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November 19, 2010 11:24 pm
Perhaps it is the time of year, perhaps it is because I am a historian, but the past has weighed heavily this autumn. Not least through writing this piece – which has made me realise with a jolt that a quarter of a century ago I was just starting on my first big book, a chronicle of the first century of the Financial Times.
The centenary itself, in February 1988, was marked by a banquet at London’s Guildhall, where Nigel Lawson, then at his zenith as Chancellor of the Exchequer, referred in his speech to “young Dr David Kynaston” – subsequently a source of endless amusement to my then two-year-old daughter.
Since then I have kept an eye on the paper’s fortunes, and my favourite writer has long been Martin Wolf. His economic commentary each Wednesday has bite as well as real intellectual distinction. During the recent (current?) crisis of capitalism, I have often reflected on the autobiographical preface to his 2004 book Why Globalization Works. There he recalls how his father, an Austrian Jewish refugee from Hitler, drummed home to him that a healthy liberal democracy was the indispensable bulwark against the twin evils of fascism and communism; while Wolf himself as a young adult came increasingly to realise that the best guarantor of that liberal democracy was properly functioning capitalism. Put another way, as Wolf himself has argued in his column, those bankers who got it so horribly and self-seekingly wrong were guilty of more than a purely financial betrayal.
There is nowhere quite like Oxford for bitter-sweet autumnal musings. This autumn I have been visiting regularly, to read Harold Macmillan’s hugely enjoyable diaries in the Bodleian Library as I research the third stretch (I am up to the years 1957-1963) of my history of postwar Britain.
It is now the proverbial 40 years on since I went up to New College, Oxford, to read modern history. Over-influenced as an adolescent by Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, I spent too long searching for the gate to a magic garden that almost certainly didn’t exist, and was pretty miserable for quite a lot of my time at Oxford. My impression is that since then the university’s pastoral care has been transformed, and it is a source of great pleasure that my elder son enjoyed three largely happy, productive years there reading English.
But I do still have a large bone to pick with Oxford. I simply do not grasp the justice of almost half its undergraduate intake (and similarly that of Cambridge) coming from the private school sector, which educates some 7 per cent of the population.
More broadly, how can a flourishing private school sector, with its almost infinitely greater resources than the state sector, be compatible with the belief in social mobility – or equality of opportunity, or meritocracy, call it what you will – that almost all politicians profess? I have never seen a convincing argument that they are compatible. No doubt it is a delayed midlife crisis, but in recent years I have become mildly obsessed by the issue. On the basis of personal experience (I went to a private school, while my children have been to state grammars) as well as observation and anecdote, it is clear to me that the three main streams of intake – private school, state selective, state non-selective – are all utterly different from each other, and that therefore Oxbridge entrance should be done on a quota basis from each stream. The respective sizes of those three quotas would be a matter for debate, but the principle itself is, I believe, sound.
All writers should have the three words: “JUST SAY NO”, pinned above their desk. Still, as in life generally, saying “yes” does often yield stimulating pleasures. Earlier this week I helped to launch Kingston University’s new Centre for the Historical Record by speaking about my next volume, provisionally entitled Modernity Britain, in front of a responding panel that included the legendary journalist Katharine Whitehorn, whose career began on Picture Post back in the mid-1950s; later this week I am venturing into the true-blue territory of Kensington and Chelsea to argue in a London History Festival debate that the marvellously unshowy Clement Attlee was our greatest prime minister, which I hope to do in suitably clipped, unexpansive language; and next week I’m due to be the first male of the species to give the annual Persephone Lecture.
Persephone is a books imprint begun 12 years ago by Nicola Beauman, and it has been a notable success, with a particularly fine record for reprinting excellent but half-forgotten novels, mainly by women writers, from the first half of the 20th century. The lecture itself is just starting to take shape and I want to demonstrate how I have tried to write a rather different kind of postwar history from the norm by extensively drawing on the recorded lives of “unknown” diarists, most of them female.
One of my favourite diarists is Judy Haines, a housewife and mother-of-two living in Chingford who, unusually for diarists, tended to see her glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Her diaries are kept at Sussex University Library, home also of the remarkable Mass Observation archive, specialising in material about everyday life in Britain. On a research trip the other day I was especially struck by how even she got fed up sometimes. “John went to football,” she wrote on October 12, 1957, a Saturday. “I mowed the lawn. So much to do.”
I had also been hoping this week to be off to football – at the Recreation Ground, Aldershot, where the team I’ve followed for 52 seasons were taking on Brentford in an FA Cup replay. But my younger son, who was coming with me, has been unwell, so instead he located a radio commentary and we listened to the Shots squeeze out a gratifying 1-0 win. It probably won’t be long, though, before I’m reminded again of the sardonic title of an old fanzine, Shots in the Dark.
We each have our own personal myth, as the novelist Anthony Powell so helpfully explains in his sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time. In essence his theory is that as long as one’s view of oneself is more or less aligned with reality, then one should be all right. Being the loyal, long-suffering supporter of a club that seldom wins the prizes is pretty important in my personal myth.
Meanwhile, an even more epic sporting contest is almost upon us: the Ashes, which start next week. I still love cricket, but I do wish that a team calling itself “England” had solely English players in it, and also I hate the way in which in our domestic season first-class cricket, ie proper, non-instant cricket, has been so marginalised. Speaking last spring at the annual dinner to launch Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, I made both these points – and as a result was reportedly called “the idiotic professor” by Giles Clarke, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board. Well, personal abuse aside, time as ever will show the wiser.
Who’s going to win the Ashes? “No no no no” was the understated e-mail response of my friend Simon Rae, author of a wonderful biography of WG Grace, after I had pessimistically mentioned that, metaphorically speaking, my money was still on the Aussies. OK Simon, but you’ll have to buy me a drink if you’re wrong.
David Kynaston’s most recent cricket book, ‘WG’s Birthday Party’, is published by Bloomsbury
Read Martin Wolf’s review of Will Hutton’s ‘Them and Us’
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