Sunday, November 24, 2019

He is a very great man

‘[Lloyd George] returned from his interview with Hitler in great form, very delighted with his talk and obviously very much struck with Hitler. ‘He is a very great man,’ said L.G. ‘ “Führer” is the proper name for him, for he is a born leader, yes, and statesman.’ This is from the private diary of Albert James Sylvester, born 130 years ago today, who was David Lloyd George’s personal assistant for many years, not least organising many trips in Britain and overseas - as here to Germany in 1936. After Lloyd George’s death, Sylvester drew on his own diary for a biography of the Liberal statesman, but it was only with publication of the diary itself, some two decades later, that the full extent of Sylvester’s revelations about Lloyd George, albeit in his declining years, emerged.

Sylvester was born on 24 November 1889 in Harlaston, Staffordshire. When his father lost his independence as a tenant farmer, the family moved to Burton-on-Trent where he became a brewery farm worker. Albert left school at 14 to become a brewery clerk, but worked hard at night classes to perfect his shorthand and typing. He moved to London, aged 20, where he competed successfully in fast shorthand and typing competitions becoming a member of the British international fast typewriting team. In 1912-1913, he travelled to India and Burma as assistant reporter for the Royal Commission on the Public Services. He set up as a freelance shorthand-writer in Chancery Lane, but with the onset of war he was brought into the Admiralty on a temporary assignment. Soon after, he was employed by Maurice Hankey, a senior civil servant (see Dreadful meetings), after a while becoming his private secretary.

Sylvester was Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, 1914–1921, Secretary of the War Cabinet and the Cabinet, 1916–1921, Secretary of the Imperial War Cabinet, 1917, and British Secretary to the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. He served as private secretary, briefly, to three successive Prime Ministers, 1921-1923, but thereafter ran Lloyd George’s private London office (which, at its peak, had a staff of 20) until his death. Apart from other duties, Sylvester coordinated many of Lloyd George’s overseas visits (to Brazil, Europe, Morocco) and tours of Britain. After Lloyd George’s death, Sylvester was employed by Lord Beaverbrook from 1945 until 1948, and spent a further year as unpaid assistant to the Liberal Party leader, Clement Davies. In 1949, he retired from political life, and moved to a farm at Corsham, Wiltshire, where he served as Justice of the Peace. In old age, he worked extensively on an autobiography, but the project was never completed. He died just a few weeks short of his 100th birthday in 1989. A little further information is available online at The National Library of Wales and Wikipedia.

Sylvester was an inveterate note keeper, but only an intermittent diarist, at least until 1931: from then on, though, he kept (
in shorthand for reasons of speed and privacy) a more or less continuous diary which, never meant for publication, is remarkably frank. After Lloyd George’s death, Sylvester used it for writing his book The Real Lloyd George (1947). Despite the title, he omitted some personal material and toned down other revelations. He was spurred to publish the diary itself after Lloyd George’s second wife, Frances, brought out, in 1967, an autobiography which he, Sylvester, felt was over-romanticised. Life with Lloyd George: The Diary of A. J. Sylvester 1931-45 was edited by Colin Cross and published by Macmillan 1975. A short review can be read in The American Historical Review.

Here are several extracts from Sylvester’s diary as published by Macmillan.

22 July 1935
‘I have spent a very busy weekend on a memorandum by L.G. in answer to the Government, to be issued to the Press today. He phoned me at 7.30 a.m. giving me additions, one of which was: ‘Most of their document is taken up, not with an examination of my scheme, but with a torchlight procession of their own achievements in every sphere of activity.’

At 11.15 a.m. I accompanied L.G. to the large committee room at the House of Commons, where there was a big gathering of journalists, to whom I distributed the relevant documents. For the next hour, he reeled off answers to the questions which poured in on him. Afterwards I lunched with L.G., Dick and Gwilym at the Harcourt Room at the House. L.G. said as he was leaving the meeting one of the lobby correspondents had come up and said: ‘Would you mind telling me what is the lotion you use which keeps you so fit?’ L.G. said: ‘I answered John Power.’ (Sir Henry Fildes has just brought him a bottle of John Power Irish whiskey for him to try.)

4 September 1936
‘Each morning at 7.30, I go in to see L.G. and later help him to dress. He repeated this morning that he was astonished to find that Tom Jones had changed so much. He did not like him sticking up for the rebels in Spain.

Lord Dawson, T.J. and I talked in the drawing-room. Lord Dawson said he had been very much impressed by Ribbentrop. Anyone more unlike an ambassador he had never seen. If he spoke like he had last night, even to the extent of 50 per cent, he would not be a success. Lord Dawson was amused by the way Ribbentrop had said that he and his wife were not married according to the Church. Ribbentrop had said that rather warily, wondering how the company would take it. He had felt his way and sought to put himself right by saying he had mentioned the matter to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

LG. returned at noon from a talk with Ribbentrop. He said that Ribbentrop wanted to go too far. He wanted to organise a great anti-Bolshevik front. We would not join that. We would not have anyone make a wanton attack on Germany, or France or anyone else.
The whole of our party lunched with Ribbentrop and his wife in the Grand Hotel. In addition there were several high officials from the Foreign Office in Berlin. L.G. said he could not understand why the Germans had signed the Armistice. That had certainly been a mistake on their part. Ribbentrop said that Hitler would not have signed it. During coffee L.G. talked about the war with terrific energy until I thought, at 3 p.m. it was high time he broke up the party and had a rest before seeing Hitler. But he would not do so and still went on, despite the fact that at 4 p.m. he was due for one of the greatest interviews of his life. Yet, if I had asked him for a little instruction, he would have said that I was working him to death.

L.G. returned from his interview with Hitler in great form, very delighted with his talk and obviously very much struck with Hitler. ‘He is a very great man,’ said L.G. ‘ “Führer” is the proper name for him, for he is a born leader, yes, and statesman.’ He said that Hitler was not in favour of rearmament or conscription. They did not make him popular with his own people. He favoured productive measures, such as roads, in which he was very interested, and improved agriculture. What had struck L.G. very much was that Hitler had been much more enthusiastic when talking about these latter things. ‘We talked about everything,’ said L.G., ‘including Spain. I talked with great bluntness and frankness and the Führer liked it.’

J produced a whiskey and water for L.G., and when he had taken this Lord Dawson said to him: ‘If you want to get full benefit of that, go and rest for half an hour’, which he did.

The whole of our party dined with the Ribbentrops and their entourage. Ribbentrop asked L.G. about Winston. L.G. replied that he was a rhetorician and not an orator. He thought only of how a phrase sounded and not how it might move or influence crowds. The question for every Prime Minister was whether Winston was more dangerous inside or outside the Cabinet.’

29 September 1936
‘I have been sizing up a row which has suddenly developed between L.G. and Frances. Yesterday morning he packed his bags and came up from Churt alone in the car. Frances has been on the telephone a number of times to me, and I am trying to straighten it out.’

24 November 1939
‘My fiftieth birthday today. God help me and mine. In looking back across half a century, help me, God, to see the mistakes and my follies, and in the future help me to trust in Thee more and give me health and strength, wisdom and determination to achieve something worth while for my fellow men, as well as for myself and to Thy honour. Help me to be effective.’

12 December 1940
‘This afternoon, while the House was in session at Church House, I got news that Lord Lothian had died. I immediately put through a priority telephone call to L.G. and spoke to him personally at Criccieth. He was flabbergasted. He said: ‘I feel as if a shell had fallen at my feet and numbed me. I am glad I saw him. I do not think I noted anything particular about him: he had not quite the vitality which he had. You know how vital he was.’ 

I said: ‘You know that already your name is being mentioned as his successor.’ 'Ah,’ he said, ‘that would involve a great physical strain.’

I am completely tired of L.G.’s mucking about. The man is doing nothing for his country, and he is just living amongst the clouds, quarrelling with everybody. He has just quarrelled with Willie the gardener at Brynawelon. Willie just went into the kitchen and wrote out his resignation, and sent it upstairs to Dame Margaret. When she asked him to reconsider his decision, he refused. It all arose out of the heating-pipes not been sufficiently warm, according to L.G. Dyer told me that he cursed Willie in Welsh. Workmen were working downstairs in the air-raid shelter and heard it. They were chapel people and had no idea that L.G. could swear and were very shocked. That has gone the round of Criccieth. L.G.’s stock has gone down since he has been living here . .  .’

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