Arts & Books Books

A ‘spy’ in the British establishment

Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe: Rose was ultimately disillusioned by him (Getty)

Who’s In, Who’s Out: The Journals of Kenneth Rose – 1944-1979
By Kenneth Rose, edited by D R Thorpe
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 640pp, £30/$30

Kenneth Rose was three different men. There was the biographer, the establishment diary columnist, and there was Rose the man. I knew him well from the late 1980s, and admired these incarnations in that order.

The books – particularly Lord Curzon and George V – were masterful. Then there was the Albany column in the Sunday Telegraph, in which he mused on the nuances of high life in the worlds of politics and diplomacy. There would be lines such as “it would not surprise me if a well-deserved CH was soon to be placed over his shoulders” – knowing full well that this was to be gazetted.

Diplomats trusted him: he did not betray them; he presented the facts with scrupulous honesty and accuracy. Occasionally there were moments of humour. “Last week at Spencer House the Queen was entertained to dinner by her Prime Ministers…” And a little further: “We sat down to a sumptuous feast…” We learnt that Kenneth was there – albeit, I later discovered, not at the table.

When Dominic Lawson ousted him from Albany in 1997, one of his Telegraph colleagues penned an ode: “Goodbye Kenneth Rose” to the Elton John song concurrently adapted for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. I have so far failed to get my hands on a copy.

Then there was Rose the man, known in early days as “the Climbing Rose” – perhaps inevitably. He could be splendid company. He was full of knowledge. But he could be touchy, wary of perceived slights.

When his eyesight failed him, he landed me with writing 6,000 words on George V and George VI in wartime for no fee. “You, like me, need exposure to academe,” he explained. When I showed him the piece, he said: “I think I know you well enough to tell you I thought your piece was vapid.” Er, not without thanking me for doing the beastly thing, I thought. He then invited me to supper and corrected it line by line, in the manner of a schoolmaster, which of course is what he was.

All along, we, his friends and colleagues, were aware that diaries were being kept. At the risk of slipping into Albany mood myself, I recall a lunch in the House of Lords with the Longfords during which he let slip that when he was invited to Clarence House by the Queen Mother, he would make an excuse to disappear into the loo at some point: “to note down Her Majesty’s aperçus”. In a way, I thought, he’s a spy.

So the fourth man was Kenneth Rose, the diarist. This volume – the first of two, impeccably edited DR Thorpe, the distinguished biographer of three prime ministers – takes us from 1944 to 1979. He winkles anecdotes and stories out of his acquaintances and for those who wish to glide retrospectively through the world of high diplomacy, academia, politics and society, this will provide many nuggets.

Without doubt my favourite story concerned Lord Duveen, the art dealer, who spent a night with a miscellaneous lady. The next morning she asked him for his card. Fearing blackmail, he gave her his lawyer’s card, which he happened to have in his pocket. As Rose recorded: “Some years later, the lawyer was astonished to have been left a legacy of some £1/2 million from someone he had never met!”

I particularly enjoyed the conversations he had about the books; the sources of Curzon and George V talking off the record.

There is an evocative description of a visit to Emperor Hirohito of Japan in August 1971, arranged by the British ambassador in advance of the Emperor’s state visit to London. I was amused to see recorded a reference to George V’s kindness: “He treated me like one of his own sons.” This earned the Emperor a fulsome acknowledgement in Rose’s George V, as if he were one of the key sources: “The Emperor Hirohito of Japan described to me the welcome he had received from the King during his visit to Britain in 1921 as Crown Prince.” The acknowledgement was longer than the story, but then he was an Emperor…

Rose greatly enjoyed litotes, the confirmation of the affirmative by the denial of the negative. Sir Sidney Lee hinted at the greed of Edward VII with the phrase: “He had a splendid appetite at all times and never toyed with his food”, and Rose himself suggested how Sir John Wheeler-Bennett might tackle the fact that George VI never read a book: “His harshest critic could not accuse him of being a bookish pedant.”

I now realise that Rose was a disciple of Lee’s ways, adopting that style to effect in George V. Interesting was Rose’s reluctant realisation that Jeremy Thorpe was not as innocent as he hoped. The scales gradually fell. But anyone wanting to find a secret Rose in here will be disappointed. His mask remains firmly in place throughout.