Norman Mackenzie: Editor, teacher, writer . . . spy?

Remembering the former NS staffer, who died on 18 June.

At Sussex in the 1960s, the historian Asa Briggs – who is still going strong in his 93rd year – recruited a motley crew of maverick dons. Their brains and personalities secured his new university’s reputation as an interesting place to be.

The art historian Quentin Bell, for example, sealed a lasting connection between Bloomsbury and the university. The publisher Peter Calvocoressi, like Briggs a veteran of Bletchley Park, was recruited to teach international relations. Neither would have mentioned Hut 3 outside Briggs’s office and yet another unorthodox recruit had connections with the security services that few colleagues could have suspected. Norman Mackenzie, the former New Statesman staffer who died on 18 June, no doubt boasted a file in MI5’s archives – but as suspect or agent?

Briggs considered Norman’s 20 years as Kingsley Martin’s assistant editor a suitable apprenticeship for teaching politics. Norman retained close links with the NS and became an authority on the paper’s founders, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. In the great Fabian tradition of marital and intellectual partnerships – the Webbs, the Hammonds, the Coles – he and his first wife, Jeanne, wrote a fascinating group portrait of the worthiest progressives in late-Victorian London. They followed up their biography of H G Wells with a history of the early Fabian Society, after which they began editing three volumes of the Webbs’ letters and four of Beatrice’s diaries.

The Mackenzies took pride in their monumental act of scholarship and praised Norman’s secretary as the one person able to decipher Beatrice Webb’s scrawl. Regrettably, I can’t recall this woman’s name but I can remember that her regular job was supporting the now Professor Mackenzie in his role as director of the School of Education.

Norman oversaw teacher training at Sussex for a decade and his appointment was a shrewd move by Briggs. Sussex operated a model ahead of its time, with postgraduate teacher trainees spending four days a week in school and one back on campus. The director adopted a hands-off approach to all matters vocational, leaving his suitably qualified staff to get on with supervising their students and conducting classroombased research.

Norman’s role, given his long-standing interest in education policy, was to advise the Labour government and, in particular, the then education minister, Shirley Williams. After the Conservatives’ victory in the 1979 general election, his Whitehall days were over and he spent more time in his office. That office was where I had spent much of the previous year working on my doctoral thesis. Norman was extraordinarily generous and supportive as I researched the history of the fledgling NS, mischievously planting ideas (“Go to Kew and see if Clifford Sharp was a spy” – like he was, perhaps?) and allowing me open access to the Webbs’ transcribed correspondence.

He was great company and my one regret is that I was so preoccupied with the paper’s early editors that I didn’t ask more about his own experiences. For example, now that I know that he trained at Osterley Park with George Orwell in late 1940, I wonder how seriously he took Tom Wintringham’s vision of the Home Guard as a revolutionary people’s militia.

At the start of 1980, Norman offered himself as the external examiner for my PhD and it was a sign of the times that nobody suggested a conflict of interest. The night before the viva,my interrogator telephoned to say that the thesis was fine so I should relax and enjoy the day, at the end of which he would provide the celebratory champagne – again, a scenario inconceivable today but a measure of the man.

In the magazine's leader the week after Norman Mackenzie's death, editor Jason Cowley wrote:

Norman Mackenzie, who has died aged 91, joined the New Statesman as assistant editor in 1943, having been recommended to the then editor, Kingsley Martin, by Harold Laski at the LSE. Norman worked on the paper for nearly 20 years before becoming an academic at Sussex University. He helped found the Open University, edited the diaries of Beatrice Webb and was the author of biographies of Charles Dickens and H G Wells. His political journey from the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party to Labour and then the Social Democratic Party was complex and fascinating.

I got to know him only at the end of his life, when he was in poor health and knew he had a few months to live. I found him lucid, witty, acerbic and generous in his advice and guidance. He told me he stopped reading the NS when it embraced what he called the “silly left”. He had recently become a subscriber again: “It’s like coming back to the place after 30 years away to find someone has been polishing the doorknobs.”

Norman lived to read the centenary issue and kindly sent the editorial team a congratulatory card: “Was there ever such a progressive magazine!”

He was a last, cherished link with the old world of Orwell’s London and Kingsley Martin’s NS. His friend the historian Hugh Purcell said: “He died in the morning, having said to Gill [his wife], ‘Death is a swindle if a man cannot have a whisky in his hand.’”

Norman Mackenzie.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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