The non-book of 1963

July 2 2013

Jessica Mitford:

“In later years Philip [Toynbee] and his father came to have a sort of arm’s-length love for each other, although their many disagreements of outlook and philosophy persisted. They chose an unfortunate vehicle for sorting out their respective views: a book called Comparing Notes: A Dialogue Across the Generations [actually A Dialogue across a Generation], published in 1963 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

“What may have been a high point in the father/son relationship surely marks a nadir in English publishing. The 155 pages of tape-recorded exchanges between the two results in the non-book of the year. One can sense the squirming, the shifting in the chairs, the effort to relax as the tape rolls forward recording the Wise Sayings of normally stiff-upper-lipped father and son. The reader suffers along with the participants – and learns almost nothing about the Toynbees as a family; Mummy isn’t even mentioned.

“Philip leads off:

‘I thought we might approach what is going to be a rather difficult job by putting the interview under various headings.’

Arnold: ‘Yes, I think that that’s a good way to start.’

PT: ‘Right, well, I suppose the most fundamental question anyone could ask anyone else is, do you believe in God?’

“They give God a longish whirl – Indian and Chinese beliefs, Christians, Jews, Moslems, agnostics, Roman Catholics and so it goes.

“By page 34, Philip is listing the Seven Deadly Sins – but he has forgotten one.

AT: ‘You’ve missed out Pride.’

[They discuss Pride at some length. Then:] [bracket in Mitford]

PT: ‘Shall we go on with the Deadly Sins?’

AT: ‘Yes.’

PT: ‘Now Sloth. That would seem to be a slightly odd one, because it seems a rather innocent failing …’

“The publisher, perhaps out of Sloth, did no editing of the tapes, supplied no useful footnotes. At the very beginning of the conversation Arnold Toynbee says:

‘My parents were fairly liberal-minded, but we lived with an old great-uncle of mine whom you know all about.’

PT: ‘Uncle Harry?’

AT: ‘Yes, Uncle Harry …’

“Uncle H. appears elsewhere in the text, but nowhere is he further identified; nor are Arnold’s liberal-minded parents. The effect is like being at one of those smart cocktail parties where there are no introductions, it being assumed that Everybody who is Anybody will know the other guests.”


Jessica Mitford, Faces of Philip: A Memoir of Philip Toynbee, Heinemann, 1984.

The book has a few redeeming lines. I have quoted it here once or twice. I mention three other published dialogues in the bibliography here:

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971, with Professor Kei Wakaizumi of Kyoto Sangyo University

Toynbee on Toynbee, A Conversation between Arnold J Toynbee and GR Urban, New York, OUP, 1974

With Daisaku Ikeda; Richard L Gage, editor; Choose Life, A Dialogue, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Wakaizumi and Urban are much better. Even the Ikeda dialogue is not as bad as the Philip, though Polly Toynbee has called it the book among her grandfather’s works “most kindly left forgotten”.

A better book of 1963 was Mitford’s own The American Way of Death.

A rare fascinator

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