HAROLD MACMILLAN shuffles into the room with a crutch-handled stick and peers at the page of a book through hooded eyes at point blank range. Although he is 86 on Sunday, it is not an exaggeration to say that he is putting it on.
Like the old-fashioned way of wearing his bow tie tucked under his shirt-collar, it is part of the endearing image of an Edwardian aristocrat, behind which he succeeded in enticing the Conservative party into radical changes.
One of the roles that Mr Macmillan delights in playing, and playing well, is that of the scholar. Anthony Sampson in his perfect introduction to Macmillan, subtitled 'A Study in Ambiguity'. picks out the scholar as a quarter of his personality.
Mr Macmillan revels in Oxford, where he is Chancellor of the University. I asked him about Ronald Knox, who as chaplain to the university put Catholic Oxford on the map. "Monsignor Ronald Knox was a very close friend of mine. We were at the same college. When he was made a Monsignor he left the bottom button of his cassock undone to show he was a Balliol man."
In some ways, Mr Macmillan imitated Ronald Knox, He followed in his path as an effortlessly superior Balliol man and gifted speaker in the Union debating society. When
• Macmillan was at Balliol he was a friend of Sligger Urquhart, the Catholic Dean pilloried by Evelyn Waugh in his diaries.
Mr Macmillan has been engaged to the Catholic Church throughout his long life, but the wedding day was always postponed. "You remained in the Church of England," I prompted. "Yes, I remained in the Church of England," he echoed and let his eyelids fall, and drew his hand over his face.
When he first came under Ronald Knox's influence it was when Knox was still an Anglican. Macmillan was a sensitive boy with a weak heart who was staying at home. Knox tutored him, and in his autobiography, A Spiritual Aeneid calls him C.
Mrs Macmillan disapproved of the High Church attractions that Knox was offering her son and the tutor had to leave, "I'm by now extremely (and not quite unreturnedly) fond of the boy and it's been a horrid wrench to go without saying a word to him of what I wanted to say." Knox
His chance came when Macmillan was next door at Balliol and he was chaplain at Trinity. Macmillan and Guy Lawrence his friend adopted 'Ronnie Knox's religion'. They went off to the War together and Lawrence was received at Farm Street within the year.
But Macmillan wrote to Knox: "I'm going to be rather odd. I'm not going to 'Pope' until after the war (if I'm alive).
1) My people. Not at all a good reason .. , 2) My whole brain is in a whirl. I don't think God will mind."
Ronald Knox became a Catholic in 1917 and Macmillan wrote to him: "I am still lagging, timidly cowardly and faint. I feel sure you are right." Of course Macmillan did survive the war, and his friendship with Monsignor Knox lasted until death parted them. When he was in the last stage of cancer, he went to stay at 10 Downing Street and Macmillan said goodbye to him for the last time at Paddington Station.
Part of the reason for the characteristic Macmillan shuffle Is the legacy of his war career. He was injured three times, once lying on the battlefield with a shattered pelvis all day, reading Aeschylus between the shelling and pretending to be dead when Germans passed by.
He puts the Shah's failure partly down to his mishandling the religion of his country. "He took away church lands and gave them to the peasants. Henry VIII had more sense and gave it to the leading families."
Mr Macmillan has always been at case with statesmen, and foreign relations went better when he could form a personal friendship with a leader. he still looks hack fondly on his meetings with Jack Kennedy.
During the six years of his premiership, Mr Macmillan visited Pope John XXIII and chatted with him in French while the cameramen snapped away at the beaming Prime Minister. Pope John praised him for his "ideals of freedom, justice and peace."
Three years later, in 1963, he returned and spent half an hour talking with Pope John. He said he was "very satisfied, indeed enchanted" by his meeting. His call on the Pope marked a quarter of a million miles of international travelling in his time as Prime Minister.
But he is no longer telephoned on a Saturday to be told the King of Iraq has been killed he has time to read, but not crime novels, he adds, they do not occupy his mind enough. The publishing company in which he still takes a close interest tends to put out more serious works.
That he should illustrate a legal distinction by comparing it to the controversy between the Jansenists and the Jesuits, shows the level on which his mind works.
Mr Macmillan has accepted no honour other than that to which he has a title: the Order of Merit. That merit must guarantee the wedding will take place one day.