Time Out
1 August 2014

Two thoughts left over from Wednesday night’s Mostly Mozart concert:

If it had been up to me, I’d have nicknamed Mozart’s last symphony after Apollo, not Zeus. The work is the epitome of classic grandeur, but it is not mighty — there is something crude about might. I suppose that the fugato section at the end puts some listeners in mind of thunderbolts hurled from on high, but surely the dazzling of the sun comes to mind as well. But it’s too late, now.

As Louis Langrée took his first bow, I thought, here is a Frenchman in August, taking up his work instead of putting it down. (Most of Mosztly takes place between now and Labor Day.) I doubt that spending the month in New York constitutes any kind of vacation. When does M Langrée take his August?


Will and his parents will spend a week with us out on Fire Island — we head out a week from Monday — but they’ll also be spending next week with us here in New York, camping out in the apartment. Will is four-and-a-half now, and this will be his first visit to New York since he left it last fall. I’m curious to see how much he remembers. I wonder, for example, if he remembers the “dinner store,” the diner across the street (now under new management) where, on an outing alone with me, he hid himself under the table while I went to pay the check. He was two-something at the time, but already an accomplished scamp. Remembering my return to the table and not seeing Will, checking out the rest rooms, peering into the kitchen — this is worse than it actually was, because in the event I was so shocked that I didn’t feel anything. I do remember the moment of recognition, when I recalled that I was dealing with Will, and not some poor wandering babe. In that very instant I directed my gaze under the table, and there he was, grinning.

By now, he has probably moved on to Tube Alloys.

I’m racing through Roy Jenkins’s Churchill, so that it’s out of the way before everyone arrives. I’m thinking of taking A Dance to the Music of Time out to Fire Island. I’m also thinking, but that’s four hefty books. Re-reading entries from three years ago, I was reminded of being completely gripped by The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biography/study of Robert Moses, a Big Book that I had put off reading for thirty years. It would be nice to have another book like that to dive into, but the only such volume that I’ve got on hand is the one volume abridgment of Iron Lady, John Campbell’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. I was never a great fan of Thatcher — quite the contrary — but I thought that it might be annealing to read another big book about recent British politics while the names and dates were still fresh from Campbell’s biography of Jenkins.

In Churchill, I’ve reached the final chapter concerned with World War II, and I am really rather depressed. I had thought, going in, that the trajectory of the War story would be just the opposite of what in fact it was. I thought that the story would begin with the dark near-despair of 1940 and end in triumph. Well, that’s not what happened at all, and certainly not to Churchill. He might have been regarded as the only man who could save Britain, but once it appeared that Britain was saved, the nation turned its back on him. Actually, I oughtn’t to say that; I haven’t got that far. Almost, but not quite. Whatever Churchill’s standing in Britain, however, it was greater than his standing among his allies, Roosevelt and Stalin, men to whom Britain, at the end of the war, was no longer a mighty, world-spanning empire but a smallish island in the North Sea. Churchill himself made it all much worse, or at least less gratifying, than it needed to be. His bulldog manner made him look, indeed, like something of a pet. He made a lot of noise, but he was generally ignored. His determination to preserve Greece from Communist rebels was just about the only one of his post-1942 initiatives that met with endorsement and success. Addicted to summits that meant much less to his hosts (and he was never allowed to play host) than they did to him, he traveled too much and neglected the home front. Instead of being the grand old man, gratefully welcoming American aid and focusing on the well-being of his countrymen, Churchill wore himself out on junkets and abandoned government to his colleagues. He became a tired old man.

He was who he was. Impossible for the most part; the utterly indispensable man for two or three years. He was a first-class orator, but an amateur statesman — perhaps because he saw politics and government as a kind of game. Games were all about his winning them. (I didn’t know that he was a crack polo player as a young man.) I used to wonder about the good judgment of a governing class that preferred to keep him at arm’s length, if not at some further distance. Now I’m amazed that Churchill was ever allowed to stand for a second election. He was, for the most part, a great nuisance.

Until he wasn’t.

The upshot is that Roy Jenkins appears, through the pages of his biography of Churchill, as the better man. The better man and the better statesman. Fortune denied Jenkins the opportunities that would have showcased his gifts in the way that Hitler’s encroachments showcased Churchill’s. Jenkins was on the wrong side of the war that would subvert his career. Just as he was launching the Social Democratic Party, creating a “Third Way” that would appeal intelligently to the vast British center, the jingoistic current generated by the Falklands War caused widespread stupidization. By the end of the Eighties, Jenkins ought to have been the Prime Minister, leading a popular new party,  but, thanks to contrary tides all round, he was not even in Parliament. Jenkins and Churchill therefore make an extremely interesting pair. The careers of both men highlight the role of chance, especially the chance of contemporaries. Politicians are made and broken by the people among whom they are placed, according to the accidents of time and place.

At the same time, Jenkins was probably right to assess himself as lacking the ruthlessness required to reach the top of the greasy pole. I can’t fault him for that; he accomplished many good things — and, what’s more, set a fine example — from such heights as he did attain.

Bon weekend à tous!