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They created something tremendous: Bill and Shirley Letwin with Margot Walmsley and Peter Vansittart

Kingsley Amis, A.J. Ayer, Keith Joseph, Friedrich von Hayek, Sybille Bedford, Peregrine Worsthorne, Elie Kedourie, John Gross, V.S. Pritchett, Frank Johnson, Irving Kristol, Maurice Cowling, Ferdinand Mount, Michael Oakeshott, Colin Welch and Daniel Bell were all people whom I met for the first time at 3, Kent Terrace, the house in Regent's Park lived in (though not, to their regret, owned) by Bill and Shirley Letwin. With little money, excellent cooking (Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the Bible) and endless ingenuity, Shirley and Bill, two American academics in London, created something tremendous.

Other guests included Karl Popper, Iris Murdoch, Saul Bellow and Milton Friedman. Then there were some remarkable characters less known to fame, such as the unstoppably loquacious Irishman David Grene — half hunting farmer from County Monaghan, half professor of classics at Chicago — who always wore enormous boots and hairy tweed, or Krister Stendhal, the austerely charming Bishop of Stockholm, who said little and smoked a pipe (some deny the existence of this pipe: it may be a form of racism that I associate it with all male Swedes of that era), or the adorable Margot Walmesley, from Encounter, who called everyone "darling" due to her inability to remember names, or the beautiful actress Moyra Fraser. 

I first saw these people, in the early 1970s, with a teenager's eye. I was a schoolfriend of the Letwins' only child, Oliver (now the Cabinet Office minister in the coalition). He used to invite me and, later, our contemporary Noel Malcolm (now a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford) to meals there, or, since I did not live in London, to stay. As a country boy, I was much impressed by phenomena unknown to me, such as fitted carpets and entryphones, and by the complete tidiness, lightness and elegance of the Nash house. I was even more struck by the conversational style. When about 16, I was doing voluntary social work in the Old Kent Road in the school holidays, and I told Shirley that I was "working with deprived children". "Who deprived them?" she asked me, and of course I had no idea. I had merely been repeating, without thinking, the usages of others. That was something Shirley never did. She challenged everything and everyone.

This could undoubtedly be alarming, as could the distinction of the company. I was equally embarrassed when I had not heard of a great dignitary — Hayek, for example, was a completely new one on me — and when I had. What, in either case, was I supposed to say to them? But what quickly became apparent was that Shirley, though combative, was also a natural egalitarian and that Bill, ever-courteous and genial, was the same. By this I mean that they set up no barriers in their minds between generations or rank. They were as open to their son's gawky friends as they were to Nobel Prize winners, and so they were happy to sit one next to the other. They were truly honest and truly intellectual, and so they wanted the talk to go where it would, composed of as many disparate voices as the human ear can tolerate.

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csabel
May 2nd, 2013
1:05 AM
Wonderful piece. Sad, but very true about the 'focus' many people suffer, and what politics has become.

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