But although the publishers have — understandably enough — filled the jacket-flap blurb with references to the Second World War and Hitler, matters of military intelligence play only a small part in these journals. Even the word "journals" may be misleading here; for these were not daily records of events. Rather, they were notebooks into which Trevor-Roper transcribed his distinctly polished versions of a great variety of things: observations, anecdotes, his friends' bons mots, his own self-examinations, notes on reading and literary musings, as well as occasional narratives of experiences and events. He was engaged in a kind of private literary exercise, and some years later (perhaps when bed-bound in 1948, having broken his back while hunting) he amused himself by compiling a detailed index, which is also reproduced in this edition.
There were two main literary models here: The Note-books of the late-Victorian sceptical moralist Samuel Butler and the series of Trivia volumes published by the American littérateur (and long-term English resident) Logan Pearsall Smith. Trevor-Roper had been captivated by Smith's writings, and when Smith invited him to tea in 1940 (having been impressed by the young historian's newly published biography of Archbishop Laud), he was duly captivated by the man himself. The pleasure, it seems, was mutual; Smith liked to have clever and attentive young male admirers, with whom to share his aperçus and his mildly malicious gossip.
For a while the elderly American became almost — to use a word Trevor-Roper would employ, in later years, with intense disapproval — a "guru" to the younger man. What he offered was not so much a philosophy or a theory as an attitude to life. Trevor-Roper himself summed it up as follows: "That humanity is ridiculous, but that there is a pleasure in observing its antics, and that it is redeemed from utter meaninglessness by its ideals, though many even of these are very odd; and that style is an ideal too." For Logan Pearsall Smith, style was the only absolute, the only thing for which no expenditure of effort was to be regretted.
On that point at least, he found in the young Trevor-Roper a willing pupil. One of the journal entries declares: "Style is the true elixir of life. Thoughts and theories and systems of knowledge die." St Thomas Aquinas, Trevor-Roper observed, was now "as obsolete as the mastodon", for the simple reason that "the poor old boy had no style". Whereas "the Hebrew prophets, the Caroline divines, perhaps even Bossuet (though I find him unreadable myself), though they have outlived their significance, still have a compelling lustre. And so they float into our uncomprehending world, meaningless but majestic fragments of the past, like icebergs, detached from the frozen Pole, that drift into temperate seas." As that passage itself shows, Trevor-Roper's own mastery of English prose style was advancing nicely; and that, at one level, seems to have been the very raison d'être of these journals.