The opening line in most obituaries of Robert Conquest, who died on August the third, described him as a “historian and poet”. That would be a capacious enough description for most men of letters. In Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, Charon keeps A. E. Housman waiting on the banks of the River Styx for a second arrival since he is expecting two people, “a poet and a scholar”, until Housman says shyly: “I think that must be me.” In Bob’s case Charon would have been waiting for a historian, a poet, a novelist, a satirist, a critic, a diplomat, a strategist, a soldier, a social and political theorist, a limerickist, and of course a scholar – and I have almost certainly left out some of Bob’s other professional identities. Charon probably brought along a second boat.
It is well-nigh impossible to do justice to a life of such varied achievement. Most of Bob’s obituaries rightly focused therefore on the most important aspects of his public achievement (in particular his histories: The Great Terror on Stalin’s purges and the Harvest of Sorrow on Stalin’s forced Ukrainian famine). They made clear that his accounts of the dictator’s crimes (in particular, the number of his victims) had first been challenged and later vindicated; they attributed a major change in the world’s opinion of Soviet communism at least in part to his work; they gave lesser but still important standing to his literary achievements; and they gave a general impression of a life devoted to truth and crowned by honours. With the exception of a Guardian obituary that hinted so many faults and hesitated so many dislikes (to paraphrase Alexander Pope) that it revealed its overwhelming animus, they were all both (largely) accurate and highly favourable. Their main conclusions need not be further developed here.
For the other half of Bob’s public achievement was his life in literature. That too was extremely varied, and it went very deep. He was a major poet and critic who in 1956 launched the “Movement” poets – including Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, Donald Davie – in the anthology New Lines. Much ink has been spent arguing that the Movement poets were no such thing and soon went their separate ways. That seems overargued. Poets of their nature don’t remain in formation. What is surely more significant is that the Movement included many poets who in retrospect are among the most-read British poets of the post-war years, that the country’s single best-loved poet, Philip Larkin, was among them, and that their work did exhibit certain common traits, notably concern for technique and formal perfection, avoidance of rhetorical and romantic excess, strong dislike of pretension, and belief that poetry should be intelligent as well as moving or powerful. Bob himself, having called for a renewed attention to the “necessary intellectual component in poetry viewed from a common sense standpoint”, was clearly the moving spirit as well as the anthologist of the Movement. And his own poetry met that (and most other) criteria.
Is it so necessary For a wild memory To fade and blur
Before the full charge Of an old love or rage Can really register?
With a life’s long perspectives The changed picture gives
More depth and scope
As twisted faces shrink To little more than pink Blobs on its landscape…
A passion, sharp and hot,
Might once have seized the heart
To rip or scald.
So far as this can be Recalled in tranquillity It’s not recalled.
A strong dislike of pretension, accompanied by a happy delight in puncturing it through satire and parody, is also a major element in his literary criticism. His demolition of Ezra Pound is especially effective because, as a classical scholar and linguist, he is able to establish that many of Pound’s most admired technical effects are in reality simple errors of grammar or translation. Some of his satires even merit the judgement “too perfect”. His essay “Christian Symbolism in ‘Lucky Jim’”, which appeared in the Critical Quarterly of 1965, was a parody of the then-dominant literary criticism and contained such absurdities as seeing Jim as a Christ figure because his surname Dixon – read it Di(e)xon – was centred on an X on which a man might die. After Eng Lit professors started getting its arguments in their students’ essays, the Quarterly published a note to readers that the essay was in fact satirical. Read today it is a masterpiece of dry irony. These and other essays in criticism, originally scattered through several journals, were collected in the 1979 book The Abomination of Moab, which will serve well as a manifesto of Bob’s literary commonsense. In response to the charge of philistinism levelled by the academic and transgressive critics of popular or traditional literature, he hurls back the charge of Moabitism. Just as the Philistines were the enemies of the children of light, the Moabites were their false friends who set them “whoring off after strange doctrines”. Most literary and artistic intellectuals are, in short, the false friends of art and damage it by their support. Bob transferred this insight from literature to the wider arena of education as a whole in the 1970s “Black Papers” lamenting, with Kingsley Amis and others, the decline of schooling and cultural standards generally. This criticism of progressive education made him a “controversial” right-winger as the media understand these things. Few other conventional critics of modern education, however, could have matched this criticism – a parody of one of Bob’s favourite nineteenth-century light versifiers, Winthrop Mackworth Praed:
“Those teach who can’t do” runs the dictum, But for some even that’s out of reach:
They can’t even teach – so they’ve picked ’em
To teach other people to teach. Then alas for the next generation,
For the pots fairly crackle with thorn. Where psychology meets education
A terrible bullshit is born.
In addition to his writings on Soviet history, critical articles, Black Paper polemics and columns for the Daily Telegraph, Bob wrote two novels, a study of science fiction (with Kingsley Amis again), a constant stream of poetry, and the limericks of which he is widely regarded as a master. Philip Larkin admired this skill without reserve and declared that Bob’s version of the seven ages of man had leapt over one major hurdle for deserving the approval of posterity: instant memorability. All these different activities came together in his now celebrated limerick:
There was a great Marxist called Lenin Who did two or three million men in. That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.
Much more can and should be written on the works, but Bob has also left behind some autobiographical sketches that fill gaps in our knowledge of the life too. Not incidentally in such a life, they amuse and enlighten us about equally on a range of twentieth-century topics. Seeing the communists taking over Bulgaria, first as a soldier, later as a diplomat, he writes, would have made anyone a firm anticommunist. The tortures they inflicted on a secretary to a democratic politician will lead him in time to produce studies, now known to be accurate, of Soviet behaviour for the Information and Research Department of the British Foreign Office and later to write The Great Terror. Immediately, however, he helps Bulgarians under threat to escape to the West.
Back in England in the literary wars there is his strong and (to my mind) conclusive defence of Philip Larkin against his biographer’s charge of pornophilia and general nastiness (and tore but lesser charges against himself). Simply put, it wasn’t pornography as we now understand the genre but the equivalent of modern ads for bras. But this parody of one of Philip’s most famous poems may serve as an hors d’oeuvre:
They fuck you up, the chaps you choose
To do your Letters and your Life. They wait till all that’s left of you’s A corpse in which to shove a knife.
How ghoulishly they grub among
Your years for stuff to shame and shock: The times you didn’t hold your tongue, The times you failed to curb your cock.
To each of those who’ve processed me
Into their scrap of fame or pelf: You think in marks for decency
I’d lose to you? Don’t kid yourself.
And there are lighter episodes on every other page – as when, acting as a liaison officer to the local churches in Scotland, he told the Free Kirk pastor that there didn’t seem to be much difference in theology between them and the Church of Scotland and was informed: “Aye, there are not many differences but there is one important one: we go to heaven and they go to hell.” Or when, acting as diplomatic host at a cocktail party in Sofia, he asked the Exarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church upon entry: “Manhattan or Martini, Your Beatitude?” (Manhattan, replied the prelate instantly.) Bob remained calm, balanced, decent, and good-humoured through the best and worst of times except when faced with cruelty and lying.
Several obituaries wondered hopefully whether Bob was “a Man of the Left”. That doesn’t seem to me the most interesting question to ask about him, but he certainly described himself in those terms, adding that he had voted Labour in every election until 1979 when he switched to Mrs Thatcher’s Tories. At school and university Bob had been a free-spirited bohemian, famous for girl-chasing and pranks (such as placing chamber-pots on the college roof to mark the Coronation) at least as much for his fling with communism. He found Oxford Conservatives such as Edward Heath priggish. And though he had proved to be an effective soldier, six years in the Army had not made him more conventional. As he later reflected: “In most ways … it strengthened and clarified my dislike of authority and organisations in general, and an attachment to the principles of personal and civil liberty (reinforced, also, by seeing what happened to the Balkans in the successive totalitarian grips).” So he was a strong supporter of Labour during the war and afterwards he was enthusiastic about working with Labour ministers such as Christopher Mayhew who headed the Information Research Department. He also drafted speeches for (and with) the fiery red- headed left-wing minister, Barbara Castle, at the United Nations, finding her very attractive along “Susan Hayward lines” as well as firmly anti-Soviet. As long as the Left was anti-totalitarian in foreign policy and liberal in domestic politics, he was comfortable within it.
None of these tastes and attachments changed at all seriously for the rest of Bob’s life. But as other people have found, the scenery moved sideways while he remained wedded to his original ideas. As the political Left diluted its opposition to the Soviets, so Bob criticised their appeasement; as the academic Left replaced the idea of making art and literature more available to people with that of deconstructing them and reconstructing them as transgressive politics, he mocked them. Over time that resulted in his becoming an advisor to Margaret Thatcher and, in the partisan terms of the day, a conservative. In a longer term perspective, however, as others became radicals, he remained a liberal. Whether a liberal is a man of the Left today, however, is another matter.
Much of what I have written here is drawn from a friendship with Bob that began in 1972, when I was invited to join the “fascists’ lunches” at Bertorelli’s. Two years later, both our marriages having recently ended, I moved into his Battersea apartment to share the rent. My one additional contribution was to introduce Bob to Margaret Thatcher which led to the first “Iron Lady” speech and, more important, to their becoming lifelong friends. Otherwise I was overwhelmingly the beneficiary of this arrangement, enjoying lunch with Senator Scoop Jackson, a birthday party for Philip Larkin (not at all a gloomy occasion), several other literary parties fuelled by champagne and kedgeree, and the easygoing education of watching Bob work on anything from a translation of a Solzhenitsyn poem to a new limerick.
One summer evening I returned to the flat to find Bob looking out at Battersea Park and drinking a gin and tonic. He offered me one, and then said, “Hang on a minute, I’ve just thought of something”. He sat down and, after what seemed to me a few pencil strokes, read out this:
My demands upon life are quite modest, They’re just to be decently goddessed. Astarte or Isis
Would do in a crisis,
But the best’s Aphrodite, unbodiced.
Those lines met Larkin’s test of instant memorability as far as I am concerned. I have recalled them without difficulty ever since. They also seem to me now to express Bob’s demands upon life at the time quite accurately. By the mid-1970s, he already enjoyed a secure reputation as the historian who had revealed the truth about Soviet communism. Full vindication, other achievements, and other honours would follow. But while he was attractive to women – my then-girlfriend described him as “like a lovely Teddy Bear left out in the rain overnight” – and had several companionable former girlfriends to escort around town, he had ultimately been unlucky in love over two marriages and cursed by tragedy in another. In 1975 he was still a single man in want of a wife.
Three years later, Aphrodite walked into a party following one of Bob’s poetry readings, and a little later mislaid her bodice. A happy marriage lasting thirty-six years and a life that continued to produce fine work at the rate of a book a year to the very end on August the third were the results. He was lucky to have her; we were lucky to have him. RIP Robert Conquest.
(This article was also published in the current issue of The New Criterion.)