By Miriam Rothschild
Natural History Museum, £9.99
Explaining quite how it was that the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour came to address his pledge of Cabinet level support for the Zionist cause to an apparently apolitical, overweight, borderline Aspergic zoologist who had gone up to Cambridge with a flock of kiwis and driven four zebras up Piccadilly — albeit with “considerable panache” — seems to be one of the late Miriam Rothschild’s goals in this affectionate portrait of her uncle Walter.
She argues that this figure of fun, the so-called “butterfly buffoon”, received the landmark note not by dint of his illustrious surname alone, but because his father’s death committed him to seven years of “transparently, almost naively sincere” lobbying on Zionism’s behalf. Not only, she contends, did he win over the lukewarm Balfour, but also a fractious Anglo-Jewry, some of whom saw Zionism as an anachronistic, “crackpot scheme of some half-crazed continental idealists”.
But this biography — from the presses of the Natural History Museum — has as much to do with Walter’s rebellion from convention, his uncommon zeal for natural science and his encyclopedic museum at Tring, as it has with his pivotal role in the foundation of Israel. Walter, who steadfastly refused to lend his heft to the family banking yoke was a crushing disappointment to his father Natty — the “Leviathan of finance” and “lay head of world Jewry”.
It fell to Miriam, herself a real trailblazer within British environmentalism, to redeem him. She reveals a man who was both madcap maverick — someone almost too improbably eccentric for non-fiction: a wealthy monomaniac possessed of a “crippling” speech impediment who “swallowed poached eggs whole like oysters” and “drank a cup of tea in a single gulp” — as well as being a vital ecological pioneer.
Hers is a robust defence of the idea that the unquenchable pursuit of knowledge is every bit as valuable a life’s work as the amassing of millions. Indeed, she manages to imply that both arise from the same genetic impulse: to collect and in some way to shape the world.
Annie Dare is a freelance writer