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Camden New Journal - OBITUARY
Published: 16 October 2008

Peter Vansittart
Author of 50 books who combined aristocratic charm and erudition

HE had the face and stature of a Greek god, the quiet charm and manners of an aristocrat and the aloof erudition of an emeritus professor, with a vast knowledge of the past capable of winning any quiz prize, even on subjects such as Robin Hood.
Yet the formidable historical novelist Peter Vansittart, who died last week at the age of 88, was never a best-selling success.
He published more than 50 titles, including anthologies and children’s books, mostly during his many years living in Hampstead, but few of them sold more than 5,000 copies.
That was partly because he refused to allow his imagination to take over when the facts forbade such creativity or to succumb to the sentimentality demanded by readers of historical romance.
If Hampstead ever had an intellectual elite, then Vansittart was part of it, one of those who made the old Cosmo café in Finchley Road his post-war beat, talking into the night with the likes of Elias Canetti, Dannie Abse, Bernice Rubens, Emanuel Litvinoff and others.
He was often hard up, to the extent of writing to Clement Attlee when he was Prime Minister – they both went to Haileybury public school – and was given £150 from an obscure literary fund.
His income came mainly from teaching, notably at the avant garde co-educational Burgess Hill School in Hampstead, where pupils were allowed to smoke and ignore homework. He was a director of the school from 1947 to 1959, but never really enjoyed the educational experiment, as was shown in his 1950 novel Broken Canes.
He let rooms at his house in Lawn Road to struggling writers at low rents, always aware of his own good fortune in buying the property in a pub for £200 from a man expecting to go to prison the next day, a story typical of many he told in his memoirs, Paths from a White Horse.
Born in Bedford, his well-connected family was of Flemish origin, his mother taking him to Buckingham Palace garden parties.
He was educated at Haileybury, Winchester and Worcester College, Oxford, his interest in writing shown by knocking on the door of playwright Bernard Shaw’s house as a schoolboy and being granted an exclusive interview.
Vansittart enjoyed the story of writer George Orwell telling him he could never be considered “working class” with such a posh accent, only for Vansittart to be greeted by a barman as “Peter” when they drank together in the local pub, while Orwell was called “Sir”.
A bequest enabled Vansittart to keep writing in later years – he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1985 – before he moved to his old family home in Ipswich. He was honoured last year with an OBE for his services to literature.
Gerald Isaaman

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