Harold Nicholson and Desmond McCarthy—the terrible twosome

Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, but the only photos I’ve seen that feature Harold and Desmond have also included other Bloomsberries, notably Vita Sackville West. I’m not a fan of Bloomsbury and could only bear to watch ten minutes of one episode of the current TV drama, Living in Squares, but I don’t think either man was part of the Virginia 'n Duncan inner circle, as it were, and I don’t think the two were great friends. But there must be some reason why they were snapped together. Perhaps it was another bookfest organised by the Times or Sunday Times, as was the case with the Read and Spender press photo. This one, from the Graphic Photo Union,  bears identifications in pencil on the reverse . Desmond died in 1952, aged 75, a year after being knighted for services to the critical essay and the amusing anecdote, so the photo was probably taken around the mid 1930s.

Some of the most entertaining and scathing remarks on MacCarthy and Nicholson can be found in Virginia Woolf’s published Diaries. I have the volume for 1931 – 36. Here, for instance, are her views on Desmond:

Thursday, 3rd September 1931
‘…Oh, I was annoyed at Desmond’s usual sneer at Mrs Dalloway---woolgathering. I was inspired to make up several phrases about Desmond’s own processes, none of which, I suppose, will ever be fired off in print. His worldliness, urbanity, decorum as a writer; his soft supple ways. His audience of teaparty ladies & gentlemen. His timidity. How he wraps everything in flannel…His perpetual condescension.His now permanent stoop in the back. His aloofness---in the bad sense. I mean, he never takes a nettle by the leaves: always wears gloves…’

And Nicholson:

August 12, 1934
‘…Vita thinks Harold is getting soft & domestic, because he talks of grandchildren & wants to have a butler to brush his clothes & a spare room…’


2 thoughts on “Harold Nicholson and Desmond McCarthy—the terrible twosome

  1. Tommi Uschanov

    Correctly guessed. On Friday, 12 November 1937, at 6.15 PM, Nicolson (sic) spoke on "English Biography" at that year's Sunday Times book fair, with MacCarthy (sic) in the chair. Other speakers there that day: Evelyn Waugh and tennis star Bunny Austin.

    Also came up with a 1936 Gollancz ad for CEM Joad's Guide to Philosophy with quotes from both our heroes, one of which had me laughing out loud: "Astonishingly cheap – Harold Nicolson." It did of course refer to the retail price, 6/- (approximately £18 today), but this was far from the only place where Joad got called that.

  2. R.M.Healey

    I wonder if the inspector who caught out Mr Joad for travelling without a ticket felt that the culprit was ' astonishingly cheap' for doing so, especially as he knew that Joad was paid well for his BBC Brain's Trust appearances.


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