Fourteen years ago I asked Harry if he would give an address at my mother’s memorial service and with characteristic generosity he said he could think of no greater honour. In giving this address today I would like to reiterate those words. I too am deeply honoured.
I first met Harry, I think, nearly 70 years ago when he came to stay with my parents at North Aston Hall, a large rambling country house in North Oxfordshire with which in later years the Hodson family was to have a close relationship. His introduction to the family came about as a result of his being brought into the orbit of the group of high minded idealists known as the Round Table of whom you have just been hearing and of which my father was a founder member.
It seems that North Aston Hall made a deep impression on Harry. Years later he was to write that it was a world of its own, a magic world to which it was a privilege to be admitted and that it had got into his bloodstream. I myself remember little of Harry’s first visits, being not much more than five at the time. I don’t even remember clearly when in 1933 after a tour of Australia he arrived with a very beautiful wife after what the tabloids would certainly call ‘a whirlwind romance’. But I know that for ever after the names of Harry and Margaret have been for me inseparable and I have never thought of one without the other. Certainly it has been a marvellous partnership.
The first time Harry and Margaret really came into focus for me was on the outbreak of the Second World War. They happened to be staying at North Aston at the time, and it was clearly wrong that Margaret and two small children should return to their home in London where heavy air raids were expected any moment. And to our great delight they accepted the invitation of my parents to make their home for the time being at North Aston. It was then that our two families came to know each other well. Living together at close quarters the situation might have been difficult, but it never was. We blended perfectly and for the next six months we confronted together the problems of the so-called ‘Phoney War’ – of ration books, gas masks, evacuees and the blackout.
At North Aston the Hodson family was safe enough from German bombs, but there were other hazards. The Hall was a building of great charisma and charm but it had not been built for comfort or convenience and the ordinary amenities of life could not be taken for granted. Few houses in England needed more heating and few had less. Plumbing was primitive and the water supply undependable, more always seeming to be coming in through the roof than through the taps. And electricity was home-made; it could just about manage electric light, but the smallest electric appliance was beyond it. To these discomforts my father, and more particularly my mother seemed impervious. Later Harry was to write of her: “Neither draughts, disorder, want of repair, nor comfort, tidiness, modernity or smartness were for her matters of any great moment.” Nor did she think they could be to any right minded person. To some, of course, they would have been but not to Margaret and Harry whose love and sense of humour put all such things into perspective.
During the first months of the war Harry was working in London in the Ministry of Information, but he also had other duties. I remember his coming to North Aston one weekend and telling how he had just achieved a boyhood ambition and become an auxiliary fireman. At that stage in the war he was not often to be called on in that capacity, but later he was to take an active and courageous part in London air raids. And he was to become too a conscientious and, I am sure, efficient member of the Home Guard.
In the summer of 1940 the Hodson family dispersed, Margaret and the children going off to Australia, Harry a few months later taking up an appointment in India where Margaret and the family joined him after an arduous and dangerous journey by flying boat. A year later, after another exceedingly perilous journey in an Atlantic convoy the family was back in England and in the next years we saw something of them from occasional visits. And then after the war they returned to North Aston, not this time to the Hall but to a house in the garden known as the Lower House. Once again our families saw much of each other.
At the time Harry was editor of the Sunday Times and I used to marvel how he would arrive from London late on a Saturday evening after putting the paper to bed and still be ready to join in a family party that might be going on. At these parties, I recall, Harry tended to let others make the running. I do not mean for one moment that he was standoffish or aloof. Far from it. He would take part with relish in such things as charades, racing demon and singing round the piano. But in these he was content to take lead from others.
During that time I came to know Harry better and to appreciate his great qualities – his gentleness and unflappability, the soundness and fairness of his judgements, his kindliness and self-effacement, sometimes, it seemed to me, carried to excess. I admired too his qualities as a host – courteous and considerate alike to the young and the old, the mighty and the lowly and more especially the lowly. I became aware too of his deep religious sense and how he never failed to attend the simple services at North Aston parish church.
Later I discovered lights that Harry had kept hidden under a bushel. It would not, I think, occur to many people, at first sight, that Harry had ever had any great athletic prowess. Yet at Oxford he had been no mean runner, had gained a half-blue and become a member of the Centipedes. I also doubt if many people detected in him any great musical ability, but it was to transpire that at Oxford he had been a member of the Bach Choir.
Earlier in this service you heard of Harry’s achievements in public life, and certainly these were great and varied. But I have no doubt that Harry himself would regard as his greatest achievement his long and wonderfully happy marriage and the raising and educating, with no help from inherited wealth, a remarkable family – four sons, all scholars at Eton and nearly all scholars or exhibitioners at Oxford. As well he might Harry looked on them with great pride – all successful in their different lines, vital, articulate and on occasions quite ready to be controversial.
There were periods when they were at boarding school and Harry was working long, unsocial hours at the Sunday Times when it was not possible for him to see much of them. But while they were away from home they always received from him every week a beautifully written letter, a little formal but affectionate and interested so that, as one of them put it, he always felt his presence. And when they were together he was always ready to join in what they were doing. For there was in Harry, as in many intellectuals, a simpler side to his character, one which delighted in the simpler pleasures of life so that such activities as tobogganing, building sand castles and damming streams to create artificial pools gave him genuine enjoyment.
As his sons grew older he became more closely interested in their affairs, but he didn’t overburden them with advice. Generally his attitude was that they must do their own thing in their own way. Only rarely did he express himself forcibly, as for example when, unexpectedly perhaps, he strongly advised his youngest son not to accept an offer of employment from the BBC. And on rather a different level when he told his third son that he regarded his sideburns as a self-indulgence.
We must all rejoice that Harry had a golden old age. Not for him ‘the lean and slippered pantaloon’. Certainly not ‘second childhood and mere oblivion’. Health problems did occur, but these were confronted bravely and on the whole contained. His mind was always active and in his 93rd year he was still at work, writing letters and book reviews as well as an autobiography which, from the glimpses I have had of it, makes fascinating reading. He was active too physically, travelling frequently and even, when well into his seventies, acting as crew in his eldest son’s boat on an expedition to the Hebrides. Surely no mean act of courage.
At Lexham Gardens many friends visited him, and I for one enjoyed his company the last times I saw him as much as I had ever done. And on these visits I noticed that he continued to maintain a high standard of dress. He had always been punctilious about this and clearly attached importance to it as was shown on one occasion when he saw his son, Daniel, at work at his desk in T-shirt and jeans and expressed astonishment that he could possibly work properly in such an outfit.
Harry is quoted as saying that old age was the happiest time of his life and one reason for this must surely have been the special relationship he established with his grandchildren who adored him as much as he adored them.
It is, of course, natural and right that today we grieve the loss of Harry, but we should also rejoice in the rich legacy he has left behind. In the beautiful and moving address he gave at my mother’s memorial service he concluded with these words:
“We have all been made the richer by her long life. Yet we are not made the poorer by her peaceful death. For in our hearts she lives on. It is certainly a place where we shall meet her again, as she will meet those whom she loved and are no more.”
These words spoken of my mother are surely just as fitting for Harry himself.