Monday, September 05, 2011

Men of feeling

At the LRB, Ferdinand Mount on Harold Macmillan's diaries and a new biography. Here is Mount on the long aftermath of Macmillan's wife's affair with Bob Boothby in the late 1920s (she claimed that Boothby was the father of her youngest daughter Sarah):
In 1975, he went to see Boothby at his flat and asked, for the sake of his peace of mind, to know the truth one way or another about Sarah. In the unbearably painful conversation that followed, Boothby assured him that Sarah was not his daughter because he was always scrupulously careful in his affairs. What Macmillan did not know was that Boothby had just been presented with a tape recorder by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of which he’d been chairman for many years. Before Macmillan’s arrival, he had been taping a Tchaikovsky symphony from the radio. He had turned off the radio but unwittingly left the tape recorder running on the floor behind a sofa. And so all the agony that Macmillan had poured out to him was on tape, and Boothby played it back to his new wife, Wanda, when she came in, with tears running down his face.

This is how D.R. Thorpe tells the story, eloquently and elegantly, as he does everything in this exemplary biography, which complements if it does not entirely supplant Alistair Horne’s two-volume official Life; Horne is better on the military, Thorpe on the political and personal. At every juncture Thorpe presents the evidence in a scrupulous and equable style. He is charitable, just as he was in his earlier biographies of Selwyn Lloyd and Eden, both of whom had reasons to be resentful of Macmillan’s behaviour. By not taking sides, Thorpe leaves readers room to come to their own judgment.

And if you want my guess here, I don’t think that Boothby, that insatiable seducer of both sexes, left the tape recorder on by accident. I don’t mean that he had it in for Macmillan exactly, although it is always hard to forgive those you have wronged, especially when you have been wronging them for years. It is more that Boothby, himself the ripest of old hams, would have been unable to resist the dramatic potential of the scene: the aged ex-prime minister with tears running down his face, and then a few hours later Boothby, the man of feeling, recalling the recalling with tears running down his face.

1 comment:

  1. The Philharmonic Orchestra/Tchaikovsky is a very nice touch -- or would've been if the story had been made up.