In June 1970, Roy Strong, modish and hirsute, went to a rather odd luncheon party given by Lady Diana Cooper. An oversight over the chef's day off took the guests to a Maida Vale steakhouse. The company included two old men - rheumy, querulous - whom Strong deemed "the rudest I have ever met".
Simon Ball's book concerns the careers of those two, Harold Macmillan and "Bobbety" Salisbury, along with Harry Crookshank and Oliver Lyttelton. The title is a misnomer. The book ends with Strong and his ilk inheriting the world. And were the four really friends? Salisbury grew to dislike Macmillan very much indeed.
They were certainly survivors: four boys who started at Eton in 1906 and had in common service in the trenches and in Churchill's cabinets. But they are more two pairs than a quartet. Lyttelton and Cranborne (as Salisbury then was) were aristocratic scions of Cabinet ministers, Macmillan and Crookshank scholars, sons of "new men". At Oxford, Cranborne played bicycle polo with Yugoslav princes, failed Mods and left early; Crookshank worked hard.
What made them was their war and their brigade, the Grenadier Guards. Cranborne was shell-shocked, Macmillan badly wounded, Crookshank emasculated, Lyttelton decorated for bravery. Ball is good on this and the subsequent drive to their careers, helped by advantageous marriages or, in Crookshank's case, by his ambitious American mother. Light is shed on the conflict of the "Edenites" with the older generation under Chamberlain as Munich approaches, and all four played their part in the Second World War.
Lyttelton, sprung from business to Cabinet, emerging as a "superman" since no career Tory had thought to back Churchill - who was not a guardsman.
Are the four mirrors of an age? Crookshank, Macmillan's "oldest and staunchest friend", was a lightweight. Salisbury spent his ire as a fanatical supporter of white Rhodesia. Lyttelton quit politics for business and then the board of the National Theatre. It is perhaps his fate to be remembered as an auditorium; it was in that context that he wrote his memoirs, very much as a pièce justicative in an age of Oh! What a Lovely War and Kenneth Tynan. Not that they did him any good: the memoirs were "too late and won praise from all the usual suspects -the Queen Mother thought [them] splendid".
Ball shows the wounded pride of the ageing Lyttelton, the feeling he and his contemporaries had served the state and deserved better than the contempt of the 1960s. The others did not have the ultimate prize or the autumnal pleasure of Macmillan's show as Earl of Stockton. He seemed to possess only two ties, those of Eton and the Guards.
The four are far from angels living in a halcyon world. Lyttelton's candidate for his London club, Isaiah Berlin, was blackballed by the splendid fellows there as recently as 1951. We need not guess the reason.
As late as 1992 there were more Etonians than women in the Commons, and five in John Major's government. Reading this book, looking perhaps enviously at the big cigars puffed in the photo facing page 356, one encounters a different world, almost Arthurian in its remoteness from our own.
Andrew Robinson teaches at Eton College.
The Guardsmen: Harold Macmillan, Three Friends and the World they Made
Author - Simon Ball
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 456
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 00 257110 2