Memorable anecdotes are always the quickest as well as the most painless way into a sense of the past, and Peter Vansittart is a born anecdotalist. His rambling, personal vision of Britain in the fifties resounds with echoes of the deep, masculine laughter that Kipling once described as so melodious to the ears of the young. Masculine laughter, since many of the best stories here arise from meetings of the all-male Wednesday Club, a gathering of authors and artists founded by Benedict Nicolson and Philip Toynbee in 1953.
Recollections of what various celebrities have said to any one chronicler over a life-time can be disappointing, often hingeing on the mere satisfaction inherent in being addressed in the first place. Vansittart's technique is better: out of all the stories about Shaw, Picasso, Churchill or whoever else, he selects the best of the unfamiliar. Thus Monty on Augustus John, about to paint his portrait: "Who is this fellow? He is very dirty, and I'm sure there are women about." Or Ezra Pound, learning that his name in Japanese meant "This picture of a phallus costs ten yen." Or Horatio Bottomley on a public platform proclaiming "There ain't no flies on the Lamb of God."
Some of the stories quoted are undoubtedly embroidered. While Richard Tauber used indeed to sing the once innocent line from Lehar. "I thank the Lord for having made me gay", I am not so sure about Louis B Mayer's reported riposte when accused of earning twice as much as the President of the United States: "Yes, but look at my responsibilities." But impressionistic history does not have to rely on a parade of unimpeachable facts, and Vansittart only goes wrong when he leaves his personal interests and memories in favour of more orthodox attempts at social analysis. The last 50 pages of this book, written outside his experience, are dutiful but dull, and he occasionally leans too heavily on unreliable secondary sources. It is nonsense to state that girls in the 1950s were reaching puberty two years earlier than in 1938. He also offers a travesty of the baby-care theories of Dr Spock.
He also writes a good deal about education, quoting Shaw at a local school once offering "A handsome prize for the worst behaved boy or girl, on condition that a record should be kept of their subsequent careers and compared with the records of the best behaved, in order to ascertain whether the school criterion of good conduct was valid out of school." Vansittart was a schoolmaster as well as an author in the Fifties, teaching at Burgess Hill School, a progressive school in Hampstead. His memories of it are somewhat divergent from mine, a pupil there at the time.
He remembers voluntary lessons; I recall compulsory ones. He portrays himself as generally in awe of anarchic children; I remember him as a figure of striking authority, generous with praise but formidable when roused. Just as every orthodox school produces rebels, experimental schools produce their share of conventional pupils, something that seems to have been forgotten in these pages.
Vansittart mentions Julian Maclaren-Ross, whose Memoirs of the Forties is a classic of bibulous reminiscence and sharply amusing portraits. At its best, In the Fifties can stand comparison. It too is attractively wayward, always ready to surprise with an unexpected quotation, be it from Hitler, Camus or Zsa Zsa Gabor. Now over 70, the author has produced numerous books but none so immediately accessible and entertaining as this.Reading it is like over-hearing a choice selection of someone else's conversation: gossipy, informative and with plenty of punch-lines. It would be a shame to miss it.