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A selection of autobiographical writings by Sir Patrick Nairne (1921 – 2013)

Patrick Nairne, my father, is a figure of inspiration. After he died in June 2013 obituaries in The Times, Telegraph and Guardian testify to his many achievements. He joined the Civil Service after distinguished service in the second world war and rose to be Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Security and a member of the Privy Council. The obituaries also mentioned the high regard in which he was held by all who encountered him, his intellect, charm and lively wit, and his interest in the arts as an amateur watercolourist and practitioner of italic handwriting.

I had long felt that there was much in my father’s experience to interest a wide audience. In his later years I encouraged him to write about his life, but it wasn’t until he retired as Master of St Catherine’s College Oxford that he started to set more of it down.

After his death my brothers and sisters and I found texts in near final draft form, ranging from a survey of key moments in his life (spanning much of the 20th Century and which he titled ‘The Coincidence of Novembers’), draft chapters on his childhood with his Scottish parents, accounts of the North African and Sicily campaigns with the Seaforth Highlanders, a meditation on what it meant to be an enquiring Christian working in public life, a ringside view of the Falklands Islands Review Committee, to a vivid description of Hong Kong during his oversight of the consultation process ahead of the territory being handed back to China. He also left a fascinating chapter reflecting on contemporary art.

When I began sifting through the eighteen boxes of his papers (now with the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge) I found further material about his life: unpublished typescripts, articles and texts for talks. Even though this didn’t add up to a conventional autobiography these vivid ‘glimpses’ reinforced my sense that he knew that his 20th Century life might be of real interest to others.

My challenge is to assemble a book which will cover the range of his thinking and creativity, convey why he cared so much about working for the public good and represent his paintings as well the quality of his writing.


"In life Patrick Nairne was a person of delightful wit and exceptional cleverness and cultural depth. All these qualities are evident in his writing as well, and will make this book enormously enjoyable. But its value as entertainment will only be half the story of its significance. Patrick was also acutely aware of living through time, and of his moment in time - so whether he’s writing about his family, or the war, or domestic politics, or international affairs, he always gives us a sense of the larger picture surrounding the particular instance. In this respect and many others, The Coincidence of Novembers will be a remarkable collection: moving, wise, informative and involving."
Andrew Motion

Sandy Nairne CBE FSA is a writer and curator based in London

In early 2015 Sandy completed a period of twelve years as Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London. He oversaw the considerable expansion of its exhibition programmes, the increase in its annual level of visitors to over 2 million, the extension of its learning and digital work, and a number of very notable acquisitions.

Sandy Nairne has also worked as Assistant Director, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford; Director of Exhibitions at the ICA; Director of Visual Arts for the Arts Council of Great Britain, and as a curator and later as Director of Programmes at Tate. He published State of the Art in 1987, the co-edited anthology Thinking about Exhibitions in 1996, and more recently Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners and The 21st Century Portrait.

He is currently Chair of the Fabric Advisory Committee at St Paul’s Cathedral, the Art Advisory Group for Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres, and chairs the board of the Clore Cultural Leadership Programme. He is a Trustee of the National Trust and the Samuel Courtauld Trust and a member of the Bank of England Banknote Advisory Committee.

PREFACE -FATHER & SON by Sandy Nairne

Tuesday 15th August 2006. My 85th Birthday. Oh dear.

‘At my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’ [i]

I may not always see my father, but I often hear him nearby. With his soft, but insistent voice - an occasional slur on the r’s, but an otherwise clear intonation and his slightly old-fashioned home counties’ accent. His voice seems intertwined with the written words: the carefully chosen phrases, his precise punctuation and spacing of text.

I can picture him writing if I wish. Indeed, my father sitting at his desk in his study at South Lodge is an early and persistent childhood memory (there are many later memories of him sitting at his desk upstairs at Yew Tree in Chilson). He might turn around as I enter, or signal for me to come in while he finishes some dictation, or completes a letter or postcard in his fine italic hand. I would wait, and then he would give me his attention. Or when, even younger, at a distance I am looking up at his study window from the ‘yard’ of South Lodge (on a Sunday afternoon for instance) I can see him with his head down, focused on the papers spread on his desk.

South Lodge, watercolour for Christmas Card, 1955

Somewhat against himself, he would sometimes quote the well-known line from Logan Pearsall Smith: ‘People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading’. He did read a lot - and enjoyed crosswords - from a very young age, which gave him a lifelong love of words, but always linked to his interest in people, history and art.

* * *

Read more...

The Perfect Pastime of Painting

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Pdn  1  1936  copy

Dear Coincidence Supporters – I wanted to let you know that because of your generosity the book is now 93% funded - so this crucial first stage is nearly complete.

[ … And of course if anyone feels like adding more support (by donating or acquiring a pot of my marmalade or one of my father’s watercolours) to help me across the line, I will be very grateful, and there is an easy way to do it on…

Reflections on the Civil Service and Europe

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Dear Coincidence Supporters - For many years I have had on my mantelpiece a yellowing newspaper cutting: an undated diary piece, probably from The Times, from the 1980s. It reads:

But habits of secrecy die hard. When Sir Patrick Nairne, who is a distinguished ex-Permanent Secretary and the head of an Oxford College to boot, recommended a Freedom of Information Act on TV, I heard one senior civil…

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