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The Coincidence of Novembers

By Edited by Sandy Nairne

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

Publication date: Summer 2020
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About the book

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boxes of his papers (now with the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge) I found further material about his life: unpublished typescripts, articles and texts for talks.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

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