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Establishment gossip and splenetic wit: journals for the Christmas market

Kenneth Rose: in some waspish circles he was known as ‘Climbing Rose’

For 36 years Kenneth Rose in his Sunday Telegraph “Albany” column chronicled the doings of the establishment. His connections with royalty were so extensive that when he once asked his secretary at the Sunday Telegraph: “Get me the King”, she replied: “Which King?”

Rose liked “people of rank” and wrote approvingly of the historian HAL Fisher’s dictum that the wheels of history are seldom moved by the poor (what about the French Revolution?), adding that “names that recall past glories stir the blood”.

However, as his Telegraph obituary in 2014 observed, the contrast between the world of his childhood as the son of a Bradford doctor and the exalted company he kept in adult life “attracted a fair measure of mockery, mixed with envy. In waspish circles he was sometimes known as ‘Climbing Rose’.” He was even invited to become an honorary Old Etonian.

I’ve been reading the newly published first volume of Rose’s journals, edited by DR Thorpe. They’re so full of riveting detail that you can’t help wondering how much of the juiciest gossip was left out of the Albany column and saved for the journals – which were fully intended, Thorpe says, to be Rose’s “posthumous magnum opus” (though his biography of King George V was called “the best royal biography ever written”).

Unknown to many, Rose was Jewish, but he was deeply attached to the established Church. We learn that John Betjeman had “I believe, a special key on his typewriter, a cross, for putting in front of bishops’ names”. And there’s this exchange from the 1953 Coronation rehearsal: “Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘What do I do now?’ Duke of Norfolk: ‘You pray.’ ”

Rationing only ended in 1954, but there is no shortage of Chablis and oysters amid the discussions with Cabinet ministers about Suez or Profumo.

Rose (not a believer) had a feel for the rhythms of the Christian year, as in this entry from 1955: “Malcolm [Sargent] and I dine magnificently … I feel slightly uneasy doing this on Good Friday, but Malcolm says it doesn’t count after 3pm. So we eat caviar with hot buttered toast and vodka, duck and a fine cheese … Then a huge and succulent Havana …”

Another dinner is rounded off with a cigar that “needs two hands to support it”.

These journals will surely sell well this Christmas – along with, I expect, The Quest for Queen Mary, Hugo Vickers’s very funny “unexpurgated” editing of James Pope-Hennessy’s notes for his biography of Queen Mary. (Incidentally, Kenneth Rose’s diary is sadly prescient about his friend Pope-Hennessy: in 1959 he writes that he is “very indiscreet about his private life … I hope he does not one day fall into serious trouble.” Then in January 1974: “Read the awful news that James Pope-Hennessy has been found murdered in his London flat.” He was horribly killed by three young men, one of them his lover.)

Talking about journals, but of a very different sort, Roger Lewis’s splenetically funny Seasonal Suicide Notes and the follow-up Why Am I Still Here? My Life as Me are available in paperback in case you missed them.

Out of print but always interesting are Trevor Beeson’s books, particularly his Dean’s Diary from his time at Winchester in 1987-96, which contains a lovely story about Cardinal Basil Hume visiting the Cathedral, along with about 50 other Benedictines. He “preached an unusual sermon in which he imagined St Benedict visiting Winchester in 963, then in 1093 and again today”. “I think it came off,” says Beeson, “not least because Basil Hume has such an impressive, godly presence that virtually anything he says seems right and true.”

The only flaw in the whole event was when one of the catering staff put salt instead of sugar on the strawberries and cream. “But … many believed it to be a special Benedictine dish revived for the occasion.”

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Perhaps because of crowding, behaviour on the London Underground is becoming more in-your-face. Most travellers are polite and considerate, but a few act as if they are in a private room. This can be unsettling. Recent examples noticed: an office worker coughing every minute or two, in a nervous-tic way. As I clutched the sweaty handrail, I felt the ripples in the stale recirculating air, the throaty discharge heading towards my nostrils.

Then there are those people who swing their eco-friendly backpacks behind them, blithely thumping fellow passengers.

It’s normal now for women to put make-up on on buses and trains. But is this always OK? I saw a smartly dressed woman get out an emery board and start vigorously pulverising her nails. Were invisible microparticles of nail spraying the passengers on either side (both women, as it happened)?

And sitting next to me the other day was a proper “manspreader”, thrusting his tree-trunk thighs into his neighbours’ personal space, arms firmly crossed in a gesture that said: don’t mess with me.

Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph