By Richard Lofthouse
‘Memoirs by ninety-five year olds are rare and the times my generation lived through were exceptional,’ notes Sir Ronald McIntosh in a note he sent me concerning his volume of memoirs Turbulent Times. He’s quite right. Born in 1919, he grew up in the terrible shadow thrown by the Great War. Just a year after going to Balliol to read Greats in 1939, he was off to war in the Merchant Navy, finally collecting his unclassified ‘servicemen’ degree in PPE (having switched subject) only in 1947.
Much later, he was director general of the National Economic Development Office, somewhat affectionately referred to by insiders as ‘Neddy’, and as the book jacket reminds us, he worked not only with prime ministers Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, but with ‘the major trade union leaders of the day, who wielded real power in the 1970s’.
I suppose it’s all too easy to look back and poke fun at the catastrophic Seventies in Britain. Some of the catastrophe is transmitted here, but becomes more readily explicable when a human face is put to it. McIntosh speaks very highly of his Hungarian economics tutor Thomas Balogh, later written about in a book by June Morris, subtitled A Macaw among Mandarins.
The civil service was not fit for purpose in the 1970s, we learn. Balogh had the ear of Wilson, and encouraged him not to devalue the pound in 1964, instead advocating a comprehensive prices and incomes policy. ‘Thus began a strange interlude of fifteen years in which such previously unknown concepts as pay codes, norms, pauses and freezes became part of the ordinary currency of politics.’ It was only killed dead by the Winter of Discontent of 1978. Now we regard it all with weary derision, especially if Thatcher loomed large in our formative years.
Yet McIntosh’s memoir is a reminder of why the failed thinking came about. First of all, at the time that it was tried, it hadn’t failed, and even the most ardent Thatcherite would admit of the need to break eggs to make omelettes. Secondly, the orthodox economics that decreed that the pound should be devalued were politically inimicable to a Labour government trying to do something new and brave. Finally, McIntosh’s generation, or at least several of the characters discussed here extending to Wilson and Balogh, had extremely idealistic and progressive views about how society might change for the better, and how, after two world wars, really it had to.
That’s the key to this memoir, which reads unevenly only because the author remains so passionate about policy and ideas now. Almost every chapter morphs from the recollected past to a policy statement about today. As such, this is an unusually vibrant memoir, and a painful reminder about what most of public life today has lost, a sense of higher ideal and public service.
Many of the issues of idealism and world-shaping aspiration in Sir Ronald’s memoir are revisited in Georgina Brewis’ A Social History of Student Volunteering: Britain and Beyond, 1880-1980. Brewis is every inch the heavily footnoted academic, and one wishes that something more of the ‘strong strain of humour, [and] larks’ common to so many noble student causes could have infused the narrative. Instead, and perhaps understandably, the emphasis is on setting the record straight and honouring massively marginalized groups such as women, who have undoubtedly been effaced by typically male journalists covering typically male political radicalism on campus. So far so good. Brewis notes that sporting associations were accompanied by residential requirements, followed in the Edwardian years (earlier in Oxbridge) by a mushrooming of more specialised clubs and societies. Naturally, some of these picked up on the great Victorian inheritance of do-gooding, only now with a social and non-religious inflection to balance the sectarian, highly confessional character of earlier examples, one of the very earliest being John Wesley’s Oxford-based ‘Holy Club’ in the 1730s.
Less straightforward is Brewis’ claim by the end that across a whole century students ‘have made significant contributions to social change in Britain’. As she points out, many students volunteered to break the General Strike in 1926. Even where volunteering was at the pointy end of do-gooding (say, university ‘settlements’ in oceans of poverty such as Whitechapel) it was defined by wild levels of condescension in a class-laden context. The students were invariably middle or upper class, their well-targeted victims the working poor. More realistic is the much more recent, 21st-century emphasis on the ‘student experience’ and how that might help students to find paid-employment upon graduation, but in this respect it’s a shame that Brewis’ narrative ends so timidly in 1980. Why not bring it forwards to 2010?
Changing tone dramatically but still not leaving Oxford very far behind is Alan Taylor’s self-published thriller The Female of the Species, subtitled …is more deadly than the male. It starts in the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall, and involves a plot about retired British secret agent Susan Collis being dragged back into a scandal about her bit of the Ministry of Defence. As the author assures me, ‘I don’t consider it to be a great work of literature but hope it’s an enjoyable read.’ If you have a yearning for lady spies (they are always ladies and never females or women, here) you will relish his close observation of their mousy-coloured hair and spectacles, although he also notes that the romantic entanglements of an earlier draft have been purged. Their afterglow can be discerned, if not their entanglements.
Moving on, and we have yet another book about Oxford: a cultural history in a series published by Signal Books, called Oxford (no marks for originality). But it turns out to be terrific. Written by an alumnus of Teddy Hall, Martin Garrett, he is alive to the literature, to the voices and to the characters. He is also alive to the essentially daft side of Oxford, the (often) sheer irrelevance to anyone or anything except itself, citing Louis MacNeice with great emphasis, ‘The squibs were damp, the cigars were dust, the champagne was flat.’ Garrett doesn’t attain the literary qualities of Jan Morris, owing to a busy table of contents, but this is nonetheless an inspiring read.
Finally, the second edition (OUP, 2015) of Gary Wenk’s Your Brain on Food: How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings. The dust jacket promises to answer the question, ‘Why does eating chocolate make you feel so angry?’ Naturally, it turns out to be pseudo-marketing guff. Chocolate is good for us all but it also has funny stuff in it like tyramine, which can release adrenaline feeding road rage. Well, I simplify, but that’s the gist. This example like many others in the book is strongest where it explores the broad difficulty of separating ‘food’ from ‘drugs’. If you really want the conclusion, it remains the eternally unpalatable one: eat fruit and veg, cut back on anything you love (except dark choc in small amounts).
Photograph of binmen’s strike at Stoke Newington Common, 1979, by Alan Denney, via Flickr under Creative Commons licence. Book jacket images © Biteback Publishing and Palgrave Macmillan.