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On Noel Annan (1916–2000)

Noel Annan, who contributed more than one hundred articles to these pages, was a wonderfully gifted and energetic writer, scholar, and administrator who claimed that any able person should be able to manage two full-time jobs simultaneously. He often did more. Noel was one of the few figures in English public life known simply by his first name. There was no mistaking him for anyone else.

In what to me is his most instructive, and funniest, book, Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany (1996), an account of his life during his twenties when he was very near the top of Allied intelligence during World War II, he recalled—as applicable to himself—Tyndall’s translation of the Bible: “The Lorde was with Joseph, and he was a luckie feloe.”

Choosing Tyndall’s translation says something about Noel’s sensitivity to language. His modesty, however, while charming, was unwarranted. At twenty-six he was a lieutenant-colonel in the British army handling some of the darkest secrets of the war. He was asked to help decide such questions as whether Hitler would invade Russia and whether Allied bombing was slowing the German war machine. Still very young, his German fluent, he had much to do with choosing Adenauer rather than the Socialist leader Kurt Schumacher as the man to lead Germany out of fascism and toward democracy. He admired Schumacher: “He was the sort of man whom intellectuals understand: very pure, very fierce, unwilling to compromise with the truth as he saw it…. I felt affection for him because I saw that he was doomed to defeat…. In my mind’s eye I see myself smiling and grasping Schumacher’s hand…while to Adenauer I bowed in respect and admiration.”

All his life Noel understood that justice and right existed uneasily together. He wrote that justice stands “in the jar of the door which separates right and wrong.” It was useless to subject the Germans to “continual acts of self-humiliation…. The Western powers had to trust the German people to display some political sense.” He saw Adenauer not only as the right man for the ultimate German job, but also as “cunning, sometimes ruthless, always an authoritarian…conscious of his goals and above all a man of limitless patience…an old man not in a hurry.”

As for Churchill, he wrote, he was “a fascinator: but few have been more inconsiderate to those who served him or more ungrateful to friends who stood by him when he was in exile.” And yet, for those who were young and worked under him, Noel concluded, Churchill was one of those men who “remain heroic figures, and their defects pale because they were then, and still appear, larger than life, men who enjoyed, as well as responded to, their call to destiny.”

The last part of that description could be applied to Noel himself. Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, when he was thirty-nine, he went on to head University College, London, become the first full-time vice-chancellor of the University of London, chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery, trustee of the British Museum, and a member of the board of the Royal Opera House. His Annan Report of 1977, proposing reforms in public broadcasting, would alone have been enough of an accomplishment for many men.

Yet he also wrote book after book and essay after essay, among them a biography of Leslie Stephen, still the necessary introduction to all studies of Bloomsbury; Our Age: Portrait of a Generation, a vast and entertaining survey of the intellectual aristocracy of Noel’s generation; and, last year, The Dons, an account of the men who shaped Cambridge and Oxford. Noel’s emotional and intellectual heart remained in Cambridge, where, largely from E.M. Forster, also a King’s man, he absorbed the idea of friendship as having its own unmatched value. It was at Cambridge, too, that he learned about academic venom. F.R. Leavis, Noel observed, “cultivated to perfection the sneer, which he used like an oyster-knife, inserting it into the shell of his victim, exposing him with a quick turn of the wrist, and finally flipping him over and inviting his audience to disparage him as tainted and inedible.” His own writing was exceptional not only for its wisdom and perception but for its lack of malice.

There is a photograph in Changing Enemies of the young Noel in 1943—elegant, slim, magnetic—gesturing to the Joint Intelligence Staff with both hands spread wide at a map. He was twenty-seven. I remember him that way in 1954, lecturing on political theory to undergraduates at Cambridge; we dropped our usual blasé indifference because he thrilled us. It was the same within King’s when Imet him for “supervisions,” or tutorials, each week. Most of our supervisors seemed to be going through the motions, assigning the same essays each week, year after year, tending to doze as we read them aloud. To be taught by Noel was an entirely different experience. At the end of each session he would ask eagerly, “Now, what do you want to write for next week?” While the new essay was being read, Noel would say, “Ah, yes, exactly,” or “I hadn’t thought of that,” or he would ask a challenging question. When I told him that late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century French history bored me, he pressed into my hands The Red and the Black. “Read that, my dear fellow; don’t bother to write an essay for next week. Just tell me if you’re still bored.”

Three years ago, when he was almost eighty, Noel wrote to me, “I regard the future with gloom.” The rest of the closely typed two pages was crammed with a detailed analysis of the men who had taught me, a flash or two into the intrigues of the intelligence world, and an invitation to lunch at “the palace of Westminster [the House of Lords] which I attend.” Noel delighted in observing intellectual life and politics and in tracing the vagaries of class in each, as he showed in the many remarkable essays he wrote for this journal. He could have been writing about himself—maybe he was—when he remembered, of the great men he knew in his youth, their “peculiar blend of gaiety, enjoyment of life, contempt for dull, grey, prudent policy, that spontaneity and imaginative belief in a better or a more glorious world, [which] is something that has disappeared from public life at the end of this century.”

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