The Coincidence of Novembers

By Edited by Sandy Nairne

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

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.

* * *

To ask what kind of a father he was, is to open up many questions about a father-son relationship spanning 60 years. He couldn’t be there when I was born, because in June 1953 he was confined to the Benenden Sanatorium in Kent, being treated for tuberculosis, and my mother was staying near Winchester with her parents-in-law. Nor could we celebrate my 60 th birthday together as he had died just days before, aged nearly 92. But pretty much everything in between involved my love and respect for an excellent (though modest) man and an immensely supportive father, whom I admired and adored. Words already feel inadequate.

In the practical aspects of upbringing and parenting my mother was, of course, closer than my father. In child-rearing and domestic matters – certainly cooking, meals and clothes - she had absolute command. On a visit to Yew Tree, much later, my father suggested kindly, as we were leaving, that we might collect some windfall cooking apples to take home (probably fearing, as he would with a glut of damsons, that they would otherwise appear for the foreseeable future at the supper table). Immediately my mother jumped in with: ‘You are not in charge of apples.’ The phrase is often repeated with amusement in our household.

I don’t, for instance, have a single memory of my father ever being involved in discipline. He must have had a view; certainly when my anger or misbehavior caused me to be ‘locked in the cupboard’ - a kind of utility room at South Lodge for tools and odds and ends - until I had calmed down. But my father (Daddy as he remained for me, though later, in letters and emails, this became ‘D’) was there if I needed him, and his twinkling eye and broad smile were always encouraging. I may have learned young how to accept that his time was rationed. Even now I feel slightly guilty when I think how many summer regattas my parents attended during the years of school rowing.

I learned much from being a third child, growing up with two brilliant and bossy elder sisters, Kathy and Fiona, and therefore already part of a noisy, argumentative family mêlée. By the time I was eight my twin brothers, James and Andrew, had arrived, and soon after came my youngest sister Margaret, making the full set of six, three of each. Together with my parents we could dance an eightsome reel; though the time I remember us trying, it ended in some disarray. Once I was an adolescent I was certainly happy to try to keep my head down.

Trim but not tall, my father was still a man to look up to. In my teenage years, I became increasingly aware of the importance of his role and status as a senior civil servant. In 1970 he came to lecture to the sixth-form at Radley and I listened with rapt attention as he described responding to the Torrey Canyon oil spill disaster of a year or so earlier. There were occasional events linked to his work. To stand at the sill of the Admiralty or Cabinet Office windows to watch the Trooping of the Colour was a great thing. As a child I might have wanted a father who would play football with me, which I don’t think he ever did, but I don’t remember pining for this. However, as an adolescent I had acquired a father who would on occasion take me to exhibitions – including into private galleries in Cork Street, ignoring any off-putting looks from someone at the desk – and encouraging me to join him when painting at weekends or on holiday. I felt somewhat intimidated by his incredibly skillful handling of watercolours – controlling the wetness of the rough paper and working with the subtle colours to create beautiful landscapes – so I picked up a pen, and tried to draw the views instead. This way I could still claim my time with him.

As a child, my knowledge of my father was simply the experience of him. As I grew older there were a few rites of passage. Although he offered no general discussion of sex - that I remember - before I went away to boarding school he gave a gentle warning to be wary of older boys. Later I asked him what career he thought I should follow. He was a bit non-plussed, but explained that as no-one in the family had ever made any serious money (being vicars, solicitors or other low-key professionals) maybe I should consider going into business. I asked him how I might pursue this, and he said he thought ‘there are some quite interesting people in merchant banking’. Only years later did I register the significance of his implication that what really mattered was who you worked with: the crucial thing being to spend your working day with intellectual equals.

Much later, being aware that my parents had supported all six of us through private education, I asked him if he felt he had missed anything by not having more money himself. He paused and said: ‘I might really have liked a better gramophone’.

It took me many years to get out of my head that I ought, like him, to have a proper professional career. It was hard not to be affected at some level by having a father who was running significant elements of the country, particularly when, after many years in Defence and then organizing Britain’s first referendum (on Europe), he was switched to running the Health Service. It helped that he took such an equitable interest in what each of his children was doing. He never offered career advice again, and I gradually moved (with the Arts Council and a second stint at the Tate) to become part of ‘the establishment’ – just working in a different section.

I discovered more of him in other ways: as a child I was curious about his part in the war (and his Military Cross) but he never spoke much about that, and referred me to Sans Peur, Alistair Borthwick’s 1946 history of his battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders; very occasionally we played golf together, and I knew this was a ‘lost’ sporting interest of his. Our connections grew through making and looking at art, but also sharing links from the same school (Radley, where my house-master, Peter Way, was one of his oldest friends) and a college at Oxford. This was University College, where, when I arrived for an admissions interview, I was initially mortified to encounter the Head Porter who, looking over his glasses, said, ‘You must be the young Mr Nairne’. Later it was a delight to attend a couple of dinners at Univ that included three generations: my father, our son Kit, and myself.

There were occasional professional overlaps involving discussion of art and health, and the family connection with the Seafarers’ Hospital Society (for which my great-great grandfather, Capt. Alexander Nairne, was a founding trustee in the 1820s) where I took my father’s place on the General Committee when he became its President. His Scottishness particularly interested me, though by my twenties I knew he enjoyed a Beethoven arrangement of Scottish tunes while I might choose to listen to unaccompanied singers from the Western Isles.

When younger you know little of what goes into the making of your parents. Now I know more. Working through his papers since his death, and editing his writings, I’ve explored parts of my father’s work I knew less about, and encountered even more of his intelligence and diligence. The effort he made to fashion himself, in the best sense, emerges in his own account of preparatory school days. And this, like his war-time and post-war writings, links to an idea pursued briefly: that he might be a writer. His surviving letters testify to his great ability to draft concisely and engagingly. He was understandably bothered about any wilful mis-reading of what he had written: for instance by commentators on the conclusions of the Franks Report on the Falklands conflict. He had drafted much of the final text, and he cared very much about what those words were intended to convey.

[i] PDN’s ‘Pain Diary 2’, 2006-2010, 15 August 2006; quotation from Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’.

* * *

Patrick Nairne

‘When our family was younger, my wife and I lived near the famous Hampton Court maze – not the most difficult of mazes, but less easy than it looked. I can see now my children dashing excitedly into it – as many of us dash into life when we are young, full of hope and of confidence that we shall get what we want and find what we are looking for.

Our life in this world has something of the character of a maze. We are soon touched by doubt and a sense of failure as we begin to learn how easy it is to take the wrong turning or to mistake the path. Occasionally we are disturbed by the confident cries, or the plaintive shouts, of others on the far side of the box hedges. We know that we must keep going or we shall be lost. And as we struggle on, we realize that, if we could only get above the dark maze – if we could rise just a short way above it – we could see the right path and the turnings we must take.’

From ‘Christian Faith and the Public Service’, University Sermon given by Patrick Nairne at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin Oxford, on 30 October 1983

* * *

Patrick Nairne: ‘Franks and the Falklands’
(excerpt from an account written in 2001)

A head round the classroom door over sixty years ago.

‘Nairne, you're wanted.’

Such words rarely foreshadowed good news. Today it would be a telephone call or a carefully crafted letter - no more initially perhaps than an invitation to lunch or the suggestion of a talk, accompanied by a hint of the subject or business which lay behind the approach. The tone would be entirely different from that of the classroom summons, but the unspoken message would be the same: trouble ahead or the proposed imposition of some new commitment - an unforeseen intrusion into one's life.

Nobody can be free from intrusions. After retiring from Whitehall in 1981, 1 was exposed to many sudden and unforeseen requests (not orders or instructions, but more pressing than invitations) to undertake commitments, some of them substantial, unrelated to St Catherine's while I was Master, or unconnected with other commitments after I had left the College. It was, I suppose, to be expected. Retirement for many people can mean a shift from an orderly and exacting, though efficiently supported, job in a more or less single field of responsibility to a range of different, some equally exacting, commitments handled by oneself in the spirit of 'do it yourself home maintenance'. There is, however, one important difference: in retirement one can say 'No'.

I did not wish to say 'No' to the first unexpected intrusion into my life after Whitehall.

It occurred on 30 June 1982, when I was lunching at the Garrick Club as the guest of Lord Vaizey (I cannot recall why). I had just been handed a gin and tonic at the bar when a member of the Club staff came up to my host and then passed a slip of paper to me. A telephone message from the office of Sir Robert Armstrong, Secretary of the Cabinet: ‘Could you manage to look in to see Sir Robert before returning to Oxford?’

I rather doubt whether I guessed what he wanted, though I recall surprise at the note of urgency. As later I sat in his office, well-known to me from my Cabinet Office years, I was taken aback by his question. Would I be willing to be member of the small committee which the Government was establishing to review - and Robert broadly indicated what became the committee's terms of reference - the way in which the relevant responsibilities of successive governments had been discharged in the years leading up to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April? It was to be a committee of privy counsellors because of the sensitive security factors relating to the decisions of successive prime ministers and governments of different political parties. Lord Franks had agreed to be chairman and four former Cabinet ministers had been invited to make up the membership of the small committee. If I agreed to serve, I would have to be admitted to the Privy Council.

It would have been difficult to refuse such an invitation - and I was excited to be asked. After discussion with Penny and consultation with key members of the College governing body, I wrote a letter of acceptance. I was, however, concerned about the likely disruption of our holiday in Pembrokeshire arranged in early July, and also about the potential impact on my College responsibilities in the months ahead. But, as it turned out, Lord Franks had just had a cataract operation and required three weeks in which to recover; and, as I was courteously informed by letter, I was not to be admitted to the Privy Council at Buckingham Palace until 30 July 1982.

I am puzzled that I can remember so little about what was, in its small way, a unique and historic event in the annals of the Nairne family. My Oxford engagement diary for 1981/82 shows no more than a small, scribbled entry, ‘Privy Council ... Vacation guest night.’ I must have found the occasion a strain, but memory suggests that it all went smoothly. Richard Crossman, in his published Diaries, described his own experience of what takes place:

October, 1964: Undoubtedly the most fantastic episode … was the kissing of hands and the rehearsal. … I don’t suppose anything more dull, pretentious, or plain silly has ever been invented. There we were, sixteen grown men. For an hour we were taught how to stand up, how to kneel on one knee on a cushion, how to raise the right hand with the Bible in it, how to advance three paces towards the Queen, how to take the hand and kiss it, how to move back ten paces without falling over the stools – which had been carefully arranged so that you did fall over them. Oh dear! … we drove to the Palace and there stood about until we entered a great drawing room … We were uneasy, she was uneasy. Them at the end informality broke out and she said, ‘You all moved backwards very nicely’, and we all laughed. And then she pressed a bell and we left her. We were Privy Councillors [sic]; we had kissed hands.

Barbara Castle, in her autobiography, Fighting All The Way, added a tailpiece about the same occasion, on which she had also been admitted to the Privy Council, referring contemptuously to ‘the clumsiness of public schoolboy Crossman of Winchester, who almost fell off his stool’.

After two Ministers of State had ‘kissed hands’ before me, I was called forward by the Lord President of the Council, The Right-Honourable John Biffen, MP, and I did not trip up or fall off the stool. I do not remember the Queen saying anything personal to me (though she had met me at three investitures and two private audiences when Permanent Secretary of the DHSS), but she was relaxed and friendly towards everyone present. The ritualistic royal approval of Bills and Orders in Council, rapidly read out, was given by the Queen. She then exchanged a few words with John Biffen and departed. So then did we all, I now holding the small copy of the New Testament, inscribed and dated by the Lord President, which is traditionally given to new Privy Counsellors, and formally entitled ‘The Rt. Hon.’ to which my brother James's meticulously written envelopes bear witness.

That, as people say, was it. Since then I have been required to play a modest part in two appeals in the academic field of London University, of which the Queen Mother was then Visitor (and so delegated any appeals to the Privy Council); and in1998 I attended the grand Privy Council Dinner in the House of Lords for the Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh in celebration of their Golden Wedding.

Oliver Franks was the doyen of independent chairmen of major investigations, as his Who's Who entry showed. Argentina's successful invasion had brought severe criticism of the Government, and the recapture of the Falkland Islands with some heavy casualties could not diminish that. Only a man of Lord Franks's stature - in the chair of a small committee composed of those with relevant experience in government - could be expected to command the confidence of Parliament and the country… But he was 77 years old and I suspected that it had needed the personal interest of the Prime Minister and a visit by the Cabinet Secretary to persuade him.

Back to what was quickly referred to as the Franks Committee. Formally named the Falkland Islands Review Committee, it met for the first time on 26 July 1982, in a small room on the first floor of the Civil Service Department, situated in the Old Admiralty Building - by an odd chance next door to the office of Civil Establishments Branch 1, in which I had started my Civil Service career 35 years earlier in December 1947. This was to be our base until Christmas. Sitting round the table, with Franks in the chair, were Lord Barber, then Chairman of the Standard Chartered Bank and a former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer; Viscount Watkinson, formerly a Tory Minister of Defence; Lord Lever, formerly a Labour treasury Minister and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; Merlyn Rees (a life peer), formerly a Labour Home Secretary and a Minister of State for Defence; and myself. My own qualifications? A former Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office and previously Deputy Under-Secretary of State (Policy and Programmes) in the Ministry of Defence, prior to my six years as Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Security.

The head of our secretariat of four staff was Anthony Rawsthorne, a civil servant seconded from the Home Office.

Lord Franks was a firm Chairman who did not allow Committee members to stray off the point. We got to know each other over lunch, provided in a private room next to the Civil Service Department restaurant. Franks presided; when the Committee met for the whole day, most members, sometimes all, attended; and there was frequently general conversation in which Harold Lever often took the lead by telling us entertaining stories from his political life. Neither Barber nor Watkinson knew me - the former friendly, quick, and breezy in manner; the latter a man of few words, conveying the impression that he was a reluctant member, strongly supportive of the Government, and impatient to get the task quickly and satisfactorily finished. Harold Lever remembered me from my Cabinet Office years; warm, humorous, generous in spirit; he had once given me lunch at his London home where I admired his impressionist paintings and also, since he went out of his way to show it to me, a photograph of his young and beautiful wife. I had come to know Merlyn Rees in the 1960s when he was Minister of State for the RAF and I was private secretary to Denis Healey. He and I became close to each other on the Committee, developing a friendship which has been kept alive by occasional meetings until the late 1990s.

A modest amount of wine was provided at lunch. I was uncertain how the Chairman would respond to this. He was a Quaker and brought up, I understood, as an abstainer; but there was also a story that, when, as a young Fellow of Queen's at Oxford, he and his wife had moved into college accommodation, they had found a half-full bottle of sherry in a cupboard and, on the countervailing principle of 'waste not, want not', finished the bottle - and never looked back. The Committee was reassured when he led the way with a glass, sometimes two glasses, of the wine on the table. But he was certainly a modest drinker; he remarked one day that, when he was the British Ambassador in Washington, he had learned to protect himself at interminable diplomatic receptions by saying quietly to his host that he had a slight heart condition and would prefer a soft drink. The fact was that Oliver had mellowed in old age if the accounts of the younger Franks were true. While the Committee was meeting, I happened to meet a former Fellow of Queen's who enquired after Oliver and added that he remembered him as Provost of the College 35 years earlier:

He was not at all an easy man to get to know and when at last the ice was broken, one found that the water was distinctly cold.

He was kindness itself to me, consulting me frequently as the Committee's work proceeded. He and his wife usually stayed in the Stafford Hotel during the week, at least in the early days, but quite often we travelled back to Oxford together and I cycled once or twice to Charlbury Road to discuss matters with him at home and quickly joined the army of his admirers around him. I was, I feel, to be a temporary close colleague rather than a new friend. I was surprised by one feature of his chairmanship: contrary to the practice of most chairmen of important committees, he never drafted a first draft of the report himself. I mentioned this at the time to Bill (Sir Edgar) Williams, Warden of Rhodes House, whom I would meet occasionally in Oxford.

‘Oliver is lazy’, he replied, ‘He purveys wisdom, but does not feel a need to write it. Look at his entry in Who 's Who - no mention of anything published’.

The charge of laziness is very much open to question, but I soon learned why it had been so important for Franks to have been right in his choice of secretary - as indeed he was: Tony Rawsthorne proved to be a skillful drafter. When drafts were tabled, however, they stimulated lengthy discussions and some disagreement. As expected of the Civil Service member, I volunteered some revisions to the succession of drafts and was specifically asked to try my hand at others. Other members occasionally did the same. Franks's role was to appraise and adjudicate, to say firmly when he judged that the right words had been found - in a quiet and authoritative voice, which discouraged any further argument.

His principal strength, however, lay in the two directions which had established his outstanding reputation as a chairman: his masterly grasp of the inquiry - identifying the essential facts and arguments, and enabling all members of a committee to share a continuous, collective and coherent view of where the inquiry was leading; and his magisterial technique in questioning witnesses – courteous, precise, penetrating - and summing up what they had said - either to confirm their evidence, or occasionally to encourage them to think again, and more carefully, to state what it was that they had really wanted to say. These capabilities made him uniquely suitable for handling the Falklands inquiry.

Argentina was then a country with some 80,000 British passport holders, an Anglican Church, and a long history of friendly diplomatic and trade relations with the United Kingdom. The sudden invasion of the Falkland Islands on Friday 2nd April 1982 was a dramatic and humiliating shock which had produced a widespread reaction of emotional anger in the country. The popular press had been in full cry. A remote British territory with a small and loyal British population had been captured. Our NATO-based defence strategy towards the USSR appeared to have blinded us to a threat of which, it was claimed, the Government had been warned.

Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister, was confronted with a political challenge on which her personal future crucially depended. I listened in the Master's Lodgings at St Catherine's to the passionate House of Commons debate on the morning of Saturday, April 3rd - the only Saturday morning debate during my long Whitehall years, possibly the only one since the 1939-45 war. As I listened, I imagined myself back in the Ministry of Defence and thought of the acute strains on the Prime Minister and former Whitehall colleagues. I admired her courageous leadership, right or wrong, ever since the horrifying moment three days earlier when she had to confront the alarming fact that it was too late to take any military action which could prevent the impending Argentine invasion reported through intelligence channels.

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