A Supreme Diarist - 20 October 2000

The struggle between what I ought to talk about, and what I must recalls, irresistibly one of my favourite writers, my favourite diarist.

He was a Manchester man, son of a cotton broker who flourished before and during the Second World War.

He'd arrived in London in his early 40s, determined to be a dramatic critic.

He became the best and to this day is the only one I know from any century except Bernard Shaw, whose reviews of forgotten plays with forgotten actors done in the 1920s and 30s can be read now with excitement and admiration.

He had a great range of interests from Wagner to the music hall comics, from Shakespeare to show horses. He knew more French literature than all the highbrows of London put together.

But he also loved golf and boxing and the Cockney dialogue of the pubs and the horse sense of workers in the Lancashire mills.

With this alarming range of enthusiasms he was plainly bad news to the intelligentsia which thought of him as part scholar, mostly philistine and his nine volume diary positively vulgar.

But it now seems that if you have any intellectual pretensions at all you'd better learn his name since a world-famous scholar - Dr Jacques Barzun, who has just published a massive history of the decline and fall of our civilisation - picks out from the whole 500 years only one diarist as the supreme recorder of his life and times.

Not Pepys, not Julius Caesar, not Stendhal, not Goethe, not any name in any language you can think of but the irritating, brilliant, perceptive, self-centred, argumentative, charming, spoiled, explosive, capacious ego named James Agate.

I almost started this letter by sending out this information as a "high brows' alert" because if they haven't read those nine volumes they're already 53 years behind the times. Agate died in 1947.

I thought of him now because looking over the week's events and how Americans felt and behaved about them I remembered vividly a sentence of Agate's that he wrote as a warning or sort of text for everything he put down in his diary from the day of the outbreak of the Second World War.

He lived in London throughout the Blitz and the rest of the war and followed his usual interests, though what with the sirens going off in the middle of the night and the regular retreat to his backyard shelter, he'd often be unable to report on a favourite Mozart symphony because he was asleep all through it.

You can read a hundred pages of his diary at a stretch and hardly know there's a war on. Hence this cautionary sentence that introduces his war time journal:

"What follows is a record of how I lived, thought and felt after the 3rd of September 1939. It may be that I ought to have lived, thought and felt differently. But I did not."

And I, looking over the violent and melancholy news of the week during which there seemed to be so many separate grievances on so many continents, so many brewing wars and the prospect of half the world with ignorant armies clashing in the night, we certainly ought to have given all our attention to the president's efforts to call a halt to mayhem in the Middle East. The fact is we didn't.

The continuing troubles between principally Mr Barak and Mr Arafat were, of course, duly reported and even in our one great national paper, at prodigious length.

But what most Americans really fastened on to, in the past week, were three topics: the loss of the sailors - men and women - on the United States destroyer Cole, the last debate between the presidential candidates, and - from the evidence of the television ratings anyway - most of all the sudden brilliant, unbelievable prospect of Subway Series for the first time in 44 years.

How's that again? What a clutch of Americanisms in two words - a Subway Series!

Well the subway in New York City and everywhere else that has one is the American name for the British underground railway. The series is the World Series - a national championship.

For the past few weeks we've been coming to the end of the baseball season. Professional baseball is divided into two leagues - the so-called National League and the American League.

And in the end it comes down to the winners of each league meeting each other for the championship in the so-called World Series. The champs are the team that wins four out of seven games.

This year the winner in one league was the great veteran the New York Yankees but the winner in the other league was the other local New York team, the comparative newcomer, the Mets.

Baseball fans, especially New Yorkers, have been praying, dreaming the impossible dream that the two - the only two - New York city teams would do what has not happened since 1956: to meet for the championship.

Hence the Subway Series, called so on the folksy assumption that since the games are played alternatively at each team's ball park, the underground trains will be packed by fans going first one way and then - you guessed it....

What, however, it's been discovered this time in the current prosperity - never mind the occasional stock market sinkings, technically known as "necessary corrections" - actually most fans will be going by taxi or bus or their own car or hired limousine.

A prediction that brings whoopings of joy to the taxi drivers' union and the limousine companies.

Most conspicuously the tears of joy were those splashing the other day the cheeks of his honour the Mayor Giuliani.

The mayor had great news. If the series runs to its maximum seven games - the temptation to make it so run was naturally never mentioned - then the city would receive about $246m worth of business - by way of hotels, aeroplane tickets, restaurants, private transport, gifts, souvenirs and, of course, the sale of tickets.

And within yet another hour or two the scalping pros were said to be in full canter offering tickets for anything from $2,000 to $5,000. The scalping machines got busy overnight and the faked tickets - exact copies of the true originals - would have warmed the heart of Private Schultz.

The next morning all this understandable rejoicing was stilled, if not mocked, by a scene new to American history but one that very many onlookers, including a million or two on television, must have feared is only the first act of a new tactic of terrorism - the suicide bombing of the American destroyer Cole at Aden which had been an American naval refuelling base.

A plainly weary President Clinton, barely off his plane from the grievous negotiations in Egypt, arrived on Wednesday morning at Norfolk, Virginia - the home port of the bombed destroyer - to speak, very briefly, at a funeral ceremony for the 17 men and women killed and 37 wounded, all of whom, except one, had been flown home and were brought in ambulances to the ceremony - many lying there on gurneys, some with oxygen tubes in their noses and intravenous lines in their arms.

Naval funerals are, to me, always moving. I think because of their simplicity - no puffing generals blazing with medals, no guns, just three long lines of sailors in white against the railings of two grey sister destroyers and a great grey aircraft carrier.

Behind the small ring of officers and chief mourners - the secretaries of navy, defence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff - were the families of the dead and the wounded and beyond them 10,000 silent people, very many who'd simply lived all their lives in this sailors' town.

A sad, sad scene that had one rustling moment which at another time and place would have provoked applause. It was General Shelton's grim sentence addressed to the attackers: "Never forget that America's memory is long and our reach is longer."

The most touching moment had no oratory or grandeur about it. As the president finished his short elegy and turned from the lectern a large man with wet cheeks stood and said to Mr Clinton: "When the people who did this are punished let them go with three words - 'Remember the Cole!'"

The man's son is listed as missing, presumed dead.

As the cameras slowly raked the faces of the families you couldn't help noticing the disproportionate number of blacks - male and female, young and old - but then in the American voluntary armed forces the number of blacks is disproportionate.

Just after the service was over we saw several interviews done in the Middle East and in Pakistan with members of rival religious factions and some admitted terrorists.

Two points were painfully obvious: one, repeated several times by mothers, was that the chief ambition of their sons was to die, not to fight for, but to die for Islam - a tough ambition to counter by the sons of our culture.

And the other was the line, said with quite simple fervour by a Pakistani. Why did they want or need a nuclear weapon?

"Because," he said, "God ordered us to do it."

Having these thoughts on Wednesday morning the previous evening's presidential debate - which incidentally had a record low watching audience - seemed a very local, a trivial thing.

It is not of course. Perhaps I ought to have talked about it. But, as Mr Agate said, I did not.


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