Magazine February 6, 2012, Issue

The Writer’s Life

But What Do You Actually Do?: A Literary Vagabondage, by Alistair Horne (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 416 pp., ₤25)

Sir Alistair Horne is a British journalist and historian who will be familiar to longtime NR readers, since he has contributed to this magazine almost from its inception. He is known mainly as a historian of France (The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, Seven Ages of Paris, The Age of Napoleon, The French Army and Politics), but he has also produced compellingly readable, superbly informed books on several other countries. He has also written the official biography of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and a recent semi-official biography of Henry Kissinger. As he remarks at one point in this memoir, “You name it, I’ve been there and written about it.”

Horne was born some 80 years ago, and his first great experience — like that of a number of British children — was being shipped to the United States for safety during the Blitz, a story he later told in A Bundle from Britain (1992). He was enrolled at Millbrook School in New York, where (providentially) his classmate and best friend was William F. Buckley Jr. By the time he graduated in 1943, he was old enough to enlist in the British forces, so he made his way home determined to become a Spitfire pilot in the RAF. Instead, he ended up in the Coldstream Guards, and from there went to Sandhurst. Upon commissioning he was assigned to intelligence at British General Headquarters in Cairo, with frequent secondments to the Palestine Mandate, where the Zionist underground was already making things hot for the occupying authority.

This experience was Horne’s first opportunity to experience the sectarian conflicts of what was to become the Third World, and to witness firsthand the violence that attended (and continues to attend) the birth of post-colonialism. From the army, he went directly into journalism, ending up as both a reporter and a covert MI6 agent in Bonn, the new capital of the Federal Republic. “One of the first things I learned about the Germans,” he writes, was that “they were absolutely not the stolid, disciplined, and phlegmatic people I had always somehow imagined; they were profoundly prey to the deepest emotion.” After he returned to England in 1954, with no job, no prospects, and no home, he and his new wife set off on a four-month trip across the U.S. and Canada. This was followed by a year in Israel, and then time spent in both Chile (where Allende’s Marxist project was already running off the rails) and post-colonial Algeria, still bleeding from the wounds of its war of independence against France. The last two countries inspired Small Earthquake in Chile (1972) and A Savage War of Peace (1977), respectively.

Because of the particular topics upon which he chose to write, as well as his willingness to pull up stakes and travel the world, Sir Alistair has known a great many famous and interesting people, many of them observed in unguarded moments. Perhaps the most important of these was Harold Macmillan, who insisted that Horne’s book (it eventually stretched out to two volumes) be embargoed until his demise. (“If you hear a big bang, that’ll mean you can then publish your book, dear boy.”) Supermac, as he was known, told Horne that he found the Cuban missile crisis “a bit of a bore,” but that running the country was “fun.”

Later, in Washington, he found himself at lunch with the legendary Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame, while eager acolytes around the table begged them to point the way to bringing down the Reagan administration. “I was never able to rid myself of the feeling that [Woodward and Bernstein] were the most overrated hacks in America . . . just happening to be in the right place at the right time — and above all, with the right source.” On two occasions he has met privately with Pres. George W. Bush, whom he describes as “remarkably relaxed . . . sharply tuned in, well read . . . and a most attentive listener.” The compliment is all the more convincing since Horne profoundly disagrees with that president’s policies, particularly in the Middle East.

People who wonder how books get written — or young people who aspire to write them — will find this volume a delightful treat. The scene keeps shifting from place to place, country to country, with constant walk-ons from personalities drawn from different social classes and cultures. The main point of writing books, he tells us, is to learn a lot. He is too modest to mention that it also requires a lot of hard work and risk-taking, and an endless historical curiosity. It is to be hoped that an American edition of this book will find its way to our shelves (and our electronic readers) before too long.

– Mr. Falcoff contributes to NR from Munich.

Mark Falcoff is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.  He was formerly a professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a senior consultant to the 1983 National Bipartisan ...

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