Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Brief Lives Briefly Viewed

by John McCaughey

W.F. Deedes cheats a little with the title of this book*. First, "Brief Lives" was employed hundreds of years ago as a book title by the 17th Century scribbler John Evelyn and has been used often since then by other writers of books. Deedes ought to have scratched his head to find a more original title. In truth, they are not "Lives" at all in any real biographical sense but merely brief anecdotal sketches, mostly of contemporaries.

For all that, it is an interesting book. Bill Deedes, who died at 94 not long ago, had plenty of material. A politician, former cabinet minister, Editor of the national conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph (known fondly as The Torygraph), he became a columnist in later life. His long career in London afforded him the opportunity to meet most of the history-making characters of the epoch. Unusually, for a politician and a newspaperman, he was much loved by his readers. His fame was greatly increased by a series of "Dear Bill" letters in the satirical magazine Private Eye. These were (ostensibly) letters from Dennis Thatcher (the then Prime Minister's husband) to his golfing friend Bill: two curmudgeonly old conservatives complaining about the vicissitudes of modern Britain. Deedes took the gentle mockery that the columns engendered with great good humor.

Nowadays, we are mostly cynical about and disenchanted with politicians. Deedes was more forgiving. "Whether they got it right or wrong," he says, "they serve as guideposts. That is what makes them worth writing about." And write about them he does, neither in a party hack nor a sarcastic style. He is especially good on the politics in England in the run-up to World War II. He understood politics, noting here: "That is a hard thing about politics: events may call upon a man to do something wholly contrary to his political creed. If he does so, his party will accuse him of betrayal; if he does not, then he will be seen as a man who put party before country."

Deedes is no flashy stylist but he writes with simplicity and lucidity --- perhaps a better thing. But he appreciates color. He tells an amusing yarn about Churchill who, refusing to take early retirement, "dons what looked like a cross between a bowler and a topper, mounted a horse and was declared to have joined a foxhunt."

Deedes‚ subjects (about 18 in all) are all over the shop: important (if now forgotten) politicians like Stanley Balwin or Anthony Eden, entertainers like Noel Coward (whose advice on getting the best seat on a railway train is alone worth the price of admission), mountaineers like Edmund Hilary (first man to climb Mount Everest) and more unlikely characters like Imelda Marcos (she of the shoes) and Princess Diana (with whom he shared a campaign against landmines), fellow journalists like Malcolm Muggeridge and even Mary Whitehouse, the oddball campaigner against what she perceived as pornography on BBC television. Some of these sketches may be of interest only to historians but it is good to have them in print, written by someone who was on the scene and knew the players personally.

In brief, Deedes‚ short book is in its way a serious work of British social, literary and political history. The tone is (very occasionally) a trifle self-congratulatory and one does yearn at times for a little sarcasm or satire. But that was never Deedes‚ way. He was gentle and kind. And he was an old man when he wrote the book so that he can easily be forgiven for not being Jonathan Swift.

*Brief Lives by W.F. Deedes. Pan Books (UK)



Anonymous Anonymous said...

The author of Brief Lives was John Aubrey - not Evelyn. Close, though.

Oh, well: I suppose you'll label me a left-wing crank (just kidding).

September 19, 2007  

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