BY STEPHEN PAX LEONARD
Will we ever see the likes of David Niven again? It is a fair question to ask, isn’t it now that the new moralism has become absolutely hegemonic. Not so many years ago, I remember well a luncheon at Cambridge. I had just taken up a Fellowship at one of the more ancient Colleges at a time when the ‘silent cultural revolution’ lay just over the brow of the hill and British universities hadn’t yet been turned into safe-space ghettoes. Sat across from me that day was a Byzantinist, slightly my junior with soft down on her upper lip. We were talking about heroes and whether we still needed them as adults. I pitched in with an innocent quip ‘well, I have a signed photograph of David Niven on my wall’.
The young lady looked horrified at my confession, shook her head and replied: ‘but he was a cad!’. ‘He was indeed, and a jolly effective one at that’, I continued, much to her shock and displeasure. She hadn’t reckoned with meeting such an outspoken contrarian in the People’s Republic of Cambridge.
Niven had married the first Swedish super-model just ten days after having met her. Impromptu wedding complete and en route to their honeymoon destination, he said to Hjördis, sat in the passenger seat, whilst pulling into his L.A. digs: ‘hang on dear, I just need to pick something up’. Out popped two young children. Hjördis had no idea Niven was a single dad. His first wife had died in the most extraordinary circumstances: during a game of hide-and-seek, darling Primmie had opened a trap-door and fallen to her death. His whole life appeared as one extraordinary and improbable pantomime. At times it was tricky to decipher what was fact and what was fiction, but somehow it seemed to matter little for he wore everything with such a charming, light touch. His hilarious memoir, ‘The Moon is a Balloon’ opens with his account of how he lost his virginity to a cockney prostitute who he called Nessie in central London aged 14. It was his first love and he stayed with her for some years before one day receiving a letter at Sandhurst which she closed with: ‘I’ve a bit put by now, dear and I’ve found a bloke who might suit very nicely, so I’ll say thanks ever so and piss off to America’. By his account that wasn’t though quite the last he heard of ‘the Headmistress’. He remained in touch with Nessie for much of his life.
What would we make of such a flippant, figure of fun today? The hypermoralists who fill our universities and public institutions from top-to-bottom and the sanctimonious Establishment stooges would no doubt have him cancelled and sent to Ascension Island. Always quick to condemn the slightest soupçon of silliness, Niven for them would have been a ‘dangerous’ figure whose wit would be misinterpreted as ‘micro-aggressive’ and whose cad behaviour would have risked some kind of spurious Me-too claim. Not only would he have been cancelled, but anybody who associated with him would have received the same treatment. The woke ideology has lifted the tools directly from the Stalin game book: guilt by association, ‘as soon as a man is accused, his former friends are transformed immediately into his bitterest enemies’ as Hannah Arendt, the leading scholar of totalitarianism, once said of Stalinism. This kind of digital totalitarianism has made Britain a Ministry of false Sanctimony. A friend of mine at Cambridge who privately claims to be a Tory refuses to respond to any message, no matter how innocent, if he believes his response could somehow be perceived as not signalling the right virtues. What a sad life these self-censoring careerists lead. They bite their tongues for their whole lives and then the moment they retire they start penning letters to the editor of The Times. Imagine actually opting voluntarily for this kind of intellectual gulag. Undoubtedly, these developments amount to a sad chapter in Britain’s great history, a country once known for its light-hearted banter and innocent mischief but now resembling the snake-pit that is the culture wars in America.
Shortly after my years in Cambridge, I returned to Oxford and hosted Sir Roger Scruton at Blackfriars one evening. I put up posters around the ‘dreaming spires’ knowing full well that the Hoodies would try to demonise the Barbours. Most of the posters were defaced. On a few, his name had been crossed out and been replaced with the word ‘racist’ – the blanket response of the ideologised zombies. After his lecture, I asked Sir Roger (still limping from falling from his horse during a hunt) what his advice was to deal with such wokerati, these crashing bores who insist on dividing up the moral territory and who espouse this ridiculous ‘dangerous’ rhetoric. Without hesitation, he replied: ‘if I were you, I would move to the country’. That remains the best advice and if that doesn’t work, just leave the country entirely as indeed both Niven and Moore did. Perhaps they could see what was coming!
So, to answer my initial question. Well, it depends how the cultural revolution ends and what supersedes it. Sadly, with the way things are going, I suspect the answer is ‘no’. Instead, I will just have to keep looking up to his cherished photo on the wall.
Stephen Pax Leonard is a writer, linguist, traveller.