Authors: Robert Barnard
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have never thought of myself as a writer, so I have never imagined myself suffering from writer's block. Yet that, surely, must be what is preventing me writing.
Whenever I sit down at my desk to organise my thoughts, perhaps even sketch out a page or two, the figure that strolls insistently yet engagingly into my mind is always that of Timothy Wycliffe. He pops in, just as he used to pop into my office all those years ago, banishing the earnest intentions I had of getting down to some solid work. So insistent is this memory of himâlaughing, incisive, shocking, as he used to be in lifeâthat I seem totally unable to get down to any coherent narrative of those times.
It should be an easy, straightforward chapter to write, the story of the early 1950sâa dullish period in my life. I knocked off the first chapter (birth, family, education, humdrum army experiences at the end of the war, Oxford) with an ease that must have been deceptive, though I would not pretend there is any literary grace in the telling. I know that my early life was not of the stuff that the Sunday newspapers will be interested in serialising. What they will want is gossip about my fellow politicians, particularly those still in the public eye, and more especially dirt on the respected former Prime Minister who sacked me. The latter I shall dole out sparingly, if at all. It ill
behoves a cabinet minister relieved of his post to bite the hand that hitherto had fed him, though most do. But certainly one period that will not interest the
âinevitably it will be, I suspect, the
âis my years as a fledgling diplomat at the Foreign Office. A brief, factual narrative is all that is required, and I should be able to sew it up in a dry ten pages or so. Yet it is not happening. Quite against my will Timothy is taking me over. Every time I take up my pen in he strolls, with the same sort of smile on his face as he had when he used to stroll up to my desk. And I know that the words will not come because my mind is taken over by that elegant, teasing, casually outrageous figureâmy friend and colleague Timothy Wycliffe.
I do not think it is because he was murdered.
That was five years later, and by that time contact between us was casual and occasional. In fact, I'm afraid that his murder made less impact on me at the time than it should have done: it was something brutal, shocking, but I quite soon put it out of my mind. And yet in those years when we were together on the lowest rungs of the Foreign Office ladder we were really very close.
If I try to analyse that closeness I can see that his background dazzled me a little. His grandfather was the Marquess of Redmondâand even I, a middle-class Londoner who had been a day-boy at Dulwich, knew that a Marquess was something. His father was Lord John Wycliffe, a younger son, and said by some to be a rising star in the Conservative Party, though there were others at that time who said that figures such as he, who had acquired a Commons seat almost by family right, were increasingly out-of-date in Tory politics. Anyway it is likely that his family background helped Timothy to get into the Foreign Office, though, equally, there was no doubt that he was bright, bright in every wayâa sharp, uncluttered brain, with an imagination to match. I was dazzled by him personally quite as much as I was dazzled by his pedigree.
“We're the new boys here,” he said to me when we were introduced, “so we see things more clearly than the old hands.”
In fact he had been there about six weeks or so when I started, but essentially we learned the ropes and found our feet together. It was a testing time for both of us. This was early in 1951, in the dying days of the Labour government, when people were already envisioning Churchill's return as Prime Minister. It was also a time when problems, inevitable but unforeseen, were piling up. In particular my early days in the Foreign Office coincided with Burgess and Maclean absconding to the Soviet Union to avoid exposure as Russian agents, and with British oil interests in Persia (as most of us still called Iran) being threatened by Dr. Mussadegh, with his stated intention of nationalising the oil companies.
A baptism of fire indeed! In fact I don't remember discussing the former subject except very briefly and in hushed tones. I was too junior, and everyone was trying in vain to keep the matter under wraps. It was, so to speak, taken up on high, and we were expected to leave well alone. Security matters always lead politicians to reach for a thick blanket. A subject such as the Persian crisis, however, and our new Foreign Secretary's handling of it, was fair game for gossip in corridors and offices.
That is my first substantial memory of Timâas opposed to a general sense of brightness and friendliness. We had both been working late, well into the evening one warm summer's day in June. What we were doing was certainly not important, but nevertheless it was pressing. We would be judged by the speed and competence with which we handled it. Finally, when it was put to bed, Tim landed up in my office with two cups of black coffee (nowadays I suspect it would be Scotch, for we have become a much more alcoholic nation), and we settled down for a good gossip. Inevitably the talk turned to “Herbie”âHerbert Morrison, the new Foreign Secretary, for whom the F.O. had several nicknames, not all of them affectionate.
“The trouble with Herbie,” I remember complaining to Tim
that night, “is that he gives the impression in the House that he's not on top of his brief.
don't know if he is, and I don't suppose you do either, but the impression is what counts.”
“He's still feeling his way,” said Tim. He jumped off my desk and did an imitation of Morrison, his cock-sparrow walk along the corridors, with his little eyes darting everywhere, as if he feared a stab in the back. “The F.O. is a daunting task to take on. Give him time and he may rise to it.”
“It's time he's not likely to get,” I pointed out. “Attlee's almost sure to go to the country in the autumn.”
“True. Then we'll get Eden for sure. And don't be fooled by the public image of
“I think he may be a perfectly good, well-meaning man. But there's something thereâsome unsureness. He can get frightfully prima-donnaish, and then he's hell to work for.” Tim of course had never worked for Eden. I took such knowledge to be part of his birthright, springing from the political gossip that had surrounded him all his life. “So make the most of Herbie,” he concluded. “A lot of the criticism is just journalistic niggling.”
” I said, quoting Herbie's two-syllable version of it that had aroused the mirth of newspapers.
“That's right. Winston and Bevin could mangle foreign names: they'd wrestle with a really odd one, and it'd land up on the ropes, badly mauled. People thought it was endearing, a patriotic trait even. Herbie does the same thing, but he does it more tentatively, and everyone laughs themselves sick. Herbie knows they wouldn't have laughed at Bevin, and that Bevin wouldn't have worried if they did. And that makes it worse. They loathed each other.”
“Then he should damned well master his text,” I said.
“His mind is on other things.”
“Well, it shouldn't be. What things, anyway?”
Tim nodded his head towards the South Bank, currently occupied by the Festival of Britainâthe Festival Hall, the Dome of Discovery, and all those other constructions long since gone. Does anyone remember the Festival of Britain today? It was very much the creation of the Labour government, and much mocked in the newspapers, but I remember having an awful lot of fun there.
“The Festival is his baby,” Tim said. “He loves it. It's what he wants to be remembered by. He's of an age when politicians start looking for monuments.”
How true that was, and how we have suffered since from politicians anxious to leave monuments! It strikes me that Timothy Wycliffe's conversation was shot through with political insights which got to the heart of the matterâthat illuminated things that I only now, after a quarter of a century in politics, am beginning to understand. It can't have been just his growing up in a political household, especially as I never got the impression he and his father were particularly close, or that he had sat at his feet politically. I think it was his own perceptive, incisive intellect that taught him so much so early about the game of politics, and about politicians and their ways.
I have set down all I remember about that first conversation I had with him that did not concern day-to-day business. But I have one strong visual memory of him too: Timothy, sitting on my desk, slim, elegant, intensely alive, with the long lock of fair hair falling over his eyes to give a misleading impression of dandyism, of the dated aesthete.
Aliveâthat is, sadly, the word that sums him up for me. Alive, joyful, thirsty for experience, with a relish for all kinds of people and an ever-present sense of the ridiculous.
Quite by chance we finished the other pieces of low-level drudgery we were engaged on at the same time, so that we happened to meet at the King Charles Street door. We walked together down the steps and over to St. James's Park, talking
and laughing. We were so late it was already twilight, and the parkâmuch my favourite of all the London parksâwas looking magical. We were still laughing, I remember, when we separated at the point where our paths diverged, Tim to go towards the Palace and then on to Belgravia where he lived, I to go to the St. James's Park tube station.
I dallied a little. I was still living with my parents in Dulwich at that time, and there was no reason for me to hurry home. The air was fresh and bracing, and I was still a little intoxicated at being a partâan oh-so-tiny partâof great international events. An off-duty guardsman crossed the path in front of me, and a courting couple hugging each other close. I remember loitering along, and I remember before I left the park turning towards the Palace, perhaps with some sentimental thoughts about the King, who was looking old and tired, and about the young Princess who would one day succeed him.
I could see a point, some way away, where two of the paths converged. I saw the off-duty guardsman I had already noticed approach it from one direction. I saw Tim Wycliffe approach it from another. I saw them both slacken pace. I saw them make some kind of contact, of eye, of word. I stood there frozen, gazing towards them, my heart beating very fast. They talked, and then I saw them walk on slowly together. Then, as the light seemed altogether to fail, I saw them go off together into the bushes.