Gossipy wisdom from the king of the royal anecdote

Princess Margaret with Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Getty)

Who Loses, Who Wins
By Kenneth Rose
Weidenfeld, 496pp, £30/$38.99

Many of you will remember Kenneth Rose’s Albany column, which ran in the Sunday Telegraph from 1961 to 1997. He wasn’t nicknamed “Climbing Rose” for nothing. The column revealed the comings and goings of the upper classes, prime ministers, Oxbridge High Tables and the Armed Forces.

Unlike, say, Nigel Dempster, Kenneth Rose (1924-2014) was always deferential to the great and the good. Albany wouldn’t delve into sexual peccadilloes but was more likely to reveal the name of a newly appointed bishop or the amalgamation of two beloved regiments.

It turns out that he was keeping the really juicy gossip in reserve for his journals. The first volume came out in 2018 and now here’s the second.

And what wonderful nuggets there are! Because Rose was so polite to grandees in print, they were happy to give away their gilt-edged gossip, knowing that only their anodyne revelations would appear in the next Sunday Telegraph.

For anyone wanting an insight into real royal life, start here. The Queen, says Gillian Rees-Mogg, Jacob’s Mum, doesn’t “like her guests to mention the excellence of the food when they write to thank her, saying, ‘They should tell that to my chef.’ ” Good luck with asking the Queen how to get in touch with her chef.

Rose has a sharp eye for the telling little detail. William Waldegrave admits to him that, at Eton, he not only wanted to win the Newcastle Scholarship for clever boys, but also wanted to be one of the few boys whose name took up two lines on the board. He achieved the first but the headmaster, Anthony Chevenix-Trench, “omitted the Hon before his name, so it could all be crammed into a single line”.

Rose led an old-fashioned bachelor life of a kind that has largely disappeared. But his revelations remain vivid and relevant. Here he is on the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. The Spencers got 50 seats for the ceremony in St Paul’s Cathedral. Diana, he writes, “crossed out all the family who had not bothered to come to the weddings of her sisters! One day she will be very formidable.” As indeed she was; and you can see the echoes of her toughness in the recent bombshell behaviour of her younger son and his wife.

Like all the best diarists, Rose has a good memory and an ear for dialogue. He remembers verbatim Princess Margaret’s conversation with Jack Plumb, Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1982. They visit the Pepys Library in Cambridge:

Princess Margaret: “Who was Pepys? Some sort of journalist, wasn’t he?”

Jack Plumb: No, Ma’am, he was Secretary to the Admiralty.”

Princess Margaret: “Oh, I see. A sailor.”

All this is hardly great literature. But it is addictive stuff. Each entry is only a few lines long; it’s like reading an extremely good newspaper diary for page after page. If you’re a newspaper addict like me – and a gossip addict, too, again like me – you’ll love it. You feel as if you’re tucking into an enormous box of chocolates, happily dropping down into infinite layers of new chocs below, without ever feeling sick.

When it comes to comedy, Rose is good at the punchline and never over-explaining the joke. When the flamboyant MP Norman St John-Stevas confides in Rose that he would like to become Speaker of the House, Rose tells him how discreet he would have to be. He replies, “There are the weekends.”

There is wisdom, too, wrapped up in the chocolate box. Harold Macmillan – who often lunched with Kenneth Rose, a club addict, at the Beefsteak – says of the Queen Mother’s extravagance and multiple footmen: “That is what happens when a poor woman marries a rich man. But when a rich woman marries a poor man, she makes a good frugal wife.”

It’s reassuring that so many of the clichés about royal life turn out to be spot on. Diplomat Nicholas Henderson tells Rose in 1983 that, when national newspapers were hit by a press strike, the Queen knew nothing of it, saying to him, “I got my Sporting Life as usual.”

Rose isn’t in the same league as the great diarists. He has none of Alan Clark’s raging hypochondria, vanity or bitter self-analysis; none of Chips Channon’s character insight; and none of James Lees-Milne’s elegiac touch or limpid prose.

But he will go down as the king of the royal anecdote. My favourite comes from that royal anecdote machine, Princess Margaret, talking about her dislike of her granny, Queen Mary. She tells Rose, “Did Mummy ever tell you what Queen Mary told her when she married? She said that Mummy should not have friends, as it could be embarrassing.”

Rose proceeds to say that George V, whose biography he wrote, liked to ask his family to watch him finish dressing, like Louis XIV. “Papa liked that, too,” says Princess Margaret.

Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin)