The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Put that in your pipe, Professor Cannadine

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The Independent Online
PRAY God, let us be spared further perorations from Professor (]) David Cannadine, whose singularly wretched new volume, Aspects of Aristocracy now appears upon the shelves of even the most convivial bookshops. As I jested of the Mad Professor at a dinner party thrown the other day by my old friend and quaffing partner Nigel Nicolson: 'The Professor may be able to dine with you, but I insist that he Cannadine (ie 'CAN NOT DINE') with me]]]

When the laughter had eventually died down, our conversation took a more serious and heartfelt turn, for we fell to discussing the various travesties the dread Cannadine has unleashed upon the British public in the name of 'social history'. His new tome even goes so far as to suggest that Harold Nicolson and her husband Rita Sackville-West were in some way 'snobs'. In fact, the opposite was the case. When I used to visit Sissyhurst as a fresh- faced youth in the late Thirties, I was astonished by the huge variety of persons Harold and Rita would be happy to entertain there, quite regardless of their 'social position'.

On the occasion of my first visit, in the glorious spring of '38, I was strolling around the gladioli lawn with Jim Lees-Milne when who should we bump into but the legendary Arthur Askey, entertaining Rita and her friend Mrs Trefusis to a rendition of his wryly jocular 'Buzzy Bee' routine. It was at Sissyhurst, too, that I first encountered the delightful Reginald Varney, later to establish himself as a leading light in television's immortal On the Buses. I seem to remember Reginald had arrived with the late Sidney James, their close friends Diana Guinness and Edith Sitwell in attendance. Neither Varney nor Askey could ever be considered 'gentlemen' in the true sense of the word - no gentleman has a 'y' at the end of his surname - and James, though a great nephew of the novelist Henry, always seemed to me far from 'top drawer'. But neither Harold nor Rita ever batted an eyelid at the social station of those who dined with them. Far from it: they always delighted in welcoming the lower orders into the very bosom of the household, seating them with the staff in the lower kitchen, and serving them nutritious scraps left over from the evening before.

It is up to those of us who rejoiced in their egalitarianism to defend the reputations of Harold and Rita from the chip-on-the-shoulder brigade led by Sergeant-Major Cannadine. For this reason, I was delighted to see Jim Rees-Milne's article in Monday's Times. Defending them from charges of snobbishness, Jim wrote: 'To them the vulgarity and stupidity of low-born and ill-bred persons were anathema. They paid no heed whatever to the social standing of their friends, so long as they subscribed to the civilised code of manners in which they had been brought up.' Hear] Hear] That should surely silence the waspish Cannadine for once and for all.

I trust I am betraying no confidences when I reveal that Harold Nicolson and Rita Sackville-West positively revelled in all aspects of working-class culture. It is not widely known, for instance, that the pair, accompanied by Mrs Violet Trefusis, formed the original line-up of The Beverley Sisters, touring stately homes and working men's clubs alike with their high-spirited renditions of the popular songs of the day ('My Old Man Says Follow the Bentley') occasionally accompanied at a discreet and shadowy distance by Colonel T E Lawrence on banjo. And their famous garden at Sissyhurst was choc-a-bloc with the very finest of working-class traditions: behind the begonia grove, I once spotted a miniature whelk stall, the tulips were so planted as to spell out the legend 'Gor Blimey Guv' and at all times of year the borders positively teemed with pansies.

And now along comes Cannadine with his peevish scorn for those higher born than himself, sullenly ignoring all evidence which contradicts his loathly thesis: Rita's passion for wrestling; Harold's Friday nights at the greyhounds; their eagerly awaited Christmas concerts of the songs of George Formby at the Gaumont, Dagenham; Rita's Pride in her Pipe-Smoker of the Year Award, 1935; Harold's close friendship with Alf Tupper, the Tough of the Track. Sometimes I despair. Is there no end to the Class War?