BOOK REVIEW / Ten years of lunching

IN THE FIFTIES by Peter Vansittart, John Murray pounds 19.99
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The Independent Culture
"THIS is not autobiography," Peter Vansittart says in his introduction to In the Fifties, and goes on to admit that he takes little interest in fashions or popular culture, and that his book is not "an academic survey" either, but an "impression of how life seemed to me". This is promisingly vague, like the title. Vansittart, the author of 25 novels, was 30 in 1950. His stories of being out to lunch for a decade ought to be interesting.

Vansittart was a member of the Wednesday Club, "a mild dictatorship" devoted to male drinking and gossip, founded by Philip Toynbee and Benedict Nicolson, of whom he gives an amusing portrait "intervening at a tense moment of the drama in those deep, magisterial tones, clearly heard throughout the theatre [ ... ] `Peter... I've decided not to invite Sonia to my party'." Vansittart also taught for a while at Burgess Hill, a progressive school, and gave talks in East London youth clubs, but his main concern was to become established as a writer. To this end he mixed in the right circles and got to know everyone - sort of. He keeps up a relentless flow of anecdotes about his friends and acquaintances, but despite the admission of a few minor gaffes, there is very little sense of Vansittart himself.

In the other parts of the book - chapters with portentous titles such as "Questions" and "Developments" - Vansittart becomes an absentee author. Pound, Eliot, H G Wells, Shaw, Churchill, Attlee, Auden, Priestley, Masefield, Graves, Waugh: drop in a name and out comes a paragraph. No, Vansittart was not intimate with any of these, nor with Einstein, Montgomery or Picasso. Dozens of "figures" file past, so dully and dutifully that I stopped at one point to check if they were actually in alphabetical order. It all smacks of make-weight, as do the illustrations, which are not the expected snaps of Peter's friends, but picture library shots illustrating great men or social phenomena, and accompanied by earnest text-book captions.

Most of Vansittart's stories have been acquired second- or third-hand, and seem worn smooth with re-telling. There are no footnotes, and many of the quotes are unattributed, lifted from print somewhere and used to insinuate recorded conversation by means of phrases like "he has said". This leaves little to contradict the impression that in the Fifties the aspiring author was a mere hanger-on at parties. The author seems disengaged, as if "this is not autobiography" simply because he couldn't summon the energy to make it so.

This sense of ennui is perceptible even in the style of the book, for instance in Vansittart's heavy reliance on making lists instead of writing consecutive sentences. "Recollections flicker past:" begins one paragraph, "Then there were ..." another, followed by lists of dozens of people or a seemingly aimless accretion of detail. This may indicate a magpie mind rather than lack of focus, but it turns up some choice Wallace Arnold moments, as with his recollections of Graham Greene: "For me, Greene remained remote, unknowable, beyond reach. Through the years, an occasional smile of recognition, a hand raised from across a crowded room, once a rueful shrug."

Did Vansittart keep a diary? Passages such as this one, about a taxi ride with Harold Nicholson, strongly suggest that he did: "we drove repeatedly round Hyde Park while he talked [...] about Lady Colefax, Lord Curzon (about whom he had written a book), Wilhelm II, Paris 1919, the influence of a classical education on good manners, his pre-war novel, Public Faces, in which he had fluked a prophecy of the atomic bomb, and much else." One can understand his reluctance to write a conventional memoir, but when "much else" is habitually left out, what's left is about as interesting as an index. In his own terms, Vansittart may have been a social success, but his book is certainly not a literary one.