What this book is about, in short, is Roy Jenkins. It stands in a very honourable tradition. Mr Gladstone used to produce volumes like this, under the title Gleanings of Past Years, collecting his ephemeral writings not just on politics but on a range of historical and literary themes. A highly select line of subsequent ministers has upheld this vocation of the statesman as man of letters. The main 20th-century example is obviously Winston Churchill. His book of biographical essays, Great Contemporaries, was published in the 1930s. It is a work which Jenkins clearly admires and perhaps set out to emulate. The six portraits which form the core of this volume memorably capture some of his own great contemporaries.
The selection is interesting. None of the three British politicians chosen here became prime minister. R A Butler, who made a life's work out of not doing so, claims pride of place, as 'the most ambivalently fascinating of the nearly men'. He first failed to snatch his opportunity in 1953, when, with Churchill and Eden both incapacitated for several months, Butler presided over 16 successive cabinet meetings. He successively allowed Churchill time to hand over to Eden, and permitted Macmillan to shoulder him aside twice. 'After 1953, the events of 1957 and 1963 were in the stars,' Jenkins comments, shrewdly enough. With some empathy he adds: 'I understand Rab's position perfectly.'
There is a nicely appreciative essay on Aneurin Bevan, from whom Jenkins was divided by what he calls the tribal conflict in the Labour Party in the 1950s. This made for a narrowness which the author now regrets and which he succeeds in transcending without falling into nostalgic Nyedolatry. Jenkins believes that Bevan's star quality set him in a galaxy of contemporaries, like Evelyn Waugh and Dylan Thomas, which outshone mere prime ministers like Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. The essay on Iain Macleod, by contrast, fails to generate much warmth between the subject and the author.
The other three biographical essays look abroad, at architects of the post-war settlement which heralded Britain's eclipse. Dean Acheson is perfectly conveyed as the epitome of the American East Coast establishment of patrician Democrats - just the man to point out, with tactless incontrovertibility, that Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role.
Then there are two (inevitably linked) essays on the old men who reshaped the new Europe on its Bonn-Paris axis. Jenkins does justice to 'the pointed gothic arches of Konrad Adenauer's appearance and personality'. It is, however, De Gaulle who emerges as the most spell-binding of all Jenkins's subjects. The triumph of will in asserting une certaine idee de France, from the unpromising context of 1940 to the triumphalism of the Fifth Republic, obviously seizes the author's imagination. Yet it does so across a chasm of temperamental incompatibility between them, hinted at in the description of Colombey-les-Deux Eglises as 'uniquely far from even a one-starred Michelin restaurant'.
What makes Jenkins so impressive, even in the shorter pieces, which started life as book reviews, is the fact that he does his homework. Though he can summon rare literary gifts of expression, he does not rely upon them to evade the sheer hard graft of preparation. His lecture here on Newman shows him mugging up a subject virtually from scratch - but with results well worth those hours in his study. The fact that he manifestly reads the books of which he is such an influential reviewer is, of course, one reason for that influence. Here is one book which Roy Jenkins cannot review. The label will command attention and the contents deserve to be relished.Reuse content