polishing that has gone into them, so direct and authentic in their conveying of the experience itself — are the sort that linger most strongly in the memory after reading this book. But there are many other memorable things here. Some have already been put to use in Adam Sisman’s excellent recent biography of Trevor-Roper: accounts of his dismal childhood; the story of his ill-fated wartime visit to Ireland and his presumed betrayal to the Irish police by Lord Longford; dismissive remarks about dry-as-dust Christ Church dons, and increasingly intolerant comments on the truly intolerable A.L. Rowse (for which Trevor-Roper’s index entries supply a suitable running commentary: “Rowse, A.L.: poor old, becoming a bore; his deplorable autobiography; once influenced me; a talented shit; touched in the brain”).

Many passages here are new, however: the detailed account of the book he half-seriously planned to write, entitled A History of the English Ruling Classes; a respectful but compelling statement of why, in the end, Macaulay will not do as a writer; a marvellous celebration of C.M. Doughty’s Arabia Deserta (a discovery of the wartime years); and many reports of the wit and aloof cynicism of his friend Gilbert Ryle, capped by Trevor-Roper’s own perceptive and ever so slightly devastating analysis of Ryle’s character — or lack of it.

The book has been superbly edited by Richard Davenport-Hines, whose notes are models of both pithiness and omniscience. (Only the quotations of, and translations from, German fall below this general standard.) Was it worth lavishing so much care on such a text? The answer must be “yes”. For all the occasional touches of juvenile aspiration and self-importance, this is an extraordinarily rich record of an unusually rich mind — one of the most interesting people in recent English intellectual life, caught at one of the most vital moments in English history.