Journalism has never been a particularly glamorous trade, but every so often it throws up a figure who becomes, however briefly, the glass of fashion. One such lucky personality in the late 1950s and the early 1960s was the Spectator’s Bernard Levin; another, an almost exact contemporary, was the author of this book, who died just two and a half years ago. Successively Washington and Westminster correspondent of the Economist, Keith Kyle managed to evade that publication’s austere anonymity rule by appearing regularly on the BBC’s celebrated Tonight programme in the days when it still went out in the early evening. With his Byronic good looks and rapid-fire delivery, he became something of a legend while still in his thirties – and certainly cast a spell over younger colleagues just starting out on their journalistic apprenticeships.
I was one of them and, 50 years on, I can still recall how I first met this paradigm of my own aspirations. The encounter came about at the Liberal Assembly held at Torquay in September 1958. Having just returned from Washington (where he had spent the previous five years writing for both the News Chronicle and the Economist), Kyle already carried something of the aura of a great man about with him. Shepherded around the conference hall and hotel by his lifelong friend Robin Day, he could not, however, have been more gracious.
There was nothing immodest about him and, although ten years older than I was, he rigorously refrained from sounding remotely patronising. It was almost as if he had difficulty in believing his own good fortune – and an echo of that feeling survives in this posthumous autobiography when he writes: “Things had come
to me perhaps too easily so far” (a reflection swiftly tempered by the cautionary comment: “They would never come so easily again”).
In that forecast, Kyle proved to be right. Despite standing four times for parliament, three times for Labour and once for the Social Democratic Party, he never got elected. His latter years were spent not presiding over some great government department, but in the rather more mundane post of meetings secretary for the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). It was a far cry from the days when he had seemed to have the summits of both journalism and politics in his sights – but not the least merit of this always good-tempered book is that it betrays absolutely no resentment at the way things panned out. If nothing ever quite came up to the golden promise of his youthful years, no sense of disappointment was ever allowed to warp or embitter his outlook or character.
There were, of course, two great consolations – his happy home life and the comfort of knowing that he had at least written a classic book. By any judgement, Suez, which came out after more than ten years of hard slog in 1992, is the definitive account of that madcap expedition on which the British and French governments embarked in the autumn of 1956. Kyle had a ringside seat for the origins of the whole escapade – it coincided with his time in Washington and he was particularly close to Allen Dulles, then director of the CIA – but, in addition, starting with a series of television programmes in both 1976 and 1986, he had pieced together over more than a decade all the bits of the jigsaw that added up to a picture of the worst self-inflicted disaster in modern diplomatic history. The book fully deserved the ovation it received, and it restored its author to the place in the academic community that might well have been his much earlier on had he not, despite being a favourite pupil of A J P Taylor, made a mess of his Oxford history papers back in the summer of 1950.
This is an outstandingly candid memoir, containing a full discussion of Kyle’s battle, while still an undergraduate, with what was not then recognised as ME, together with a sometimes hilarious account of his chronic absent-mindedness (it was par for the course for him to begin driving to some airport by car, stop off to perform an errand along the way, and then – forgetting entirely about the car – hail a taxi to complete the journey). And it is all told in an engagingly old-fashioned way, its discursive tone amounting to a conversation between author and reader. At the outset the question is even confronted as to whether he should write the book at all, Kyle not being by any means certain whether he passes the Andy Warhol test for “15 minutes of fame”. But we should all be glad that he overcame such doubts: the result is an exceptionally vivid volume that contrives to tell us a great deal more about its author than do most of the self-regarding tomes produced by those who have succeeded in reaching the top of the greasy pole.
Anthony Howard was editor of the New Statesman between 1972 and 1978