Obituary: A. L. Rowse

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The Independent Online
A. L. Rowse will, like Horace, not altogether die, writes James Fergusson. "The true sign of genius," he rejoiced in a dictum of Goethe's, "is posthumous productivity."

Prodigiously prolific in his lifetime, Rowse boasted that he would be even more prolific in death. He leaves behind him a vast mass of papers, an archive of unpublished work and correspondence that, he said, would make the Yale editions of Boswell and Johnson look like a minor cottage industry. Blessed even into his nineties with total recall, his literary energies apparently unstoppable, he had kept a diary since 1925 and the antique breadth of his acquaintance (from Victorian academics to Thirties politicians, Bloomsbury and the whole of post-war Oxford), his outrightness in person and his capacity for the devilish phrase promise to make this a publishing sensation - if only his executors dare - for the next century.

He had an unshakeable belief in his own genius which might have been absurd if the belief were not so formidable. He was single-mindedly loyal to his vocation, extraordinarily hard-working, utterly unselfconscious, emphatic, even foul-mouthed, in his assertion of old-fashioned values. He had started with nothing, he had won his way by merit. He saw no need to make concessions ever; he was not a man to compromise. Geniuses, he said, are always difficult, they abhor the rest of humanity - "bloody idiots". Look at Shakespeare . . . Swift . . . himself.

His house, Trenarren, was large, comfortable, might have been the residence of an 18th- or early 19th-century parson antiquary. There were books everywhere. Poetry in the bedroom, 20th-century literature in the corridor, a study full of Cornwall and autobiography, another study of reference and his own books, Shakespeare, serious history and a glass case of rare books in the "library", a handsome sometime drawing room with huge windows looking out over a good garden to the sea. "I must have the largest private library in Cornwall," he said, "10 or 15,000 books: though not as large as Isaac [father of Michael] Foot's - he must have had 80,000.

"They were TTs, the Foots you know. The housekeeper once said to old Mrs Foot, `I don't know about you, I don't know how you manage, I'm glad that with my husband it's only the drink.' "

With Leslie Rowse it was never the drink; that was one of the secrets of his clear- headedness. He, like the Foots, was a teetotaller, because of his duodenal problems. The most he allowed himself was the occasional glass of sherry. At Trenarren he reproduced a college regime, sustained by long- suffering housekeepers to whom, in his own way ("Cooee! Phyllis!", he would cry, "Cooee!"), he was devoted. He would awake at perhaps six and, sitting up in bed, write a book-review or correct a short story for the press, breakfast at eight, lunch at one, dine at six thirty or seven and go to bed at eight again to read. He read furiously; annotated his books with venom ("BF", "Horrid old man", "Silly fool", "Ugh") but also, often, with an open enthusiasm that could surprise. He had a freshness of mind that betokened his independence of spirit. This derived in large part, he would argue, from his background - its poverty and, particularly, his Cornishness.

He was quite rich. He was proud of having made his money with his pen, though he complained constantly that the taxman took it all away - "the buggers". He worked his way up from being a poor working-class lad, he said, and for what? Certainly not so that his hard-earned money should be shared and shared alike by "a lot of bloody idiots". The country was mad, he said, and he would be off on one of his diatribes. It was "a bloody filthy society. Everybody should go and live an America." He loved America, because the Americans loved him. They liked his directness - "not like the English, with all their stiff upper lip and all that rubbish".

He thought of himself above all as a writer. Professionally, he was a historian, privately, he was an unmarrying man with a high camp manner ("Of course I used to be a homo," he said in old age, "very much so; but now, when it doesn't matter, if anything I'm a hetero"). Practically, he was dedicated to the business of writing and indeed thought most of himself as a poet. He admired his old mentor Q, Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, head of the Harbour Commission at Fowey, and his friend John Buchan, Governor General of Canada, who both thought you should be a man of action first and a writer second, but he thought a writer should get on alone with his writing, like Thomas Hardy or Henry James.

He graded the real world ruthlessly. He detested "second-raters" (most of Oxford, most of All Souls) who thought they were first-raters. Most people were third-raters and there was no point in speaking to them. He didn't speak to ordinary people, he said, except about the weather. (I remember once, on a vivid day at St Winnow, his favourite hamlet on the River Fowey, south of Lostwithiel, a day of bright sun and black skies, his engaging a bemused farmworker in screeching Oxford tones for five long minutes about the weather. They seemed like an eternity.) He took changes in the weather as a personal affront. "Bloody, bloody, bloody weather. I don't like to get wet."

Visiting All Souls with him was at once invigorating and alarming. (Visiting anywhere with him was invigorating and alarming; going out for a cup of tea with him was alarming. "Tea, I must have tea," he would announce. "I'm a druggist.") He returned to All Souls occasionally from Cornwall and after 50 years played his enemies like an orchestra. Old Fellows, old enough to know better, seethed around him. After one lunch I thought physical violence might ensue. Rowse was quite unruffled.

He was much mocked, latterly, for his obsession with the Dark Lady, his many egocentricities, his un-English vanity. But he had no doubts himself and his stubbornness, persistence, secret good-humour and kindness represent, on the contrary, a corps of old English virtues. He was a furious driver of cars, always braking, talking, complaining: it was because he was a Celt, he said, "it's all surface frustration". Most of the reporting of his old age was an account of these surface frustrations. Their ripples will have permeated those diaries of his. The prospect of A. L. Rowse's posthumous productivity will - for many people - be awesome.