Biography: Harold Nicolson by Norman Rose

The Times, UK
Jan 30 2005

Biography: Harold Nicolson by Norman Rose

by Norman Rose

Cape £20 pp400

Harold Nicolson often wondered why he had not been more successful.
He had shown promise as a diplomat until his wife, Vita
Sackville-West, insisted he gave it up. But after that he drifted,
making little impact as an author and none as a politician. Was it,
he pondered, because he lacked some vital spark? To readers of Norman
Rose’s biography, the question of what was wrong with Harold will
seem less of a mystery. He was a rabid snob and a squirming snake-pit
of prejudice, without even the intelligence to realise that other
people were as human as himself.

Rose blames his upbringing. A Victorian diplomat’s son, Harold grew
up in palatial embassies abroad where liveried servants bowed as one
passed. At Oxford he developed a `marked distaste’ for students who
had not been to public school. Their `strange accents’ distressed
him, as did the presence of female undergraduates. His attitude to
the lower classes, which crystallised at this time, was
straightforward: `I hate them. I do not want them to become like me.’
>From university he proceeded to the Foreign Office, a bastion of
aristocratic privilege, where his allocated sphere of interest was
the Balkans. Foreigners, he soon found, were far from satisfactory.
The Turks were `servile and inglorious’, the Bulgarians contemptible,
the Italians cheats and liars. As a classical scholar (he had secured
a third in Greats at Oxford) he had a soft spot for the Greeks, and
encouraged their ambitions in Asia Minor, a policy that led to the
slaughter of 30,000 Greek and Armenian Christians by Ataturk in
Smyrna (`Poor darlings,’ sighed Harold). Travelling in later life
allowed him to extend the range of his xenophobia. The Japanese, he
found, were `ugly and loathsome’; the Americans `a most unfortunate

As for non-whites, they were completely beyond the pale. An early
Foreign Office job was to meet two delegates from the Haitian
Republic, whom he characterised as `beastly niggers’. The `dark
races’, he explained, were `born to occupy an inferior station in
life’. They were inartistic, dirty and too numerous. These
convictions never waned, and they went with an equally poisonous and
permanent anti-semitism. He habitually described Jews as `oily’, and
favoured the creation of a national homeland in Palestine only
because it would collect all the world’s Jews together `as Butlin’s
collects all the noisy holiday-makers’. Even the Holocaust did not
shame him into repentance. Discussing a mutual Jewish acquaintance
with his son after the war, he declared `he arouses my sympathy for
Eichmann’ (the Nazi responsible for administering the extermination
of European Jewry, who was hanged by the Israelis in 1962).

In Vita, Harold found one of the few women in England who could outdo
him in snobbery. Glorying in her lineage, and in the ancestral pile
at Knole, she despised everyone who was not a Sackville-West, and
openly classified her husband’s parents and family as `bedint’ –
Sackville-West slang for `common’. Harold, masochistic by
temperament, rather agreed. He had always hated his `plebeian’
surname, he confessed. Their semi-detached marriage, and the gardens
they created at Long Barn and Sissinghurst, have been written about
quite enough already, and Rose wisely fast-forwards through these
areas, as he does through their large and shifting seraglios of
same-sex partners. Vita’s famously included Virginia Woolf, who
scorned her lover’s writing skills (`a pen of brass’) and appearance
(`florid, moustached, parakeet-coloured’), but was lured to her bed
by her sheer aristocratic glamour, like any fluff-brained deb.

Both Harold and Vita viewed the rise of socialism with horror and
dismay. Harold feared that a tide of `venom’ would engulf
civilisation, which he equated with the class advantages he and Vita
enjoyed. He often complained that, what with punitive taxation, they
subsisted just above the breadline, but this merely illustrated his
failure to notice how other people lived. Besides Sissinghurst, with
its 400 acres and its staff of six plus three gardeners, he and Vita
had a London house and a yacht. All of this was acquired and
maintained with Sackville-West money, since their joint earnings were
quite inadequate for such a lifestyle. That did not prevent Vita from
protesting, when the welfare state was first mooted in the early
1940s, that it was wrong to give people `everything for nothing’
because it discouraged `thrift and effort’. It had been a mistake, in
her view, to educate the lower orders, since it encouraged them to
rise above their `rightful place’. The populace should be well fed
and well housed, like dairy cows, but nothing more. Despite her
misgivings, Harold, to his credit, expressed sympathy with the 1942
Beveridge Report, the welfare-state blueprint, and even, according to
Rose, put the idea of a national health service into Beveridge’s

Making excuses for Harold is not Rose’s remit, but anyone inclined to
do so might well point first to his homosexuality. Throughout his
life, homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. Simply by being true
to his sexual nature, he risked public shame and possible
imprisonment. Blackmail was also a persistent threat. He must have
lived, as Rose observes, on a knife edge. It does not take much
imagination to see that finding himself sexually separate and
different could have both reinforced and been alleviated by a sense
of social and racial superiority. Even if this explanation is
misguided, it has to be granted that when his son Ben confided his
own homosexuality to his father, Harold managed the situation well.
It was, he advised, not a thing to be ashamed of or proud about –
just a natural preference, `as if you liked oysters done in sherry’.
Ben later married and had a daughter.

Harold’s homosexuality, and the dangers it incurred, clearly
instilled in him a habit of watchfulness. His writing hits off
mannerisms, clothes and gestures unerringly. It was this that made
Some People, his first and most enjoyable book, so annoying to
colleagues at the Foreign Office who appeared in it. It was also what
made him an outstanding diarist. Describing Marcel Proust, whom he
met in Paris (`white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced’), or James Joyce
(`a very nervous and refined animal, a gazelle in a drawing room’),
or the future Edward VIII’s `sandy eyelashes’ and `furtive giggling’,
he continually feeds the eye and ear. His account of the German
delegates signing the 1919 peace treaty in the Galerie des Glaces at
Versailles – one of the best pieces of reportage in the language –
mobilises the same skills.

Rose is a professor of international relations at the Hebrew
University in Jerusalem, so he is able to put Harold’s foreign policy
skills into context more thoroughly than has been done before. There
were some misjudgments. In 1930, Harold, on a posting in Berlin,
announced that Hitler’s political career was finished. In 1945, he
assured the House of Commons that Stalin was `the most reliable man
in Europe’. But by and large, Rose judges, his reading of the
international scene was creditable. Just as well, given the other
characteristics that emerge from this frank and alert book.

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