BOOK REVIEW / The raising of chattering class consciousness: 'Partners in Protest: Life with Canon Collins' - Diana Collins: Gollancz, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS earnest foreword to this book, Bishop Trevor Huddleston hails 'the achievements, against great odds' of John and Diana Collins. What were these 'great odds'? Diana Collins was the daughter of an immensely prosperous industrialist. When, as a young undergraduate, she fell asleep at the wheel and knocked a worker off his bike, there were wealthy lawyers to protect her. She didn't notice the poverty and unemployment of the 1930s until she was 21, and then only fleetingly. When she first came to vote (in the year of the Labour landslide, 1945) she voted Tory. And - perhaps the toughest odds she faced - when she told her family she was going to marry a lower-middle-class man of God she'd met at Oxford, an aunt summed up the general distaste with the immortal comment: 'Really, Diana, you can't marry anybody called John Collins.'

John Collins was not exactly up against it, either. He'd got a scholarship and a first-class degree, enjoyed good wine and holidays in the Dordogne. Indeed, the Collins family lived a life of uninterrupted comfort. After wondering whether they ought to send their sons to state schools, they decided, in the interests of equality, to send all three of them to Eton.

John Collins had also been conservative in his youth - he'd signed on as a special constable during the General Strike. But he caught the fever for social change during the war. From the vantage point of St Paul's Cathedral, where he was appointed Canon by the post-war Labour government, he spent most of his life trying to shake the Church of England out of its traditional complacency. He became Chairman of the Campaign for unilateral Nuclear Disarmament and the Defence and Aid Fund for the persecuted majority in South Africa. In both efforts he was resolute but cautious. The slogan of the more radical young Aldermaston marchers in 1960 was 'Ban the bomb and fire the Canon'.

Anyone who hopes for any new political insight from this book will be disappointed. It is mostly cheerful chatter: ('Nanny made plum jam and delicious elderberry jelly', etc). It's not until the last few pages, when Diana Collins tells of her own solo visit to South Africa, that she gives us a hint of the outrage which inspired her and her husband in their long quest for reform. As she admits, rather sheepishly: 'Dilettantism is the story of my life.'

I've managed, though, to dig out three interesting, and entirely unrelated, pieces of information.

1) On a cold wet night in Oxford in December 1946, a Christian Action meeting calling on people to do something about starvation and poverty in Germany (from which British troops had recently returned victorious) brought 3,000 to the Town Hall.

2) When Collins remonstrated with Stafford Cripps about the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cripps (who was in the Government) replied: 'What can I do? The Cabinet was not consulted, only Attlee was informed.'

3) In 1963, John Collins was approached by a spy in the Russian Embassy, who asked him to help in a bold plan, eventually adandoned, to rescue South African political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, from Robben Island. That's funny. In 1985, I had a long meeting with a man who, to my certain knowledge, had been hired by British intelligence to infiltrate the IRA. Among many other fascinating stories, he told me that 'about 15 years ago' he'd been recruited by Robert Maxwell to take part in a Russian- inspired (but eventually abandoned) plan to free prisoners from Robben Island. I didn't believe it at the time - but now who knows?