Diary

In defence of Olly Robbins

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

After reading Christopher Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows, Somerset Maugham remarked: ‘That young man holds the future of the English novel in his hands.’ Isherwood never quite fulfilled his early promise, but Lions and Shadows remains an entrancing book. I relish in particular the history teacher, of whom Isherwood recorded: ‘Almost everything Mr Holmes did or said contributed to a deliberate effect: he had the technique of a first-class clergyman or actor. But unlike most clergymen, he was entirely open and shameless about his methods. Having achieved his object — which was always, in one way or another, to startle, shock, flatter, or scare us for a few moments out of our schoolboy conservatism and prejudice — he would explain to us gleefully just how this particular trap, bait or bomb had been prepared.’ Isherwood observes that, while they laughed at other masters, ‘We couldn’t laugh wholeheartedly at Mr Holmes, because even laughter would put us, we felt, under a kind of obligation to him; would, in some way, subtly involve us in his plans. Besides, we were never quite sure that he mightn’t be laughing at us.’

When I read Lions and Shadows I had a shock of recognition. I realised I had encountered Mr Holmes before, had indeed been taught by him. Last Wednesday, 21 former pupils gathered at a dinner at the Garrick Club to celebrate Graham Stephenson (GGS), head of the Sherborne School history department, who died last year aged 89. Like Isherwood’s Mr Holmes, he had a stutter, which he deployed to hypnotic effect. Like Holmes, he manipulated us, taking delight in building up a thesis, then tearing it to shreds. He defined history as a ‘course in scepticism’. He had been taught by A.J.P. Taylor at Oxford. Mr Stephenson had a stick, which he often hurled at students. Like Mr Holmes, he was regarded with apprehension by the school authorities, whom he in turn viewed with contempt, which he did not attempt to conceal. In the summer of 1968, at the height of Les événements, he sought to arrange a history department trip to Paris so that the boys could observe history in action. He invited officials from the Soviet embassy to lecture us on dialectical materialism. Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, was at last week’s dinner, as was Andrew Duff, who drafts treaties for the European Union, and the Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash. We all know how lucky we were to be taught by GGS and his colleague Jeremy Barker, who was also present. The event, was arranged with great sensitivity by another of Graham Stephenson’s students, banker turned historian David Lough.


I dislike the attacks on Theresa May’s Brexit adviser Olly Robbins. Mr Robbins is a capable and patriotic official charged with the exceptionally demanding task of extricating Britain from the European Union. This job is as difficult and complicated as taking Arizona out of the United States. I detect no evidence to support claims that Mr Robbins, whom I have not met, is sabotaging Brexit. He understands that his job is to carry out the orders of the government of the day as smoothly and skilfully as possible. The Conservative party has historically been dedicated to the preservation of our great institutions: parliament, monarchy, civil service, rule of law, etc. There’s now a faction, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who of all people ought to know better, that wants to tear them down. The same tendency is at work in the United States, where the Republican party has been captured by a revolutionary gang which is at war with the institutions it claims to want to save.

It was only a matter of time before Bruce Anderson, The Spectator drink columnist who last week wrote in defence of the ‘much-demonised’ President Orbán, made friends with the Hungarian Ambassador, Kristof Szalay-Bobrovniczky. The Hungarian embassy is the only place in London where you can still get a proper lunch: four courses and a succession of delicious, carefully chosen Hungarian wines. It took me several days to recover. As a gesture of thanks, I despatched His Excellency a copy of Ian Almond’s Two Faiths, One Banner, which debunks the clash of civilisations thesis and chronicles centuries of Christian/Muslim military cooperation in Europe. For all his impeccable manners, the Hungarian ambassador has yet to send a note of acknowledgement.

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