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Sir Alistair Horne CBE (1925-2017)


The V&A Cricket Club has lost one of its most distinguished Vice Presidents, Sir Alistair Horne CBE. A loyal supporter of the club, he was one of the few VPs who actually came to watch us at Stonor or Turville Heath (when younger and fitter), particularly when his godson Rob Noble was playing.

Alistair was an extraordinary man, and a very good friend of my father. They had but one disagreement – Monty, whose biographer Horne was. My father, a veteran Rifle Brigade officer and Desert Rat, met Montgomery just before Alamein. He thought him a swaggering strutting braggart who talked in ‘excruciating clichés and a ghastly nasal whine and who embarrassed rather than uplifted us with his silly cricket metaphors about hitting Rommel for six’. Horne considered Monty raised the morale of lesser battalions and was a commanding presence who won battles through painstaking preparation. Both were perhaps right.

Alistair was right about most things in his judgements of people and generals and history. Which is why his books will be read forever, suffused as they are with his persona and ideals. He did not prejudge and had no prejudices, except against cant, against lazy demonising of easy targets, such as Nixon, Kissinger and Bush, whom he knew. If he crusaded against anything it was against dogma, of right or left. He admired America (where he had been sent to escape the Blitz as a boy – see his Bundle from Britain), the genius of her constitution and genuine liberalism of her institutions. His Francophilia stopped, sensibly, this side idolatry. Both To Lose a Battle (the defeat of France in 1940) and A Savage War of Peace (about the Algerian war) are written more in sorrow than in anger; and The Price of Glory about Verdun will never be bettered, a narrative of great restraint, a wonderful tribute to the poilu. Hubris, his last historical work, was an amazing achievement, not only a vigorous bedside read but written when he was 90! At the time of his death he was working on a novel.

Horne was a polymath, with no boundaries to his talents. You would trust his judgement everywhere, except in the kitchen. Spy, journalist, historian, biographer, social commentator, critic, broadcaster (co-author of the great 1964 BBC Great War series) … and a devoted husband to Sheelin, and adoring father of three daughters. He was a very good spy (for MI6 in Berlin). He worked for the Daily Telegraph as cover, but when the paper’s owner, Lady Berry, rang him in the middle of the night to ask when the night sleeper arrived in London, he replied ‘try Train Enquiries at Victoria’. He was out of a job in the morning, and with no cover MI6 had no further use for him. So he turned to writing history.

Some of us, including Nick P-G and Vin, went to see him in his beautiful vicarage in Turville a year or so ago. He was an academic with the lightest of touches; he actually listened.  There is something else the admirable obituaries in The Times and Telegraph missed. They talked of his ability ‘to walk with Kings nor lose the common touch’; of his friendships with Jackie Kennedy, Debo Devonshire, Macmillan… but they did not mention that he was above all funny. Very very funny. Perhaps the best obituary of all.