I’m reading this strange collection of 100 letters written by Hugh Trevor-Roper to various people. I’ve always been intrigued by Roper: he’s such a strange mixture of cleverness, wit, combativeness and ludicrous snobbery. This last characteristic was much on display in his sycophantic correspondence with Bernard Berenson, the art historian and general-purpose rogue. It’s also much on display in the present volume: some of the letters are suffused with nauseating sucking-up to folks who have hereditary titles and grand estates. But here and there there is an absolute gem.
In February 1952, for example, while lying in bed, he composed an astonishing letter to the publisher Hamish Hamilton, who had asked him whether it would be a good idea to commission a biography of Frederick Lindemann. In addition to being one of Churchill’s closest advisers during the war, Lindemann (“the Prof”) was also a Professor of physics at Oxford and a member of Christchurch, Roper’s own college.
Roper knew Lindemann as well as anybody and got on well with him. “I like the old wretch myself”, he writes,
“because I like wicked men (others pretend to like him because they like to know powerful men), but I can see why those who don’t share my perhaps curious taste regard him as a real menace, especially if they dislike his politics – which indeed are the blackest reaction.”
But despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Roper was on good collegial terms with Lindemann, in six devastating pages he lays out the most economical and penetrating profile of an individual I have ever read (with the possible exception of Keynes’s savage pen-portrait of Lloyd George).
Because of my interests in technocracy, one passage in this profile really stood out. Lindemann, says Roper,
has no interest in tradition, and no liberal ideas, – none whatever. He does not even allow that liberalism is a cheaper and more efficient system of government than despotism, as some illiberal political thinkers would nevertheless reluctantly concede; for as a trained scientist and bureaucrat he believes that really scientific despotism could be made cheaper and more efficient still, without any of that waste of energy which toleration, liberalism, and such untidy systems necessarily entail and which exact scientists almost deplore.
He goes on.
It is fundamental to the Prof’s political views that this ruthless mechanical bureaucracy must be run in the interests, and by the agents, of the classes, not the masses. The Prof’s attitude towards the masses is quite clear: he hates, despises, and – above all – fears them. His insulation from their world is complete. The Churchillian idea of ‘Tory democracy’, of sharing any of their emotions (he has no emotions) or enthusiasms (he hates enthusiasms) or pleasures (he despises their pleasures) is incomprehensible to him. His only contact with the lower classes is with butlers. He only moves in limousines. He has never been seen walking in the street. His life is spent, carefully secluded from the tiresome evidence that humanity exists, in luxury-hotels, great houses, carefully-run laboratories, and his own inaccessible rooms in college. These rooms are of an indescribable hideousness (for the Prof is an utter Philistine), furnished like a first-class steamship saloon, along with endless photographs of views available to rich tourists travelling by that line.
” I hope I have convinced you,” Roper concludes, “that the Prof has fundamentally a dull mind and that no biography of him could be interesting”.
It seems that Hamish Hamilton took this advice, but in the end several biographies of Lindemann did emerge. The Earl of Birkenhead (one of Roper’s chums) published the ‘official’ biography in 1961. Two years earlier, another one of Roper’s Oxford mates, Roy Harrod, published a “personal memoir” of Lindemann. And in 2003 Adrian Fort published a rather good biography.