Robert Conquest and the Whisper of History

Even when he was well, and merely old instead of ancient, Robert Conquest spoke in a whisper. It could be awkward if you were sitting beside him at a crowded lunch-table where the general talk was going at full steam. A confidence from Bob would effectively take you out of the conversation. It was always worth it, though. Often it turned out that what he was telling you was something that Czeslaw Milosz had told him. Or perhaps it had been John Foster Dulles. Bob, even when much younger, had always been alive for a long time, and there was nobody whose most revealing words he had not heard and remembered. When he dropped a name, it was flattering that he was dropping it to you personally, and as if in secret.

In that regard, he was a secret agent always. After his war service as a soldier, the intelligence community, as it was later to be called, was where he had started off, although his personal mission was to reveal secrets rather than keep them. The big secret he revealed was about the depredations of the Soviet Union, which he knew more about than the Soviet secret police did. Eventually his major book The Great Terror played a decisive role in telling the KGB what they had been up to: they themselves had only a dim idea, mainly because it could be fatal to know where the bodies were buried.

Bob’s book told them how many bodies there had been. Yuri Andropov, in the last years of the regime, prescribed a specially printed edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four as a handbook for the KGB upper echelons, but it is doubtful if even Orwell’s books, when dropped on selected desks in the Lubyanka, had quite such a mind-altering effect as Bob’s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the KGB archives were thrown open at last, thereby confirming directly everything that Bob had worked out by inference. But it wasn’t as if, while the archives were still closed, anyone belonging to the KGB had ever wandered into the library and started looking through the old files. The librarian would have made a phone call to an office upstairs. There had to be a change of heart at the top; along with bootleg blue jeans and Beatles albums, the books from the West were crucial in securing that change; and among those books, Bob’s was the one packed with dynamite.

So some of the things he whispered to you he had already changed the world with. But perhaps his most lasting effect was to instil, among the less zombified of the left-leaning Western intelligentsia, the salutary suspicion that by their sympathy for the communist regimes they might just possibly have been complicit in a crime of historic dimensions. Christopher Hitchens, back in the days when he was still eloquent on the subject of American imperialism, was nevertheless ready to lend an ear when Bob whispered some reminiscence about what Russian imperialism had actually been like. It was fun to see the two of them with their heads together. Faced with the Hitch’s often infuriating knowingness, Bob never pulled rank, which he easily might have done. He, after all, was the true ex-communist, whereas the Hitch was only an ex-Trotskyite: a comparative dilettante. They loved each other; and Bob, right to the end, was delighted that he had so many young friends who had learned from him.

I myself was one of them, and am still glad for the lessons, whether about a small matter like the versification of Solzhenitsyn’s 12,000-line poem Prussian Nights (Bob translated it) or about a large one like the Anglosphere, a term which he was among the first to use, and which is looking more and more useful as the world picture splits up. For such a convinced Cold Warrior he had a cool head: when I heatedly gave him my opinions about the war in Vietnam he contented himself with reminding me that I might be exemplifying the very state of mind that Ho Chi Minh was counting on. Though his invariable politeness did not spare him from the reputation as a nuke-wielding fanatic that was so regularly awarded by the playtime Left to anyone who showed signs of finding Western civilisation intellectually defensible, politically he was quite often right, with the best kind of rightness: he was not so much a right-winger as an exponent of the central, liberal, democratic position—what another of his Friday lunch companions, Ian McEwan, has called the radical centre—strongly articulated. Strongly articulated in a whisper.

Legend has it that when Bob’s publishers, encouraged by the fact that so much of what he had speculatively suggested in The Great Terror had proved incontrovertibly true, wanted to bring out a revised second edition, he told them that they should take the opportunity to give the book a new title: I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. Legend is wrong, of course: the story was made up, by his friend Kingsley Amis. The other standard story about Bob was never even remotely true, but was probably wished on him by his enviable status as a silent magnet for the opposite sex. The story went that he was at a crowded reception, spotted a beautiful woman, asked her for her name, inveigled her upstairs, had his way with her, and told her to return to the party alone so as not to compromise her reputation. He returned to the party by another route, spotted a beautiful woman, asked her for her name, and got slapped in the face: same woman. Everyone who ever knew Bob tells a version of that story. The version told by Hitchens was naturally the funniest, although he possibly overdid it by evoking a picture of Bob rejoining the party by shinnying down a vine and staging his unobtrusive re-entry through the French windows. Bob knew about the story and was annoyed about its tenacious half-life, but he was paying the penalty for his effortless grace. Men suspected him of witchcraft.

The story fits the salient fact that Bob at any age, like Kingsley Amis when young, was a charming man accustomed to winning female hearts. Their friend Philip Larkin had to work harder at it. As a natural consequence, Larkin was the one who ended up surrounded by women. The other two conspirators were more realistic about jugg­ling their chances, although it would be a mistake to assume that either Kingers or Conkers was a misogynist. (Whether it was Martin Amis or Christopher Hitchens who first called the two senior men Kingers and Conkers is a datum lost in the mists of time.) The Conkers half of the duo, especially in the first six or seven decades of his youth, took an unashamed delight in the world’s supply of female beauty, but really he, like Amis, worshipped womankind as the unknowably superior moral mystery. The proof was in a comic novel they wrote together, The Egyptologists, a lost book that should be sought out and studied by anyone interested in the frame of mind of that generation. The basic joke of the book is that the husbands start a lecture group so boring that no wife wants to come near it, thereby leaving the men free to pursue adulterous liaisons. The basic moral of the book, however, emerges from the possibility that the wives might employ the free time to pursue exactly the same course. Nobody of good will could read the book and imagine its authors to be preoccupied with anything other than justice between the genders.

Bob and Kingsley had both resigned their membership of the Communist Party when they realised that the Soviet Union’s murderous post-war suppression of the Eastern European countries was not an aberration but a characteristic. They thus had a mutual reservoir of bitter experience to draw upon when mutually condemning the behaviour of such a perfect louse as Hugh McDiarmid, who, at the very time when prominent fellow travellers in the West were leaving the Party after the Russians crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, actually contrived to join it. “He joined it!” Kingsley would bark. “He joined it!” Bob would whisper. It was a funny double act, but its backdrop was a nightmare, and part of the bad dream was of their own past gullibility. In that sense, they shared a lot of history.

Poetically, Bob started off on a par with Larkin, Kingsley Amis and any of the other poets featured in New Lines, the critically important anthology that he edited and published in 1956. In his introduction, his declared aim was to put modern English poetry back on the path of reason, from which the wartime taste for surrealism had dislodged it. Invoking George Orwell’s prose as the true touchstone of the age, Bob was avowedly looking for a corrective not only to the bardic element in Dylan Thomas, but to all the duff poets who couldn’t write like Dylan Thomas but thought they should.

Put the New Lines introduction together with Kingsley Amis’s introduction to his 1973 Penguin selection from Tennyson, add in Larkin’s early and middle-period reviews of books about Hardy, and a picture forms of how the so-called Movement poets brought a richly detailed critical contribution to the permanent discussion of whether poetry and reasoned argument might not be aspects of each other. This picture still needs to be recognised and correctly assessed: the key poets concerned continue to pay far too high a price for having been so entertaining.

Of the poets Bob selected to appear in the book, not even Larkin had yet published a collection with a mainstream imprint. The anthology helped to establish Larkin at the top of his generation. Bob thus prepared the conditions by which his own career as a poet would be overshadowed. This can seem rather a pity when we look now at his Poems of 1955, a slim collection of fastidiously chiselled poems which proved his point that cool reason was not necessarily lyricism’s enemy. Over a long career he never quite gave up on serious verse, and would produce the occasional real poem; but usually he preferred to give his spare time and verbal facility to limericks and squibs, crafted with an intricacy out of all proportion to their content. I can remember the late Karl Miller expressing acidly sardonic moral disapproval of how Bob wasted his poetic talent on these little jokes. I’m afraid I shared some of that opinion, and for the same reason: his true poems made you sad that there weren’t more of them.

But I could quite see how Bob, who had supped too deeply of horrors ever since the wartime fighting in the Greek islands and the Balkans—he had already seen a lifetime’s share of naked hell long before the Red Army arrived at the Elbe—should have wanted to reserve his poetry as a playground. “No, I cannot write the poem of war”, one of his wartime poems began. Ah, but he could have: hence the sense of an opportunity missed. But since one of the opportunities he took was to change history, it seems churlish to carp. And anyway, in my own case I am bound to say that he paid my verse the compliment of taking a serious interest in it: always on the basis that I was a new boy finding my way, like young Martin, and the Hitch, and all those other tyros that he had such a knack for staying curious about.

You would swear, from the way his eyes glinted when he looked at us, that we had all only just then arrived in town, first manuscripts in hand. Possibly our keen, fresh faces helped cast his mind back to a time when the most powerful totalitarian state on earth would have dearly liked to obviate the slightest possibility that young people like us would ever grow up feeling free to say what was on our minds, if indeed anything would have been.

There is a well-known photograph of President George W. Bush investing Bob with the Congressional Medal of Freedom. The Western nations are still amply supplied with confident intellectuals who would find every part of that picture funny, and especially the capitalised word “Freedom”. But Bob knew better, and already we youngsters, who will be lucky if we die of the same thing as he did—his beloved wife Liddie dutifully told the press that he had died of pneumonia, but really he died of being ninety-eight years old—are missing him sorely. For such a long time, he was living proof that history itself talks in a whisper, which it is up to us to lean towards and listen to, even when it is only reciting a newly composed limerick. “There was a young man from Gdansk,” he would whisper, and you had to listen, even if only to find out he how had overcome the problem that there are no rhymes in English for “Gdansk”.

Clive James’s latest book, the poetry collection Sentenced to Life (Picador), was published in April. He wrote on Les Murray’s poetry in the June issue.


Leave a Reply