Sir Alistair Horne CBE made a mistake recently; he went to a restaurant he knew 70 years ago, hoping it would be as it was.
Horne was reviewing the restaurant for The Spectator. Unfortunately they published it - click here to read it.
Newly re-opened, the glitzy refurbished Savoy Grill is owned by a Saudi Arabian and operated by Gordon Ramsay – see here. It’s a little like going to Versailles and discovering the café there has changed since Marie Antoinette ran the place.
Horne chose to channel his disappointment into some casual anti-semitism. Here is an excerpt from his review, the block letters are added:
“…our conversation was beaten down by the nasal tones of Finchley Road entrepreneurs boasting their latest high-powered deals.
The voices carried me back to the last time I was treated to ‘Henry’s table’ in the grill. It was June 1940, a party to cheer up my cousin, Cecil, who had just been given the DSO (on top of a WW1 Military Cross) for bringing his battalion out of Dunkirk.
He was a man as brave as a lion, who rather alarmed me as a child, and that day was gaunt and hollow-eyed as if he had escaped from hell. He Had. He talked of German ‘secret weapons. Then, as we rose, he looked around the room and asked scathingly: ‘Are these really the people we fought for?’ He might possibly have posed the same question today, except that he was killed two years later at the head of his brigade in the desert.”
From ‘Savoy Grilling‘, The Spectator – Luxury & Style Spring 2011 p.42
Horne gets in a traditional anti-Semitic trope – the entrepreneur – but he manages to introduce a couple I was not familiar with. Have ‘nasal’ and ‘Finchley Road’ always been code for Jews amongst the sort of people who lunched at the Savoy Grill before the war?
If he thought about it for a second, Horne would realise from his own memory that it was ever thus. Even by 1940 Cousin Cecil – who does not deserve to have his name dragged into Horne’s casual racism in a restaurant review – found the clientele despicable.
But does the aged Horne, looking back on his younger memories, recall the room filled with nasal Finchley Road entrepreneur types? Ah, another trope perhaps; the war profiteer.
Now to the logic of Horne’s words: Were a war hero to return to the Savoy Grill after 70 years and find as table neighbours some Jews he considered unacceptable company, would he then regret fighting Nazism, knowing that the uncongenial company would either have been exterminated or never existed (because their parents or grandparents would have been murdered) had Britain not fought? Because that is what would have happened to nasal Finchley Road types had Britain not fought. That is the logic of his words, but surely not what he meant.
What Horne meant is that on a recent visit, he didn’t like having to sit in a restaurant that held special memories for him near noisy people whom he perceived to be Jews.
Beyond the anti-semitism, Horne’s sentiment is petulant and absurd – does he really demand that the Savoy Grill, sacred to his memory, ought to have been preserved in aspic?
Horne has, in returning to a place redolent with memory, unfortunately reverted to a lazy anti-semitism that can go with his background. The Earl of Stockton (Harold Macmillan) – for whom Horne is Official Biographer (click here) - similarly let slip causal anti-semitism in his later years (click here). They share a background; Eton and the Guards. Simon Ball (in his book ‘The Guardsmen’ – click here) has recalled an attitude of casual anti-semitism amongst Macmillian’s set in earlier days. And the Etonian background is shared by Sir Tam Dalyell who also, when advanced in years, engaged in his own anti-semitism in an interview - click here.
There is another facet to this restaurant review; that the offending section, the offensive section, was published. It made it past not just Horne’s more reflective thoughts, but sub-editors, section editors, magazine editors and publishers. The words are unpleasant but, worse, the fact they were published is worrying.