Wednesday 08 February 1995
Alaric Jacob, the writer and one-time foreign correspondent, was a man who turned against his own class: a patrician who believed in the rule of the ordinary people; a patriot made desolate by the decline of his own country. "Mean living," he wrote, "is not conducive to the propagation of greatness. Caged lions degenerate." And, "The history of socialism in England is a history of betrayal."
Jacob's father was in the Indian Civil Service and at one time Political Agent in Aden; his mother was the daughter of a Danish missionary. Alaric spent time in India and Arabia as a child and might have been expected to enter the imperial service as a soldier or a functionary since his family, landowners in Kent, had produced a Commander-in-Chief in India (cousin Claud) and a general (cousin Arthur). But there was also a creative, scholarly tradition to live up to, in Gordon, the composer, and Ernest, a Fellow of All Souls.
The boy Alaric was sent to St Cyprian's School in Eastbourne, where George Orwell had been a pupil (an "absurd little school", Jacob later called it, contributing to a collection of essays on Orwell), and it was hoped that, like Orwell, he would go on toEton. Instead he went to King's School, Canterbury, where he decided he had no wish "to rule subject peoples" and resolved to "make a thin living in the arts at home".
As soon as he could he left school and went to Paris to study. At the age of 17 he wrote a play, The Compleat Cynic: a piece of persiflage in one act, which was produced at the Plymouth Rep; and it was in this city that he began his career as a journalist, on the Western Morning News. When he was 21 he published his first novel, Seventeen, a fictionalised account of his own schooldays in Canterbury. At some point between the play and the novel he met Margot Asquith, who introduced him at one of her parties to Sir Roderick Jones, the head of Reuters. Jacob was offered a position as diplomatic correspondent in London and in 1935 sent to Washington. There he remained until the outbreak of the Second World War.
He was in London during the blitz before being sent by Reuters in 1941 to cover the fighting in North Africa, southern Russia and Burma. This period inspired his book A Traveller's War (1944). By the time it was published, he was already back in Russia, now representing the Daily Express. He had sailed to Russia in an Arctic convoy accompanied by his wife, Iris Morley (they had married in 1933), who represented the Observer and the Yorkshire Post. Iris Morley was a Communist whose ideas strongly influenced Jacob. He later said that his time in Russia was one of the great formative experiences of his life.
Jacob was attached to the Red Army from Stalingrad to the fall of Berlin and he became convinced that, "despite the follies and errors of the regime, despite the crimes committed in the name of Communism", the society which the Russians were creating was"basically a just one". Compared with it, life in England was "stagnant and shabby" and "unworthy of the great traditions of English radicalism". His book A Window in Moscow (1946) is both gripping narrative and political tract.
As a correspondent with contacts in the highest echelons of political life in Washington and Moscow, Jacob was one of the first to sense the change of mood that occurred in relations between the West and the Soviet Union once Germany had been defeated. The Cold War had begun and Jacob's enthusiasm for the Soviet system was suddenly out of fashion. At this point, another cousin, Ian, who was Director-General of the BBC, suggested he should take his skills and knowledge of Eastern Europe to the BBC monitoring station in Caversham and, in due course, Alaric Jacob became a BBC employee. He used to remark wryly at the end of his life that he was not invited to join the BBC pensions scheme until his wife, from whom he was separated and who had become a well-known British CP icon, died in 1953.
Jacob remained a BBC employee until his retirement in 1972, ending up as a senior editor at Bush House, where his fair-mindedness, flair and coolness under pressure were greatly appreciated. At the same time he continued to write. In 1949 he published what was to be the first apologia for the paradoxes and anomalies of his career: Scenes from a Bourgeois Life; in 1962, he followed it with Two Ways in the World. He considerably modified his earlier enthusiasm for Soviet society and at one time hoped to become the Labour candidate for Canterbury: but he was precluded from this by BBC protocol.
Alaric Jacob was the quintessential English journalist, writes Paul Hogarth. Urbane, yet modest, with a bone-dry sense of humour and a razor intelligence. He possessed the grand manner of an Edwardian foreign correspondent with an Alan-Clark-like taste for vintage claret, a good cigar and fine brandy.
When we first met in 1949, he lived in impecunious splendour in a William & Mary mansion on Hampton Green. Although only 40, there was an aura about him that suggested he had seen more exciting days. Indeed, he had. He had been a war correspondent in Russia. But his involvement with the Russian way of life had commenced in boyhood when his parents acquired a Russian housekeeper, a Mrs Birse, who, besides initiating him in Russian haute cuisine, also introduced Princess Troubetskoy and other distinguished emigres. He seemed, therefore, more inclined to accept Russia's past than its questionable present.
When in the late Sixties I was asked by Desmond Flower of Cassells to suggest a writer for a travel book on Russia which I would illustrate I at once proposed Alaric. He jumped at the chance. Our book, A Russian Journey from Suzdal to Samarkand, appearedin 1969. As handsome as it was, I cannot claim it was a best-seller.
One advantage for an artist of working with a journalist, rather than a poet or novelist, is that journalists have a much greater awareness of a "human story". Such a story led us to spend a day at the House of the Veterans of Stage & Screen, a retirement home on the outskirts of Moscow. Actors, film directors and dancers, who had returned to Mother Russia in old age from America or the Argentine, posed for me with a vulnerable pathos which made them irresistible material for both of us. Lydia Nelidova,for example, had been a ballerina in Fokine's company based on New York. Her room, plastered with posters and faded photographs, resembled the dressing-room of a star during a successful run.
It was a different story, however, when we were given an audience with a high-ranking official who asked what he could do for us. I remember the utter silence which followed Alaric's request to visit Star City, the headquarters of the Soviets' space programme, then very much off-limits to foreign observers. "But," Alaric persisted with the imperial manner he could summon when required, "you did let de Gaulle go there."
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