The Diaries of A L Rowse ed Richard Ollard

The brilliant but touchy A L Rowse was renowned for his bombast. Simon Blow discovers his endearingly insecure side
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The Independent Culture

What difference would it have made to AL Rowse if he had been born patrician? Possibly none. Just as, according to Rowse, D H Lawrence's life would have been exactly the same if he had been endowed with less diminutive private parts. That is one of the juicier pieces of information that Rowse supplies in this selection from a lifetime of diary keeping. But the diaries are also a baring of Rowse's own soul. It is a place where he need keep no secrets, a place where he can rub over old wounds and reassure himself that his achievements have been a good deal more significant than those of many of his contemporaries. Isaiah Berlin, for instance: "There is no comparison between the solid body of my work, with its originality, and Isaiah's inadequate performance... a couple of booklets and a couple of essays.''

This perpetual need for self-boosting and boasting could be seen as an irritating shortcoming but it provided Rowse with an ingredient as necessary as talent for getting on - drive. The same may be said for his dislike of his working-class origins. "The hideousness of their surroundings and appointments,'' he moans, "their hideous ornaments... the cheap colours, the tawdryness of carpets... they automatically take to what is pretentious and gaudy, they do not see the horror of their struts, the shambles they make of the countryside.'' But Dad and Mum Rowse had produced an aesthete who was to be a Fellow of All Souls from his mid-20s. On the downside for Rowse was that he was "a queer, a pansy'' - as the pejorative terms of the day would have put it. The outsider element then doubles. When he takes his emotional pulse it reads virtually as a template for the thinking gay man's condition, and the complications that come with it. He writes of childhood, "I was all feeling: I learned all from feeling. I remember how strongly things affected me.'' And later, "I am too sensitive, one skin too few. Hence vulnerable.''

Let's not overdo it. His aesthetic desires were met by a life in the idyllic setting of All Souls and the dreaminess of being within the precincts of the ancient Oxford colleges. He might complain about the loutish behaviour of "the scum'' but he is soon back again in the quadrangles with "bells ringing and birds singing''. More interesting is whether his emotional and sexual desires were ever fulfilled. In the 1920s section - the diaries are sectioned into decades and Rowse was born in 1903 - there are lengthy scribblings of his affection for a young German aristocrat, Adam von Trott. (Trott was later to achieve notoriety as a Nazi who turned against Hitler and in 1944 formed a plot to kill him. The plot was unearthed, and the Führer had him hanged with a meat hook.) It is odd there is no reference to Trott's end. But by then Trott had shifted from the landscape and Rowse's roving eye was taken by other beaux. Though, sadly, we never hit on a full-sex scene - after all Genet was writing at this time - there is talk of "the enormous bulge in his trousers'' and of encounters. But too often Rowse's sensitivities let him down in situations that could have done with more of the assertiveness of a Querelle de Brest. He picks up an Australian on a train finding him "very appealing, tall, glamorous'' and they put up for the night at a hotel. Same room, but Rowse lets the Aussie use him for conversation only. "Not really very amusing,'' poor, dejected Rowse reflects.

Then All Souls and sex don't exactly kick. Nor does tripping round country houses which Rowse pines too much for. He does have friends in that milieu but any true enjoyment is dashed by his belief that he can never fully belong there. The park gates are genetically shut in his face. So this gifted man tells himself he is a misfit everywhere and "what greater isolation could there be?'' Compensation does come in the distinguished people he meets. A slice of flattery will soon bring his touchiness to heel. At a Faber party, he wonders whether to approach T S Eliot and if he will remember him from pre-war years. "I was behind him and touched his sleeve,'' notes Rowse. Eventually he confronts him and is thrilled by Eliot's response, "the ageing eyes lit up and he beamed with genuine pleasure."

There's a visit to the octogenarian Churchill at Chartwell to go over Rowse's manuscript for his book on the Churchills. Rowse puts it all down. How Churchill didn't care for his phrase about the Civil War "degenerating'' and suggests "became spiteful". "I like the word 'spiteful'", the old bulldog tells him. There's praise, too, of course. And how Rowse clings to these pronouncements from the great and famous; vital banks to put a momentary stop to the floodtide of his insecurities.

Yet Rowse's anecdotes are always interesting, his writing lyrical when descriptive, and he is often perceptive in his assessments. He has no fear of knocking pedestals, as shown by his loathing for the overblown fame of lit crits F R and Queenie Leavis: "the Leavises have no sense of style... the texture of their writing the texture of coke''. A J P Taylor comes in for a swipe, as does Trevor-Roper. Sometimes - as with Trevor-Roper - he had pricked Rowse and he had overreacted. But turn to his narration of a visit to Elizabeth Bowen at Bowen's Court - "the sexiness of her imagination'' - or a day spent with Robert Lowell in New York, or a visit to Lawrence's house in New Mexico and Dorothy Brett, self-exiled English aristocrat and close friend of the Lawrences: the model for Brett Ashley in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Here is non-bitchy informed commentary and shows how Rowse could shine when extracted from his Oxford quadrangle and unpleasant academic back-scratching.

The diaries close at the end of the 1960s although Rowse was to live nearly another quarter century. The editor, Richard Ollard, who recently published his biography of Rowse, clearly felt that the five diary decades covered had Rowse at his prime and best. The Oxford stuff with its doings and squabbles with dons can drag a little, but place Rowse anywhere else and his slant is more generous than one might have expected. He's not unlike a kettle that needs taking off as soon as boiling starts. And certain things make him boil fast. Take away his aptitude for self-drama, his wallowing in his working-class disadvantage - hence the comparisons with Lawrence - and we find a mind sparkling with energy and a passion for history and talk of ideas. "I've had a hard life,'' he quotes as Lawrence's dying words and thinks it fits him too. Come on, Rowse, you've had a good life. It's just that you wanted everything... well, that is a lot to expect.