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D. R. Thorpe: a Chronicler of Our Times

In February 2023 an old friend, D. R. Thorpe, died. I had known Richard Thorpe when we were fellow students at Selwyn College, Cambridge, in the early 1960s, both reading English and both enjoying the same kind of music at the time (lush, late Romantic stuff). He was a Conservative even in those days, both with a small and capital C, and his natural world was that of the public school where, eventually, he was to teach English and politics at Charterhouse for many years. And while he was teaching he began to write political biographies. That was not a surprise, because one of the attractions of his company was his endless interest in what people were like. He had a vast store of anecdotes, too humorous and authenticated to be denigrated as mere gossip.

He wrote the best biography of Harold Macmillan, ‘Supermac’ (2010), and buttressed that account with the lives of Anthony Eden and of Alec Douglas-Home, so that he chronicled the years between Suez and Thatcher. These are weighty books, but written with a humanity and sympathy that makes them stand out. He had by this time become a fellow of St Anthony's College, Oxford, and a member of Brasenose, and able to dedicate himself to what he did so well. He edited the huge diaries of Kenneth Rose, The Daily Telegraph columnist, into two volumes: Who's In, Who’s Out (2018) and Who Loses, Who Wins (2019). Both are published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. I already had them on my shelves and on hearing that Richard had died I read them through again.

Keith and Richard in 1966

They really are sublime gossip. Rose knew so many people in the political and social life of his time that you can browse forever in the index. And he did know these people, too, over decades, so that Thorpe's footnotes comprise a guide to post-war Britain in themselves. We find he admired Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson. His portrait of Rab Butler is critical and funny. His descriptions of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and of the Queen Mother are fascinating. And so on and so on. The whole period vibrates through the daily record he kept up.

I'm not sure these books sold well, which is why I draw attention to them. They deserve better than oblivion, and for those who ponder the changes we have gone through since the last war they are worth visiting. I tried to get Richard to come to speak to the Suffolk Book League but he was by then unwell and couldn't face the journey from Oxfordshire. But the row of his books is a treasure all the more delightful for the memory of the writer himself.

Keith Jones


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